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Good Natured by de Waal 
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Post Good Natured by de Waal
A sort-of-summary of Good Natured

Frans de Waal's book Good Natured is, to a large extent, an expanded version of the first chapter of Primates and Philosophers. Amongst other things, it provides far more behavioural evidence to support his claims about nun-human primate moral behaviours. Essentially, what Good Natured does is break down moral behaviour into component parts and show how apes and monkeys (and some instances of other animals) display these moral behaviours with and against each other. As in Primates and Philosophers he never makes the claim that monkeys and apes have human-style morality, in fact he states the opposite on at least a few occasions. His point, I think, is that take away the concept of morality from its solely human definition and it becomes clear that morality is something created through the process of evolution and that kindness, willingness to share and the ability to take another’s point of view (as examples) are essentially animal (and therefore human) characteristics - as is cruelty and its siblings.

In other words, morality is a social-animal characteristic. Humans have a particular kind of morality, and in some cases it is demonstrably more complicated than any other animal moral system of which we know. But we are limited in that knowledge...I think this also a point de Waal is trying to make. By limiting the concept of morality to the form that is able to be practiced by human beings, we are limiting our understanding of what made us moral in the first place.

According to de Waal, the components of morality include (but may not be limited to) sympathy, norms, reciprocity and a community sensibility. Each of these terms gets its own chapter in Good Natured. Each chapter gives plenty of evidence for these behaviours in the animals he discusses. He also breaks down each term into a variety of behaviours some requiring more cognitive involvement than others. For example, sympathy included attachment, succorance, emotional contagion and learned adjustment.

• Attachment meaning just what it says, the emotional bonds that connect
• Succorant behaviour, “defined as helping, caregiving, or providing relief to distressed or endangered individuals other than progeny.”
• Emotional contagion “the tendency to automatically mimic and synchronize expressions, vocalizations, postures, and movements with those of another person and, consequently, to converge emotionally.”
• Learned adjustment “From an early age, monkeys learn that the fun will not last I they are too rough with a younger playmate; the youngster will scream in protest, try to pull away, or worse, the play will be broken up heavy-handedly by a protective mother. These negative consequence shape the behavior of older individuals. The same process of learned adjustment may explain why handicapped members of monkey societies are treated differently. Healthy members do not necessarily know what is wrong but gradually become familiar with the limitations of their less fortunate mates.”


The idea that “we have a tendency to compare animal behaviour with the most dizzying accomplishments of our race” is a good reason to think again. If nothing else, it is a good reason to take apart the things that we are sure only humans can do and look at them again. It may be true that it is a human-only attribute, but what does that mean? And what evolutionary pressures, or neurological changes created it? How did it happen? And maybe even, ‘Is it a good thing that it happened?’ …although that last question strays wildly into on-coming traffic.

In a section called “What does it take to be moral?” de Waal says that “members of some species may reach tacit consensus about what kind of behavior to tolerate or inhibit in their midst, but without language the principles behind such decisions cannot be conceptualized, let alone debated. To communicate intentions and feelings is one thing; to clarify what is right, and why, and what is wrong, and why, is quite something else. Animals are no moral philosophers.” Then he starts the next paragraph with “But then, how many people are?

That last question is key I think. Along with looking hard at what makes monkeys and apes moral or not, we might want to do the same to human beings. How many of our moral decisions (whether for good or bad) are really “decisions” and how many are really “reactions.” But this comes into the first critical chapter in Primates and Philosophers so we can discuss that then.


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I've always found it rather exciting to remember that there is a difference between what we experience and what we think it means.


Sun May 10, 2009 9:13 am
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