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What is morality? An easy, silly question, on such a used, even trite term. As the Compact Oxford English Dictionary online reads, it is, first, a set of "principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior." Among other definitions of the term, we find that it is, also, "the extent to which an action is right or wrong." Yet, what is the meaning of moral? Or good and bad behavior? Things get complicated, quickly. And they remain so, even though you ask an expert. Still, many of us use this term often, usually through a concealed reference: "you're so kind," "that's fair," "X should be grateful," and so on. Kindness and empathy, gratitude and fairness could be found in primates as well. How do we get to know what make us different on this account? For we are different, not only because we can articulate those references, but also because we can devise a system in which any reference of that kind can be validated. Well, we can deny that primates can get moral qualifications, as anthropomorphisms, and we can hold them for us, exclusively. Or we can say that we're evolved. How?
There are a few ways to conceive the history of morality. I cannot give them numbers, and frankly I'm even afraid to hierarchize, since there's a serious quarrel regarding them. It seems to me that Frans de Waal had great courage to enter the mined territory of the "fuzzy ethics," as we can call the Ethics shared with other animals. Still, the path is very interesting. Briefly, the main story of this book is the following: de Waal addresses the problem of developed-or-gained morality. He sets himself against the theory of morality as a veneer. That is, morality is the thin layer covering the very bad to not good human nature, which otherwise would grin, showing us its not so peaceful teeth. Thomas Henry Huxley was the father of this theory. But accepting the theory would mean that we have gained this layer; it is (or it was) not ours. Someone gave it to us, or we have built it slowly, in order to wrap our unpleasant nature. De Waal does not agree with the theory of veneer. Why? Because his strong belief is that morality has been developed through evolution. And the supportive arguments he uses come from our kindred species: apes. They have emotions, show reciprocity and fairness in action, and these are the building blocks of morality. So, rather than believing in a fabricate layer of veneer, we should see that morality is developed from these blocks. The evolutionary process may have not endowed us with the complicated system of Ethics, but surely have given us the core of it: "the essence of human morality."
Here comes Robert Wright, with a short and interesting critique of the uses of anthropomorphisms, and a peaceful conclusion which proposes a combination "naturalistic-veneer" for bringing us closer to the truth. Then Christine Korsgaard engages with a critical essay on morality and distinctiveness of human action, with an impressive finish on "our obligation to treat the other animals decently." Philip Kitcher finds appropriate to make some clarifications about the real issues, among which lies the one of the simplicity of "Veneer Theory" version demolished by de Waal. His point is that things are too complicated to be addressed with vague phrases as "building blocks" and "direct outgrowths" and that, in general, "the mere demonstration of some type of psychological altruism in chimpanzees... shows very little about the origins or evolution of ethics." At last, we have Peter Singer with a position close to Wright's on the problem of the morality as veneer, and with new light shed on the subject of animal rights.
Then de Waal makes his comeback, with a more focused explanation of his view on morality. The three levels of morality -- building blocks, social pressure, and judgment and reasoning -- and the "taxonomy of altruistic behavior" are designed to make his thesis clearer, by putting together all the pieces the author could get for stating the overlapping moral grounds of primates and humans. If one neglects this common ground, it is as though one arrives "at the top of a tower to declare that the rest of the building is irrelevant, that the precious concept of 'tower' ought to be reserved for its summit." And in this tower of morality, animals "occupy several floors" -- at the base.
The book is full of insights, arguments, argument analysis, and colored, startling stories with chimpanzees, capuchin monkeys and bonobos, which render it both a fascinating lecture and a serious discourse on an important set of subjects, gathered by Stephen Macedo and Josiah Ober, the two editors. In the end I shall say that no one of the authors have given a full answer to the question of what is morality, even though de Waal provides us with his elaborated theory on a "morality with levels," backed-up by the facts from apes' lives. What remains is the problem of explaining the presence of primates' actions and allegedly thoughts similar to our moral actions and thoughts, as well as the problem of conclusions we can draw from these with regard to animal rights. And to both these problems we should add -- in fact, this is the book's aim -- the complexity of taking into account the possibility of primates mirroring our ancestors. That's what primates can do to philosophers. As Robert Wright simply put it, "We can say, 'Gosh, chimpanzees are more impressive than I thought'.... Or, alternatively, we can say, 'Gosh, humans are less exalted than I'd thought'...."
Ó 2007 Viorel Zaicu
Viorel Zaicu, Ph.D., Bucharest, Romania