A Critical Notice on a Book on Primates and Philosophers

A Critical Notice on a Book on Primates and Philosophers

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
Frans de Waal
Eds. Stephen Macedo, and Josiah Ober. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006

Paola Cavalieri challenges the book’s notion that human superior ethical worth can be preserved.

In a book brilliantly entitled Primates and Philosophers, Frans de Waal, Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved, ed. by Stephen Macedo & Josiah Ober (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). Further references are in the text. Frans de Waal illustrates and submits to various authors the view on the evolution of morality he has developed after years of study of nonhuman primates. The book includes a first section, “Morally Evolved: Primate Social Instincts, Human Morality, and the Rise and Fall of ‘Veneer Theory’ ” (with three Appendices) by de Waal, four comments, and de Waal’s final response.

The attack on “Veneer Theory” - the idea that human ethics is only a thin veil covering an amoral and nasty nature - affords de Waal the pretext for defending his main general claim: that all the social animals, humans included, are “good natured”, As made clear by the title of a widely discussed book of his, Good Natured. The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996). and that there is a strong continuity between human and animal behavior even in the field of morality. De Waal’s work is part of a wider scientific questioning of the traditional view of animal mentation, within which nonhumans have been granted cultures, an internal dialogue about values, a planned response to inequity, and even personhood. The list of references is obviously too long to be mentioned here. But see e.g. A. Whiten, J. Goodall, W. C. Mc Grew, T. Nishida, V. Reynolds,  Y. Sugiyama, C. E. G. Tutin, R. W. Wrangham, and C. Boesch, “Cultures in chimpanzees”; Nature 399 (1999); Luke Rendell and Hal Whitehead, “Culture in whales and dolphins”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 24 (2), 2001; Paola Cavalieri and Peter Singer, eds., The Great Ape Project (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994); Joyce H. Poole, “An exploration of a commonality between ourselves and elephants”, Etica & Animali 9 (1998); and Thomas I. White, In Defense of Dolphins. The New Moral Frontier (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007). Against the various forms of post-Darwinian dualistic thinking exemplified by authors such as Thomas Huxley and Sigmund Freud, de Waal forcefully argues that empathy, sympathy, a sense of fairness and an appreciation of right and wrong, far from being a culturally superimposed layer, are phenomena that we share with nonhuman beings.

De Waal’s overall theoretical conclusions, however, are not as challenging as his specific scientific claims. In fact, he confines himself to arguing that human moral systems “underlin[e] preexisting capacities”, and that human morality “elaborates upon preexisting tendencies” (p. 181). On the other hand, he hastens to stress the “uniquely human complexity of a disinterested concern for others and for society as a whole” (p. 55), as well as the ethical priority of human interests (p. 78). This persisting emphasis on human uniqueness, moreover, does not seem sufficient to his respondents, who, with the notable and foreseeable exception of Peter Singer’s “Morality, Reason, and the Rights of Animals”, feel the need to reaffirm human special moral worth even more drastically. For Singer’s views on the evolution of morality, see also his The Expanding Circle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981). Why is this so?

Dutch philosopher and anthropologist Raymond Corbey has recently advanced an explanation for such widespread propensity. According to Corbey, Raymond Corbey, The Metaphysics of Apes. Negotiating the Animal-Human Boundary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005). the recent story of North Atlantic culture is the story of a continuous reordering of its cosmology in the face of the strains generated by the processes of modernisation and secularisation, and the burgeoning of the natural sciences. Central to this reordering was the preoccupation with human uniqueness, behind which lay, more or less explicitly, a border guarded by the strongest taboo of Western cosmology - that human-animal boundary which specifies what can be owned, killed, eaten, and what not. Within a framework in which “man’s place in nature” was coming to be articulated in terms of the contingencies of evolution rather than of the teleology of creation, such boundary was not abandoned but redrawn, while the exclusionary human space was relentlessly policed.

Primatology is one of the disciplines involved in this policing. While being initially seen as a sub-discipline of physical antropology, as the interest in primates was first prompted by the wish to understand human evolution, primatology gradually acquired an autonomous disciplinary identity due to its impressive discoveries. And, Corbey observes, the challenge that these discoveries represented for the traditional Western weltanschauung caused a continuing series of readjustments of the markers of humanness: from tool-use to tool-making to systematically shaping tools; from self-recognition in mirrors to the possession of a Theory of Mind to reflexive self-consciousness; or from symbolic capacity to linguistic ability to the possession of a syntax. Arguably, the metaphysical and moral commitment to human uniqueness is once more jeopardized by any claim of ethical continuity between humans and nonhumans.

How effective are the arguments presented in Primates and Philosophers in countering such a further threat? Most of the rejoinders are not new. For example, in “The Uses of Anthropomorphism”, Robert Wright rescues a version of the behaviorist criterion of parsimony which has so long contributed to downgrade nonhuman mind. In the hands of behaviorist scientists, such criterion usually took the form of Morgan’s Canon: “No animal behavior may be interpreted at a higher level when it can be interpreted at a lower one”. For, after pointing to two different kinds of anthropomorphism - the one attributing human emotions, and the other attibuting human cognition to nonhumans - Actually, Wright’s recourse to the phrases “emotional language” and “cognitive language” is somewhat confusing, but he soon clarifies what he means. he claims that only the former is acceptable, as the latter would imply that natural selection would have added to the older, but sufficient, emotional layer of guidance of behavior a second, and functionally redundant, layer based on conscious strategy. Then, faced with the contradiction of accepting this very redundancy in humans, he appeals to the human possession of a complex laguage, which is used “to discuss strategic plans”, or “to explain” one’s behavior (p. 91), with the effect of merely pushing the contradiction more upstream.

Even the argument which is more prominent in Primates and Philosophers, and which appears in different versions in Frans de Waal, Christine Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher, is not new. Basically, it can be seen as a softened construal of the traditional agent patient parity principle, according to which the class of moral patients - the beings whose treatment may be subject to moral evaluation - coincides with the class of moral agents - the beings whose behavior may be subject to moral evaluation. Nonhuman animals, in this perspective, are not seen as totally deprived of moral agency, and are not totally excluded from moral consideration. Rather, as in a sense lower level ethical beings, they are granted a lower level moral status, thus preserving the unique dignity of humans.

De Waal’s position is the most disappointing. In his “Appendix C: Animal Rights”, the scholar who more than any other has opened a new scientific perspective on the minds of our closest evolutionary relatives, after reproaching animals with their lack of the uniquely human phenomenon of “disinterestedness”, ends up excluding all nonhumans, including apes, from the privileged moral club, licensing their use as mere means, on the basis of the old argument that “rights are part of a social contract that makes no sense without responsibilities” (pp. 77-78). But such argument not only flies in the face of any conceivable stress on disinterestedness, as social contract theory is, philosophically, the very paradigm of the moral doctrine based on self-interest, but also hinges upon an unwarranted conflation of the self-evident correlativity between A’s right against B and B’s duty towards A and the highly controversial correlativity between having rights and having duties.

Central to Christine Korsgaard’s “Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action”, on the other hand, is an appeal to an attenuated version of the traditional Kantian ends/means doctrine. According to Korsgaard, humans, being characterized by “the capacity for normative self-goverment”, are the only (full) moral agents in a world populated by “wantons”, In Frankfurt’s sense, beings lacking a second-order mechanism enabling them to discriminate among the different motivations. See Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person”, Journal of Philosophy 68 (1971). and nonhumans remain second-class beings, merely deserving to be treated “decently” (p. 119). It is clear, however, that, beside being flawed by the confusion between the how, or the possibility of morality, and the what, or the object of morality, such an approach would sanction the exclusion from full moral protection not only of (most) nonhumans, but also of those non-paradigmatic humans, such as the intellectually disabled, who cannot achieve “normative self-goverment”. For a comprehensive survey of the discussion of the case of non-paradigmatic members of our species cf. Daniel A. Dombrowski, Babies and Beasts. The Argument from Marginal Cases (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997). For a more specific critique of the Kantian (and Rousseauistic) reliance on freedom to serve as the ethical wedge between all humans and all nonhumans see Cary Wolfe, “Old Orders for New: Ecology, Animal Rights, and The Poverty of Humanism”, EBR: Electronic Book Review (Winter 1997), online: www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/criticalecologies/eco-political

Finally, even Philip Kitcher, in his “Ethics and Evolution: How to Get Here from There”, takes as his starting point the claim that the other animals are totally deprived of that necessary condition for “the genuinely moral sentiments” which Adam Smith expressed through the philosophical notion of the “impartial spectator” - the capacity, that is, for “extending and reinforcing [one’s] dispositions to psychological altruism” (pp. 132, 135). Thus, though endowed with a limited form of altruism, nonhuman beings, including apes, remain vulnerable to whichever impulse happens to be dominant at a particular moment, so that their choices are made for them by the strength of their affective states. Apparently, Kitcher not only underestimates de Waal’s accomplishments, but, like so many other philosophers, Actually, such conventional, and empirically falsified, narrow conception of animal minds is so ingrained that, as Matthew Calarco rightly notes, even posthumanist theorists, despite their commitment to the problematization of traditional notions, stick to an untenable view of the subject as limited to the human species. See Matthew Calarco, “The Question of the Animal”, EBR: Electronic Book Review (Winter 2003), online: www.electronicbookreview.com/thread/criticalecologies/animot largely ignores current scientific work on animal cognition in such disciplines as comparative psychology, interspecies communication or cognitive ethology.

Incidentally, before closing this brief survey of the moderate parity principle approach, it might be added that it is curious that the “special dignity”of humans - and the attendant superior moral status - is so frequently defended by such appeals to their allegedly unique capacity for being moral agents. For it is clear that the approach blatantly fails to grasp what we might call the self-effacing character of the ethical primacy of moral agents: it is just because moral agents are the existence condition of morality that they cannot grant lower status to those who are only moral patients. Stephen Clark has expressed this point well. According to such traditional defense of human superiority, Clark observes, “[t]he characteristic to be valued is a capacity to recognize… that there are other points of view than ours… [and the] conclusion is that… our interests should automatically override the demands.. of all other things. We are absolutely better than the animals because we are able to give their interests some consideration: so we won’t.”. Stephen R.L. Clark, The Moral Status of Animals (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 108.

The situation, however, seems to change when it comes to the second part of Kitcher’s essay, that develops a rather innovative line of reasoning. We have mentioned that the appeal to human moral agency is only the starting point of Kitcher’s argument. For it is not this abstract capacity in itself that really interests Kitcher. What lies at the center of his defense of human uniqueness - and it is here that his more provocative argument is introduced - are, rather, the consequences of its appearance. According to Kitcher, the fact that nonhuman primates lack any higher order desires implies that they are socially stuck, unable to achieve larger societies or more extensive cooperation. Humans, on the other hand, being moral agents, and thanks to the evolution of the linguistic capacity, gradually learnt to formulate patterns of actions and to regulate the conduct of group members. All this - as “part of what made us fully human” - primed a process of cultural evolution, and finally resulted in “an increased capacity for cooperation and social interaction, one that becomes fully manifest in the large Neolithic settlements at Jericho and Catal Huyuk” (p. 137).

It seems thus that, if the there Kitcher refers to in the title of his comment is the small clan to which nonhuman primates remain confined due to their limited form of altruism and their lack of verbal language, the here is the human population explosion - the rise of great societies from “several smaller bands”, the ability of strangers to “negotiate their ways” through others’ territories, the development of “trading networks” (ibid.). Apparently, it is this process which, distinguishing Homo sapiens from all the other species, substantiates the human claim to moral superiority.

Is this a satisfactory conclusion? Though it admittedly has the merit of bringing the conventional Kantian praise of impartial reason back to its earthly implications, there is room for doubt. First of all: is the human ability to create great societies - in and of itself - a uniquely human prerogative in the animal kingdom? Certainly not. As it has often been pointed out in the course of history, starting at least from Aristotle, Cf. Aristotle, Historia Animalium 488a7-14. social insects offer another instance. And it should be granted that, however distant we are from insects, the affinities between our societies and their societies are striking. Plausibly, we face here a case not of homology, or similarity derived from shared ancestry, but of analogy, or similarity due to convergent evolution in the face of like selective pressures. To see how the development and self-organization of communities composed of thousands, even millions, of individuals may produce like basic structures, it is enough to consider the main formal characteristics of insect societies See e.g. G. F. Oster and E. O. Wilson, Caste and ecology in the social insects (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1978), and R. E. Page and S. D. Mitchell, “Self Organization and Adaptation in Insect Societies”, PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association 2 (1990). Morally speaking, it is worth noting that most of these characteristics have been discovered by putting insects to the Baconian rack.: division of labor; specialization (some individuals perform some tasks with greater frequency than do other individuals); homeostasis (colonies regulate their internal conditions); plasticity and resiliency (colonies can change the numbers of workers engaged in different tasks in response to changing environments); and mass action responses. Moreover, in insect societies one can find complex building, cultivation of crops (e.g. fungi), other-animal husbandry (e.g. aphids), processing of food into long-term stores, slave-raiding and warfare, social parasitism, and, last but not least, kamikaze activities.

It seems thus that we are not the only animals who have seen the rise of great communities, with all the attendant social modifications. All the more so: since insect societies precede human societies by millions of years, and since even in hominid evolutionary history great communities are absolutely recent, we might say that human beings are a species of primates which has undergone a process of “insectization”. (The term “insectization” is not fully satisfactory, as in a sense most social insects too have been “insectized” - there were, and still are, solitary ants, wasps and bees, though there are no solitary termites - but it has the advantage of being readily understandable.) On one point, however, we can agree with Kitcher: on the idea, that is, that since societies where large numbers of individuals cooperate require information transfer to coordinate the common activities, human “insectization” is possibly due to the evolution of the linguistic capacity. Verbal language, with its flexibility and productivity - increasingly potentiated both in the spoken and written form by transmission systems such as printing, phone, radio, television and, finally, mobile phone and the “web” - plausibly acted as an efficient simian substitute for the extremely refined tactile, chemical, acoustic and visual communication systems that coordinate insect societies.

Is there anything to be particularly proud of in such overall process? Is the insectization of beings who, just as chimpanzees or the other nonhuman great apes, have lived for most of their past in small bands, a good thing? Perhaps one might observe that, while since the early Miocene, twenty million years ago, apes in general have not done particularly well in terms of the diversity and expansion of their evolutionary bush, after the Neolithic humans have become a most noteworthy exception. Cf. Robert Elliot, “Solidarity, Property Rights, Redistribution and the Great Apes”, Etica & Animali 8 (1996).And we might grant that, from some perspectives, this can be seen as an achievement. However, in our context the problem is: can all this be seen as an achievement from the moral point of view? For apparently this is what Kitcher claims.

Let’s then inspect more closely our expanded societies. The first, obvious thing is that the larger the communities, the greater the number of sentient individuals they include. Since sentient beings are definitionally vulnerable beings, the greater their number, the greater the overall potential for suffering. But potential in itself, of course, is not enough. The main point is rather to what extent the potential is realized. And, even if we follow Kitcher in focusing on human beings, it seems that - quite apart from all kinds of “natural” harms - this potential has been realized to a great, even unbearable, extent. For, just like insect societies, human societies have produced impressive authoritarian structures, rigid hierarchical organization, castes, non-voluntary distinctions of roles, and mass wars. Even that capacity for genetic manipulation that the communication system of social insects has long directly achieved - think only of how the message carrying chemical called “queen pheromone” causes chronic changes in some genes in the brain of adult honey bees - is a recent acquisition we are just starting to share with insect societies (C. M. Grozinger, N. M. Sharabash, C. W. Whitfield, and G. E. Robinson, “Pheromone-mediated gene expression in the honey bee brain”, PNAS November 25 [2003], pp. 14519-14525). Though, quite consistently, Kitcher is deeply appreciative of this acquisition - being convinced that it would be morally irresponsible to fail to take advantage of such technologies when we have the relevant capacity - it is clear that this feature too has the potential for causing much inequity and oppression. Cf. P. Kitcher, The Lives to Come: The Genetic Revolution and Human Possibilities (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996).

As far as the most distant past is concerned, we can merely infer this. For example, we have discovered that, nine thousand years ago, Jericho was surrounded by imposing walls and large moats, and was protected by powerful towers. Given the lack of a relevant technological support, we can imagine that great numbers of human individuals have been forced to work to build them, and that, most probably, they were slaves. The closer we come to our times, the clearer the quantity of suffering implied by large human communities becomes. Not only their striking monuments, from pyramids to ziggurats, are graphic monuments to human mass-exploitation, but we know of thousands of slaves and serfs, of massacres and rapes and torture, and of societies in which a small section of the population dominates great numbers of subjected people barely surviving and often starving to death - not to mention, of course, the scale of the suffering inflicted on ever growing numbers of nonhuman individuals.

In his praise of human “progress”, Kitcher approvingly mentions the Paleolithic cave art - the aesthetic expression of individual, albeit not insulated, In fact, experts advance the suggestion that there existed actual schools and artistic currents in Paleolithic art. See e.g. Peter J. Ucko and Andree Rosenfeld, Paleolithic Cave Art (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967). creativity. Compare the post-Neolithic landscape with these pre-agricultural times. On the one side, great oppressive and aggressive social structures, already containing the seeds of the more recent, historical large-scale technological conflicts and human and nonhuman exploitation systems; on the other small, flexible groups of individuals - and, for that matter, before them, going back and back in time, innumerable kinds of micro-communities, or clans, of hominid ancestors. Which world is morally better?

It can be safely assumed that, in answering this question, the two theoretical families dominating the field of moral philosophy would both point to the older, less “civilized” scenery. For on the one hand, a consequentialist thinker, focusing on the maximization of nonmoral good, would find in it a greater favorable balance of happiness over pain, or of satisfaction over frustration of preferences, than in the newer one. Actually, Derek Parfit would not totally agree with this claim, as he developed a famous line of reasoning leading to the conclusion that a world populated by more people with a very low level of satisfaction is better than a world populated by fewer people with a high level of satisfaction. But first, his argument is based on the acceptance of the highy questionable “total view” version of utilitarianism according to which the beings affected by our actions include those who do not yet exist, and, second, he himself describes such conclusion as “repugnant”. See Derek Parfit, “Overpopulation and the Quality of Life”, in Applied Ethics, ed. Peter Singer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986). And, on the other, to a deontologically oriented philosopher, focusing on the rightness of actions or on the role of side constraints, the older world would appear as less marked by disregard for duty and disrespect for individuals. Even an advocate of the contemporary version of the aretaic approach - the more traditional view which puts character traits at the core of morality - could not fail to find the older landscape as less unfavorable to a widespread practice of the virtues. I write “contemporary version”, meaning “egalitarian version” since, as Schneewind emphasizes, in its older, Aristotelian formulation, virtue theory was clearly concerned only with “superior” individuals, and was accordingly compatible with a world in which the few oppressed the many. See Jerome B. Schneewind, “The Misfortunes of Virtue”, in Virtue Ethics, eds. Roger Crisp and Michael Slote (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

To this, one might respond that what matters from a moral point of view is the existence of the capacity for “extending and reinforcing [one’s] dispositions to psychological altruism”. But, apart from not corresponding to Kitcher’s view, this is an implausible claim. More than one century ago, Henry Sidgwick, after observing that there is in Kant’s doctrine an ambiguity between two different conceptions of the word freedom - “neutral freedom”, or freedom of choice between good and evil, and “good freedom”, or freedom manifested in acting under the guidance of reason - commented that not to distinguish between them “implies a confusion of thought”. Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1907), Appendix, “The Kantian Conception of Free Will”. Arguably, a like confusion seems to be implied in any defense of Kitcher’s approach stressing the ethical relevance of the capacity for acting morally rather than its actualization - focusing, that is, on the prerequisites rather than on the actual occurrence of moral behavior. For any such argument applied to the case at hand would imply that a world full of suffering and evil including more moral agents is better than a much happier and fairer world including fewer moral agents; or, for that matter, that a world full of suffering inhabited by one moral agent is better than a much happier world wholly deprived of moral agents. Only someone in the grip of a theory - someone for whom an idiosyncratic conception of being prevails upon the interests of individuals - could defend such an order of moral priority.

Thus, if it is to the empirical, actual production of large and complex human societies that Kitcher’s defense of the moral primacy of humans mainly appeals, we can conclude that, all in all, we’d probably better remained there rather than getting here. And, in this light, it is plausible to claim that even the (further) endeavor to preserve human uniqueness and superior ethical worth lurking behind most of this book remains fully unconvincing. As Peter Singer states in his “dissenting opinion” with reference to the parallel between human exploitation and animal exploitation: “In both cases, members of a more powerful group arrogate to themselves the right to use beings outside the group for their own selfish purposes, largely ignoring the interests of the outsiders. Then they justify this use by an ideology that explains why members of the more powerful group have superior worth” (pp. 156-157).