Franz De Waal At The NY Times 10/17/10: ‘Morals Without God?’

Full piece here.

“Charles Darwin was interested in how morality fits the human-animal continuum…”


“Unfortunately, modern popularizers have strayed from these insights. Like Robert Wright in “The Moral Animal,” they argue that true moral tendencies cannot exist — not in humans and even less in other animals — since nature is one hundred percent selfish. Morality is just a thin veneer over a cauldron of nasty tendencies.”

And in addressing the Creationist debate:

“Such findings have implications for human morality. According to most philosophers, we reason ourselves towards a moral position. Even if we do not invoke God, it is still a top-down process of us formulating the principles and then imposing those on human conduct.”

Of course, this leaves De Waal in a position against idealism in philosophy (that any of our knowledge exists beyond our senses, either as coming from a transcendent God, Rationalism, Platonism, Kantian Transcendental Idealism, Absolute Idealism/Hegelianism etc).  Everything known is a product of our sensory experience, on this view, including his own theories and empirical research with the primates.  That’s a deep debate:

“Instead, I am a firm believer in the Humean position that reason is the slave of the passions. We started out with moral sentiments and intuitions, which is also where we find the greatest continuity with other primates.”

See Also: David Hume, Idealism,

Addition:  Of course one big fear is that some evo-psy, cog-sci theories converging back to Humean empiricism can be used to support a political ideology that seeks to supplant religious morality, and it might be worth imagining a society in which the chips are down for someone with political and moneyed interest in using like theories to suppress opposition, coercion.  I often think of this when the Catholic church is taken to task by post-modern pop thought (when did psychology become the default undergraduate major anyways?).  A rational fear?  Perhaps, but likely not a sustained response to the depth of the theories.

Also On This Site: Maybe if you’re defending religion, Nietzsche is a problematic reference: Dinesh D’Souza And Daniel Dennett at Tufts University: Nietzsche’s Prophesy…

-Jesse Prinz argues that morals too, have roots in emotions, and argues that evo-psy/cog-sci should get back to British Empiricism, with some Nietzsche thrown in, among other things-More On Jesse Prinz. A Review Of “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” At Notre DameJesse Prinz Discusses “The Emotional Construction Of Morals” On Bloggingheads. Another Note On Jesse Prinz’s “Constructive Sentimentalism”

-Denis Dutton (of The Arts & Letters Daily) suggest art go forth into Darwinian territory:  From Bloggingheads: Denis Dutton On His New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’A Few More Thoughts On Denis Dutton’s New Book: ‘The Art Instinct’

-Does Leo Strauss effectively offer a way around what he saw as an uncessary removal of religious thinking from moral philosophy…do you need the esotericism?:  Harry Jaffa At The Claremont Institute: ‘Leo Strauss, the Bible, and Political Philosophy’

-Taking religion out of the laws, and replacing it with a Millian/Aristelolian framework?: Repost: Martha Nussbaum Channels Roger Williams In The New Republic: The First Founder…From First Things Via The A & L Daily: ‘In Defense Of Disgust’

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