The Altruism of Animals: A Case For Morality Without Belief

The “moral question” is one familiar to both religious people and their atheist counterparts. It usually comes up as a kind of “got you” question during debates about the importance of religion in society, and it goes something like this: “Without belief, without religion, how can you be moral?” I’ve watched as several prominent atheists attempt to explain this, and I’ve always walked away frustrated. They stutter and dismiss the question and move along to talk about hard science.

Here’s the thing: as long as we keep dismissing this question, it’s going to keep coming up, and religious people are going to continue to think it’s a reliable points-getter. It is not. (In fact, it makes me more than a little nervous that so many religious people cannot comprehend being good outside the confines of their belief system.) This post is my attempt at explaining why morality is not linked to any form of faith. And it’s going to be a rather short post, too, because the answer is really quite simple. It can be summed up in four words:the altruism of animals.

Elephants To The Rescue

When one thinks of morality, what comes to mind? Compassion, empathy, selflessness, the acknowledgment of the value of all life… These are things that religious texts attempt to instill in us, and what we credit religion for. If your next door neighbor ran into the street to pull an injured pedestrian to safety after a hit and run, I’d be willing to bet you’d consider that a “moral act.” Your next door neighbor might even be called the other person’s “guardian angel.”

But this kind of care and concern for others is not exclusive to humans. Most of the world’s highly intelligent creatures display altruistic tendencies, sometimes at the expense of their own well-beingElephants are a great example of highly intelligent, moral beings. Just Googling “elephant saves” will result in a bevy of suggestions:

Elephants are amazing in general, but their acts of altruism are especially noteworthy. They have, for example:

  • Saved a baby rhinoceros from drowning in mud even while being attacked by the mother rhino
  • Dragged an injured man into the shade of a tree and stayed with him (and comforted him) until help came
  • Refused to place a log into a hole in the ground because a dog was stuck in the hole

These things cannot simply be explained as the need to protect their own children or fellow elephants (in and of itself a compelling case for loyalty and love of family), as they are frequently known to put themselves in harm’s way in order to rescue or protect other species. Humans also do this— for another human or for other animals — and it is considered moral action, something in keeping with the Ten Commandments — “Love thy neighbor as thyself” — or Christ’s own words — “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you have done unto me.”

Do elephants practice religion? Do they have belief? Of course not. They are animals. Highly intelligent and emotionally evolved animals, but animals all the same. And yet they are notorious for their “good deeds,” so to speak.

Dolphins Do It Too

And it isn’t just elephants that feel the need to act heroically and save the lives of others. Dolphins, another incredibly intelligent species, are documented as saving humans, whales, and dogs from drowning and even from sharksThis website has aggregated almost twenty different reports of dolphins acting in a way that could be considered “moral.” They have been reported to:

  • Guide 76 beached pilot whales back out to the ocean
  • Lead rescue boats to lost divers in the Red Sea
  • Surround swimmers for 40 minutes to protect them from a shark
  • Drag the body of a drowned man back to land
  • Stay with a stranded dog while its owners tried to rescue it

What are dolphins motivated by, if not by some inherent sense of morality? It is not self-serving, it is not borne out of a self-preservation instinct, so where does the motivation to help others come from?

Intelligence Is A Common Link

Here we have three different species: humans, elephants, and dolphins (I have not even touched on numerous other animals who have also committed selfless moral acts seemingly without conviction or justification). What is the common link here? All three are considered to be extremely intelligent, standing out from the rest of the animal kingdom. Could sufficient intelligence — the ability to creatively and logically process the world around us in a self-aware way — be the catalyst for what we consider to be “morality”?

I would argue that yes, morality is inherent in species that have the capacity to process it. Humans are not more moral than other highly intelligent species — simply more evolvedWe have a greater number of ways and opportunities to express our shared, inherent morality. In fact, humans are so evolved and have such a need for reason and order that ages and ages ago, they created whole structures, hierarchies, and institutions in order to understand and regulate that morality. Today, they call these institutions “religions.”

It’s gotten all mixed up, you see, as it was bound to after thousands and thousands of years of dogma and tradition. Religion doesn’t spawn morality. Intelligence spawns morality, which inevitably gives birth (in intelligent enough species) to religion. Now, some people find that religion helps hone and focus their morality, that it gives their morality a purpose that they find motivating and invigorating. That’s a wonderful thing, perhaps the single greatest thing about religion. But religion can’t take credit for morality, and it certainly can’t claim that those outside the religion are morally destitute. Not without pinpointing which denomination the bottleneck dolphins subscribe to, and which God African elephants pray to on Sundays.

The only religious response to this is: “Well fine, religion doesn’t create morality, but God does. So if God created animals as well as humans, of course they are also inherently moral.” Okay, we disagree on the origin of morality, but we agree on the fact that morality is inherent and not based on religion or even exclusive to human beings. In which case, obviously I can be moral as an atheist. In fact, if what you say is true, then why do we need belief at all? You have effectively proven your own religion to be unnecessary to the moral equation.

Originally published on Medium in December 2017. 

3 thoughts on “The Altruism of Animals: A Case For Morality Without Belief

Add yours

  1. “Okay, we disagree on the origin of morality, but we agree on the fact that morality is inherent and not based on religion or even exclusive to human beings. In which case, obviously I can be moral as an atheist.”

    There is a noisy comment box argument on just this topic on another blog. Your post is calming – and kind. Thank you


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