Thursday, December 8, 2016

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

Frans de Waal, whose accounts of animal behavior have won popular acclaim, believes that empathy, which is innate to both mankind and many other species, is the only effective basis for socially constructive behavior and that religion as a guide to human conduct is, therefore, both unnecessary and undesirable.

However, as I discussed in an earlier post, de Waal fails to acknowledge the limits to the power of empathy, which is most clearly expressed among family members, friends and neighbors, but which is less evident or entirely absent in interactions among strangers, especially among strangers differing in tribe, culture, race or nation.

Moreover, even among family or close associates, empathy is often insufficient to ensure fair dealing, sharing, sympathy and kindness. This is evident in the behavior not only of people but of chimpanzees, the study of which has been the focus of de Waal's own research. Thus, de Waal wrote:
My observations of the chimps ... made me question the idea that hierarchies were merely cultural institutions, a product of socialization, something we could wipe out at any moment. They seemed more ingrained. I had no trouble detecting the same tendencies [i.e., to hierarchical organization] in even the most hippielike organizations. They were generally run by young men who mocked authority and preached egalitarianism yet had no qualms about ordering everyone else around and stealing their comrade's girlfriends.
De Waal goes on to say that he found reading Machiavelli's The Prince, a useful guide to interpreting behavior among chimps.
...breaking with tradition, describing chimps as schmoozing and scheming Machiavellians, my book drew wide attention and enjoyed many translations.
Specifically, as de Waal makes clear in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? chimps, like people, frequently engage in deception, bribery, and theft in the pursuit of food, sex, and status, such behavior often resulting in violence. Moreover, as with humans, chimps are much more likely to be uncooperative or violent with strangers than with members of their own family or troop.

It is precisely the tendency for strangers to interact uncooperatively, dishonestly, or violently, that made a top-down, universally enforced code of conduct a necessity in communities larger than the family or tribal groups in which humans lived prior to the agricultural revolution and the emergence of urban civilization and its imperial expansion.

A universally applicable code of conduct to promote socially constructive behavior in a large community constitutes a religion, whether it is based on a claimed supernatural authority, or mere force, propaganda and tradition. Thus, Political Correctness, the atheistic code of the American Empire, is just as much a religion as Islam, Buddhism, or Roman Catholicism, and its value must likewise be judged by how well it serves the community over which it holds sway.

Thus, de Waal's dismissal of religion as an unnecessary relic is based on a misunderstanding both of the nature of religion and its necessity. Moreover, de Waal confirms his misconception of the nature and function of religion — and I use the term function in the evolutionist's sense of the way in which a characteristic contributes to the survival and propagation of a species — by his bizarre analysis of perhaps the best known teaching of the Christian religion, the parable of the Good Samaritan.

As a prelude to that parable, Jesus was questioned by a person that de Waal identifies as "a lawyer." However, as the gospel account makes clear, the questioner was "an expert in the law," which is to say an expert in the Jewish religious Law, not a specialist in some secular legal code.

As the gospel of Luke recounts:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”
“The answer” to that question, writes de Waal, “came in the parable of the good Samaritan. A half-dead victim, left by the side of the road, is ignored ...”

But, no, that is not a good telling of the story. Let us continue with the account as provided by the gospel of St. Luke.
A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him.

The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
By way of interpretation, De Waal writes: “The biblical message is to be wary of ethics by the book, which as often as not offers excuses to ignore the plight of others.”

But such an interpretation is in absolute contradiction with the facts. The expert in the law correctly answered his own question about who was his neighbor. And his answer, as Jesus confirmed, was in accordance with Jewish Law, or what de Waal calls “ethics by the book.”

Confirming his faith in the Law, Jesus is elsewhere quoted:
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
So what was the lesson Jesus intended by this parable?

First, that his hearers should adhere to the Law and the Prophets, which is to say "ethics by the Book," as recorded in scripture. Second, Jesus is warning his hearers not to be misled by religious authorities who, in their personal behavior, may often fail to abide by the "Law or the Prophets." The hypocrisy of the religious authorities is a recurrent theme of Jesus's teaching: take heed not of outward displays of religiosity, only of actions and intentions. (Today, such advice should lead one to focus attention on the hypocrisy of the politically correct.)

Another lesson of the parable, writes de Waal, “is that everyone is our neighbor ..."

Exactly. And that is where the teaching of Jesus diverged from that of the Jewish Priests and Levites. Jesus, remember, was the founder of a universalist religion. That is why, according to the gospel accounts, the Jewish authorities of the time wanted Him dead: he was a heretic and a globalist* of his time.

The religion that Jesus founded, though rejected by ethnocentric Jews, was precisely what was required by a universalist civilization, and explains why it was eventually adopted by the Roman Emperor, Constantine, becoming the official religion of the Empire by an edict of Emperor Theodosius in AD 380, and, later, of the Western nations that are successors to the Roman Empire.

* I say that Jesus was the founder of a universalist religion and a globalist on the basis of some what the gospels report as his teachings, including the parable of the good Samaritan. 

But there are other reported teachings of Jesus, for example, the above-quoted remark about having come to fulfill the Law and the Prophets, that support the view that Jesus was not a universalist, but a Jewish nationalist. Such inconsistencies likely reflect the fact that the gospels were written after the Jewish revolt and the Roman sack of Jerusalem, including the burning of the Temple. By then, the followers of Jesus and the gospel writers surely wished to play down Jewish nationalism and adjust their doctrines to suit their Roman imperial overlords. 


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

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