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Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved

Frans de Waal
Robert Wright
Christine M. Korsgaard
Philip Kitcher
Peter Singer
Stephen Macedo
Josiah Ober
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 232
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  • Book Info
    Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved
    Book Description:

    "It's the animal in us," we often hear when we've been bad. But why not when we're good?Primates and Philosopherstackles this question by exploring the biological foundations of one of humanity's most valued traits: morality.

    In this provocative book, primatologist Frans de Waal argues that modern-day evolutionary biology takes far too dim a view of the natural world, emphasizing our "selfish" genes. Science has thus exacerbated our reciprocal habits of blaming nature when we act badly and labeling the good things we do as "humane." Seeking the origin of human morality not in evolution but in human culture, science insists that we are moral by choice, not by nature.

    Citing remarkable evidence based on his extensive research of primate behavior, de Waal attacks "Veneer Theory," which posits morality as a thin overlay on an otherwise nasty nature. He explains how we evolved from a long line of animals that care for the weak and build cooperation with reciprocal transactions. Drawing on both Darwin and recent scientific advances, de Waal demonstrates a strong continuity between human and animal behavior. In the process, he also probes issues such as anthropomorphism and human responsibilities toward animals.

    Based on the Tanner Lectures de Waal delivered at Princeton University's Center for Human Values in 2004,Primates and Philosophersincludes responses by the philosophers Peter Singer, Christine M. Korsgaard, and Philip Kitcher and the science writer Robert Wright. They press de Waal to clarify the differences between humans and other animals, yielding a lively debate that will fascinate all those who wonder about the origins and reach of human goodness.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3033-6
    Subjects: Zoology, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Psychology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Frans de Waal
  4. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xx)

    In the Tanner Lectures on Human Values that became the lead essay in this book, Frans de Waal brings his decades of work with primates, and his habit of thinking deeply about the meaning of evolution, to bear upon a fundamental question about human morality. Three distinguished philosophers and a prominent student of evolutionary psychology then respond to the way de Waal’s question is framed, and to his answer. Their essays are at once appreciative of de Waal’s endeavor and critical of certain of his conclusions. De Waal responds to his critics in an afterword. While there is considerable disagreement...

    (pp. 1-58)
    Frans de Waal

    Homo homini lupus—“man is wolf to man”— is an ancient Roman proverb popularized by Thomas Hobbes. Even though its basic tenet permeates large parts of law, economics, and political science, the proverb contains two major flaws. First, it fails to do justice to canids, which are among the most gregarious and cooperative animals on the planet (Schleidt and Shalter 2003). But even worse, the saying denies the inherently social nature of our own species.

    Social contract theory, and Western civilization with it, seems saturated with the assumption that we are asocial, even nasty creatures rather than thezoon politikon...

  6. PART II Comments

    • The Uses of Anthropomorphism
      (pp. 83-97)

      Frans de Waal’s carefully documented and richly descriptive accounts of nonhuman primate social behavior have contributed vastly to our understanding of both nonhuman primates and human ones. One thing that has made his accounts so intellectually stimulating is his willingness to use provocatively anthropomorphic language in analyzing the behavior and mentality of chimpanzees and other nonhuman primates. Not surprisingly, he has drawn some criticism for this anthropomorphism. Almost invariably, I think, the criticism is misguided. However, while convinced of the value of his use of anthropomorphic language, I do believe that de Waal is occasionally uncritical in the kind of...

    • Morality and the Distinctiveness of Human Action
      (pp. 98-119)

      Two issues confront us. One concerns the truth or falsehood of what Frans de Waal calls “Veneer Theory.” This is the theory that morality is a thin veneer on an essentially amoral human nature. According to Veneer Theory, we are ruthlessly self-interested creatures, who conform to moral norms only to avoid punishment or disapproval, only when others are watching us, or only when our commitment to these norms is not tested by strong temptation. The second concerns the question whether morality has its roots in our evolutionary past, or represents some sort of radical break with that past. De Waal...

    • Ethics and Evolution: How to Get Here from There
      (pp. 120-139)

      With the possible exception of Jane Goodall, Frans de Waal has done more than any other primatologist to change our understanding of the social lives of our closest living evolutionary relatives. His painstaking observations and experiments have exposed capacities for identifying and responding to the needs of conspecifics, apparently most sophisticated in chimpanzees and bonobos, but present in other primates as well. His detailed accounts of the ways in which these capacities are manifested have broken the stranglehold of the fear, once common among primatologists, that postulating complex psychological states and dispositions is sentimental anthropomorphism. Any scholar who hopes to...

    • Morality, Reason, and the Rights of Animals
      (pp. 140-158)

      My response to Frans de Waal’s rich and stimulating Tanner Lectures falls into two parts. The first and longer part raises some issues about the nature of morality, and specifically, de Waal’s critique of what he calls “morality as veneer.” The second part questions what de-Waal says in his appendix about the moral status of animals. On both these topics I will emphasize points on which I disagree with de Waal, so it is necessary to say here that the positions we share are more important than our differences. I hope that will become apparent in what follows.


  7. PART III Response to Commentators

    • The Tower of Morality
      (pp. 161-182)

      Whereas my respected colleagues focus on what seems missing rather than present in other primates, my own emphasis has rather been on shared characteristics. This reflects my desire to counter the idea that human morality is somehow at odds with our animal background, or even with nature in general. I do appreciate the general support for this position, though, and agree with the repeated suggestions to also consider the discontinuities. So, this is what I intend to do this time around, starting with my definition of morality.

      Except, of course, that I would never speak of “discontinuities.” Evolution does not...

  8. References
    (pp. 183-196)
  9. Contributors
    (pp. 197-200)
  10. Index
    (pp. 201-209)