Moral behaviour in animals

In this talk the primatologist Frans de Waal explains the transition underway from a tendency to construe animal behaviour (including the human animal) in terms of competition, aggression and domination to a new understanding of a pervasive capacity for cooperation and empathy. It’s a fantastic talk, not least of all because of the animal videos he shows as part of it, but I found it rather puzzling – not in the sense that I disagree with him but simply because it challenged a lot of theoretical conclusions I had come to about animal behaviour.

I have always thought of reciprocity as consisting in a distributional norm and thus, it seemed, one emergent from social structures. I had assumed that issues of reciprocity wouldn’t emerge until you had socialised production processes (i.e. ongoing and organised collective activity, however simple this is) which generated a surplus. Furthermore I would have assumed that the ‘cognitive channel’ for empathy is something which presupposed language, in that it constituted a form of discursive awareness, though perhaps I’ve misunderstood the concept here.

I find his comments towards the end of the talk rather troubling, as they foretell (or rather his joke about Occupy and casual  dismissiveness of philosophical objections to his findings does) the political implications of this naturalisation of fairness. Perhaps our distributional norms (which I’d continue to insist, as an empirical statement, are social and linguistically coded) have their affective roots in a bio-social apparatus which de Waal has demonstrated in his research but his seeming willingness to reduce the former to the latter is the problem here? Though this may be an unfair judgement to make on the basis of a TED talk because he does talk explicitly about ‘continuity’ with other primates (rather than, say, equivalence) though it wasn’t entirely clear to me based on the content of the talk that he concretely holds to this.

Categories: Rethinking The World

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