Thursday, March 15, 2012

De Been and Taekema - What Piece of Work is Man? Frans De Waal and Pragmatist Naturalism

In this open access article posted at the Social Science Research Network, Wouter De Been and Sanne Taekema (both of Erasmus University Rotterdam [EUR] - Erasmus School of Law) examine the research of primatologist Frans De Waal on the inherent goodness of primates (including, of course, human beings) and how this could and should impact the law.

However, they reject De Waal's stance that we embrace Adam Smith’s moral theory (focused on sympathy and empathy) and argue that a return to pragmatism is more suitable to adjusting the legal system to fit with De Waal's research. Following Jesse Prinz, they believe that moral goodness is as much (likely more) socially constructed as it is a natural element of our nature, thus the rejection of Smith and the move toward pragmatism (John Dewey and others).

Erasmus University Rotterdam, Erasmus School of Law,
Department of Jurisprudence/Department of Socio-Legal Studies and

Erasmus Working Paper Series on Jurisprudence and Socio-Legal Studies
No. 12-01: February 23, 2012, Version: 1.0

Frans de Waal has questioned a central premise of liberal theory, i.e. that human beings are primarily defined by selfishness and rationality. This premise does not conform to what we know from research about our primate origins - namely that primates are gregarious and guided by sympathy and empathy. De Waal argues we should return to Adam Smith’s moral theory and his focus on sympathy and empathy. We believe a return to pragmatism would be more appropriate. Pragmatism largely conforms to the view of human nature that De Waal’s research now supports. We argue that pragmatism can provide a more sophisticated framework to integrate recent insights about primate sociality into political and legal theory. Moreover, we think the pragmatist approach can enrich the hermeneutic strain in De Waal’s research.

The intelligent acknowledgment of the continuity of nature, man and society will alone secure a growth of morals which will be serious without being fanatical, aspiring without sentimentality, adapted to reality without conventionality, sensible without taking the form of calculation of profits, idealistic without being romantic.
~ John Dewey (1983 (1922), p. 13)

Citation: De Been, W. and Taekema, S. (February 20, 2012). What Piece of Work is Man? Frans De Waal and Pragmatist Naturalism. Erasmus Working Paper No. 12-01. Available at SSRN:

Here are a couple of paragraphs from the Introduction that outline the arc of their article and arguments.

In this article we will bring De Waal and pragmatism together. We believe both these bodies of work can reap benefits from such a confrontation. For De Waal, pragmatism offers a more robust and comprehensive philosophical framework. Smith’s moral theory can provide inspiration, but it is too much a product of the 18th century to account for all the things we have learned about human beings since. Pragmatism provides a more current perspective on the issues that concern De Waal. For pragmatism, in turn, De Waal can contribute much more sophisticated insights into primate and social behavior. His research presents a strong case for the innate gregariousness and natural social virtue of human beings, things that the classical pragmatists assumed without much empirical evidence. As a result, they can flesh out pragmatism with a more robust substantive conception of life in groups. This could make a considerable contribution to pragmatism as a substantive theory. Pragmatism has been criticized for being banal, for merely providing a framework for research and understanding, but leaving everything as it is and lacking any substantive content (Rorty 1991). What De Waal shows is that the naturalism of pragmatism provides much more of a substantive theory than just an acceptance of contingency.
The article consists of three parts. To begin with, we will describe De Waal’s recent critique of the contract tradition and the view of human beings implicit in it. Secondly, we will describe the continuities of his work with classical pragmatism and suggest how De Waal’s critique can be subsumed in a pragmatic framework. Finally, we will address some of the theoretical consequences of bringing together classical pragmatism with De Waal’s insights. Three themes will be discussed in this final section. First, the consequences of replacing selfishness and individualism as basic premises of legal and political theory will be elaborated upon. If methodological individualism is replaced with a broader understanding of human nature that embraces such notions as sympathy, kindness, and need for companionship, then this will obviously militate against the formulation of a single, coherent ideal theory. Moreover, it will raise the question of the scope of our moral obligation to others. If the basic assumption is that people pursue their self-interest, the scope is clear. In the end people just fend for themselves. If the basic assumption is that people act out of sympathy and fellow feeling, this raises the question of how far this sympathy extends and what the scope of our obligations is. Second, both De Waal’s work and pragmatism seem to turn on the rejection of such dichotomies as the one between nature and culture, or fact and value. Again this favors the substitution of the transcendental style of theorizing characteristic of contract theory, with a more hermeneutic, comparative approach rooted in reality. The third and last theme is what pragmatism has to offer De Waal. Tracing the methodological similarities between De Waal and pragmatism raises the question how close De Waal’s primatology is to the naturalist methodology of the pragmatists. Combining nature and culture the way De Waal does also calls for reflection on the proper methodology to study the combination. Here, a pragmatist hermeneutics may provide an closer link between De Waal and the humanities and social sciences.

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