Steven Pinker on morality

While browsing web content on cognitive psychology and morality, I ran into “The Moral Instinct” by Steven Pinker, published in the January 13, 2008, issue of The New York Times Magazine. I missed the article then, but I’m happy to have found it now.

As always, I’m impressed by Pinker’s carefully organized ideas and clear prose. Unlike some writers on topics which enter traditionally religious turf, Pinker is direct without disrespect, reasoned without rancour. He acknowledges that “[m]orality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. . . .[s]o dissecting moral institutions is no small matter.”

Pinker concedes that moral considerations are different from other kinds of thought. In this, he parts company with some of his most strident colleagues. Our conceptions of certain actions as immoral can be distinguished from less intense beliefs that some actions are merely “disagreeable,” “unfashionable” or “imprudent.” Into which category an action should be placed is at the root of many of our familiar social conflicts:

Much of our recent social history, including the culture wars between liberals and conservatives, consists of the moralization or amoralization of particular kinds of behavior.

Pinker explains that many contemporary disagreements consist of arguments over whether an action “should be treated as a matter of preference and prudence or as a matter of sin and virtue.” He cites recent changes in our attitudes toward smoking, especially smoking in public, and toward issues like gay marriage as examples of moralization and amoralization, respectively.

This flux, especially the amoralization of traditional “family values,” fuels the cultural right’s fear that all morality is being undermined, and Pinker spends the bulk of the article articulating the case that morality itself s not destroyed merely through the process of being properly attributed and explained.

Pinker concedes that while “the moral sense may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain,” like Chomsky’s “universal grammar,” which can underpin any human language, the universal capacity to think morally does not mean that there is one moral code, shared by all people everywhere.

He argues instead that our “universal moral grammar” provides a number of categories, like nouns and verbs in the language metaphor. These categories have distinct and often dramatically different localizations. Citing Jonathan Haidt, Pinker lists five “primary colors of our moral sense”: harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. Variations on these primary concerns appear in moral thinking and behaviour worldwide, including in our own culture.

Pinker asserts that these five categories (he acknowledges that it’s possible to come up with a different list) are not only “ubiquitous” but also have “deep evolutionary roots.” Again, he makes the point that these categories are not a moral code in themselves, but rather are the conceptual groupings into which our moral thinking is placed in our consciousness:

All this brings us 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.

Does this view of the origins and types of morality undermine morality altogether? Pinker says no, and he goes on to explain away two of the major concerns of conservatives: the metaphor of the “selfish gene” and the concept of “reciprocal altruism.” Both, he shows, have been misconstrued and misunderstood, and neither means that human behaviour has been, or can be, reduced to mean or mechanical action.

A form of moral realism, Pinker argues, can be combined with a genetic predisposition to think in moral categories to give morality a this-worldy basis, one that obviates the need to impose a “higher” level of divine proscription: “Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction.”

First, by interacting with others, we learn to play “non-zero sum games” (which are practiced in some circumstances by some other primates, as well). Second, a consciousness of others as agents similar to ourselves (what Pinker calls “the interchangeability of perspectives”) leads to a version of the Golden Rule, which appears in one form or another in moral codes throughout history and around the world. An application of the Golden Rule can power what Peter Singer calls the Expanding Circle, in which we progress morally by including in our list of those others who are “like us” an ever-wider variety of people (and sometimes, other higher animals). From self, to family, to clan — and wider and wider until our moral sense encompasses every one of us, everywhere.

Pinker sees room for optimism in this version of morality, for if political, social, national or religious opponents can recognize that their opposite numbers share similar moral “hardware” and are, like themselves, acting from a moral standpoint, then “a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground.”

Pinker hopes that an understanding of the nature of moral thinking can alert us to “ways in which our psychological makeup can get in the way our arriving at the most defensible moral conclusions.” The impulse to purity, for example, “the shudder test,” is not a good way to decide moral issues:

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.

Finally, Pinker sees a clearer moral understanding as the ultimate outcome of a true science of the moral impulse:

Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

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.”

Thanks to writers like Steven Pinker, we are coming closer and closer to knowing what we are like.

(For the full text of the article, click here.)