Re: [asa] The empirical basis of knowledge

From: David Opderbeck <>
Date: Wed Mar 21 2007 - 10:11:04 EDT

It is interesting Jack, but how does it show Kant got it wrong? DeWaal
says primates like monkeys demonstrate some precursors of morality that
supply emotional building blocks for morality.. However, DeWall says there
are no precursuors for religion in primates, and that religion provides the
social structure for human morality. It seems to me then, that even if we
take DeWall's view, human morality isn't reducible to primal emotions, but
is a mixture of primal emotions with exogenous religious structures.

But then we'd have to go further and as what DeWaal means by "religious"
structures. DeWaal seems to want to reduce such structures to something
entirely irrational. In the Western tradition, however, the "religious"
structures for ethics were not anti-rational. Far from it -- faith and
reason were blended to create theories of civic virtue and natural law,
starting with the Greeks and running through Aquinas. Similarly, in the
Hebraic tradition, the moral law and some aspects of the civil law are
directly given by God, but there is the important wisdom tradition, which
supports the application of a sort of practical reason to ethical

Thus, as a historical matter that, even in "religious" contexts, reason
plays an important role in morality. Of course, since the Enlightenment,
much of political and ethical theory has tried to elide any religious
component. In this regard, in contrast to DeWaal, Singer in this article
takes the Kantian tack by noting that there are also precursors to reason in
primates. Not surprising, as Singer is a utilitarian ethicist.

As Alisdair MacIntyre ably demonstrated in "After Virtue," however, a move
like Singer's is hard to justify if someone like DeWaal is right. Indeed,
look at this very scary (IMHO) quote from the Times article: "*They [people
like DeWaal] 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." *

So, the ultimate conclusion is that reason is meaningless after all. We are
mere creatures of emotions that we are powerless to harness or change. As
MacIntyre argued (and as C.S. Lewis and others also have argued -- see "The
Abolition of Man"), this results in the destruction of any concept of
"ethics" at all. Biologists can't proscribe, they can only describe. The
only basis for law or society then, as Mao famously put it, is "at the end
of a gun."

BTW, I should note that while I think many of Kant's ideas are very
valuable, ultimately I'm not primarily focused on deontology in ethics and
law. I'm very attracted to virtue ethics, which I think has promise for
synthesizing deontological and consequentialist theories into a more
coherent whole, particularly as we seek theologically to ground ethics in
the Christian story.

On 3/21/07, Jack <> wrote:
> Interesting article, it goes right to the heart of this discussion of
empricism v rationalism. But in monkeys! Even the monkey biologist is
smart enough to know that Kant got it wrong. ;)
> Some interesting excerpts:
> "Some animals are surprisingly sensitive to the plight of others.
Chimpanzees, who cannot swim, have drowned in zoo moats 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.
> 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. "
> "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
> "Religion can be seen as another special ingredient of human societies,
though one that emerged thousands of years after morality, in Dr. de Waal's
view. There are clear precursors of morality in nonhuman primates, but no
precursors of religion. So it seems reasonable to assume that as humans
evolved away from chimps, morality emerged first, followed by religion. "I
look at religions as recent additions," he said. "Their function may have to
do with social life, and enforcement of rules and giving a narrative to
them, which is what religions really do."
> "Many philosophers believe that conscious reasoning plays a large part in
governing human ethical behavior and are therefore unwilling to let
everything proceed from emotions, like sympathy, which may be evident in
chimpanzees. The impartial element of morality comes from a capacity to
reason, writes Peter Singer, a moral philosopher at Princeton, in "Primates
and Philosophers." He says, "Reason is like an escalator once we step on
it, we cannot get off until we have gone where it takes us.
> That was the view of Immanuel Kant, Dr. Singer noted, who believed
morality must be based on reason, whereas the Scottish philosopher David
Hume, followed by Dr. de Waal, argued that moral judgments proceed from the
emotions. "

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Received on Wed Mar 21 10:11:46 2007

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