I recently came across this video
which led me to his book The Bonobo and the Atheist.
At the end of his TED talk he has some disparaging comments aimed at philosophers saying something like “philosophers need to rethink their view of morality” and this of course won’t do so I had take to the good ol’ blog to set the record straight for all the world to see.
In the concluding words of the book Waal says something to the effect of “Philosophers talk about the distinction between descriptive and prescriptive or the is ought distinction but don’t bonobos live in a world full of oughts as their social life is government by many prescriptions?”
I’m a little hesitant here because the author lists a number of philosophers in his acknowledgements but either they are confused or he didn’t really understand what they tried to convey because I’m pretty sure he is dead wrong in his assessment of the philosophical implications of his work.
I think we can add Waal’s confusion here to the list of the many problems in the world could be fixed if people just read Kant.
Kant identifies two very different types of prescriptions or imperatives as he calls them: hypothetical and categorical. Moral commands are categorical meaning they take for of “Do X, whereas hypothetical imperatives have the conditional form of “If you want Y, then do X.” Essentially hypothetical imperatives refer to self-interest. This has also been known as prudential reasoning. Whatever prescriptions the bonobos are under I’m pretty sure they are all hypothetical or prudential. And if they truly are categorical, i.e. bonobos are rational agents, then they are examples of full blooded moral agents. So, either way the bonobo’s behavior is not problematic to moral philosophy.
Another related element although somewhat controversial element of Kant’s moral philosophy is the claim that only a very narrow sliver of actions have moral value. Controversially actions done out of empathy or instinct have no moral value. The mother caring for her child when she loves her has no moral value but it does have moral value when she feels like screaming at the child yet restrains herself and acts kindly none the less. The way Kant puts it is that actions that are merely in accord with the moral law have no moral value but actions that are done purely out of respect for the moral law have moral value. An action has moral value when you don’t want to do it but you realize you ought to do it because it is commanded by the moral law, which is commanded to us by dint of our faculty of reason.
So, either bonobos can do that or can’t. If they can’t then their actions have no moral worth and if they can then more power to them as they are full fledged moral agents. But as I said earlier neither option is philosophically problematic.
p.s. It would probably disingenuous to not note that I find Dr. Waal’s research absolutely fascinating.
p.p.s. In the book there is also some sort of attempt made to take some wind out of the sails of religion based morality. Without going into details the problem with his basic argument is a confusion of normative ethics with meta-ethics. Possibly more on that later. I’ve posted something about this here.
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