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. Today the average American has access to more comforts and technology than any king of five hundred years ago. Not Bad.
    The “Kings” of today have access to more “stuff” than the Roman mythological gods, and the Romneys et al, have the same arrogance and pettiness of mind as they did.
    NEWS BULLETIN, the super rich put there pants (or pantyhose) on one leg at a time. There is no divine right of Kings nor “Gods” in our society and I plan on voting to keep it this way.

    1. 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. The ridiculousness of not having a face is just as ridiculous as saying there is no God you can’t see that made what people did not make.

  2. Slarti:

    not really.

    If you poison a persons well, you need to make restitution. I dont think I have ever argued against that point. Maybe you should also go to jail if you did it on purpose.

    Our life expectancy is greater now than at any other time in history for all classes of society, the poor now live as long or longer than the richest men of only 500 years ago.

  3. Bron,

    I find your comment highly ironic—it is inconsistent with so many of the ideas that you’ve argued for here. To cite merely one (that is a personal pet peeve), you oppose ending the subsidization of pollution*—something that is destructive to both the quality and quantity of human life. You’ve just handed me (and everyone else) the ability to refute most every line of reasoning that you use here.

    Thanks. 😉

    * pollution is subsidized whenever polluters fail to pay the full cost of the damage caused by their actions.

  4. Mespo:

    interesting article. There is a rational basis for morality, you do not need religion.

    You start with human life being the highest value and work from there. Anything furthering and making human life easier is good, anything hampering or destroying human life is bad.

    You also dont treat people how you would not want to be treated.

    1. To treaty another like you want to be treated is a biblical value. Gods spirit above all taught you that. People in the flesh are equal to the animals. We are the only animal needing salvation.

  5. mespo,

    Within the question posed by Plato, I find the answer as suggested by de Waal:

    ”Is the pious man loved (reciprocity) by the gods because he is pious, or is he pious because he is loved (empathy) by the gods?”


  6. The idea that religion was necessary for morality is one of the “big lies” of our whole culture; in fact, religion has historically come pretty close to destroying all morality in spite of the robustness of its (morality’s) original endowment. Once “DO AS GODD TELLS YOU TO DO” was backed up with “OR ELSE,” the so-called morality of religions was replaced with clear-cut coercion and about a minute later, with corruption; this took place in the pale dawn of civilization, so long ago our cultural anthropologists (and social apologists) cannot identify how, when or why it took place at all. If I can understand correct, it seems to me that Evelyn Reed believed, apparently, that it took place when we went from savage culture to barbarian culture, and that it had something to do with the individual home ownership with its co-emergence of the patriarchal family. At this point, it’s kind of a big “whatever!” to me — if 1% takes all the grapes it won’t matter how we split up the cucumbers.

  7. Mespo, Great piece! Not being fond of organized religion, but a deep belief in God, I keep it quite simple. I believe we were all put here to help each other. The struggle of life is just to difficult to be a solo endeavor. I have worked professionall and volunteered my entire adult life. I help people w/ my skills w/o feeling compelled for anyone else to know. As my wise old man would say, “If you help someone just help them for no glory, otherwise you did it for the wrong reason.” It never made sense to me until high school. My dad and I were in a diner having breakfast. A couple walked in that I would learn were brother and sister. The brother had obvious psych issues. They both gave my old man big hugs. The guy was called “Sunshine”. His real name was Tom. Sunshine was excited and insisted on taking my dad outside to see the new car his sister just bought. My dad smiled and followed him. The sister started chatting and could tell I didn’t know about Sunshine. She smiled and said, “Well…that’s your dad.”

    Sunshine spent his youth @ home and in public school. He and my dad went to different grammar schools but met in high school. The sister told me grammar school was horrible for Sunshine w/ teasing and bullying. The family considered institutionalization[this would have been in the 30’s]. However, my old man befriended Sunshine in high school and there was little harassment. My old man was an athlete and simply the kind of guy you don’t f#ck w/. After high school Sunshine went downward and had to be hospitalized. The sister told me, “Your father would visit Sunshine every weekend. When your dad went to war he always wrote to Sunshine.” My dad and Sunshine walked back in and the sister just gave the lip zipper motion. That’s what religion is all about. Everything else is just horsesh&t.

  8. Great post and video Mark.

    I had to wonder what the philosopher’s reaction was after he said he would believe primates comprehended fairness only if the one receiving the grape refused it until the other primate also received a grape.

    Then Dr. de Waal goes on to point out that they also have a case where in fact that does happen.

    The primate refuses to take the higher reward for doing the same task that the other primate had done, indicating that there is a sense of fairness in primates.

    I was also reminded of the TV commercials some time back where these situations were done with human children, with similar results, except the human child behaved like the first set of primates, the human child taking the greater reward without considering how the other child felt about it.

    I dare say that individualism also arises, and hypothesize that some children will refuse the higher reward for doing the same task, until both receive the same.

    And some will not.

  9. A long time ago, I read about karma, and began a lifelong quest to live my life as though it were so. The concept of karma is found in most major religious teachings, in many forms. “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” is just one. What I learned about karma was that how you live your life could affect you if there is indeed an afterlife, or perhaps reincarnation. The cruel taskmaster may have to come back as an ox with a cruel owner who beats the ox as it toils in the hot sun. And you have to keep coming back until you get it right. What if that is so? I, for one, am not taking chances.

    I recall listening to The Amazing Randi on public radio one afternoon. One of those “driveway moments” where you sit in the car and cannot turn the radio off until the piece is finished. Randi is very public about his atheism, and says he is constantly amazed by the judgmental people who tell him he cannot possibly be a moral person unless he is religious and has the “Good Book” to tell him how to act. They cannot conceive of a person not needing a religious text to tell them how to be moral. The only problem with that is some of the most immoral people most of us know are those who are professed Christians or others who flaunt their religious morality I remember taking my car to one auto repair shop that only had religious programming on the waiting room TV, and a big sign in the window that they operated their business on fundamental Christian principles. They did a poor job, replaced the broken part with another used part–for which I was charged a new part price. And they padded their bill. I have had similar experiences with other vendors of services and merchandise here in the South. When someone tells me they operate their business on religious moral principles, I keep a firm hand on my wallet.

    So, I just keep on living my life as if I get it wrong, I may have to come back as an ox with a cruel owner. It works for me. I don’t need an outside “higher authority” than the Golden Rule. And if you have to ask yourself,”If I do this, is it a good idea,” you have already answered your own question. If you question whether it is a good idea before you do it, it is probably not.

  10. The golden rule works well for me….. except when it doesn’t. Then I buck up and continue on, living by it.
    “Bitterness and spite….Only its owner…Truly bite”.
    Religion does profess to teach morals. Sadly in every single one are examples of terrible immorality towards “other Religions” and even its own.
    A moral balanced human looks for the moral balance in other humans, Not their flavor of god, or threats of hell.

    Slartibartfast, I try to be an atheist Jesus lean towarder…. My next life maybe I’ll try to be Wholly Holy, for now though my few vices are reliable companions.
    That’s okay though, I’m going to leave them here when I dustify.

  11. Mespo,

    Very interesting article. I’ve always considered doing something because you rationally believe that it is the right thing to do to be more moral than doing the same thing because you believe that some sky daddy is going to strike you down and have been frustrated at the common perception of atheists as fundamentally immoral. I finally hit upon a solution that seems to work for me—I’ve decided to try to live my life according to the moral teachings of Jesus (but not the religious ones). In other words, I’ve become an atheist Jesus freak… 😉

  12. Mark,
    This is quite an interesting topic. I can see that there might well be an evolutinary benefit to whar we term morality. Humans succeeded in evolutionary terms by being essentially a socal anima. The more we organized our nascent societies, the further our progress towards the top of the food chain. Cooperation made us powerful and optimal cooperation was bred by respect for the other humans in our society. I see evidence though that in some instances Hobbes was correct since religious morality became conflared with control.

  13. ulltamate morality will have ultimate self control to not war like people have warred in history. Have God in you, and you will see past this life into eternity where God is. Perfect morality is Jesus who could have done the ulltamate revenge, but did not because he loved us with infinite love. That is why Jesus endured what he endured when he waked among humans that did bad to their best friend. Legal system emulates what people did to him too. Think about that.

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