Monday, April 12, 2010

Just a few thoughts on De Waal

Frans de Waal spoke today at George Mason on the topic of "Primate Behavior and Human Society." His talk in fact had little to do directly with human society, but instead consisted of summaries of a lot of various interesting research on altruism and cooperation in animals, especially primates. Some of de Waal’s books include discussion of philosophical topics, but that too was omitted from the talk. Nevertheless, it seemed apparent that de Waal’s work is not far removed from that of Sam Harris, the subject of my second most recent post here. With that in mind, I’ll offer a few quick remarks on his presentation.

1. De Waal gave a lot of interesting evidence of altruism in apes and other animals. The implication, I guess, is that we find such empathy in humans as well. This was fascinating, but not, to a student of the history of philosophy, surprising. David Hume postulated more than 250 years ago that human beings have a natural feeling of empathy (he called it sympathy) for others, which he explicated in the same terms as de Waal, as the phenomenon of feelings ‘catching’ from one person to another. Nor would the philosophical naturalist Hume have been at all troubled at the discovery of this commonality between animals and humans.

2. Though the talk today did not touch on moral philosophy, that phrase is in at least one of de Waal’s earlier books. So it is worth noting that the empirical discovery of empathy and altruism in animals, while certainly of interest and importance for moral philosophy, still falls well short of providing an evolutionary basis for morality. As Hume and others have recognized, empathy is an unreliable footing for moral judgment. As de Waal himself pointed out, empathy is felt more intensely for those closest to us, less for those farther away. And yet we all acknowledge that we have moral obligations to very distant people, and possibly to non-people as well. Furthermore, it is possible that one might be held morally accountable for failing to have empathy. Thus slaveowners in the antebellum South failed, in most cases, to feel empathy for suffering human beings in their very midst, and are nevertheless morally accountable for that failure.

{Another thought: If research such as de Waal's were to be used in a moral theory, it might run as follows: Moral judgment requires us to take the perspective of others (PO). PO, however, does not arise from reason, but rather from feeling, namely a feeling of empathy. Therefore moral judgment is based on feeling, not reason. Hume would certainly approve of this. But as de Waal acknowledged in questioning, the feeling of empathy is not necessary for PO; rather, this can be achieved through cognitive means as well. So feeling might be part, even a necessary part of moral judgment, but it is not necessary, at least as far as the talk today showed.}

3. I cannot be the only person to have felt the delicious irony of a guest of our economics department detailing the evidence for the natural unselfishness of human beings. If economics is to be an empirical science, it has to base its predictions on an empirically grounded understanding of economic agents, but research like de Waal’s seems to make a hash of the laissez faire economist’s fiction of a self-interest agent maximizing her interests in the marketplace. What would economics look like if it took account of the real nature of human beings?


  1. Well I would have to make one small change. Humans may be naturally unselfish as long as it is based on reciprocal altruism. The fact of the matter is selfishness works or nothing would be selfish.

  2. A couple of thoughts: First, I think that your second point goes a long way toward answering your third. My empathy for those with whom I conduct most economic transactions, and theirs for me, is not all that strong. So to assume that we take no interest in each other's interests is not much of a distortion. Second, I am not sure how far I agree that we're morally accountable for failures to empathize. There's an empirical question here about how much power we have to change whom we empathize with. We're only morally blameworthy for failures to empathize insofar as this is something over which we have control. In any case, even if slave owners were morally culpable for failing to empathize with their slaves, that seems like a venial sin compared with their other breaches of duty. The more important point seems to be that greater empathy would have made it easier for slave owners to recognize their more important duties and to choose to fulfill them. (Jonathan Bennett's paper "The Conscience of Huck Finn" is instructive on this very issue).

  3. Like Dale M, I'm surprised you place intrinsic value in empathy. Shouldn't we avoid enslaving our fellow human beings regardless whether or not we feel badly about it? Cultivating empathy seems like a good way of achieving that goal, but surely begrudging non-slavery (say, at the point of the Union's guns) is acceptable in a pinch?

    "What would economics look like if it took account of the real nature of human beings?"

    Would it look like behavioral economics? There aren't many folks at your university interested only in the abstractions of homo economicus.

  4. I definitely think one can be held morally accountable for a failure to empathize. Certainly, as a matter of fact, people do blame one another for failing to care about the feelings and interests of others.

    But I do not think, and did not assert, that slaveowners' failure to empathize with their slaves was as serious a transgression as all the other brutality and degradation that went with enslavement. I just believe that lack of empathy is a necessary condition of something I often wondered about, namely, how people so much like me could live with and even defend a system that required so much cruelty.

  5. Suppose that you've got a person whose actions show respect for other people's interests, even though they don't empathize with them at all. Would we really think that the failure to empathize is something about which she ought to feel guilty? I'm still not sure. I'm not so Kantian as to say that her lack of empathy somehow makes the moral rectitude of her actions more praiseworthy. But while I certainly agree that we would criticize her lack of empathy, I'm not sure that we would blame her for it.

  6. I'm not sure I understand the distinction you draw between criticizing someone for something and blaming them. And I'll admit I haven't thought about this issue a whole lot. But two considerations might be relevant here:

    First, empathy seems like something we look for when judging a person rather than an action. This might explain why we might (might) excuse someone for a series of right actions done without empathy.

    Second, empathy might be said to be an indirect good. As an analogy, one account of the wrongness of cruelty to animals is that people who are cruel to animals are likely also to be cruel to humans. So my obligation not to be cruel to animals is indirectly an obligation to humans. Perhaps my obligation to empathize with others is indirectly an obligation to do right acts; I am more likely to fulfill the latter obligation if I feel empathy for my fellow humans.

    But really I'm still drawn to the fact that (as I believe) we really do blame people for not feeling empathy. One of the things that always impressed me about Hume's moral theory is that he takes our actual moral practices as data. For example, he just accepts the fact that one can be proud of being tall, or having a nice house, without troubling himself whether we are justified in doing so. To do otherwise, he would say, opens an unwelcome gap between theory and practice.

  7. michelle de stefanoApril 13, 2010 at 3:54 AM

    "I often wondered about, namely, how people so much like me could live with and even defend a system that required so much cruelty."

    The answer to that is very simple: one just denies another's humanity. Slaves weren't considered as humans, therefore, they were disposable. If you want to see the parallel today in our own society, you need look no further than the issue of abortion. As I learned in an ethics class recently,those humans who are not yet born are not considered to be human, therefore, they are disposable. It's a redefinition of humanity for the sake of convenience.

  8. The line between criticism generally and blame specifically can be pretty thin, I admit. This is something that I hope to find time to think more about myself at some point. But surely there are things about other people that we would point to as failings on their part without wanting to "punish" them for them---if only informally, e.g., by making a show of avoiding them---or thinking that the failing is something they should feel guilty about. These seem to be our characteristic responses when we believe that a moral duty has been breached; here is a part of our practice that gets more attention from Mill than Hume. Mill, at least, thinks that sometimes we do blame people for not taking steps to correct deficiencies in their character. I think that it is pretty rare that we'd blame someone for a lack of empathy, though, as long as she was satisfying her other obligations.

  9. "We really do blame people for not feeling empathy."

    Indeed we do. But ought we to? What kind of duty is empathy? Is it defeasible? What about Asperger's Syndrome, autism, or non-violent sociopathy? For my part, I'm skeptical of using moral intuitions as evidence in moral judgments, though I think a particular kind of reading of Kant gets it about right: empathy is the means to an end of doing one's duty. What worries me is that I think this is probably correct, but a bad reading of Kant.

    Here's one of your economics colleagues on the same talk:

    Hanson's reference to an actual experiment, and the problems of coordination, seem like just what you're looking for. If what he says is right, in some competitive circumstances (like when we're divvying up finite resources like health care or oil) we're likely to do more damage with empathy than without it. The best result is to be had when we reject empathy (and tit-for-tat resentment) entirely and retreat into abstractions.

    If you don't already follow Hanson's blog, I'd love to see you take on 'dealism' here, which, as best I can tell, is a contractarian version of Kaldor-Hicks efficiency.

  10. Michelle: I see an important difference between the two cases, which is that there is sincere disagreement among well-meaning people about whether fetuses are moral persons (especially in the earlier stages of pregnancy, when the vast majority of abortions take place) whereas I cannot see how a well-meaning person could deny the humanity of a slave. They could speak for themselves, after all, and did.

    Dale: You might be right in that last claim. I think empathy comes in as a sort of 'aggravating factor' in cases where we do NOT satisfy our other obligations, and it is (probably rightly) seen as a contributing cause to such breaches.

    Josh: Thanks for the tip about Hanson's blog. Perhaps I'll tackle Kaldor-Hicks efficiency sometime, but don't hold your breath! On a small point, I take the value placed on empathy not as an intuition but as a fact about our actual moral practice. I think our moral theories need to be in some reflective equilibrium with our practices. If a theory requires a major change in our actual moral reasoning, this counts against the theory, though not decisively. And it's my sense that the demand that we feel empathy is a pretty important part of moral practice.

  11. If humans were more like Bonobos (while we may re-produce more and more often) we would be less productive and, in my opinion, societal progress on all fronts would become stagnant. We'd be Eloi. Chimps, on the other hand, live in patriarchal clans in which the Alpha male must constantly assert his superiority over his own male clansmen and other would-be usurpers. It's also not uncommon for chimps to hunt rival clans. A successful hunt might involve the victors tearing off the genitalia and eating the bodies of the defeated. Joy!

    "What would economics look like if it took account of the real nature of human beings?"

    Good question. I have a question too. What would a true laissez-faire society look like if human nature were as altruistic as de Waal's 'evidence' suggests?

    I doubt it would look like any society that has ever existed. For, while humans might be altruist and empathetic, this is not enough. As Plato's Socrates says, 'No one willingly does wrong.' Even if faced with a dilemma of either doing wrong or being wronged, to do wrong is more evil, says Socrates. The problem is not that people do not have good intentions, it's that they do not know what is right and good to do. Nor do the Bonobos and chimps. This means that emotion is not enough. So, by no means do economists (especially not those at GMU) discount morality and human nature. To the contrary, human nature must be taken into account. Smart business-people know that customer loyalty is important for repeated business. This means treating customers with respect and providing the best quality goods and services. If you make a bad product, consumers will spend their money elsewhere. If you treat people like dirt or rip them off, again, they will go elsewhere. Further, if people are coerced (via state or federal law) to buy a product or service, the demand for and price of that service will be artificial and, most likely, more that product will be more costly. A 'free market' means that producers and consumers engage in transactions that are mutually beneficial. I would like to see such a market. But with government and unions working to limit the choices of consumers and simultaneously drive up prices by strong-arming producers, it seems that we will have nothing like a free market any time soon.

    A side note: I once saw National Geographic's 'Valley of the Golden Baboons.' In this nature documentary, a disgruntled male killed the Alpha-male's son while the A-m was distracted. The mother held on to the dead carcass of the boy for days as it decomposed. This is empathy to the extreme and reminds me of Hitchcock. So, based on the evidence I've seen, our animal brethren and sistren provide examples of 1) Eloi, 2) the primates at the beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey (post-monolith), and 3) Norman Bates-esque obsessives. I'm quite happy to be a human being.