Ard: And so do you think that these moral ideas, like taking care of those in the out-group, are real truths that are out there, that we discover, or are they just something that we've kind of made up ourselves?
FdW: No, I think we have arrived at them by intellectual means. They are more fragile, I think, and that's why I'm saying that as long as your group is doing well, you can do that, but if your group is not doing so well, I think they're fragile because we always, first of all, care about our group.
Ard: But do you think that they're actually true, just like one plus one equals two?
FdW: I don't know about that.
Ard: You don't?
FdW: I don't know if there's absolute truths in the world.
David: But does it matter for moral behaviour whether there are absolute moral truths?
FdW: No, I don't think so. Human behaviour is based on emotions and intuitions and social relationships and social strategies, and then the rationalisation is something that comes afterwards. So we're very good at rationalising afterwards. We're very good at justifying behaviour afterwards. But to make that the basis of human behaviour, or the basis of human morality, is a fundamental mistake, I think.
Ard: So what would the basis be then?
FdW: The basis is our evolved tendencies to be social, which include caring for each other, but also it includes caring for ourselves, of course.
Ard: Yeah, but those are tendencies that have evolved to care for our in-groups, right? Whereas often the difficult thing is caring for those that are outside of our group, so…
FdW: Yeah, and that...
Ard: …an argument… an argument could be you could say well, you know, Professor De Waal says this is what's evolved, morality's built up on this, so all of these tendencies we have to take care of people, they're not an in-group, we should ignore them because they're just, you know, they're not part of who we really are?
FdW: They're.. they're not part of our, let's say, biological foundation so to speak [yeah] but, and that's why I'm saying it, it's a secondary intellectual process where we say well we have extracted certain principles from how we treat each other and we're now trying to apply those principles outside of the group.
Ard: Yeah, but those are very important. That's a very important step, right?
FdW: It's a very important step, and I think we can congratulate each other as humans that we are capable of making that step – it's a wonderful step but it's a fragile step, I think.
Ard: And we often disagree on how that step should be done and... and you're not sure whether it's even the case that those thoughts like taking care of those that are outside of our group, whether that's even true, it's something that we've agreed with?
FdW: Well what we try to do under these circumstances is try to look at the out-group as if they're sort of an in-group, and nowadays in society with all the internet, and the planet has gotten smaller, that's actually easier. So if you hear about the tsunami in Japan, for example, in the old days you would read it in a newspaper, you would read it ten days later probably, and you would not be very much affected because it's basically text that you see.
Now you see video images, you see interviews with people who've lost their home, they've lost their children, they're crying on the camera, the body relation is there that you would never have from a newspaper, and as a result you feel closer to them and as a result you're going to give money or at least you worry about them. And so we are shrinking the world, and we're actually treating out-groups more like in-groups, and so we're actually getting back to these fundamental processes even for the out-group.
Ard: But isn't it slightly worrying that what makes us want to help the out-group is tricking ourselves into thinking they're part of our in-group?
Ard: Shouldn't we want to take care of them, regardless of whether we feel like they're part of their in-group?
FdW: No, but what we do is we manipulate their image, basically, in our mind, and instead of looking at them as strangers that we don't care about, we say but they're human, just like us, and so that's how we start to think about them. And the opposite process is of course dehumanisation which we also do with certain enemies, which is we're going to describe them as horrible and not worthy of consideration, and so we manipulate the image of others.
Ard: So how do we decide between which of those two manipulations to do? So yesterday we spoke… we had an interesting interview with Dr Gwen Patton, who is a civil rights activist, and so there was a very strong in-group/out-group feeling, or there is a very strong in-group/out-group between blacks and whites in the United States, and so what you're saying is we can manipulate our sense of the other by making them feel… dehumanising them or humanising them, and that's obviously a very powerful strategy to change people's behaviour, but it doesn't tell us whether we should dehumanise them or humanise them. Maybe we ought to dehumanise our enemies and humanise our friends? So the real… the deeper question is how do we decide which of these two strategies to take with a particular group like blacks and whites?
FdW: I feel humanisation is always better than dehumanisation.
Ard: Why do you feel that?
David: He's empathetic.
FdW: I'm empathetic, yeah.
David: You want it to be grounded rationally, don't you?
Ard: I want it to be. I think it's really important! I think it's really important because I think if it's just grounded in our passions, then the minute I realise that that's what it is, I can start manipulating it in myself and in others.
FdW: But that's like a bit like Immanuel Kant: he said compassion is beautiful but it's totally useless because...
Ard: Well I don't think it's useless. I think it's really... that’s where I disagree.
FdW: It's beautiful in the sense that he wanted to give it something, but duty is really what it comes down to, and that’s the Kantian view. And Kant is as antibiological as you can get, I think. Kant thinks everything top down…
Ard: Let's say that compassion is a good thing, which I think biologically we agree with, and evolution over time has generated us towards compassion, and it's good because our moral instincts correlate with this thing which is true. But what if it was false? How do we know whether our evolutionary instincts are all correlated with the things that are true? We have to work. These are important things to worry about.
FdW: I'm not sure that there are absolute truths out there in that...
David: No, I'm not sure either.
Ard: You're not sure?
David: I don't think they're correlating with anything that's out there.
Ard: Well I think they are. I think that they are.
David: Oh no.
Ard: Well this is where we disagree.
Ard: But you think there's no… you don't believe in these things?
FdW: I'm not sure. I'm an expert of primate behaviour, and this level of discourse where we look at are there absolute moral truths… I don't know what to do with that.