Thursday, December 1, 2016

Frans de Waal: An Ethologist's Confusion About Ethics — Part I

Ethology is the study of animal behavior. Franz de Waal is a distinguished ethologist and author of several best-selling accounts of primate behavior. As de Waal reports at length in the Atheist and the Bonobo, and other works, a key feature of the behavior of apes and to a greater or lesser degree other social animals, is sharing, helping, commiserating, comforting and demanding fairness. 

From this reality of animal social existence, de Waal concludes that morality is neither unique to humans nor dependent on religion, but is inherent in mammalian biology. Furthermore, he contends, that religion is, though difficult and perhaps impossible to eradicate, superfluous to the good society.

Thus, de Waal writes:
This brings me back to my bottom-up view of morality. The moral law is not imposed from above or derived from well-reasoned principles; rather it arises from ingrained values that have been there from the beginning of time.
In this, however, de Waal is sadly confused. The constructive, cooperative, fairness-demanding and mutually beneficial behavior of social animals is not evidence of morality, natural or otherwise. It is merely the rational, self-serving behavior of the small business owner who refrains from swindling his customers in the hope that they will return for more. It is the principle of you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. By helping one another, social animals achieve a level of well-being beyond that attainable were they to live independent, uncooperative lives.

The fascinating point about social behavior in animals that de Waal and other animal watchers have revealed is that not only in mankind but in many other mammals, social behavior is in some degree driven by spontaneous feelings of empathy. Apes and elephants, dogs and dolphin display sympathetic concern for one another. There is, moreover, among apes and other species as well as mankind, a powerful impulse to protest and punish non-cooperative, or unfair, behavior.

Why empathy, alone, is not enough. 
But a natural sympathy for the hungry, the sick, the lame, and a furious contempt for unfairness, does not an ethical system make. These are simply inherent propensities that enable productive social behavior. Act with kindness, sympathy, fairness and people will respect you and repay you in kind when the occasion to do so arises. Act unfairly, and people will condemn you as selfish and deny you their aid and cooperation. There is nothing morally good or bad about these patterns of behavior. They are what humans, bonobos, chimps and to a greater or lesser degree other animals do to maximize their own welfare. It is simply behavior in accordance with enlightened self-interest.

That an ethologist might confuse social behavior with morality is, however, understandable, since it is exactly the mistake made by the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, in The Leviathan. To Hobbes, it apparently never occurred that human behavior is driven by enlightened self-interest promoted by the power of empathy. Thus, he wrote:
During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that conditions called war; and such a war, as if of every man, against every man. ...

To this war of every man against every man, this also in consequent; that nothing can be unjust. The notions of right and wrong, justice and injustice have there no place. Where there is no common power, there is no law, where no law, no injustice. Force, and fraud, are in war the cardinal virtues.
Thus, so Hobbes, believed, in the absence of a top-down authority to keep all men in awe, there would be:
No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.
In this, Hobbes was evidently wrong. Or at least he was wrong in some degree, because as is now evident, social behavior comes naturally, not only to mankind but to other social creatures also.

But Hobbes was no more wrong than proponents of natural morality who believe religion to be superfluous. Natural sympathy, calculated payback for good or bad behavior, social disapprobation of unfairness, cruelty, greed, etc., works well to maintain productive social behavior in a small community where all are known to all and everyone's behavior is monitored and appropriately reacted to by all. 

Mankind, however, is unique among mammals in living in complex societies of millions and even billions among whom close cooperation is a prerequisite for survival. The social restraints and rewards that operate in a family group or a tribe of a hundred or so, or even a village, cannot possibly work in the modern world. In a populous community, anti-social acts will more often than not be either anonymous or of no personal concern to those who may be aware of them. Likewise, social acts will almost never be reciprocated because the parties to the act are related to one another only at the moment of the interaction, and will likely never again have an occasion to interact with one another. 

It is mankind's construction of great and complex communities, comprising human groupings on many scales from family to school, workplace, sports clubs, social clubs, town, city,  and state that necessitated an explicit code of conduct applicable on all occasions and in all circumstances. That is, a code to be obeyed by all classes and conditions of mankind when and where there is no one likely either to reward socially beneficial behavior or punish socially harmful behavior. 

That is the reason for the law. That is the reason for religion. Religion promotes self management of behavior for conformity with the general good. The law codifies and punishes behavior that is detrimental to the general good and which occurs when the influence of religion fails.

Thus, the top-down religion that de Waal opposes is an essential mechanism that serves in the place of empathy to promote socially beneficial behavior among strangers with whom feelings of empathy are weak or non-existent.

Religion may be based upon strange tales about gods, the spirits of ancestors or miracles, or it may be implanted by indoctrination, propaganda and brainwashing, or by a combination of both. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all depend in some degree on a belief in a creator who reads each person's innermost thoughts and will punish or reward them according to their adherence to his wishes. Political Correctness, like Communism from which it is derived, relies solely on indoctrination, propaganda and brainwashing, reinforced by organized anathematization of those who are not compliant by application of terms such as "deplorable," "racist," "xenophobe," "homophobe," "irredeemable," etc, or by more extreme measures including incarceration for so-called "hate speech," and other politically incorrect actions. 

Religions are not all the same in what they teach, in their effectiveness in enforcing what they teach, or in the social benefits of what they teach and seek to enforce. That is why the specific features of a religion can determine the fate of a civilization. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union, once the largest empire on the face of the Earth, can be largely attributed to the failure of Communism as a system of moral belief, i.e., as a religion. The burgeoning population of the Islamic world and its opportunistic and imperialistic expansion into the Western, formerly Christian, world, is likewise attributable to the evolutionary payoff to an adaptive religion, and the failure of the religion of Political Correctness, the successor religion to Western Christianity.

See Al.so: 

CanSpeccy: Frans de Waal: An Ethologist's Confusion About Ethics — Part II

Related: 

CanSpeccy: Political Correctness Has Replaced Christianity As the Religion of the West

CanSpeccy: A Politically Correct Civilization Cannot Stand

CanSpeccy: Trouble With Political Correctness? Just Say Fuck Off

CanSpeccy: From Christendom to the Politically Correct Totalitarian State

CanSpeccy: Dying for political correctness

CanSpeccy: Facebook: A Place to Advocate Politically Correct Riot and Murder


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