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Benjamin McLean

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Real ethics is prescriptive, not descriptive.

As I explain in my video on "The Abolition of Man" instinct cannot provide any foundation for ethics as everything we say about instinct is descriptive not prescriptive. It discusses only what we actually do, not what we ought to do and ethics is the question of what we ought to do. http://youtu.be/Z60lncsXQrE?t=2m52s

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  • Apr 15 2012: I am afraid you are conflating (confusing?) ethics and morality. Many philosophers have done the same through history. The two, however, are not the same.

    Although I have my own quarrels with de Waal and believe he has a tendency to exaggerate the implications and to read way too much into the evidence he offers, I do want to point out that he was not talking about ethics in chimpanzees and other non-human species. He was talking about a "moral sensibility" and I don't believe he made any claim that a sense of morality was rooted only in instinct.

    Yes, I agree with you that ethics is rule-based and thus prescriptive. That's why we hold members of various professions (such as doctors, lawyers and others) to "ethical" (but not "moral") standards such as those set forth in each profession's adopted code of professional conduct. So when a lawyer, say, acts unethically by disclosing a privileged communication from a client to a third party, that lawyer is subject to disciplinary action and possible disbarment. We don't, however, discipline doctors or lawyers professionally when they act immorally by, for example, cheating on their spouses

    Morality is a much broader concept than ethics and is neither prescriptive nor descriptive. It asks us to have compassion (not pity) and to put ourselves psychologically and emotionally in the position of the other.

    Two philosophers, Simone Weil (the radical French Marxist atheist who later became a Christian mystic) and Iris Murdoch (the Oxford don and novelist) each wrote very beautiful, and I think very insightful, essays on moral thought and awareness. Simone Weil's concept of "attention" to others as described, for example, in her essay "The Love of God and Affliction" is very powerful and moving, even for a non-believer like me.

    Bottom line: I think you and de Waal are talking past one another that only adds to the confusion.

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