:::this is the way the world ends:::

Steven Pinker

Pinker has a quite good article in the NY Times.

There isn’t too much new there, but it offers a good overview of some of the ideas of Moral Psychology and relates them to issues of the environment at the end.

I’m glad that he brings up Peter Singer’s idea of the expanding circle of reciprocal trust and action. He once again dismisses religion by saying that Plato did away with it 2,400 years ago, which again, seems a bit odd, but the article has a lot of good info.

It does seem funny that these guys keep insisting that “love thy neighbor as thy self” is the ultimate moral concept, but keep dismissing religion. Oh well.

Here’s the link if you guys get a chance. It’s about eight pages; so probably takes about fifteen minutes to read.


  1. J.E.

    Thanks so much for posting this Ned. It was on my list of things to do.

    As far as dismissing religion, the scientific lens is will never be satisfied with the “because I said so” necessity of a religious institution. As the church (arguably) diminishes in its influence, it seems critical to fill that gap of “Thou-Shalt” with something like “If-Then.”

    I don’t mean to open a can of worms here, but my view is that the essential elements of religion, which should be preserved, are not at risk of being thrown out with “magic tricks” and over bearing authority that have turned so many against religion. Ultimately morality will win out over nihilism and I think Pinker and many others are doing important work that will help shepherd many people through a difficult transition as painlessly as possible.

    I wish I could make more time to write further on this but there you have it.

    For those of you who may not take the time to read this (though hope you do), here, in my estimation, is the crux quoted at length:

    Here is the worry. The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world. The qualitative difference between red and green, the tastiness of fruit and foulness of carrion, the scariness of heights and prettiness of flowers are design features of our common nervous system, and if our species had evolved in a different ecosystem or if we were missing a few genes, our reactions could go the other way. Now, if the distinction between right and wrong is also a product of brain wiring, why should we believe it is any more real than the distinction between red and green? And if it is just a collective hallucination, how could we argue that evils like genocide and slavery are wrong for everyone, rather than just distasteful to us?

    Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not — if his dictates are divine whims — why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child. Would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others — if a command to torture a child was never an option — then why not appeal to those reasons directly?

    This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover. On this analogy, we are born with a rudimentary concept of number, but as soon as we build on it with formal mathematical reasoning, the nature of mathematical reality forces us to discover some truths and not others. (No one who understands the concept of two, the concept of four and the concept of addition can come to any conclusion but that 2 + 2 = 4.) Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

    Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

    One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things….

    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.’

  2. Ned

    I guess I am in basic agreement with you.

    I think that the basic tenets of religion will be preserved because they are true.

    I don’t think you’ve opened a can of worms. I have been frustrated with instiutions too, but also suprised at how they force me to open myself to people with whom I may have very little in common, and really that may be more what is needed than anything. So in some ways I am stretched by the experience even though I am as often annoyed by it. I think the “because I said so” is perhaps an unfair characterization, but I certainly understand and can sympathize with what you are saying.

    I think the Chekov quote is revealing in a number of ways, but especially in that it exposes one of my questions about moral psychology. M.P. tends to be a lens with which to interpret behavior and make one more self aware like a backwards looking lens, but it is very difficult in other ways to “apply” it in the way other psychological studies are applied, but that may be due to its relative newness. There’s my impatience rearing its head.

    I think it is interesting that our experiences as youths are very closely related through locality and high school, but I think our religious experiences are actually vastly different.

    I also think it would be interesting, if not a little too personal to investigate how much or how little we feel our world views have been swayed by spouses, family, friends, colleagues, etc.

    I understand what Pinker is saying when he says non-zero plus is in the nature of things, meaning it is a mathematical reality that plays out to our advantage if we let it. But I guess, maybe for me only, I think that the fact that all of this scientific exegesis leads us to the revelation that “love thy neighbor as thy self” is still the best policy at least gives me pause that there is a sort of divinity in that truth, as John Stuart Mill recognized. Pinker says there is nothing supernatural about it, and I can certainly sympathize and very often contemplate that. If we both agree that it’s true, does it matter why?

    Oh, and I think it is interesting that Pinker uses the example of hoarding surpluses while they rot. This is exactly an example that John Ruskin uses in a bit more depth when discussing the morality of commerce and Capitalism in “Unto This Last.” A book that influenced Gandhi, Marcel Proust, and William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement.

    Finally, here’s a quote from Gilead that I should probably take to heart. “Nothing true can be said about God from a posture of defense.”

  3. J.E.

    Oddly Ned, you and I seem to be on the same wavelength. Most likely as you were typing this response I was wondering about our contrasting religious experiences and how we both have arrived to this moment. It would be good to compare all of the HM experience if it is not too personal to be slinging about on a blog.

    There’s a lot to respond to here but what especially struck me were your comments on how institutions stretch your experience. In all aspects of my life I am very jealous of my time and I do avoid social interactions that involve the risk of “wasting” my time. I know this may be a failing of mine but I just can’t bring myself to risk it. i guess this is where authority and social obligation come in handy.

    More soon.

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