Steven Pinker: Moral Instinct

Great piece in NyTimes Magazine on evolutionary morality.  This piece is light years better (imo) than the one I (somewhat snarkily) commented upon the other day.

The reason I like the piece so much is that he lays out the argument and evidence, is willing to concede it is incomplete as it stands and doesn’t take a bunch of ignorant pot-shots at religion.

Pinker argues that 1. there is a universal moral grammar developed out of evolution and 2. it is variable dependent on culture.  He writes:

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 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?

Which is a very good balance of the biological and the the social.

Scientific explanations as the growth of morality (which Pinker accepts–he wrote a classic piece on the reduction of violence corresponding to the modernization of societies):  selfish gene, reciprocal altruism, and zero-sum games (a la his friend Bob Wright in Nonzero).

And then this gem:

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner…Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.

In other words, now a psychological (individual choice) element.  Filling out the Big Three:  I, We, and It.  His description of rationality and its interchangeability is exactly the point made by Ken Wilber that cognitive development is the ability to take more and more perspectives.

Now Pinker no doubt would not accept the same theory I do–i.e. a transcendental natural Eros….a transcendence from within…a persuasive (love) element that is helping push this along.  Still, what this theory does (like Nonzero) is show that even materialist versions of evolution need not be ideological.  i.e. We can get rid of this canard that evolution is “purposeless”.

And rationality means consciousness, even if someone (say a Bob Wright) is an epiphenomenalist.

Sidenote:  Peter Singer who was one of the co-authors of the piece I heavily criticized.  His writings on the expansion of moral care are profound; it is just sad I think that he locks religion-religious belief into only one version [admittedly the largest] of religion, instead of seeing others–i.e. religious visionaries/saints–as allies in the project.

C4 also has a post on the same article here.

Published in: on January 13, 2008 at 7:27 pm  Leave a Comment  
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