dirty rag

of dichotomies and morals - a defense of veneer theory - Dan Dreifort

Frans de Waal discounts veneer theory because he thinks the veneer of human goodness exists outside of evolution; existing without an explanation. He can find no evolutionary reason for the veneer to exist. However, I believe that humanity’s veneer of goodness over a bad core can live in harmony with biologically based morality.

This coexistence allows the veneer to easily fit in the Darwinian model. I argue that it’s not unreasonable for there to be two different types of humans. To suggest we’re either moral beings or not i.e. veneer theory is a binary consideration, is a false dichotomy. True moral agents and those only with a moral veneer can coexist.

Veneer Theory
Is our "good" just a thin coating?

That a trait or behavior exists and flourishes does not qualify it as a direct evolutionary advantage. Both blue and brown eyes are widespread in humans. Some of us are dark while some are pale. Both attached and detached earlobes are common, though neither is more beneficial than the other. Though there might be specific instances when such variations come in handy, clearly a single species can exhibit different manifestations or deviations of a particular aspect of its phenotype without any one particular exhibition being more fit. I.e. what is, is not necessarily fit in the Darwinian sense.

We know of creatures benefiting from natural mimicry when a harmless animal looks like a dangerous and/or poisonous creature. (This is different from environmental camouflage e.g. a chameleon or a hunter/soldier in fatigues.) It is advantageous that the harmless king snake resembles the poisonous coral snake. The king snake need only appear to be poisonous. From this we take that what is, though fit in a sense, might not be primarily so, in that this secondary fitness relies on disparate primary fitness.

Some people are good. Some people are bad. While de Waal denies the possibility of such a dichotomy, for this argument, we must accept that while there are obviously good/moral people, some people are bad (selfish/immoral/not good/etc.) This isn’t much of a stretch! After accepting this for the sake of argument if nothing else, it’s easy to paint a picture of veneer theory coexisting with both moral agents and Darwin. If you are bad, would it not benefit you at times if others thought you good? I.e. can’t you be bad but seem good to some people sometimes? The marketeer touting the benefits of cigarettes knowing they’re deadly, the adulterous spouse sleeping with a different floozy every day who gives AIDS to his wife, the developer gaining rights to build on the three-eared poop owl’s last mating grounds even though the birds’ excrement is thought to be a panacea; by many counts, these are clearly bad people. By other narratives though, e.g. their parents or people who know them in other situations, these people seem good.

These baddies spend a lot of their time mimicking those who are good. How else would the marketeer be able to market, the adulterer seduce his score, or the developer get his permits? To many people, in many situations, those bad people appear to be good people because of a veneer of goodness.

Does the king snake’s unconscious mimicry harm the coral snake? Surely, on occasion it does. For example when a predator has had a good experience feasting on a king snake and then luckily preys on a coral snake without consequence. Does the shifty bastard salesman selling the lemon to grandma give “good” salesmen a bad rap? Yes. In both cases the mimic makes out more often than the model, getting all of the model’s benefits while never helping it and occasionally harming it. The veneer of goodness is clearly then an evolutionary advantage if we accept these premises.