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Nature and morals
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Reading: The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal (2009).

Jim gave it to me.

As the title indicates, the idea of this book is to promote a change in the moral climate, from the recently fashionable social Darwinism & market-worship to a greater reliance on cooperative motives. The author hopes that the recent economic shock will make such a project feasible, and he essays to contribute to it, as a primatologist, by arguing that cooperation is as much a part of animal nature (including human nature) as is competition.

This thesis to some extent offends my prejudices. I tend to think of human cooperation, and even affection, as largely a matter of artifice. My point of view is well summarized by the aphorism of an intelligent bear in an early story by Isaac Asimov: We are "gregarious without being social"; we have an inborn need to live with each other, but no inborn way to do it. But actually (at least in some moods), de Waal does not greatly disagree with me. He looks to nature for resources, not for instructions:

...one can't derive the goals of society from the goals of nature.... All that nature can offer is information and inspiration, not prescription.
 
The book of nature is like the Bible:  Everyone reads into it what they want, from tolerance to intolerance, and from altruism to greed.
 
However, it is very hard, in Western civilization, to avoid rhetoric based on the notion that nature embodies advice from God, and de Waal sometimes writes in a way that may suggest such a thing to the unwary:  He quotes Darwin to the effect that any animal "endowed with well-marked social instincts" will be bound to develop morality as soon as it develops sufficient intellect, and comments:
 
 
...an interest in others is fundamental.  Where would human morality be without it?  It's the bedrock on which everything else is constructed.
 
 
"Fundamental" & "bedrock", IMO, are words to avoid in such discourse, because they carry a lot of distracting baggage.  "Necessary" and "material" (from which) would have been safer.  Likewise, in
 
We can't return to [the] preindustrial way of life....  Yet...we remain essentially the same animal....
 

I could do without "essentially".

In Chapter 4 he makes a distinction between sympathy & empathy, pretty much as I learned it in school:  Empathy is modeling the feelings of others; sympathy is making them one's own, which conduces to helpful action.  But he does not keep it up:  Later on, we find Schadenfreude described (twice) as "the opposite of empathy", and we are told that psychopaths "successfully fake empathy".

Another instance of risky diction is the use of "direct" in

Empathy offers direct access to "the foreign self."
 
and

Emotional contagion relies on a direct channel between the other's and our own emotions.
 
de Waal does not mean he believes in telepathy, but some careless & hopeful readers are sure to think he does.

The writing is sometimes (in the view of this literate 72-year-old) vulgar as well as sloppy:  "Both views sound similar" (to each other); "incredible survival value"; "by British political philosopher Herbert Spencer"; "historical papers" (not about history).  However, this is de Waal's book, not mine, and he is only keeping down with the times.  Probably anyone who happens to read these examples will not even understand what is irritating me.

Inasmuch as this book deals with the ontogeny as well as the phylogeny of morals, it seems odd that Piaget is nowhere mentioned.  I read a little of him 50 years ago, and he seemed a careful observer.  Is he so greatly out of fashion now?