Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Inside Outside

Back to Frans De Waal, in A Very Bad Wizard.
TS: Can primate research help them take this into account -- help them see that we're not built for caring about people with whom have no connection with [sic] at all?

FDW: Of course, I'm not saying we shouldn't care. I don't think primate research offers that kind of moral guideline. All I'm saying is that it will be a challenge. I think as soon as we lose our wealth, the caring we do have for distant out-groups will disappear. Given that we are wealthy as a nation, in that sense, we ought to care about others. But as soon as there's a crash in our economy, like in the '20s, say, something really serious, will we still care about distant people? Human caring is predicated on affordability. Moral obligations to the out-group are not -- however much philosophers might wish them to be so -- independent of moral obligations to the in-group. ... [78-79].
(Sommers mentions in a footnote that "this interview, of course, took place in early 2007", a year before the big economic crash of 2008.)

I'm not a primatologist, but that's okay because De Waal is stepping outside his field here anyway. It's not obvious to me that "wealth" is necessary to care about "distant out-groups." Generally it seems to be rich, or richer people who are most atomized, individualized, most apt to denounce foreign aid to people who don't respect the USA. (This may even have something to do with why they're rich.) The US spends a relatively small amount of its wealth on foreign aid, and a poor country like Cuba works hard to help other countries, notably by sending doctors and other aid in disasters like the recent earthquake in Haiti. That same earthquake, even in the wake of the economic collapse of 2008, elicited at least a pretense of caring from many Americans. Need I mention that the Great Depression De Waal refers to also led to the New Deal and a good many social programs that helped the American poor? I suppose his premise could be reconciled with reality by someone who knew what they were talking about, perhaps by adjusting the "out-groups" in question, but Sommers and De Waal are busy playing tough-minded realists here. Others might wish to indulge in soft-minded altruism, but they know better, as philosopher and primatologist: we just aren't built that way.

(Have I mentioned before my distaste for this move? Imagine a Stone Age Darwinian, warning his fellows that human beings evolved in warm climates, so it's hopeless to try to move north into the icy climes of Europe -- they'll just have to wait until we know enough about our genetic endowment to change ourselves to survive in such a hostile environment.)

And there's more:
TS: You also say that we have a mental switch that when triggered can turn friend into foe. An attack of some kind can trigger this. You said that our reaction to Iraq is perhaps an example of this kind of primitive impulse that you see even in chimpanzees.

FDW: If you hit yourself with a hammer, you're going to blame someone -- anyone. Frustration leads to angry reaction. This is known as the scapegoat effect, which occurs even in rats. You place two rats on an electric grid and shock them: they will attack each other as if the other is to blame for the pain. In primates, we often see that if there are tensions among higher-ups, they pick on a low-ranking individual to attack it. I felt the same happened in the United States after 9/11. A big and mighty country got attacked on its own soil -- something it's not used to -- and so someone had to be blamed, someone had to be attacked to let off steam. Thie target's actual guilt was a secondary concern. Afghanistan was not big enough for the angry reaction the US wanted to show. What struck me most was the cheerleading in the media. At the moment, everyone is backtracking and questioning the wisdom of the attack, but at the time it happened, all I saw was great enthusiasm. As a result, what is it, five hundred thousand Iraqis are gone? It's a disaster [79].
There might be a tiny bit of reality here, but again, De Waal is babbling. Did the attack on Iraq have to do with "tensions among higher-ups"? It's arguable, since in fact the US leadership had been planning an attack on Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. And at least "half a million Iraqis" were killed by US sanctions during the 1990s, plus random bombings and other US/UK terrorism. None of this had anything to do with 9/11.

Now, I agree, as do many people, that the US reacted to the 9/11 attacks with a blind bloodlust, a desire to kill ragheads, any ragheads. That led to the original US invasion of Afghanistan. "Afghanistan was not big enough for the angry reaction the US wanted to show," De Waal says -- but the US did attack Afghanistan, even though it remains doubtful that Afghanistan was responsible for 9/11. And while there was elite media and government support for Bush's invasion of Iraq, there was also more dissent than one would have expected: many liberals argued that we should concentrate on Afghanistan and capturing Bin Laden, or maybe we should go after North Korea. The scapegoat mechanism was working well on Afghanistan, but Bush had other obsessions. And nothing De Waal says can account for Obama's escalation in Afghanistan, or continued occupation of Iraq. (For that matter, how do other instances of US aggression fit in here? Vietnam? Bosnia? They don't work.) It looks to me as if De Waal has mixed up Afghanistan and Iraq here. Well, he's a primatologist, not an historian or a political scientist, but his attempts to relate his profession to current events falls flat.