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Moral Sentiments

Quadrant, April 2008

The cow bawled all night long. Well, from 1.00am to be exact, and since the distance from her yard to my bedroom window was less than 50 meters I didn’t get much sleep. In between the vigorous tromboning of the cow you could hear the piccolo woe of a calf half a kilometre away. First the cow, then the calf, over and over.

With a pillow on your head you hoped each bellow from the cow would be the last, but as soon as the calf answered, their dialog began again: the distant cry of distress far off in the night; the cow’s reassuring “I’m here” closer at hand. Eventually, at dawn, farmhand Hugh got on a quad-bike and brought the calf in and the noise and misery stopped.

A spontaneous feeling for the misery of others—a feeling of sympathy and concern—was the foundation of Adam Smith’s moral philosophy, and by 6.00am I’d spent five hours listening to its bovine equivalent. Of course ruminants are more inclined to chew the cud than ponder moral rules. But if sympathetic emotions underlie moral sentiments, and maternal attachment is the basic social bond, then here was audible proof of Smith’s “sympathy”.

Normally the calf would have come skipping back through the fields to its mother as soon as she called. But it was four months old, and growing adventurous, and had wriggled its way through a fence and got stuck on the far side.

I suppose if the cow had been a bad mother it would have just yawned and gone on chewing its cud. But it was obviously a good mother—if it hadn’t been a good mother the calf would never have survived. How sensible though is it to use moral language about animals? Driven by the need for its mother the calf sung out. Driven by the need for its calf the cow responded. They did what they did because cows and calves can’t do anything else, and some would describe their world is simply amoral. In contrast, we say that human mothers “ought” to look after their children because they enjoy the freedom to think, and reason, and act—responsibly or irresponsibly as the case may be.

Primates and Philosophers

How we got from being supposedly amoral animals to moral beings with rights, duties, and responsibilities, is the subject of Frans de Waal’s new book Primates and Philosophers, How Morality Evolved. It irks him to be told that human morality is special, superior, and quite different from the rest of the animal kingdom—a cultural “veneer” laid over irredeemable selfishness. In de Waal’s view men like Hobbes, T. H. Huxley and Freud presented morality as

A thin crust underneath which boil antisocial, amoral, and egoistic passions. This view of morality as a veneer was best summarized by Ghiselin’s famous quip: “Scratch an ‘altruist’, and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”

Hobbes’ vision of Pre-Contract Man as permanently at “Warre”, Huxley’s view of amoral nature red in tooth and claw, Freud’s image of the superego as a citadel of order dominating a violent and unruly human psyche—all of these portray animal nature and moral man as deeply and unalterably opposed. For Robert Wright, author of the award-winning 1994 book The Moral Animal: Evolutionary Psychology and Everyday Life, man is at best a hypocrite cultivating a self-flattering moral illusion:

The pretense of selflessness is about as much part of human nature as is its frequent absence. We dress ourselves up in tony moral language, denying base motives and stressing our at least minimal consideration for the greater good; and we fiercely and self-righteously decry selfishness in others.

Wright’s disdainful view of the matter in this passage reminds me a little of an anthropology seminar I attended in 2007 where the speaker had the temerity to describe the moral principles of old-time Aboriginal society. The first member of the audience to respond could barely contain his exasperation. Morality! In grinding tones evidently haunted by an early and unsatisfactory encounter with the Irish Church, this senior academic made the very notion of any kind of morality—Aboriginal, western, or whatever—seem abhorrent. To speak of morality was not merely hypocritical; it was in some way evil itself.

The moral continuum

Frans de Waal, by contrast, “views morality as a direct outgrowth of the social instincts that we share with other animals… Morality is neither unique to us nor a conscious decision taken at a specific point in time: it is the product of evolution.” Mankind along with many other mammals is anatomically, neurologically, and ethically continuous with the rest of creation—more evolved, but evolved from the same stuff. As for the primates, when we climbed up from the apes certain moral sentiments came with us, and these provided a foundation for social life. In arguing this case de Waal aligns himself firmly with Adam Smith, David Hume, and Charles Darwin.

Smith’s observations on animal behavior in his treatise are few, but at one point he remarks that resentment in animals prompts justifiable retaliation. (We might express this by adapting the French witticism as follows: “Cet animal n’est pas méchant, quand on l’attaque, il se défend.”) For his part Hume was consistently uniformitarian—we’re all animals together. Though our four-legged friends may not alas speak English, from external resemblances we deduce internal similarities: “When any hypothesis, therefore, is advanc’d to explain a mental operation, which is common to men and beasts, we must apply the same hypothesis to both,” adding that “no truth appears to me more evident than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men.”

As for Charles Darwin, de Waal strongly argues—in this agreeing with Ernst Mayr—that T. H. Huxley wholly misrepresented Darwin’s view of the evolution of morality and its relation to animal behavior. Darwin allowed for the development of both altruistic and sympathetic tendencies, explaining them by a form of group selection, and emphasized continuity with animals in the moral as well as the anatomical domain. He wrote in The Descent of Man (1871):

Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, the parental and filial affections being here included, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man.

Edward Westermarck

But in de Waal’s view, even more important to understanding the role of sentiment in matters moral was the Swedish Finn Edward Westermarck (1862-1939), author of The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas (1908) who provides an epigraph at the start of Chapter One:

We approve and we disapprove because we cannot do otherwise. Can we help feeling pain when the fire burns us? Can we help sympathizing with our friends?

Though Westermarck’s thoughts on the origins of the family are well-known in social anthropology, de Waal believes that he was under-appreciated during his lifetime, and this because his ideas “flew in the face of the Western dualistic tradition that pits body against mind and culture against instinct.” Emotion and sentiment had a central place in Westermarck’s ethical thinking, where he distinguished moral from non-moral emotions. Gratitude and resentment, for example, directly concern one’s own interests and how one wants to be treated, and in themselves are too egocentric to be more than a starting point in moral evolution.

The moral sentiments of the more evolved ethical systems of human society, in Westermarck’s words, “differ from kindred non-moral emotions by their disinterestedness, apparent impartiality, and flavour of generality.” They embody Adam Smith’s idea of the “impartial spectator” who represents and endorses principles of fairness and justice that can be applied to all. One might say they aspire to the detached condition of universally applicable golden rules.

Nevertheless emotions of gratitude and resentment, prompted by deep intuitions of what is an appropriate reward for help or an appropriate retaliation for injury, are at the foundation of much moral psychology—as any reader of Adam Smith will quickly find. Whole chapters of The Theory of Moral Sentiments discuss resentment in various ways, and though he regards it as “the most odious, perhaps, of all the passions” (V.II.I) he considers that for anyone not to respond with justifiable anger to abuse and injury is a fault in itself. If God himself could be justifiably enraged, why shouldn’t Man?

We sometimes complain that a particular person shows too little spirit, and has too little sense of the injuries that have been done to him; and we are as ready to despise him for the defect, as to hate him for the excess of this passion.

The inspired writers would not surely have talked so frequently or so strongly of the wrath and anger of God, if they had regarded every degree of those passions as vicious and evil, even in so weak and imperfect a creature as man. (V.II.I)

Forgiveness, dogs, and Roger Scruton

In the December 14 2007 issue of the Times Literary Supplement Roger Scruton reviewed Forgiveness—A Philosophical Exploration by Charles Griswold. In the course of discussing resentment Scruton takes a stick to the evolutionary biologists who “are producing one phoney account (of human nature) after another, designed to show that human societies are constructed from the same ingredients as the tribes of apes”, a view he disapproves. Unlike dogs, he writes, man can forgive because he is a “free and accountable being.”

Dogs don’t forgive, because dogs don’t resent. Forgiveness is unique to rational beings, and is a gift of metaphysical freedom.

I admire Roger Scruton as a cultural sage but I wonder if he isn’t overstating the case? And while he knows all about metaphysics does he know about cats and dogs? Only this morning I aroused in our cat the strong expectation of being promptly fed—an expectation frustrated as I absent-mindedly made myself a cup of tea—and received a sharp nip on the heel. That is how he regularly reminds me of my duty.

Deepening my research into these matters over coffee at a Bondi latté bar, I asked a friend if dogs feel both anger and the lingering memory of injury resentment implies. He mentioned an amiable pooch of his acquaintance named Cosmo that was struck by a misdirected skateboard some months ago. The dog’s disposition had once been entirely sunny, but this changed his life. Cosmo has fiercely attacked skateboarders ever since.

Resentment is described in my Shorter Oxford Dictionary as “a strong feeling of ill-will or anger against the author or authors of a wrong or affront; the manifestation of such feeling against the cause of it.” It seems to me that corresponds pretty well to Cosmo’s feeling about skateboards, and de Waal’s discussion of similar matters reinforces this view. He writes that there are numerous stories regarding “delayed retaliation” in the zoo world, especially about apes and elephants, and goes on to relate Westermarck’s tale about a fourteen-year-old who viciously beat his camel whenever it loitered or turned the wrong way.

The camel passively took its punishment; but some days later “seized the unlucky boy’s head in its monstrous mouth, and lifting him up in the air flung him down again on the earth with the upper part of the skull completely torn off, and his brains scattered on the ground.”

Camels normally show remarkable forbearance: events of this kind are probably rare. It seems they are not rare however among chimpanzees, whose “revenge systems” for punishing those who inflict injury de Waal has written about elsewhere. Scruton’s dogmatic assertion about forgiveness is also a bit suspect. According to de Waal, Westermarck describes “turning the other cheek” as a universally appreciated gesture. Chimpanzees kiss and embrace after fights, says de Waal,

And these so-called reconciliations serve to preserve peace within the community. A growing literature exists on conflict resolution in primates and other mammals. Reconciliation may not be the same as forgiveness, but the two are obviously related.

David Hume and Adam Smith

Philosophers are over-inclined to take the meanings of words as a starting point, rather than reality itself, and it would be a mistake to get etymologically hung up on the mere words resentment and forgiveness. Neurologically, the reality is that the memory of injury persists somewhere in the brain as a disposition, an inclination to retaliate if and when opportunity offers. It may be just a niggle. It may be more. It may in the true paranoid become an all-consuming obsession.

Roger Scruton has a valid point about the uniquely detached ratiocination of the free intellect, but when David Hume tells us that “no truth appears to me more evident than that beasts are endow’d with thought and reason as well as men”, he has a point too.

It is also worth bearing in mind that although moral reasoning of the more advanced kind may be the exclusive prerogative of homo sapiens, and of moral teachers from Christ to Kant who were able to put their thoughts into words, the neurological pattern of injury, anger, and retaliation (and reconciliation too) must long antedate any human reasoning about the matter.

The brains of many social animals would have been hardwired to act in this way defensively, instinctively, spontaneously, long before language was ever heard of—let alone the language of philosophers. The following passage, written in 1759, concentrates Adam Smith’s thoughts on instinct, the animal need for self-preservation, and the limited role of reason in the earliest formation of moral rules and behavior:

Self-preservation, and the propagation of the species, are the great ends which nature seems to have proposed in the formation of all animals. Mankind are endowed with a desire of those ends, and an aversion to the contrary; with a love of life, and a dread of dissolution; with a desire of the continuance and perpetuity of the species, and with an aversion to the thoughts of its entire extinction.

But though we are in this manner endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has not been entrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason, to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts.

Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, the love of pleasure, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them. (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, V.II.I)

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