Auguries of Connectedness

Auguries of Connectedness July 27, 2008

A couple weeks back – or more by now, Mark left me a massive (huge thanks!) comment regarding a prior post of mine and I promised a prompt response. Being a fellow Montanan, Mark urged me to enjoy the glorious MT summer and let the response wait, which I definitely appreciate. Here, now, I’ll try to address some of Mark’s points. This will have to be mostly off the top of my head, but it’s better than nothin’.


Back on May 28th the topic was “moral connectedness.” [JW: my link] Here are the notes I took on the book you expressed an interest in.

I read Frans de Waal’s Primates and Philosophers. How Morality Evolved De Waals contribution to the book consists of the online 2003 Tanner Lecture on Human Values titled Morality and the Social Instincts: Continuity with the Other Primates. The rest of the book consists of comments on de Waal’s paper by Robert Wright, Christine M. Korsgaard, Philip Kitcher, and Peter Singer.

Quite a cast of characters:

In your blog we were thinking about recent work in science and personal experiences with animals that showed how animals were helpful, faithful, caring, capable of empathy and how their whole way of being in the world was distorted when they were viewed as Descartes viewed them as merely machines.

Yep. Descartes is credited with creating the great chasm between humanity and the rest of the animals, but he was just clarifying Catholic/Christian and Aristotelian notions that had been around for a long time. For Christianity there is Genesis, which clearly describes humanity as superior to animals and them actually made (in the second story) after man, for him. And in Aristotle, the great categorizer, humanity simply had to be differentiated in some clear way from animals, and his distinction was reasoning.

Both of these ancient distinctions have been demonstrated as wrong, but they’ve left an indelible impression on most people today. Cartesian Dualism, the view that we are made up of two distinct and separate substances – body & mind – is said to be the view of the man on the street. Buddhism, as we know, sometimes sounds dualistic in this sense – speaking of name (nāma) and form (rūpa). Yet while Western traditions have sought to place our true self in nama – sometimes translated as ‘mind’; Buddhism affirms anātman/anatta – the teaching of ultimate selflessness.

You were also thinking that these science papers showing ethical behavior extending to nonhuman animals might be useful to advance a paper of yours on ethics and evolution. You were troubled about the chasm that opened up between humans and other living things when people attributed ethical behavior only to humans and assumed other animals lacked this capacity.

Yes. It seems to only make sense that once we see that such distinctions are false, then we should (however cautiously) attribute ethical capacity to non-human animals as well. I say ‘cautiously’ because there is always danger of anthropomorphising behaviors in non-human animals.

The concerns of your blog are central to de Waals book. He argues that some of the components of ethical behavior found in humans are in place in nonhuman primates. Science just doesn’t’ support the more commonly held view that he calls the “Veneer Theory” of the origins of human ethical behavior. According to Veneer Theory, evolution has equipped humans to be only selfish, individually oriented, aggressive. This is our human nature. When the planet became so crowded that our selfish, individual, aggressive, behavior, our biology, became more trouble than it was worth, we organized ourselves into communities where our behavior was artificially shaped by social contracts involving ethics and laws. However, this ethical behavior, since it is socially constructed, has a different ontological status than the underlying human nature that it is designed to reign in. Most fundamentally we are what evolution equipped us to be, mean, selfish, brutish individuals who are constrained by a weaker, artificially designed set of ethical rules and laws.

A bit more on Veneer Theory: “‘Veneer Theory,’ … sees morality as a thin layer barely disguising less noble tendencies. Veneer Theory is contrasted with the position of Charles Darwin, who saw human morality as a natural outgrowth of the social instincts and as continuous with the sociality of other animals.” (from here) Sounds like Hobbes all over again. It answers some superficial questions about our behavior, especially when we act selfishly or submissively; but it very much fails to grasp the richness and depth of cooperative behavior, love, and altruism. Hobbes would likewise ascribe these as ‘coming out of’ external necessities, and not our ‘true nature.’

This Veneer Theory of the origins of human morality is contrasted by de Waal with Darwin’s view of how human morality evolved. The evolutionary view says that primate ancestors of humans and primitive humans evolved in groups. Because the early human ancestors lived in groups the evolutionary success of the groups really depended on components or predispositions for ethical behavior like empathy and helping to be in place. Since modern humans “descended with modifications” from these earlier social primates, the earliest modern humans must have had these components of ethical behavior and not mysteriously produced ethical behavior by some unknown cultural mechanism outside of our biology in the last 10,000 years or so. [JW: emphasis mine, here and below] So all of the social thinking that underlies so much of our political and economic thinking that envisions an evolutionary past with humans struggling only selfishly against one another but flourishing in egoistic lives in some primitive state of nature just doesn’t fit the scientific picture. According to de Waal, evolution equipped us to look out for ourselves AND be caring and empathetic.

Yes. This gets us beyond mere ethical behavior and points to the structures (the human brain, human communities) that give rise to moral behavior. Brilliant! It’s about time 🙂

So the Veneer Theory opens up a wide dualistic chasm between human and nonhuman animals. According to Veneer Theory, humans by some mysterious cultural process developed morality or a capacity to reign in their biology based human nature and that’s what makes humans different from other animals. The author says no, there isn’t a chasm between humans and the rest of their primate ancestors because our mammal and primate ancestors show components of ethical behavior. Here are a couple of interesting examples:

Church, R. M. 1959. Emotional Reactions of Rats to the Pain of Others. Journal
of Comparative & Physiological Psychology52: 132–34.

Wechkin, S., J. H. Masserman, and W. Terris. 1964. Shock to a Conspecific as an
Aversive Stimulus. Psychonomic Science 1: 47–48.

Excellent, thanks for the citations. Here’s a good story with some of our characters from the NY Times:

These studies found that the rats and monkeys refused to press the button that resulted in delivery of food to themselves if doing so shocked a nearby companion. One monkey stopped pressing the button and obtaining food for 12 days, essentially starving itself, after obtaining food then witnessing a shock delivered to a companion. I think these animal studies are thought-provoking especially in light Stanley Milgram’s work. Milgram found that college students in experimental situations could be talked into administering shocks to human subjects rather easily. Sigh……..

Yea, wow. I’ve looked at Milgram’s experiment a lot lately too. It seems that humans are far more susceptible to the (sometimes nefarious) influence and manipulation by authority figures than we would like to admit. Conclusion? You want a monkey assigned to torture you (because he won’t), not the human (who will). Yea, sigh….

Christine M. Korsgaard’s responds to de Waal in a section of the book titled “Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action” It is this part of the book that looks at moral thinking in humans compared to other animals. Where de Waal sees differences but seems most interested in emphasizing the implications of continuity in the development of ethical thinking between humans and other primate groups, Korsgaard acknowledges the continuities in the development of ethical thinking between human and nonhuman primates but seems most interested in the implications of the differences in human moral thinking compared to nonhuman primates. On page 102 she sums up her views this way:

“It is absurd to think that nonhuman animals are motivated by self interest. The concept of what it is in your own best interests requires a grip on the future and the ability to calculate that do not seem available to the nonhuman animal. Just as importantly, acting for the sake of your best interests requires the capacity to be motivated by the abstract conception of your overall or long-term good. The idea of self interest seems simply out of place when thinking about nonhuman action. I am not at all inclined to deny that other intelligent animals do things on purpose, but I would expect these purposes to be local and concrete – to eat something, – to mate with someone, avoid punishment, have some fun, stop the fight, – but not to do what is best for themselves on the whole”

Interesting. But I would push her to look at instances of humans in some crisis or another, where life becomes a matter of ‘local and concrete’ activities – war, famine, emotional breakdown, childhood 🙂 and so on. I’m sure she discusses the difference somewhere, but we can/must separate the question of moral agent, and having moral value (or is it moral worth, I can’t find the right term now). In any case, we can say that animals have moral value even when they’re acting out of survival needs; just as we do humans. It is a far more complex thing to say whether they should be considered moral agents, although I think the monkey starving itself for the sake of the other should qualify – he/she has enough of a self-concept to recognize and empathize with the pain of another and to allow harm to him/herself in order to preserve the well-being of the other.

After reading Primates and Philosophers. How Morality Evolved I think I am left with a more nuanced view of what components of moral behavior have been found outside of humans, which moral behaviors haven’t been found outside of humans but might with further study and which ones probably won’t be found outside humans. I am so grateful for the scientists who took real risks in terms of professional advancement and wrote the high risk grants and did the rigorous research on topics like empathy and caring in animals. These scientists weathered the storm of criticism related to anthropomorphism charges of being naïve, sentimental and childish. They have made this important line of research much easier for others to continue.

Yay them 🙂 And indeed it should be pursued further. In fact, I’ll be working on a major grant (details to come soon, when we get it) that will address ethics across religious traditions. It will include scientific views, and I do think we need to include de Waal or a close colleague in contributing their views that ethics expand beyond the human sphere – we’ll be creating a book so a chapter contribution would be perfect.

For me, the greater respect animals deserve doesn’t depend on science finding that animals are capable of all of the higher level thinking that advanced morality entails in some humans. I think we tend to view the world through a lens or frame that creates too simple of a picture of animal and plant beings as part of an ontology that consists of largely of objects arrayed in 3 dimensional space. If the ontology shifts from an object ontology to include an event ontology, suddenly reality becomes much fuller. The objects in 3D space have complex evolutionary and recent histories and these objects interact through time in surprising ways to create events in a human life that are meaningful. How could we let the salmon species in the Pacific Northwest dwindle to the numbers that they are today? With an event ontology, I see the salmon that darted by in the stream, or bought in the store or fought on the end of a line as an amazing event that just can’t be duplicated and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Why did this fish make it out to sea and find enough food to grow to this size and so many others like it didn’t? Why did every single one of the ancestors of this fish make it and so many other conspecifics didn’t? The experience of plants and animals through the frame filled with “events” and objects rather than just objects brings to mind the lines from William Blake’s Poem “Augeries of Innocence”

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour

Yes, exactly. 🙂 The idea that we need to shift our conceptual thought from objects to events has been around since, well, Heraclitus – with boosts of support in the West from such thinkers as Nietzsche and A.N. Whitehead. It’s also pretty central to Buddhism, so, hey, I think I agree.

So it is more out of awe and respect for a fellow traveler through a big mystery that causes me to feel morally connected to things like salmon.

Couldn’t have said it better myself! Many thanks again, Mark, for giving me a ton to think about respond to. Awe and respect, I’ll note in closing, are central to many interpretations of Kantian ethics (not the icky formalistic ones that seem most popular though). Some day, when I’ve convinced the whole world to be Kantian Buddhists, statements like yours will be commonplace.

‘Till then, I’ve got a mountain to climb.

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