The Biological Basis of Moral Relativism
Biology gives us the general moral sense and the general ability to develop a moral system but the specific rules that we apply in our society are not necessarily given by biology.
Frans de Waal is a Dutch/American biologist and primatologist. He teaches at Emory University and directs the Living Links Center for the Study of Ape and Human Evolution, in Atlanta, Georgia. He is known for his popular books, such as Chimpanzee Politics (1982), Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape (1997) and The Age of Empathy (2009). He has been elected to the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences.
I look at human morality as a system that we develop in our society through discussion and debate and sometimes religion and sometimes cultural characteristics that we have.
The specifics of morality are not given by biology. What biology offers us is certain tendencies such as a sense of fairness, empathy, caring for others, helping others, following rules, punishing individuals who don’t follow the rules – all of these tendencies can be observed in other primates and I think these are the ingredients that we use to build a moral society.
But the specific rules that we apply – and that’s why they are not universal in the human species - every society has a different kind of morality.
The specific rules are not necessarily given by biology. They are decided by us in our society. That’s also why moral rules evolve over time.
So, for example, we now have debates about abortion, about the death penalty, about gay marriage. All of these discussions we have and in 20 years from now we will believe different things in moral terms than we do now. All of these changes take place because we debate our moral system constantly and we shift in our opinions.
And so biology gives us the general moral sense and the general ability to develop a moral system but the specific rules that we apply in our society are not necessarily given by biology.
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