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Part III: The Tower of Morality - Frans de Waal's Response 
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Post Part III: The Tower of Morality - Frans de Waal's Response
Part III: The Tower of Morality
by Frans de Waal

Please use this thread for discussing Part III: The Tower of Morality.

This is the section where Dr. Frans de Waal responds to the commentators.



Sat May 02, 2009 12:50 am
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Post Frans de Waal Strikes Back!
(It's getting lonely out here. Anybody there?)

The hardest debates for me to assess are the ones where the debaters agree on the main points, but disagree mostly on the weight they give to those points. In matters of weighting, it’s hard to judge who might be right. How can it be proved, when two points are conceded as valid, that one is the lynchpin?

De Waal and his commentators agree that 1) sympathy-based emotions are important in establishing morality, and 2) that better-developed brains enabled morality to reach a peak in humans. It’s on the weighting that they differ. For the commentators (or at least for the latter three), the emergence of moral reasoning is so different from what other primates show that it is a discontinuity from the social emotions such as sympathy. There is something over and above the fundamentals de Waal observes in apes that is needed before we can say we’ve arrived at morality, and that something is the ability to think abstractly of the greater good, to be guided by this abstract thinking rather than by an emotional state, and to be able to compare our contemplated actions with a standard of action we have internalized.

Although he agrees that in other animals, nothing like this disinterested, impartial quality of our morality exists, this does not prevent de Waal from insisting that our evolved social nature is the necessary prerequisite for moral reasoning to exist at all. He cites Darwin and Hume in support. It is almost as if de Waal thinks that even the emergence of higher reasoning came at the service of the evolutionary benefit of more complex social development. A plausible case could be made.

In his rebuttal, de Waal defines morality as a group phenomenon. This in itself sets him apart from three of his commentators, who take morality to be expressed by the individual as a personal choice. De Waal would not be attracted to this view. We don’t create our own morality but absorb it from others. De Waal also spreads morality much further than do his debate partners. There are for him levels of morality, including all social controls meant to fairly allocate resources, while for the others, only moral reasoning is really morality. De Waal's emphasis tends to undermine the role of reasoning. Further eroding reason for de Waal is that we don’t reason as much as we claim to, anyway. We often assign reasoning to our actions after the fact, when in reality we have acted on more quickly triggered emotions. “Our vaunted rationality is partly illusory” (179).

And so de Waal arrives at his tower metaphor for morality. We can’t mount to the top of the tower (human morality) without acknowledging that we wouldn’t be there without the support of the lower structure (social emotions in both humans and other primates). “Even if human morality represents a significant step forward, it hardly breaks with the past” (162).



Tue Jul 14, 2009 6:56 pm
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Post Re: Frans de Waal Strikes Back!
DWill wrote:
(It's getting lonely out here. Anybody there?)



I'm not posting because I didn't read the book, but I have enjoyed reading your recapitulations of main points and comments.


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Tue Jul 14, 2009 7:03 pm
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Post Re: Frans de Waal Strikes Back!
DWill wrote:
(It's getting lonely out here. Anybody there?)

In his rebuttal, de Waal defines morality as a group phenomenon. This in itself sets him apart from three of his commentators, who take morality to be expressed by the individual as a personal choice. De Waal would not be attracted to this view. We don’t create our own morality but absorb it from others. De Waal also spreads morality much further than do his debate partners. There are for him levels of morality, including all social controls meant to fairly allocate resources, while for the others, only moral reasoning is really morality.


Without reading a single page of the book I will stick my neck out to comment -- be kind if I miss entirely. I think I have some understanding of what you are meaning regarding de Waal's sense that morality is a group phenomenon. Here is what I have been thinking that kinda fits in with what de Waal is arguing. Morality would be unnecessary if we were not social creatures and I think the converse is true - we are moral because we are social creatures. The only way society can exist at all is if we agree to cooperated with one another and cooperation implies a level of fairness and fair play -- morality, right? If morality is a necessary element of society then maybe he is on target to say it is or can be a group phenomenon.

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De Waal's emphasis tends to undermine the role of reasoning. Further eroding reason for de Waal is that we don’t reason as much as we claim to, anyway. We often assign reasoning to our actions after the fact, when in reality we have acted on more quickly triggered emotions. “Our vaunted rationality is partly illusory” (179).


I think Robert Burton (author of On Being Certain) would agree with de Waal on this point. Don't you?


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Tue Jul 14, 2009 7:30 pm
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