Which Comes First -- Religion or Morality?

The gods conveniently command what we already know implicitly.

Posted Nov 09, 2014

Monkey Business

                Does any American regret that the mid-term elections are over?  Beleaguered American voters have survived months of pundits’ prognostications, robo-calls, and, worst of all, a tsunami of campaign advertisements filling the airwaves.  Because of recent Supreme Court decisions, mountains of money were spent on record numbers of television and radio advertisements for mid-term elections.  This resulted in various groups, whose sources of funding were often obscure, running thousands of negative advertisements against candidates whom they wished to defeat.  That, of course, was on top of all of the negative advertisements sponsored by the political parties and the candidates themselves.

                The National Republican Congressional Committee sponsored an ad in Georgia, entitled “John Barrow Is Bankrupting America.”  The ad faulted Mr. Barrow for voting with President Obama 85% of the time, implying that such a voting pattern necessarily demonstrated his endorsement of government profligacy.  In the advertisement a woman with a monkey sitting on her shoulder declared that the people’s representatives should be far more concerned with cutting spending in Washington, eliminating such frivolous expenses as supporting scientific research on monkeys’ sense of fairness and on their susceptibilities to cocaine.  Setting aside the puzzling complaint about the research on susceptibility to cocaine (would the members of the National Republican Congressional Committee have preferred either that the researchers had used human participants in their experimentation instead or, perhaps, that no research on the use of cocaine should be pursued at all?), consider research on the sense of fairness in monkeys.

Monkey See, Monkey Don’t

                The kinds of studies that the ad’s sponsors may have had in mind would, presumably, include research carried out (in Georgia, no less!) by my colleagues at Emory University, Sarah Brosnan and Frans de Waal.  (Upon graduation, Sarah accepted a position at Georgia State University.)  Brosnan and de Waal’s most famous experiment furnished striking evidence that capuchin monkeys are keenly sensitive to issues of equity, at least with regard to how they are treated by humans possessing and dispensing resources that they desire.

                If a capuchin monkey carries out a simple task, it is perfectly happy with a piece of cucumber as a reward.  By contrast, if, after viewing a second capuchin doing the same task and receiving a more highly prized grape as a reward, the first capuchin receives a piece of cucumber for carrying out the task, it will reject the cucumber.  “Reject” is probably too neutral.  A wonderful video shows how sometimes the monkeys purposefully maneuvered their arms outside of their cages so that they could throw the cucumber piece back at the experimenter with all of the force that they could muster.  Brosnan and de Waal hold that capuchins’ reactions reflected their “inequity aversion.”


The Phylogenetic Roots of Morality

                To be sure, evidence of a penchant for inequity aversion in capuchins does not demonstrate that they possess the full-blooded sense of fairness that informs and regulates so many human transactions.  In some sense the capuchins’ responses are grounded in self-interest.  (But is that any less true of humans’ notions of fairness?)  Still, the capuchins’ understanding of their self-interest is not based on simple acquisitiveness.  In the face of inequitable treatment the capuchins are willing to forego a valuable resource, viz., a piece of cucumber.  Remember, that under the first condition the capuchins find a piece of cucumber, which is, after all, a nourishing food, perfectly acceptable.        

               The citizens of the United States and their representatives will have to decide whether research of this sort should receive federal funding, but many cognitive scientists of religion and de Waal himself maintain that such findings provide valuable clues about the relations of religion and morality in human prehistory.  Most religious people hold that morality has normative force because the gods command it.  On this view morality and moral authority depends on the gods.  Brosnan and de Waal’s study, other experimental research, and literally hundreds of de Waal’s observations of the behaviors of chimpanzees and bonobos across his career, recounted in his many books, suggest that the building blocks of humans’ moral sentiments have a far older phylogenetic heritage than this view allows.  The suggestion, in short, is that humans’ moral sensibilities, not their religious ones, come first.