The Genealogy of Morals: God, Homo Homini Lupus, Or The Moral Animal?

By Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

For eons, defenders of  the monotheistic religions  have cited the introduction of morality to the human species as the unquestionable foundation for the belief in a deity that moves with humanity through time and intervenes in human affairs to fulfill his will. Philosopher Robert Adams has asserted that human moral properties “cannot be stated entirely in the language of physics, chemistry, biology, and human or animal psychology” but require a divine perspective to be understood. (The Virtue of Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987)). No less a pillar of Christianity than C.S. Lewis, opined that the existence of seemingly universal laws of morality contrary to the selfish laws of nature such as survival of the fittest, implied that an intelligent creator served as the foundation and basis. To Lewis and those of his ilk, the best and simplest explanation was God as author of the good in the human heart. Lewis’ ideas were not new.

Building on Aristotle’s definition of morality as human happiness or eudaimonia, Thomas Aquinas, had contended centuries before Lewis that, “If we speak of the ultimate end with respect to the thing itself, then human and all other beings share it together, for God is the ultimate end for all things without exception.” The thirteenth century monk therefore concluded, “There can be no complete and final happiness [beatitudo] for us save in the vision of God”; “the human mind’s final perfection is by coming to union with God.” Thus communion with the deity was the fountainhead of all human goodness and subscribing to the religion that best mapped the revelations of that deity onto human experience was the true path to human happiness and ultimate morality.


But since the time of the ancient Greeks, philosophers have been asking if religion was truly necessary for the existence of morality. Plato’s famous  Euthyphro Dilemma seeks an answer to the question: “Is the pious man loved by the gods because he is pious, or is he pious because he is loved by the gods?”  Despite the efforts of generations of theist philosophers no satisfactory answer to the question has been proffered by their Divine Command Theory. Natural law theorists such as Hugo Grotius  seeking to resolve the dilemma, have argued that morality existed above the will of any deity and was more  like unchangeable mathematical truths than divine commands.

Other thinkers like Thomas Hobbes dismissed the innate morality of man in a state of nature altogether.  Hobbes subscribed to the view of the Roman playwright, Titus Maccius Plautus, usually stated as homo homini lupus

Thomas Hobbes

(man is wolf to man), and that morality is but an enforced construct of the ruling class in an environment where man is perpetually in a state of war. Hobbes is a tad obscure about the role  of religion, arguing that it is a foundation to enforce the morality of the ruling class as it seeks to promote cooperation among its subjects. However, Hobbes never quite deals with the fundamental tenet of  religion that believers owe a paramount duty of loyalty to the deity and not the earthly powers that comprise the sovereignty of their state.

Modern humanists like Paul Kurtz contend that neither God nor religion is necessary for the introduction of human  morality. For these humanists rationality and experience are the basis. Kurtz  writes in his book Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Humanism (Prometheus Books, 1988),” One needs no theological grounds to justify these elementary principles. They are rooted in human experience.  Living and working together, we test them by their consequences; each can be judged by its consistency with other cherished principles.  A morally developed person understands that he ought not to lie – not because God or society opposes lying, but because trust is essential in human relations.”

Robert Wright

In his 1994 book, The Moral Animal, humanist Robert Wright suggests that we have been conned into our reliance on divine origination of morality but not by others bent on domination via theology but by nature itself:

“Here the contention is not just that the new Darwinian paradigm can help us realize whichever moral values we happen to choose. The claim is that the new paradigm can actually influence — legitimately — our choice of basic values in the first place. Some Darwinians insist that such influence can never be legitimate. What they have in mind is the naturalistic fallacy, whose past violation has so tainted their line of work. But what we’re doing here doesn’t violate the naturalistic fallacy. Quite the opposite. By studying nature — by seeing the origins of the retributive impulse — we see how we have been conned into committing the naturalistic fallacy without knowing it; we discover that the aura of divine truth surrounding retribution is nothing more than a tool with which nature — natural selection — gets us to uncritically accept its “values.” Once this revelation hits norm, we are less likely to obey this aura, and thus less likely to commit the fallacy.”

This modern humanist view may be receiving some unexpected support as divine command theory as well as Hobbes’ bleak view of humanity come under  attack.  Emanating initially from a zoological park in Arnhem, Netherlands, the charge being leveled by soft-spoken biologist and primatologist, Dr Frans de Waal, is that morality is an evolutionary development in most primate species. Dr. de Waal has spent a lifetime studying the habits of primates including those at the Burgers’ Zoo in Arnhem. Eschewing the classic notion that all primates — including humans —  are fundamentally aggressive and competitive, de Waal has discovered that reconciliation is at least as important as domination and control.

If you ask anyone, what is morality based on? These are the two factors that always come out: One is reciprocity … and a sense of fairness, and the other one is empathy and compassion.

~ Frans de Waal

de Waal contends that human morality is, at its essence, premised on reciprocity  and empathy.  His observations have led him to the believe that all primates recognize that aggression necessarily damages valuable relationships within the group and that there is a natural desire to reconcile. He supports his theory with fascinating videos of chimps learning to cooperate even when it is against their personal self-interest and even after aggressive behaviors. Another illuminating (and hilarious) video of monkeys experiencing the concept of unfairness involves two subject primates receiving different and unequal rewards for performing the same task. That sequence starts about 13:50. It’s must viewing.

Here is the fascinating video from TED:

Source:  BBC

~Mark Esposito, Guest Blogger

31 thoughts on “The Genealogy of Morals: God, Homo Homini Lupus, Or The Moral Animal?”

  1. Slart:

    I agree. I think Joseph Campbell does as well. You might want to check out

    My take is that “modern mythology,” such as the Pilgrims came to the Americas for religious freedom, is nothing more than distortions of fact designed to promote self-righteous superiority of the dominant society, and that religions are bastardized perversions of primal myths. For a discussion of the latter, see Huston Smith’s, The World’s Religions.

    For my part, I believe every myth should be assiduously sifted and dismantled to the extent it does not extol the basic human dignity of each person.

  2. Patricia,

    Our future depends on freeing ourselves of the superstitions and myths made up by men thousands of years ago while keeping the morality that is at the core of every religion—not just yours.

  3. Humans are constantly reorganizing religion to suit their own selfish ends. I had to leave a church that was dominated by theives who lived in glass houses and threw stones. My congregation consists of a few humans and quite a large pack of dogs. We dont pass a plate around on Sunday and collect dollars or dog biscuits from the flock. If you notice a lot of dog barking going on in Dallas on Sunday mornings it is our church giving praise.

  4. patriciafrombrooklyn, we tried that. It meant these girls had no say in whether or not they wanted to give away their child. You would reinstate that but now they must give the child away because of economics.

    Some had terrible, terrible memories of giving the baby up. Some haunted their whole life by giving up their child..

    A first trimester abortion is safer medically for a young woman than is giving birth.
    It is also less traumatic emotionally for many young girls with an unintended pregnancy. This is so, just as a tiny minority of women regret having an abortion.
    The girls who were never given a choice of keeping the baby or not were the worst off of all…

  5. What can I add? If you have to use film from 1937 to show a point
    what does that say about them then and us now. We now have
    nothing to show because we belittled and degraded God. If we
    went back to Church or Temple the whole society would change.
    We would cooperate and help some lonely girl pregnant not
    tell her to “Get an abortion.” Our future depends on our worship
    of God. Thank you.

  6. JH: “To say there is no God is to say that the speaker also does not have a face because they can’t see it without a reflective surface.”

    In common discourse, and especially when such discourse is burdened with communication by keyboard, people use “shorthand” language to convey general ideas.

    As Dredd repeatedly (and thankfully) points out, we “know” very little and, for a multitude of reasons, even when our knowledge is experiential, our perceptions can be in error. We operate on belief — in our 4 dimensional reality, the universe of science, we operate on warranted beliefs. In any 5th dimension — the releigious realm– we operate BY DEFINITION on unwarranted belief. Hebrews 11:6 That is the definition of FAITH — unwarranted belief. Well, unwarranted by science.

    To say that there is no God is to make an assertion than cannot be proved. What the speaker means to say is that he has a warranted belief that God does not exist. What is the basis of his belief? The same as when he states that there are no unicorns. They’ve never been proven.

    [BTW, there’s a $1M award if you can prove God.

    The speaker has a warranted belief that he has a face. He has seen it in reflective surfaces, in photographs, in other recordings. he has felt it. His face also has experienced the sensation of being touched, shaved, kissed, slapped. Those experience are the same as when he saw the same thing happen to other members of is body.

    Given recent comments, does anyone consider the County Judge in Lubbock a credible source of information or opinion? Same happens with folks who make arguments like the “Speaker With No Face.” It guts the person’s credibility.

  7. JH: “To treaty another like you want to be treated is a Biblical value.”

    Bron: “You also dont treat people how you would not want to be treated.”

    The actual words of Jesus are, “And the second [greatest commandment] is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matthew 22:39 (NIV) The word love being used here not in any emotional, kissy-face manner, but as an act of the will, to meet the needs – not the wants or desire, but needs – of a neighbor. The parable of the Good Samaritan defines who is a neighbor – anyone who needs help.

    The words of Jesus constitute a positive command, or a Golden Rule – you are to take action to assist those who cannot meet their own needs. JH follows this formulation.

    Sometimes, the idea is expressed in a negative form, the Silver Rule – don’t do unto others what you don’t want done to you. This is Bron’s formulation. It’s a matter of help v. don’t hurt. Bron’s formulation is found in the Code of Hammurabi, composed about 1800 years before Christ spoke.

    The Golden/Silver Rule is found in many writings preceding biblical texts. No religion entirely misses it, and it is found in almost all ethical traditions. Just google it. Christianity hardly has the original claim to it, let alone sole claim.

    BTW, Ayn Rand totally divorced the concept of ethical reciprocity from the idea of helping or at least not hurting with her famous declaration that since she didn’t want anyone’s pity, she therefore wouldn’t pity anyone. Her tune may have changed late in life while she survived on Social Security.

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