Saturday, October 5, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- de Waal

What "other human tendencies " is Fran's de Waal talking about ? Do you agree with him that humans and some apes share the capacity for caring? Why or why not ?

"Despite its fragility and selectivity, the capacity to care for others is the bedrock of our moral system. It is the only capacity that does not snugly fit the hedonic cage in which philosophers, psychologists, and biologists have tried to lock the human spirit. One of the principal functions of morality seems to be to protect and nuture this caring capacity to guide its growth and expand its reach , so that it can effectively balance other human tendencies that need little encouragement."

First let me say that I think caring for others can fit into the hedonic cage. Emotion makes us feel good when we do the things that are beneficial to us and our group. Doing good for others, even sacrificing for others, can have emotional rewards. We have discussed this in other areas, so I won't go on any further about this.

I don't want to be too repetitious, but this question evokes responses which we have already made other areas. We are social animals. We evolved to provide mutual support in a hostile world. To expand on that, let me add the element of emotion. What compels individuals to provide assistance to each other? What even provides the drive for parents to help their children?

We can discuss evolutionary pressures, but the fact of the matter is, no individual acts because he sits down and thinks about his evolutionary history and decides well I better do this because that's how evolutionary pressures should cause me to behave. No, we actually do what we do because we are emotional animals.

Now we get into an area that is partly something I have learned from other philosophers and partly my own personal philosophy. Many philosophers have referred to man as the rational animal. Actually this is a poor interpretation. Let's go back to Plato. He said that man is like a chariot . He is drawn by two horses. The first horse is our base emotions, by which Plato meant anger, hatred, jealousy, and etc. The other horse is our noble emotions such as love, nobility, and etc. The man driving the chariot stands for our intellect. According to Plato, the emotions drive the chariot and the man should control it. If he fails to do so, the horses (our emotions) will run wild and cause terrible damage.

I agree with his basic position, but I point out that there really are no base or higher emotions. Emotions are just emotions. What makes them good or bad is how we control them. I also point out that the intellect is rarely in control of the chariot of our lives. More on this at the end of this post.

From the modern evolutionary point of view, emotions are an extremely powerful mechanism for controlling the behavior of animals, including ourselves. Damasio has pointed out that without emotions we wouldn't even be able to decide to take the most basic of actions to stay alive. It is the desperate emotional need to continue living which keeps us struggling for survival or making basic decisions like taking time to eat

So our emotions evolved to drive us to do the things we need to do in order to survive, this includes caring for others. Naturally, this emotion did not evolve in isolation. We have a whole range of emotions, all of which exert a powerful influence upon our behavior. It seems that de Waal sees caring as a good emotion, and many of our other emotions as negative, much as Plato did.

Let's accept that at face value for the sake of this discussion. I don't actually agree, but that's a whole different issue that will take a long time to explain. So what are the other emotionally driven tendencies to which de Waal is referring?

Let's list a few.

Selfishness. Obviously, much of our behavior is driven by this emotion. It leads people to abuse others even to the extent of outright theft and physical violence.

Similarly, greed drives many to treating other people as mere commodities, objects and things to be used in order to gain money for yourself. Think of slavery.

Violence. When we are angry or frustrated, when we don't get what we want, we often turn to violence to force others to do our will or simply to get revenge.

Self-indulgence. The urge to feel good can lead us into the horrors of drug abuse, alcoholism, and various other addictions. We have all seen how completely self-indulgence can destroy the lives of the individual and those who care for him.

Finally, how does this affect humans, apes, and other animals? Biologists who actually work with experimental animals have, for over a century, stubbornly refused to admit that animals have feelings like humans. They claim that this is their scientific objectivity at work. In fact, it is a way to excuse themselves from committing often terrible acts against animals that have feelings. So extreme has this attitude become that you can read some biological papers in which researchers describe animals as exhibiting "hunger like behaviors" or "fear like reactions".

And yet the same biologists are firm believers in evolutionary theory. Basic evolutionary theory says that evolutionary traits do not suddenly appear in isolation. They slowly evolve over millennia and even millions of years. That means that if we humans have emotions, those emotions must have spent millions of years evolving in other animals. Which means that there are no emotion like behaviors, there are only emotions. At the risk of being crude, imagine the ridicule a biologist would receive from his fellows if he described an animal as engaging in "eating like behaviors" or "defecating like behaviors".

de Waal himself made a reference to the evolutionary ancestry and development of human traits. His statement follows:

“We start out postulating sharp boundaries, such as between humans and apes, or between apes and monkeys, but are in fact dealing with sand castles that lose much of their structure when the sea of knowledge washes over them. They turn into hills, leveled ever more, until we are back to where evolutionary theory always leads us: a gently sloping beach.”

I must agree. Of course animals have emotions. And not just apes, monkeys, and other primates. Clearly mammals show the caring behavior for their offspring which can only be emotion driven. That is because emotion is such an effective motivator. What better reason for doing things than the fact that they make you feel good? It is entirely rational to believe that emotions involved for this purpose.

Let me conclude with another bit of philosophy which comes from others and from myself. We spend almost all of our time making decisions based on our emotions and our habits. This is healthy and necessary. We just can't take the time to carefully analyze every single action in a logical manner. We operate on autopilot just about all the time. The default position of a human being is an emotional position. We are not the rational animal. We are an animal that is capable of being rational but we are truly an emotional animal. All too often we act like a rationalizing animal. That is, we do something for an emotional reason and then we think of all manner of excuses to explain our already decided action.

To use a biological reference again, man is not an obligate rational agent. He is a faculative rational agent. That is to say, it isn't that we are forced to think rationally, we don't usually do so. No, we are able to think rationally, if we really work at it. And we usually don't. Put in different words once again to make sure this is clear, we aren't obligated to think about our actions rationally and to make our decisions rationally but we do have the facility to do so.

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