Monday, April 23, 2007

Return to Planet of the Apes.

Nicholas Wade, "Scientist Finds the Beginnings of Morality in Primate Behavior," in The New York Times, March 20, 2007, at p. F3. (Is this the Harvard guy who cooked-up his research after observing gorillas in a tenure committee debate at Yale?)
Kenan Malik, Man, Beast and Zombie (London: Phoenix, 2000).
Mary Midgley, Beast and Man (London & New York: Routledge, 1995). (3rd Rev. ed.)
Mortimer Adler, The Difference of Man and the Difference it Makes (New York: Fordham University Press, 1993), based on lectures at The University of Chicago, 1966.
Marin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can't Wait (New York: Signet, 1964) (2nd ed., 2000).
Robert C. Solomon, A Passion for Justice (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1990).


Hackers have again altered this text. I will make corrections of "errors" inserted into the essay that do not appear in other versions of this work. I may have to do so yet again in the future. Stress and frustration are a powerful combination when seeking to discourage creative efforts or to induce depression and collapse. I expect more such difficulties in the future. This is the tenth revision of this essay -- and some of the same "errors" have been corrected at least seven times. Please see the essays in the general section of my msn group "Critique," essays concerning criminals' involvement in New Jersey politics and courts. These blatant and unpunished violations of human rights are what I mean by "urinating on the Constitution."

A fascinating article in the "Science Section" of the newspaper provides many suggestive arguments for those who believe in God, also in the objective foundations and cognitive contents of ethics. Despite numerous errors and some unfortunate gaps in philosophical knowledge revealed by this journalist, there is much here that I find useful. I plan to read more of this literature. There are implications of this research and materials in the philosophical literature that may not have been fully appreciated by many readers.

A number of biologists have detected surprisingly altruistic behaviors in chimpanzees, "... who have drowned trying to save others. Given the chance to get food by pulling a chain that would also deliver an electric shock to a companion rhesus monkeys will starve themselves for several days." I know human beings who are far more despicable than those apes. Many of them are New Jersey lawyers, others are behaviorist psychologists, quite a few may be found in American politics and the judiciary.

This observed behavior has led biologists to claim that "social behaviors are the precursors of human morality." While I believe that this claim is mistaken because it is based on confusion concerning the meaning and scope of morality, there is much fascinating information in this scientific material worthy of further philosophical investigation. For example, what is meant by a "precursor"?

To speak of "behaviors" and leave out "intentionality" -- or freedom of choice -- is to exclude the essence of morality from one's definition of moral behavior. "Last year Marc Hauser, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, proposed in his book ''Moral Minds'" -- I thought we didn't have minds? -- "that the brain [is the "brain" identical to the "mind"?] has a genetically-shaped mechanism for acquiring moral rules, a universal moral grammar similar to the neural machinery for learning language."

Professor Hauser is now attending law school in New Jersey. There are several difficulties to notice: First, what happened to Richard Dawkins and those "selfish genes" that makes us brutal "survival machines"? It turns out that we are not so selfish, after all. The "we're-just-animals" school of thinkers will then counter that "we are selfish, but the best way of ensuring selfish goals of survival for the group is altruism. That's why we're altruistic." However, altruism is not a form of selfishness. Altruism is the opposite of selfishness. Dialectics? Philosophers -- like Sartre, for example -- are self-professed dialogical thinkers, but scientists claim not to be anything but rigorously "empirical." (One "error" inserted since my previous review is not too bad. Anthony Coviello, Esq.?)

This research lends support to the suggestion, on a Chomsky-like analogy, that we are "wired" or predisposed for community or even (when among fellow humans) equipped with a disposition to love others. I wonder why that is? It's back to Aristotle and Aquinas.

"Is we is or is we ain't" selfish? Nobody knows. The concept of selfishness already involves moral assumptions. Group interest is not always identical to, and may even conflict with, individual interests. Either animals are "predetermined" or "wired" for sefishness and survival, or they're determined to be altruists. Maybe it's a little of both, a choice, as philosophers have suggested. Biologists, no doubt because of their scientific training, have a hard time with the concept of free will. "Perhaps philosophers are right and it is a little of both," they say, and scratch their heads -- like apes when they are confused about something. Banana, anyone?

Either way, morality is irrelevant. Genetic predetermination precludes the element of choice, so that "behavior" which is not chosen by a subject (whether altruistic or not) is outside the scope of moral action for which one is responsible because it is chosen. An unchosen action is not subject to moral assessment. To speak of morality is already to accept the concept of choice, which implies the linguistically-based capacity for deliberation. My car refuses to start and I am late for my daughter's Christmas play. I cannot sit down and have a chat with my automobile about being more responsible and thinking of others in the future. The car has not chosen its "behavior" which is the result of mechanical operations.

Do chimps "choose" their supposedly altruistic actions? No, say biologists. Then those actions have nothing to do with morality -- not even as "precursors" of morality -- whatever that may mean. To suggest that genetic programing dictates behavior is to eliminate choice. Hence, morality no longer applies since there is no choice. And choice or awareness of choice is something which is impossible anyway for an organism which is not self-conscious or self-aware. Only humans are self-aware, as language- and concept-using animals. Therefore, descriptions of animals as "moral" is a misnomer. At this point, the scientists begin to backtrack:

"Many philosophers find it hard to think of animals as moral beings, and indeed Dr. de Waal does not contend that even chimpanzees possess morality. But he argues that human morality would be impossible without certain emotional building blocks that are clearly at work in chimp and monkey societies."

All animals are entitled to moral concern and respect as living and pain-feeling beings. This does not make non-human animals moral "subjects," capable of choice or responsibility, as distinct from subjects of moral concern felt by persons. Take a look at the dictionary and think twice about using the word "society" to refer to any group of animals. New Jersey may be an exception to this rule. I think that humans are the only animals who are moral, being emotional in the right way. All animals may be capable of affection, which is not the same as morality.

Alas, among the species chosen by these biologists as primary examples, there are behaviors which cannot be described as meeting with our moral approval. Worse, this chimpanzee behavior seems to undermine all of the claims made in this article concerning chimps as altar boys. Come to think of it, so did much of the behavior of many of the altar boys I knew in my Catholic high school.

"The Kasakela chimps rushed and trapped Godi. One male Humphrey, pulled Godi to the ground, sat on his head and pinned down his legs while the others spent ten minutes hitting and biting him. Finally, an attacker threw a large rock at the whimpering Godi, before the whole party left. Godi, who was covered in desperate wounds and puncture marks, was never seen again, presumably dying from his injuries." (Malik, p. 198.)

Stephen Jay Gould argued persuasively that we should not look to nature to satisfy our moral urges or meet with our moral approval. Nature's processes are not shaped in the image of human compassion. Empirical reality is governed by causal necessity to a substantial extent. Human subjectivity thrives in the realm of freedom. Presuming to determine God's compassion or intentions in the realm of freedom is hubris, even for tenured scientists. Morality is the province of freedom, allowing for responsibility. It is up to us to be moral and to interpret the universe in moral terms, perhaps, for our purposes of comparison or instruction, not to interpret morality in non-human terms -- which is absurd.

A moral ape would need not only to choose his actions, but to desire their consequences and accept responsibility for them. Such an ape is no longer an ape, he would become a person. The philosophically interesting question has to do with the difference in degree with regard to intelligence and affect that makes for a difference in kind -- just how or when did that difference arrive on the scene? Did someone eat an apple?

I am angry today, with justification. Yet I will choose to turn away from rage and concentrate on the love I feel in an effort at transcendence. It is both with regard to this capacity for choice and power of transcendence that the mystery of human goodness fascinates investigators. No matter how many times errors are inserted into this essay, for example, you do not diminish the truth that I am communicating nor will you stop me from expressing that truth. You may only succeed in hurting me further, but I am used to that now. I've got tenure in being hurt.

Dr. King spoke with great sadness, shortly before his death, in visible pain that colored his beautiful baritone voice "... Some of our sicker, brothers and sisters," he said, had shouted horrible threats and insults to him on his journeys. Telephone calls to his home late at night threatened his family and himself. I have received such calls. Perhaps from the fine folks in New Jersey's legal circles, who are very ethical in their own minds. "We must pray for them," said Dr. King, "for they dwell in darkness." Dr. King also had tenure in pain. The horror revealed by Dr. King's experiences is the pleasure in causing pain derived by a few morally hideous individuals. Diana? Tell me, Mr. Rabner, how can any legal system or tribunal cover-up such atrocities and retain even the semblance of legitimacy? I think some of those chimps might be better creatures than many lawyers and judges I knew in New Jersey.

Seeing animal interactions in moral terms may be unavoidable, for us, because we are moral creatures required to choose ourselves, constructing systems of meaning in which we live, spiritually and culturally. Where this research is valuable is in revealing a "logic of sociability" that suggests, by analogy, the role of moral reasoning and concern arising naturally in groups of persons. There is also a comforting "feeling" that other-regarding emotions may be more pervasive in nature than we have previously thought. Aquinas will be more helpful than B.F. Skinner at this point.

For Aquinas -- who was no fool about the reality of evil -- the human disposition towards the good is identical with the realization of the human essence or fundamental humanity, which is incomplete without leading us to God (substitute the word "love" for God). The importance of culture is neglected in all of this scientific moralizing. This criticism is grudgingly acknowledged: "[Persons] apply a degree of judgment and reason, for which there are no parallels in animals." This undermines the flawed and false assertion that: "religions are recent additions. Their 'functions' may have to do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to them, which is what religions really do."

Is that what religions "really do"? Is that religion's "function"? Your refrigerator has a "function," so religions should have a "function," right? But then, what is your function? "Survival," says the biologist. I "demur." Survival as what? As a slave? No thanks. Every person who succumbs to violence, except as a final form of self-defense -- even when it is highly understandable -- has become a slave. Violence is what those who wish you to be something less than human hope that you will accept, so that you will prove their accusations true. Never resort to violence. This is the most effective technique that I have developed to live with rage and hatred at those who violate us and, hypocritically, presume to judge us. It is a comfort or a source of strength to realize that there are more -- many more -- persons who are oppressed in this world than there are oppressors. I prefer the company of the victims to that of the victmizers. Malbus?

Survival is certainly essential. It should not be confused with human flourishing. Take another look at Aquinas, then see my essay concerning the ideas of John Finnis. Love is essential to flourishing. So is religion perhaps. Both may be needed to survive as a person. Humanity and feeling is crucial to that fourishing. Ken Tynan once suggested in response to the Russian threat of nuclear destruction: "I'd rather live on my knees than die on my knees." I wouldn't.

I'd rather die fighting for my freedom and humanity, much preferring love to its absence, even at the cost of wealth and ease or luxury. Fighting against violence and hatred, together with all forms of conditioning. I'd prefer a journey to a concentration camp with Jewish friends to a nice comfortable stay in a Vienna Hotel for the duration of the Second World War, if I am required to associate with Nazis. I prefer the company of slaves to that of their masters, a concentration camp to life in the guestapo. I am told that this makes me "unethical."

To suggest on the basis of animal behavior that our "noblest achievement -- morality -- has evolutionary ties to our basest behavior -- warfare" is absurd. This gets things exactly backwards. It is our animal natures that can pull us away from our calling to spirituality and love, which leads us to neglect our freedom, seeing ourselves as determined by genes or environment, mere "things," rather than capable of choice -- within constraints. ("Not One More Victim.")

Freedom and the responsibility that is made possible by human freedom are difficult aspects of our human nature, so we seek to escape that freedom and use scientific value-systems in order to do so. The effort is doomed, however, since these attempts at scientific determinism are also expressions of human freedom. The healthy human animal accepts his or her natural spirituality as the call to love his fellow creatures; cherishing his or her gift of precious life; to celebrate this sharing in the mystery and eternal beauty of Being, here, now, together. (See "Amistad.") You are never alone in that "now." All of your human ancestors and those you love are with you in that place within the self where you find love.

As an American, your entire Constitutional tradition is concerned with vindicating these values through an eternal process of clarification. That tradition and all of those Supreme Court decisions exist for you and all Americans. The framers did not draft the Constitution or design the Supreme Court in order to create nine lifetime federal jobs for aging lawyers. Most of America is better than New Jersey.

What is encouraging in all of this research, again, is the scope of emotive meaning and universality of sympathy, as an ingredient in nature for which even the simplest animals seem to reach, just as they move towards warmth and light rather than cold and darkness. Hence, many of the discussions of philosophers' disagreements concerning the role of emotions in moral motivation, pitting Hume (who is poorly understood) against Kant (who is even more poorly understood) are pointless, since they are based on the false assumptions of this journalist and researchers that emotions and reasoning are somehow distinct -- or even opposed -- forms of cognition for organisms. They're not. They are aspects of a single cognitive capacity. Just ask your mom.

To suggest that moral actions may begin or be concerned with "feelings" is not to say that they end with feelings, or that reasoning and feelings are ever really so separate, since judgment soon enters into the picture. Reasons and calculations balance emotive understandings and promptings, so that "selfishness" or "survival" are only some among many considerations -- often not the most important ones -- in our moral lives.

Ethics is not primarily about rules, as opposed to principles and empathy, not even in a legal context -- where primal obligations, such as the love we feel, may render ethical rules "unethical." A society that requires me to betray someone I love or a friend -- say, because he or she is a Jew -- is unethical. I refuse to do it, as a matter of principle. Dr. King's "Letter From a Birmingham Jail" comes to mind:

"How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in the eternal law and natural law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. ... [Racism] to use the terminology of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, [unjust law] substitutes an 'It-it' relationship for an 'I-Thou' relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things." Why We Can't Wait, pp. 70-71.

I am not a "thing" to be tortured and enslaved. My writing is not to be destroyed by those incapable of understanding it. Now consider Robert Solomon's discussion of Hume and the tradition from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas of "cultivating" emotions in a character-building effort, which is designed to enhance the "virtues." The work of Alasdair MacIntyre becomes very useful, also the concerns of Bernard Williams. See Solomon's A Passion for Justice, pp. 198-241; and this quote from Frances Hutcheson:

"Were there no such moral sense and sense of honor in our constitution, were we as entirely selfish as some refiners allege, human life would be quite different from what we feel every day, a joyless, loveless, cold, sullen state of cunning and suspicion."

That sounds like New Jersey's legal system again. Surely, we can do better than that. Richard Dawkins says we can't. Our genes make us bad. I am not convinced. It is too easy to get off the hook, as a species, by simply "interpleading" (as lawyers say) our genes. Goring and Himmler were responsible for their crimes, not their genes. Time to delete another letter from one of my words?

To speak of genes or animal natures is to neglect the full horror and responsibility found in human evil. We are much worse that the apes who beat a stranger to their group. For we do such things not instinctively or defensively, but for the pleasure derived from evil by some very sick "brothers and sisters" of all races, ethnicities, and nationalities -- to which the only civilized response is justice tempered by compassion and, mostly, pity. Evil-doers have voluntarily relinquished a part of their humanity. Nothing is more pitiful than such grotesqueness.

I am not sure about my computer again. More attacks every day continue to obstruct my writing efforts. Perhaps this is an effort at provocation or distraction. I am doing my best to cope. I do not believe that, whatever happens to me or whether I am able to continue writing, my arguments in defense of these views have been seriously challenged. Perhaps it is this cogency in my writings that is unforgivable. Why should people learn from someone like me? Maybe God has a sense of humor, who knows?

Continuing to hurt me, destroying my work, preventing young people from reading my essays, classifying me in any terms you like -- none of this has much bearing on the validity of these arguments or on the human calling always to be better, more spiritual, loving and good.

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