Biological vs. Philosophical Perspectives on Morality

(Redated post originally published on 18 October 2011)

(This is from my archives and is undated; I’m guessing I wrote this about a decade ago. I think it is still relevant, as evidenced by Jerry Coyne’s article about explaining morality.)

I recently updated one of the official FAQs for the *.atheism newsgroups. (For interested parties, I updated the “Atheist Media FAQ” at In private email, I received the following suggestion relative to the “morality and religion” section of my bibliography:

“Good Natured”, by Frans de Waal. He extensively documents morals in non-human primates.

As someone who is focused on metaethics and normative ethics (as opposed to descriptive ethics), this suggestion seemed like an odd one to me. This suggestion reminded me how differently the word “moral” can be used in the philosophical community vs. the biological community. Without having read de Waal’s book, I suspect that what de Waal documents is that non-human primates exhibit certain social behaviors and perhaps even “customs” that promote the flourishing of the respective species. But what is the philosophical significance of “morals in non-human primates” in that sense? At the risk of sounding like some of theists I criticize, “Yes, non-human primates exhibit certain social behaviors that promote the flourishing of their species, but is it morally good?” It seems to me that the behavior exhibited by non-human primates is not even relevant to metaethical questions unless one has good prior reason to believe that ethical naturalism is true. Or, to be more precise, instead of saying “not even relevant to metaethical questions,” I should say, “not even relevant to moral ontology,” without implying anything about the other branches of metaethic