The way to cut through the knot, according to de Waal, is to accept that morality originates from within. De Waal persuasively argues that morality is part of our factory-installed software. In the chicken-or-egg argument about which comes first, morality or religion, de Waal argues it is morality by a mile. It entered our genetic software “at least a hundred millennia” before anything recognizable as modern religion manifested itself (though I’m not sure how he knows what religion looked like 100,000 years ago). He believes his findings refute what he calls “veneer theory” — the idea that morality is simply a thin overlay of words and laws that we need to keep us from doing terrible things. As Ivan Karamazov says, “If there is no God, everything is permitted.”
And here we have something of a problem, and I think it would be helpful for conservatives and perhaps our newfound allies to flesh it out a bit. De Waal seems to think that religious people, social conservatives, traditionalists, and philosophers “reason [themselves] toward moral truths. Even if they don’t invoke God, they’re still proposing a top-down process in which we formulate the principles and then impose them on human conduct.” He seems to think that by demonstrating that morality comes from below, that we — and by “we” he means not just humans but all primates, and many other animals — are born with moral sentiments, he can move both sides to common ground. Morality for De Waal isn’t an abstraction, it is in effect a bodily function.
I’m not sure he’ll succeed. A. C. Grayling, an ardent atheist who claims to be polite about it, has nonetheless poured scorn on de Waal. On the other hand, conservatives would have a short trip to common ground with de Waal. The parts of his book aimed at traditionalists and believers are likely to elicit a “Yeah, so what?” It may be — or have been — controversial among scientists to say that apes and some other animals have feelings, but I don’t think anyone at this point doubts it, particularly dog owners.
More important, using studies of chimps to prove that morality has a genetic component in humans too, while interesting, will have exactly zero effect on how most traditionalists view morality, because most traditionalists would not object to the assertion that humans are endowed by their creator with moral sentiments, although they might find it incomplete. As far as I know, there’s nothing in Christianity or Judaism — never mind generic conservatism — that would cause adherents to recoil at the news that we’re born with an instinct to do good. You will look in vain to find a Christian conservative denouncing Adam Smith’s assertion that we are endowed with moral sentiments. Almost 20 years ago, James Q. Wilson wrote a wonderful book demonstrating that humans are born with a moral sense. (The book was called, fittingly enough, “The Moral Sense.”)
But saying that we are born with a moral instinct is not to say that we always instinctually know what is moral. Not everyone believes in Original Sin, but most traditionalists believe we are built from crooked timber. We are flawed creatures, vulnerable to temptation. Moreover, life is complicated and confusing, and as a result we sometimes need help finding our way in the darkness. Men aren’t angels, which is why, Jews believe, God gave us the Torah — so we could understand what God wants from us. (Angels don’t need instruction: They know right from wrong from Day One.) And Christianity teaches that man has the capacity to know right from wrong. He has a sense of repugnance, the sense that some things are wrong, but also has the faculty of reason. The Church tries to use reason to help people rightly form their consciences.