I have heard several times that moral “law” is said to be observed in animals, suggesting a natural, rather than supernatural explanation for morality. That sentence might not be clear enough, let me elaborate:

A good example of a proponent of this is Anthropologist Frans de Waal. de Waal has studied primates for years and claims to observe in them many ethical characteristics that humans have. He collected his research and published it in at least one book that I know of, which I believe is called “The Bonobo and the Atheist: The Search for Humanism in Primates” although I do not exactly remember. In the book de Waal notes that bonobos have ethics remarkably similar to that of humans. He notes that they will share their food and even comfort each other. de Waal concludes that this shows that morality is actually natural in origin, not supernatural or Divine. It is merely survival instincts we inhereted from our primate ancestors.

Does the fact that primates have similar ethics to that of humans somehow show a natural origin for the moral law? What is your take on this?


This is a good question. We can acknowledge that some behaviors of social animals is analogous to qualities we see as ethically “good” in humans. However, we should be careful about anthropomorphizing animal behavior. Altruism is a moral behavior. Benevolence is a moral behavior. Let me define what I call moral behavior. Moral behavior involves a self-aware creature weighing a particular behavior or choice against an absolute moral “good” and deciding, despite self-concern, to follow what is morally right because it is the right thing to do. Animals are capable of natural behavior, but not of moral behavior as just defined. Because we are made “in the image of God,” we are capable of (and judged for not) making moral decisions. Animals are not capable of moral behavior.

It should not be surprising that the kinds of behavior which evolves in social animals is similar to the moral behavior that God has commanded for us because such behavior is good for the group. The kind of behavior that our conscience tells us is “right” is the kind of behavior which benefits others rather than ourselves, and such behavior is created in social beings by evolution. Moral behavior prescribed for us by God is that which is good for us. God commands us to love, to be kind, to be unselfish, to not have premarital sex and to not be prideful because these things are bad for us. What is immoral is what destroys relationships. This is why it is only “natural” that some limited kinds of behavior which is good for us as social beings has evolved in social animals.

Let me be clear that, to some extent, I am arguing from a biblical presuppositional perspective. In other words, I am assuming that the Bible is true when it tells us that we were created in God’s image. Because I am arguing presuppositionally, what I am saying here is not proof that animal behavior is not moral and that human behavior is moral. What I am doing is to explain why the biblical view is consistent with the evidence–why the biblical view is consistent with the evidence and can rationally explain it at last as well as atheism. So, to summarize:

We are made in God’s image and we therefore have a conscience, we are morally responsible for behaving right–as our creator would command us. Such behavior is what is good for us, which is defined as that behavior which creates loving relationships with one another and with God. Because we are given free will from God and because he loves us, we are bound to do what is right and to obey our Creator. None of this applies to animals. Yet, for social animals, what is good for the group and for relationships in the group tends to evolve naturally. This is why the moral qualities God commands of humans as morally free creatures are in many ways similar to some of the behaviors which have evolved in social animals.

However, to conclude that animal behavior is moral is false, unless we create a definition of morality which strips it of real meaning.

Having said this, and having stated that animals are incapable of moral behavior, but only natural behavior, not all the moral commandments of God are found in animals. For example, God commands monogamy between a man and a woman for human beings. I believe he does this because it is good for us. Homosexual relations and multiple sexual partners does not create the kind of relationships God wants for us. Bonobos are notoriously polygamous and have many sexual partners. This is not bad or evil because Bonobos are not morally congizant beings. Many other moral behaviors which God commands us as free beings are not found in bonobos, although others are. The fact that there are analogous behaviors has already been explained above.

As for anthropologists, we should be aware that those who publish such theories are generally coming from a world view which denies that there is absolute right and wrong. They do not believe in good and evil or in morality as defined above and even their ethics is more of a cost/benefit analysis that anything like a morality. This is not intended to criticize such anthropologists, but it is intended to make you aware that when they claim to find morality in chimps they are using the word in a much different way than a Christian would. We should be aware of the presuppositions of these anthropologists (and of Christians as well, by the way). Note that I acknowledged my presupposition in my argument above. These scientists rarely if ever acknowledge their presuppositions, so their arguments should be viewed with great caution.

John Oakes

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