The Moral Law: Are We Really Special?

I recently finished reading a fascinating article on CNN.com entitled Morality: it's Not Just for Humans.  In this article, the viewpoints of prominent primatologist Frans de Waal are mentioned.  De Waal spent more than 20 years working to bridge the gaps in understanding between human behavior and primate behavior.  According to some of his latest research, he maintains that chimpanzees have a sense of right and wrong, just like human beings.  During some recent studies designed to test the ability to share, de Waal noticed that both his human subjects (children ages 2 - 7) and his primate subjects (adult chimpanzees) seemed to participate in sharing-like tendencies.  He also admits that although some of these results seemed clear on the surface, he cannot use this data as an honest litmus test when compared with the complex moral functioning of an adult human  being.  Keith Jensen from the University of Manchester would agree.  Jensen comments on de Waal's work by stating that these types of tests are not adequate to fully test the gap between a primate sense of justice, and the human use of morality. 

The article was interesting, and I thought it to be fairly even-handed regarding both viewpoints.  But then I began to read the comments from the reading audience at the bottom of the article.  Name-calling and insults were the order of the day.  The discussion broke down quickly from one of academic and scientific study, to whether or not evolution is true - and are human beings actually special?  And then what followed were arguments between those who believed in God, and those who don't.  This is intriguing.  I wonder, where do they ground their belief (or lack thereof) that this article could raise so much controversy and elicit such strong reactions? 

One of the main arguments for God in my book is the Universal Law of Morality.  And it is just that ... universal.  Though I am most intrigued by how human beings make use of morality in light of what each person individually considers right and wrong, I can make the leap (without too much trouble) that this sense of fair play may extend to the animal kingdom around us - at least as it pertains to the more complex creatures.  But before I go any further down this path, I want to list out the specific points as they pertain to the Moral Argument, properly speaking.  I think this will help to frame my subsequent points as well.  The following items were provided by Christian writer and philosopher C.S. Lewis in his book Mere Christianity - but they were certainly also written about before Lewis lived.  Lewis frames his argument for the existence of a moral law as follows:

1.) Human beings find within themselves a law pressing down on them, asking them to do the "right thing."

2.) This is not evolutionary herd instinct, because it directs behavior based on whether a person "ought" or "ought not" to do something - regardless of whether or not they want to do it.

3.) Anyone claiming there is no real Wright or Wrong, will usually go back on this a moment later, and especially when they themselves have been wronged!

4.) Someone caught breaking this law will usually attempt to explain away the reason that they broke the law, they do not try to discredit the "law" itself.

5.) The moral law can be taught by parents, but it was not invented by them. 

6.) Once you judge any one proposition by another proposition, and decide that one of them is greater than the other, you must be using some third (higher) proposition to judge the first two by.

7.)  We can see then, that something special is going on here.  Some law or lawgiver that seems very concerned with right conduct, fair play, and a sense of justice. 

Now with these points in mind, think about the morality debate in a different light.  Many view this dilemma in terms of an Either/Or argument - where it must be true that either morality is unique and special to man (thereby from God), or it exists in the animal kingdom at large and was therefore created via evolution (and it isn't special at all).  But try to think of it inclusively: merely the fact that any kind of morality exists in the world at all, whether it evolved or not, is spectacular.  If you align yourself more so with an evolutionary understanding of things, then how unique and special is this kind of sense of justice?  After all, if everything revolved around competition and survival of the fittest in lieu of Natural Selection, then why should organisms care for altruistic behaviour at all?  But it turns out that they do - especially human beings.  If you align yourself more with a theistic background, then what would be so strange about the (good) God of everything and everyone, endowing any organism complex enough to grasp higher thinking with an ability to treat each other fairly?  If there really is an actual wright and wrong that exists, couldn't this reality apply across the board?

I have a feeling that the reason for the lewd comments at the bottom of the CNN article were based on a misunderstanding of the real question.  It isn't whether or not chimpanzees can act in moral fashion with each other.  But rather, why do we have any kind of complex morality at all?  Especially the kind that exists in human beings.  I think if mankind were left to our own devices with nothing going on at all 'behind the scenes' except evolution, then any altruism or fairness that existed would resemble something more like a general herd instinct to preserve the species.  But that isn't what I see when I look at real life examples of people showing love to one another.  It is much more than that.  I think morality is still something that points to a higher governor to which we are all called.  And if someone reports that other animals can show affection and fairness to each other as well, then I am much encouraged.

At the end of the CNN article it is mentioned that de Waal has a new book coming out.  It will be called The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates.  It is said that de Waal will address evidence for a sense of fairness as rooted in biology, and then move on to address the role of Religion in society.  Judging from the title of his book, I have a feeling de Waal will judge God in a less than glowing light.  I fear he has also misunderstood the real question. 


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