There are three central issues here: Is there a universal or objective morality? Does it have a religious foundation? How can it be known? We are accustomed to speaking of the scientific laws of nature. It’s worth asking if there are moral laws of human nature. Many of us are the unwitting heirs to a philosophy that denies objective morality. We hold that science is objective, but values are subjective. We believe we can know scientific things but morality is a matter of mere opinion. On this basis we say things like “don’t impose your beliefs on me” while it would never occur to us to say “don’t impose your algebra on me.” Yet have we considered the possibility that there are moral laws in nature that are no less reliable and comprehensible than scientific laws?

Humans are unique in many ways, but mostly in the fact that we are moral beings. More than language, more than rationality, it is our moral nature that distinguishes humanity from even our closest animal relatives. Primatologist Frans de Waal, who studies chimpanzees and has done much to emphasize their close kinship with humans, admits that morality is something chimps don’t have. “It is hard to believe that animals weigh their own interests against the rights of others, that they develop a vision of the greater good of society, or that they feel lifelong guilt about something that they should not have done.” We can say to Bonzo, “You shouldn’t have done that” and “Bad chimpanzee!” but those are our own ways of speaking. We have no grounds to believe that chimps feel that way.

This distinction between chimps and humans points to a deeper chasm that separates human beings from the rest of the universe. All other objects, living and nonliving, function according to physical or scientific laws. Dangle a meaty bone in front of a dog and, no matter how much it has just eaten, it goes for the bone. Its response is a product ofseemingly uncontrollable instinct. Place a large stone on a slanted hillside, and it will automatically roll down. It has no choice in the matter. It is simply obeying physical laws.