Thursday, April 05, 2007

I hate when biologists try to do philosophy.

This article starts fairly sanely. Primates have certain social behaviours which serve as necessary preconditions for human moral behaviour. That's very probably true; we can also probably point to necessary preconditions in the environments humans evolved, and even within the human genetic code. Here's the stupid, stupid move, repeated throughout the article:
Biologists argue that these and other social behaviors are the precursors of human morality. They further believe that if morality grew out of behavioral rules shaped by evolution, it is for biologists, not philosophers or theologians, to say what these rules are. [emphasis mine]


*sigh* I'll say it again, although I'm sure I'll see this error repeated in the near future. If primate behaviour is a precondition of human moral behaviour, then, insofar as primate behaviour is the purview of biologists, biologists can tell us about the preconditions. These preconditions will probably (it would be surprising if they did not) limit the possible moralities that humans can follow. These preconditions do not exhaust morality any more than the preconditions for being able to see exhaust the contents of everything you can see. Biologists can say a lot about how my eyes came to be as they are, but they can't say anything about why I'm seeing lines of type appear on a computer screen. (Unless they stop being biologists, that is.)

It gets worse:
But biologists like Dr. de Waal believe reason is generally brought to bear only after a moral decision has been reached. They argue that morality evolved at a time when people lived in small foraging societies and often had to make instant life-or-death decisions, with no time for conscious evaluation of moral choices. The reasoning came afterward as a post hoc justification. “Human behavior derives above all from fast, automated, emotional judgments, and only secondarily from slower conscious processes,” Dr. de Waal writes.


Gah! Ack! And other such exclamations. It's almost self-evident that humans use reason in a whole range of moral decision-making contexts. (Hands up everyone who's actually sat down and tried to think about what they should do: say, go to work or sleep in for another hour.) Talking about cases of snap judgement, as de Waal does, is pure ignoratio elenchi; there's no clear reason to take them as the rule and moral reasoning as the exception. Furthermore, snap judgements could still be judgements that are based on reasons, even if they are not based on conscious reasoning, in that one could construct a process of reasoning which would have justified the judgement actually made. (This is like the formal reconstructions of arguments and formal derivation procedures used in formal logic.) Moreover, he's slid again from talking about the preconditions of morality to talking about morality. (In fairness, the latter could be the reporter, and not de Waal.)

It gets worse:
However much we may celebrate rationality, emotions are our compass, probably because they have been shaped by evolution, in Dr. de Waal’s view. For example, he says: “People object to moral solutions that involve hands-on harm to one another. This may be because hands-on violence has been subject to natural selection whereas utilitarian deliberations have not.”


Oy. I get tired of reading this sort of thing. de Waal (and, again, it may actually be the reporter) seems to think this is a radical conclusion. He should read David freakin' Hume. Sentimentalism, as it was called, was a big movement in the Enlightenment period; sentimentalists, like Hume and Adam Smith (yes, the economist guy), believed that moral judgement had nothing to do with reason and rested entirely on "fellow-feeling" or sympathy. This view can be traced back even to the pre-Socratics, in some form or another (Empedocles believed that two forces or principles, Love and Strife, were responsible for the physical relations between pieces of matter). Moral emotions are still a big philosophical topic. For a biologist to wade into this kind of philosophical dispute as if it wasn't even there is the height of arrogance (and, indeed, is actually typical of pseudoscience).

Finally, Sharon Street highlights the is-ought problem, and Jesse Prinz suggests a big role for culture in moral development. And what does de Waal do? What is his response? *drum roll*
Dr. de Waal does not accept the philosophers’ view that biologists cannot step from “is” to “ought.” “I’m not sure how realistic the distinction is,” he said. “Animals do have ‘oughts.’ If a juvenile is in a fight, the mother must get up and defend her. Or in food sharing, animals do put pressure on each other, which is the first kind of ‘ought’ situation.”


Ten points to anyone who said "completely misunderstands the issue". I swear, there is something seriously wrong with this guy. The is-ought problem has nothing to do with what he's talking about. "Putting pressure" on others is not an "ought" situation at all; it's "do what we tell you, or bad things will happen". The same applies to the defense situation. It only becomes an ought, i.e., something normative when we can genuinely claim that it's something that should be done. A set of descriptive facts isn't enough; they may be required to underwrite the norm, but the norm adds something to the descriptions. de Waal has just blatantly missed the point.

It's also rather disgusting to note that de Waal is, implicitly, denying that Street and Prinz have anything relevant to say -- despite the fact that both have grounding in empirical sciences and in philosophy. Unlike de Waal.

Part of the problem is surely his bizarre conception of morality:
Dr. de Waal’s definition of morality is more down to earth than Dr. Prinz’s. Morality, he writes, is “a sense of right and wrong that is born out of groupwide systems of conflict management based on shared values.” The building blocks of morality are not nice or good behaviors but rather mental and social capacities for constructing societies “in which shared values constrain individual behavior through a system of approval and disapproval.” By this definition chimpanzees in his view do possess some of the behavioral capacities built in our moral systems.


Yes, it's true, that if this is the definition, chimps seem to have a morality. (I'm ignoring the snark of the opening sentence, as I'm 90% sure it's the reporter.) However, on this definition, law and etiquette also count as morality. Those are both systems "in which shared values constrain individual behavior through a system of approval and disapproval". Something has gone very wrong if there's no difference in kind between the illegality of murder, the immorality of lying, and the rudeness of spitting on the street.

7 comments:

Psychols said...

If I understand what Dr. de Waal is suggesting, behavior occurs before reason. That is almost certainly true for instinctive behavior (protecting our young from immediate danger) and it is probably true for some social behavior (organizing ourselves into groups). It is much more difficult to know if more subtle behaviors are caused by reason instead of habit. The idea that morality stems from behavior becomes a fairly robust leap even for someone like de Waal who views human’s as another species of ape.

I wonder if Dr. de Waal has made the typical new age mistake of extrapolating one simple set of scientific facts into universal truths. It reminds me of the way that some new age types hijacked the quantum physics observer effect to suggest that we possess the power to influence everything through the simple act of observing things.

Chimp behavior can be arguably amoral. It may provide some insight into amoral human behavior (violence, murder, rape) but Chimps are hardly a repository for sophisticated morality. Why Chimps anyway – why not field mice? We may share more DNA with chimps than mice, but not that much more.

ADHR said...

He's not really saying that behaviour is either reasoned or instinctive. He's saying that all behaviour is emotionally-based, and that reasoning is always post facto. That looks, on the face of it, false for humans. Sometimes we really don't know what to do, and so we sit down and think about it. Maybe emotion has a role to play, but sometimes, it seems, emotion has to be created by reasoning.

(FWIW, humans are a kind of ape, at least from the biologist's POV. :D)

I don't think de Waal would make any kind of new age-y sort of mistake. It's probably simple unfamiliarity with the philosophy in question. (I don't know that, though; he may have read some for his recent book, and just thoroughly misunderstood it.) It's not an uncommon thing in the academy: it's easy to think that there's no literature on the topic that one is addressing. It's less excusable than it was in previous eras, though, given the ease with which one can search thousands of articles and books using online databases. So, de Waal should have known better.

You meant "immoral" not "amoral", right? The reason to look at chimps first and not mice is evolutionary, not genetic: we branched off from the creatures that became mice many thousands of years before we branched off from the creatures that became chimpanzees. So, it's possible (and, in some cases, true) that behaviours chimps exhibit are also behaviours that we exhibit. It would be suprising, though, if we had nothing in common with mammals generally, including mice.

Psychols said...

I am not sure if I mean amoral or immoral. We know that chimps have communications and problem solving skills but are they capable of weighing different behaviors from an ethical perspective. When a group of chimps kill a male from a competing community, do they struggle with the morality of it or are they just acting on and emotional imperative to engage in a mob activity? What about when a chimp murders the offspring of another male in the same community? If morality is just emotion then I wonder if there is anything more to morality than ensuring the survival of our genes.

ADHR said...

Some biologists seem to think that's all morality is. (Dawkins comes to mind.) I think that's crazy, and most sentimentalists (such as Hume) would think it was crazy, too.

Whether or not chimps weigh behaviour ethically seems to be something we have to consider by analogy. If we see a human kill a male from another society, how do we know that was immoral? On the face of it, we know because we consider that he is like us in certain relevant respects (similar intelligence, similar sort of social structure, similar upbringing, etc.). If it turned out that the man was severely brain-damaged, or was raised by wolves, or was brought up in ancient Sparta, we might be inclined to alter the judgement. (We might also be inclined to judge that his entire moral code is out of whack, but that just complicates the question.)

So, if, in comparison to us, chimps are similarly intelligent -- and they seem to be -- and they have similar social structures -- which they seem to -- and so on, then it seems we're forced to conclude they must be drawing ethical conclusions, in at least some cases. If there are relevant disanalogies (on part with the man killing a man from another society being brain-damaged), then we can reasonably say that they are not. But the simple fact that they are chimps can't be the end of the argument, for that just assumes that chimps aren't capable of ethics, rather than proving it.

Sonia said...

So what is, if it's not biology. Environment acts on something -- our biology. It's our biology that determines the outcome of the environmental stimulation. Or are you not a materialist?

For a materialist, ethics will also be a branch of biology. Even our free will is a result of biological structures.

So, I'm curious. What is this metaphysical quality that biologists are ignoring?

Sonia said...

Also, chimps are *not* in any way our "precursor" either biologically OR ethically. They are our closest living species-cousins who branched off from a common ancestor. Why not look at mice? Who says biologists don't? Humans are a distinct species with distinct features, but we are still animals subject to the same evolutionary principles. One of the useful aspects of comparing ourselves to animals is to avoid incorrectly coming up with human-specific explanations for our features -- physical or psychological -- when they clearly belong to primates, mammals, or vertebrates. For example, all terrestial vertebrates yawn. So to come up with a human-specific explanation for yawning doesn't make sense.

ADHR said...

So what is, if it's not biology. Environment acts on something -- our biology. It's our biology that determines the outcome of the environmental stimulation.

Unless indeterminism is true, which it probably is, in some form.

For a materialist, ethics will also be a branch of biology. Even our free will is a result of biological structures.

For a reductive or eliminative materalist, then ethics = biology; but for anyone who holds a supervenience or emergence view, ethics and biology end up distinct.

To say that free will is a result of biological structures is different than saying it is biological structures, which is the kind of difference I was highlighting here.

Also, chimps are *not* in any way our "precursor" either biologically OR ethically. They are our closest living species-cousins who branched off from a common ancestor.

Which means they are, in a sense, our precursors, in that they will exhibit traits that we once had and may still have.

For example, all terrestial vertebrates yawn. So to come up with a human-specific explanation for yawning doesn't make sense.

But it does, insofar as humans yawn for different reasons. The fact that the behaviour is physically identical doesn't mean the action it realizes is the same.