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Part II: The Uses of Anthropomorphism 
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Post Part II: The Uses of Anthropomorphism
Part II: Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action
by Robert Wright

Please use this thread for discussing Part II: The Uses of Anthropomorphism, by Robert Wright, found on pages 83 through 97.



Last edited by Chris OConnor on Sat May 16, 2009 12:23 am, edited 1 time in total.



Sat May 02, 2009 12:56 am
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This chapter is a comment on de Waal's ideas by Robert Wright the author of The Moral Animal. In it he says "De Waal classifies me as a "vaneer theorist" on the basis of my book The Moral Animal. Let me briefly argue that I don't belong in this category..."

I haven't (yet) read Wright's book but I have started reading around it. Here is an interesting review of The Moral Animal.

http://www.scifidimensions.com/Mar04/moralanimal.htm


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I think I like Wright quite a lot. I read the intro to The Moral Animal amd thought he said what I would say if I had a better background and means of expression. He also wrote Nonzero and the recent The Evolution of God, which I posted on in the religion thread a few months ago.

His debate with de Waal is interesting, and it also clears up for me the problem I had with de Waal's view, in his main essay, of veneer theory and his ciriticism of T.H. Huxley's gardener metaphor.

Wright agrees that the ability to act morally has naturalistic roots that can be observed in other primates. He thus objects to de Waal's labeling of him as a veneer theorist, since in VT morality is said to be just a cover-up of purely selfish motives, a cultural overlay. He does admit to viewing our morality as a veneer when it comes to our well-known habit of letting self-interest lead us in our supposedly moral actions and thoughts. We will claim that we are acting truly morally, that is, disinterestedly for the greater good, when usually unknown to us we are being swayed by self-interest or bias. But even this corruption of morality has its roots in biology; that is, it is explained by advantages the behavior conferred during evolution. This is why Wright prefers to be called a naturalistic veneer theorist. By the way, Wright is not a scientist. He is a journalist with a background in philosophy. He was for many years the writer of the "TRB" column in The New Republic.

His first argument in his chapter is on a different topic, the type of anthropomorphism that is proper to use with other animals. He says de Waal views apes as exhibiting cognition in their elementary morality, when Wright believes that this behavior shows the activation of emotional programs that have had survival value over the course of evolution. To be fair to apes, he says that we, too, have simialr emotions and programs. We just can't see their operation, or we want to believe that we're more rationally driven than we are. Wright doesn't use the word intentionality, but it seems that his argument amounts to doubt about the apes' ability to reflect upon their actions as actions.

I like the following:

"Appreciating how emotions can lead to strategically sophisticated behavior in chimpanzees helps us appreciate that we human beings may be more in the thrall of emotional guidance than we realize. In particular: our moral judgments are subtly and pervasively colored by emotionally mediated interest" (p. 93).

"My own view is that if everyone were more aware of the ways emotion subtly biases their moral judgments, the world would be a better place, because we would be less likely to comply with these morally corrupting biases" (p. 95).


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Sun Jun 21, 2009 5:33 pm
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DWill wrote:
"Appreciating how emotions can lead to strategically sophisticated behavior in chimpanzees helps us appreciate that we human beings may be more in the thrall of emotional guidance than we realize. In particular: our moral judgments are subtly and pervasively colored by emotionally mediated interest" (p. 93).

"My own view is that if everyone were more aware of the ways emotion subtly biases their moral judgments, the world would be a better place, because we would be less likely to comply with these morally corrupting biases" (p. 95).


This is armchair psychology not naturalistic moral philosophy!! The role of anthropomorphism is hugely important and I do not feel that de Waal takes it near serious enough. Shared consciousness seems much too common a similarity. The point is that by reducing or out right disregarding important differences between man and apes, which an understanding of anthropomorphic description is supposed to illuminate, the ape and the man become descriptively (although certainly not in a hereditary or physiological sense) the same thing!!

The bias of a primatologist? I can't help but wonder.

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Post Wright Contra de Waal
So maybe we can move things along a bit by talking about the modifications the four philosophers make to de Waal's presentation. Their disagreements with him are mannerly and not fundamental or radical, but if you get beyond the polite language, you see some sharp differences in perspective. None of the four dispute de Waal's statements of facts about primate behavior. Being non-scientists, they really can't. It's a weakness of the format that no other scientist is given a chance to comment. Another ethologist might have some scientific criticisms, for example De Waal's reliance on zoo-kept chimps for his observations.

I'll try to summarize Wright's answer to de Waal, and if I get it close, I hope others will want to give their reactions.

Wright might say this if speaking directly to de Waal:
"Frans, I think you have judged correctly that if we see patterns of behavior in both chimps (to choose that species) and humans that are similar, we have good reason to suspect a likeness in brain processing. Then we need to pin down just how similar the processing is. At this point, I have a disagreement with a few of your conclusions in your other books. You attribute conscious strategizing and intent to chimp behavior when it looks similar to human behavior, but it is more likely that with chimps, emotional, not cognitive processing is what's really going on. It's likely that chimps do not have an awareness of why they're doing what they're doing, which is the definition of human intent. You therefore at times use cognitive anthropomorphism when emotional anthropomorphism is more appropriate. I agree that to say, "Chimp A felt insecure about his status after the fight with Chimp B, so he paid special attention to some other chimps in the band," is a valid use of anthropomorphism. If we could know what insecurity looks likes neurally in the brain, we might well see that it is the same for chimps as for humans.

But Chimp A's actions do not have to be the product of conscious strategizing. Evolution has given both chimps and humans strategically sound emotional responses that are employed automatically and that have allowed those who possess them to reproduce and pass along their genes. There is every reason to conclude that these emotional tools came first in evolution and are therefore used quite heavily, though maybe not to the exclusion of reasoned responses, by chimps. We humans are heavily reliant on strategically sound emotional responses, too, but we also have a level of cortical functioning that chimps just don't have.

Now I come to my second point. You label me a “Veneer Theorist,” but it ain’t me , babe. According to your definition, a Veneer Theorist believes that we arrive at our moral behaviors through cultural conditioning, these learned behaviors forming a thin veneer over our selfish inner selves. But in my book I clearly state my belief that behaviors we describe as moral have deep genetic roots. I don’t doubt, either, that studying other primates can give us a true picture of the early evolutionary stages of our morality.

Where you might get the idea of me as a Veneer Theorist is my belief that our emotional biases do sometimes get the upper hand when we are intending to act truly morally. Then, I suppose, our claims to be still acting morally do constitute a veneer overlying the emotional core of our actions. But let me say again that the moral intent is deep within us, too. It’s just that emotions that have had such a powerful role in evolution continue to influence us because they still continue to “work.” The problem is that they conflict with our recently developed, cognitively sophisticated idea of morality.

The value to us of this view of morality as under threat by emotional currents, is that it might incline us to become more aware of when this is happening to us, so that we can at least bring our emotional “reasons” out into the open, which might help us avoid using morality as a 'veneer.'”


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Sun Jul 05, 2009 8:26 pm
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