Pinker on “The Moral Instinct”

Pinker concludes his lengthy discussion of “The Moral Instinct” in the NYTimes:

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.)

7 thoughts on “Pinker on “The Moral Instinct””

  1. The problem with this whole line of research is that it cannot prove anything outside of our culture. The human brain begins life as a highly interconnected network of neurons. As children turn into adults, connections are pruned and new ones are established. That is the biological corollary to learning. By the time men are old enough to have established moral and ethical judgments, often in their mid-20s, they have re-programed their brains with their culture. Looking at neural activity in an adult cannot tell you what innate and what is learned.

    One of the oldest problems in philosophy is the attempt to establish a basis for morality that is objective and accessible to human reason without divine intervention. Philosophers from Plato to Kant and on to Pinker have tried to find it. I do not think they have made their case. Plato, at least, had the good grace to confess his failure in the Republic, see Book X page 614, the Story of Er. Kant, OTOH, blustered when Benjamin Constant called him out.

    Pinker and other seekers of a biological basis for morality are bound to be disappointed. There is no morality in biology only appetite.

    Is there a moral order in the universe? I think so. Can it be found by bare reason? I do not think so.

  2. Robert, maybe I misunderstand, but Pinker is arguing from a viewpoint that the brain does not operate in the way you describe, i.e. that the brain is has biologically determined artibutes and is not perfetly plastic.

  3. Robert’s reading of Pinker is incorrect. Pinker is describing dual-processing research on morality, which may be thought of as Orientation and Decision within the OODA Loop.

    Robert’s criticisms are probably better directed at Evolutionary Psychology, where they would be incorrect (I think) but much closer to the mark. Elsewhere, Pinker emphasizes his differences with the Evolutionary Psychologists: while they seek a “psychic unity of humanity,” Pinker is interested in how people differ.

    (The massive acceleration of natural selection since the dawn of agriculture makes much of evolutionary psychology unlikely, imho.)

  4. Steph: You are correct that the fixity of the brain from birth on is Pinker’s viewpoint. What I am saying is that neuroscience has demonstrated that Pinker’s viewpoint is not correct. The human brain changes through growth and development. I don’t think that anyone claims it is perfectly plastic, but they have demonstrated that it is not fixed.

    Joseph: as usual, wrong church, wrong pew.

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