Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Why be moral? Why do anything?

I've just finished Frans De Waal's latest book, Primates and Philosophers. De Waal is a primatologist with a special interest in cooperative behavior and conflict resolution among great apes, and the book is a revision of a series of lectures he gave a few years ago. (A generous excerpt is available from the page linked above.) A little under half the book is De Waal's, and in it he sets out his case that human ethical conduct is based on "good natured" animal behavior. Then a number of prominent philosophers and biologists present critiques, to which De Waal responds.

It's good to have this kind of dialogue within book covers. As usual with De Waal, he makes a strong case but overstates it a bit. But he comes off better in many ways than his more philosophically-minded commentators.

For example, Christine Korsgaard and Peter Singer are still so embroiled in the philosophical tradition that they forget to ask themselves one question: How do we decide what to do?

Both of these distinguished philosophers hold to the notion that we can act either emotionally or on rational grounds. Singer says, "we can reflect on our emotional responses, and choose to reject them." (p. 149). Korsgaard writes, similarly, that a rational agent "is capable of rejecting an action along with its purpose, not because there is something else she wants (or fears) even more, but simply because she judges that doing that sort of act for that purpose is wrong." (p. 111).

But why would we do that? I'm not denying that we act unselfishly--indeed, I try to act that way myself. But I do it because I want to. It's easier to look myself in the mirror that way. I feel that I'm doing something that makes my living less of a waste, and I do it because of that sudden flame of empathetic delight that kindles between two people every now and then. I desire that sense of human contact more than any number of lesser pleasures, and I fear wasting my life more than most really big pleasures. I try to live ethically because I have an emotional need to live ethically.

How can people act in any other way? Are mothers selfish because their infants give them such great pleasure? Anyone whose mother felt otherwise and performed her parental duties simply out of a sense of obligation knows better.

De Waal cites work by Antonio Damasio and John Bargh, among others, suggesting that our actions are motivated by emotion. But we really shouldn't need neurologists to tell us this. It's only many years of telling ourselves that we are rational creatures that blinds us to the obvious truth, which is that at every moment we do whatever we want to do most of all. Morality involves educating the heart, opening ourselves to the pain of others, and learning that certain pleasures are not worth their consequences. It involves wanting to be a certain kind of person and wanting to live in a certain kind of world. Take away the wanting and none of the maxims, rules, and principles of ethics would matter to us at all.


Blogger Michael Steinberg said...

As for Buddhism: the Buddha told us to eliminate "craving" or selfish desires; I would think that the cessation of craving is the same thing as desiring exactly what is, neither more nor less.

2:03 PM  

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