Ethics, Morality, and God, Part I: Empathy & Mutual Aid

Note: A portion of this originally appeared on my other blog, Living the Greys, as Mutual Aid and The Kingdom of God: Toward A Christian Anarchist Hermeneutic.  In addressing the moral argument for the existence of God, I thought it would be helpful to begin by suggesting a theory of morality that does not require a god, before considering some of the other philosophical problems with the argument, which I will do in Part II. 

In Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, Peter Kropotkin traces the development of mutual aid through human and animal evolutionary history, ultimately concluding: “That mutual aid is the real foundation of our ethical conceptions seems evident enough.”[1]  “Sociability,” Kropotkin is convinced, “is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”[2] And these claims he supports with an impressive amount of evidence from studies of both animal and human society.  The idea that pre-civilizational human society was characterized by a Hobbesian war of all against all is absurd on its face, Kropotkin argues, and

It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenseless as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the interests of the species.[3]

And furthermore,

The very persistence of the clan organization shows how utterly false it is to represent primitive mankind as a disorderly agglomeration of individuals, who only obey their individual passions, and take advantage of their personal force and cunningness against all other representatives of the species.  Unbridled individualism is a modern growth, but it is not characteristic of primitive mankind.[4]

Frans de Waal, in his work, The Age of Empathy, similarly argues that “If man [sic] is wolf to man, he is so in every sense, not just the negative one. We would not be where we are today had our ancestors been socially aloof.”[5]

Human beings, according to this view, have not evolved in such a way (as is commonly assumed) that we are all, at bottom, selfish, and that we must be dominated and coerced to prevent us from destroying each other—why, if we are simply selfish by nature, we would ever decide that we shouldn’t dominate and coerce one another remains unclear—but instead are evolutionarily inclined towards mutual aid and equality. Indeed, in this way de Waal concisely debunks three false “origin myths”: The first, “that our ancestors ruled the savannah”[6]; the second, “that human society is the voluntary creation of autonomous men”[7]; and the third, “that our species has been waging war for as long as it has been around.”[8] Instead, de Waal concludes, on the basis of research in anthropology, psychology, biology, and neuroscience, “that we are group animals: highly cooperative, sensitive to injustice, sometimes warmongering, but mostly peace loving.”[9]

“Empathy,” concludes de Waal, “is part of our evolution, and not just a recent part, but an innate, age-old capacity.”[10] And “Social Darwinists may disagree, but from a truly Darwinian perspective it is entirely logical to expect a “social motive” in group-living animals, one that makes them strive for a well-functioning whole.”[11]

In other words, we are cut from the same cloth and we are all in this together. We are “the product of a single process” and “continuous with all other life forms, not only in body but also in mind.”[12] Rather than only being able to learn morality by way of authority, humans, qua humans, know that murder is wrong.

The immediate question from the skeptical reader will likely be: why, then, do humans persist in murdering one another if empathy is innate? I think the short answer is dehumanization. This is the dark side of our clannish nature: We quickly and easily begin to distinguish between our clan and the other clan, resulting in dehumanization of the other. No longer is the people group across the border a group of fellow human beings, but rather Africans, Arabs, atheists, Catholics, Democrats, Europeans, homosexuals, Jews, Protestants, women, or whatever else. And suddenly it is okay to oppress or even murder them, because they’re not really people like you and me. “Called the fifth horseman of the apocalypse,” says de Waal, “dehumanization has a long history of excusing atrocities.”[13] However, when we are able to see, as rock band Muse says, “that when we bleed we bleed the same,”[14] these sharp distinctions begin to disappear, and we are able to recognize the immorality of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, etc.

And furthermore, I think that all this ties in quite nicely with inter-subjectivity. (I have written on inter-subjectivity at greater length here, so I will keep my comments brief). Quite simply, according to the theory of inter-subjectivity, my sense of self is bound up with your sense of self, and vice versa. With no relationship to the other, “I”, as a distinct self, cannot exist. As de Waal writes, “Instead of being Robinson Crusoes sitting on separate islands, we’re all interconnected, both bodily and emotionally,”[15] which supports my thesis that we are always and already in relationships of mutual dependence upon one another.

And these relationships cannot be reduced to mere psychological egoism either, as though I am ultimately only interested in your well-being insofar as it supports my well-being. Instead, de Waal suggests, “The selfish/unselfish divide may be a red herring. Why try to extract the self from the other, or the other from the self, if the merging of the two is the secret behind our cooperative nature?”[16] I need you because you need me because I need you because you need me…



[1] Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. (Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2006), 246.

[2] Kropotkin, 5.

[3] Kropotkin, 62.

[4] Kropotkin, 71.

[5] Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 7.

[6] Ibid., 18.

[7] Ibid., 20.

[8] Ibid., 22.

[9] Ibid., 5.

[10] Ibid., 205.

[11] Ibid., 36.

[12] Ibid., 207.

[13] Ibid., 214.

[14] Muse, “Map of the Problematique”, Black Holes and Revelations. (Warner Bros., 2006), CD.

[15] Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy. (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2009), 48.

[16] Ibid., 75.



June 4, 2014 · 2:15 pm

2 responses to “Ethics, Morality, and God, Part I: Empathy & Mutual Aid

  1. Pingback: Ethics, Morality, and God, Part II: On the Moral Argument | anatheistchristian

  2. Pingback: Notes On Anarchism: Are People Inherently Good or Bad? | Living the Greys

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