Steven Pinker on The Moral Instinct

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Steven Pinker did an excellent job outlining an evolutionary explanation and approach to our individual and collective moral intuitions. The most intriguing part of Pinker’s long essay is his summary of the view that there may be a small set of universal moral values, along the lines of Noam Chomsky’s theory of a universal grammar, and that cultural differences in morality are explained through the different rankings and importance that different cultures assign to different values,

All this brings us to a theory of how the moral sense can be universal and variable at the same time. The five moral spheres [harm, fairness, community, authortiy, purity] are universal, a legacy of evolution. But how they are ranked in importance, and which is brought in to moralize which area of social life — sex, government, commerce, religion, diet and so on — depends on the culture. Many of the flabbergasting practices in faraway places become more intelligible when you recognize that the same moralizing impulse that Western elites channel toward violations of harm and fairness (our moral obsessions) is channeled elsewhere to violations in the other spheres. Think of the Japanese fear of nonconformity (community), the holy ablutions and dietary restrictions of Hindus and Orthodox Jews (purity), the outrage at insulting the Prophet among Muslims (authority). In the West, we believe that in business and government, fairness should trump community and try to root out nepotism and cronyism. In other parts of the world this is incomprehensible — what heartless creep would favor a perfect stranger over his own brother?

Pinker argues that examining our differing moral thinking through the lens of these five factors may allow us not only to understand each other better, but also achieve more rational solutions to problems such as global warming. This is, in Pinker’s view, much preferable to the habit of moralizing problems, and he does a nice job of taking chief moralizers Leon Kass to task to demonstrate the problems of reducing morality simply to our intuitions,

Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”

There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.

Pinker is certainly on the right track here, but he too quickly glosses over just how disconcerting this is. Earlier in his essay he debunks a naive version of the selfish gene theory, demonstrating that although our genes may be selfish that does not mean that human behavior must be (as he puts it, the genes that predispose us to care for our children may be selfish, but parents who care for their children are usually acting on genuinely altruistic motives).

Be that as it may, our moral intuitions are extremely deep rooted and it is disconcerting to think that, for example, my view that free speech should be tolerated except for a handful of very extreme instances is simply a product of a)  an evolved, shared set of moral values, combined with b)  the particular way that my culture and subculture rank the relative importance of those moral values. There is, after all, a reason that the “God said it, and I believe it” explanation of morality is so popular.

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