Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”
He treads some ground we’ve seen in his earlier work but as usual his discussion excites – contrasting what appears universal and what doesn’t, optimistic in his belief that the more we know about being human the better humans we can be.
(Thanks, as about always with Pinker, to A&L.)
He begins with a comparison between the “goodness” of Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, and Borlaug. This is the season of socializing and last night amid much talk of the new president of the big school, replacing Gates, we talked of the ag department. I argued that in another hundred years what was being done in that department might be remembered, I doubted that work in the humanities would be. They laughingly protested that their works (in one case a prize-winning biography of a major American writer) would still be around. I said, yes, perhaps, but it was Borlaug who had changed the second half of the century. The philosophy professor argued, pointing out that who was remembered was the guy with the big ideas. Saving millions of lives wasn’t that, although the Green Revolution might appear in specialized histories. He’s got a point; I was probably being more provocative than thoughtful. Still, it’s nice to keep in mind real life as well as the life of the mind.
This came up because the new president, chosen by the Regents without taking any of the faculty senate’s recommendations, is from ag. The faculty feels dissed. The Regents chose a Hispanic woman – a Cuban from Ag. I argued that was good because I suspected it was the most important department on campus. The lit & philosophy professors were less sold. We’ll see. (Of course Cubans tend to be more conservative than other Hispanics and ag departments are the only ones on most campuses that vote majority Republican.)