What Would a Bonobo Do?

Finding our inner moral compass.

Posted Oct 23, 2015

Noted psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg proposed that humans pass through three levels of moral development. In the pre-conventional stage, right and wrong are equated with reward and punishment. This is the way a young child views the world. And for that matter, so does your dog. Peeing on the carpet is bad because I get punished, while bringing my master his slippers (without chewing them) is good because I get praised.

Later in childhood, we move into the conventional stage. Here, we view right and wrong in terms of social norms and civil or religious laws. In America, many fundamentalist Christians argue that the Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments, and they want the sacred tablets on display in every courtroom. These people are clearly stuck in Kohlberg’s conventional stage.

Some adults move beyond a black-and-white view of morality to an understanding that many ethical decisions involve a complex interaction of costs and benefits, of rights and responsibilities. Kohlberg admired Gandhi as the exemplar of a man fully situated in the post-conventional stage. Since civil disobedience involved breaking the law, it was clearly wrong from a conventional standpoint, but its purpose was to achieve the greater good of social equality and national autonomy.

Christians can point to Jesus as an early example of post-conventional moral thinking. Shrugging off the black-and-white morality of Mosaic Law, he instead held love for one another as the highest moral standard. Thus, when faced with a moral dilemma, many Christians ask themselves: “What would Jesus do?” Yet the answer is never easy.

You can very well ask what Gandhi would do, since there’s ample historical documentation of his life. If we can find an instance when Gandhi faced a similar moral dilemma to our own—as did Martin Luther King Jr. during the civil rights era—we know what Gandhi would have done. Not so in the case of Jesus.

There may very well have been an itinerant preacher named Jesus of Nazareth, as such were common in the Judea of that time. But Jesus Christ, as presented in the New Testament, is a fictional character. Aside from the Christian scriptures, there are no historical records verifying his existence. The four Gospels tell contradictory stories of his life, and they give descriptions of events that we know, from authentic historical records, never occurred. This isn’t surprising, given that the first four books of the New Testament are based on oral traditions, not eyewitness accounts.

Every religion provides a moral foundation for its believers. But the important question is whether morality derives form religion—or precedes it. The evidence from evolutionary psychology suggests that the ethical principles we strive to live by in modern society have their roots in an innate moral sense that we share with other primates.

Within our inner social circle of family and friends, we generally know how we’re supposed to behave. This doesn’t mean that we don’t experience conflict in our relationships. But we do have built-in mechanisms for reconciling our differences that usually work. We’re certainly more forgiving when wronged by family or long-time friends than we are of strangers.

For most of our existence as a species, we lived in small groups of a hundred or so. We knew the other members of our group very well, and our inner moral compass enabled us to work out conflicts so that we could cooperate for mutual benefit. Outsiders, however, were to be feared and so weren’t accorded the same moral status as members of our in-group.

Our innate moral sense broke down in the city-states that agriculture enabled. With civilization came the rise of organized religion, whose purpose it was to create legitimacy for the state, as in the divine right of kings. Religions were also tasked with maintaining social order, which they did by providing their people with a set of moral injunctions.

Commandments such as “Thou shalt not kill” clearly have their basis in our innate moral sense. What’s new, however, is their extension beyond our personal in-group. Yet the same god who commanded the Jews not to kill each other also commanded them to commit genocide during the conquest of Canaan. Clearly, the Ten Commandments were not universal moral laws but only extended to God’s Chosen People. It’s not even the Biblical Jesus but rather early Christian leaders such as Paul who first advocate for a universal moral code—at least on that side of the globe.

We don’t need priests on high or gods in heaven to tell us we need to extend our concept of in-group to include all 7 billion people on the planet. Instead, we have earthly examples right here at home who can serve as reminders of proper behavior.

Humans are closely related to both chimpanzees and bonobos, and each reflects characteristics found in humans. Among chimpanzees, there’s a fair degree of cooperation within groups, but males dominate and aggression is a fact of life. They are also, like humans, extremely xenophobic and often act violently toward outsiders.

Bonobos also cooperate with members of their group, but the females dominate, and aggression isn’t tolerated. Conflicts occur, of course, but other bonobos intervene to smooth things out. They’re also less wary of strangers, compared with chimpanzees. It’s often said that bonobos are the ultimate hippies, preferring to make love, not war.

In many ways, we act more like our chimpanzee cousins—status competition, intrasexual aggression, intergroup warfare. Yet in other ways we resemble the bonobos. We’re certainly capable of flexible cooperation to a greater extent than any other species on the planet.

When we’ve lost our moral compass, perhaps we shouldn’t seek guidance from those who create false gods to serve their own ends. Instead, maybe we should ask: “What would a bonobo do?”

David Ludden is the author of The Psychology of Language: An Integrated Approach (SAGE Publications).