Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pinker on The Moral Instinct

Steven Pinker has an article on "The Moral Instinct" in The New York Times Magazine (January 13).

This is an excellent survey of the recent research and theorizing supporting the idea of a moral instinct as shaped by evolution. It briefly surveys some of the work that is more elaborately stated in Marc Hauser's book The Moral Mind and in some of the writing of Jonathan Haidt. Much of the article will sound familiar to anyone who has read Pinker's book The Blank Slate. But one can also see how the recent work has clarified some points that remain a little obscure in Pinker's book.

One fruitful advance is Haidt's scheme for analyzing the moral instinct into five universal themes--harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. Although these are universal themes for moral experience, moral diversity arises from cultural disagreement over the ranking or specification of these themes. Moral debate arises from such disagreement. Most of these themes are implicit in my account of the 20 natural human desires. But the theme of purity does not arise in my account. I'll have to think more about that.

Another advance is the use of brain imaging--particularly, fMRI--to uncover the neural basis for moral experience, which provides more support for the hypothesis that there are genes for morality that work by guiding the development of the brain.

As Pinker indicates, biological explanations of morality elicit much fear from people who think such explanations will subvert our moral motivation by leading to the conclusion that morality is just an illusion imposed on us by our genes working through brain mechanisms. Pinker rightly shows that this fear is not warranted because a biological explanation of morality helps us to see how moral experience is not culturally arbitrary or individually subjective, because we can see how this moral experience is rooted in human nature and the nature of things. Given our nature as social and rational animals, we generally benefit from finding ways to cooperate with one another. And those who are most successful in earning the benefits of cooperation are those who have the virtuous character traits that make them deserving of admiration.

But at the same time, this biological view of morality also helps us to understand why a few people have the evolved disposition to be cheaters because they can exploit the cooperative dispositions of most people. A few people are saints, and a few are dedicated cheaters. Most people are conditional cooperators who cooperate as long as they see that most other people in their group are cooperating and not cheating.

It should also be noticed that Pinker shows how the biological view of morality combines emotion and reason. Much of our moral experience turns on gut reactions: we have some immediate feeling that something is right or wrong, and then we grope for some reason to justify this feeling. But moral reasoning can criticize our moral emotions. For example, the practice of slavery was once supported by deep moral emotions, but eventually slavery was challenged by arguments that slavery was unfair in its exploitation of the slave, arguments that could elicit the moral emotions of fairness as reciprocity and direct them against slavery.


Anonymous said...

There's some lucid critiques of this NYT piece over at Fyfe's blog. Professor Arnhart, I'd be curious as to your thoughts on his criticisms.


Anonymous said...

"But moral reasoning can criticize our moral emotions."

Could be the opposite?

Maybe the slavery was abolished in the North because it was not only ineccesary but disastrous for specialised industrial manufacturing.

The North needed workers not slaves. workers thinking that the efforts of today are compensated in a future, so that they were good, incentivated, specialised workers and consumers of high valued products.

Was this lack of necessity of slaves the fact that allowed them to discover the horror of slavery, not rationally, but really passionally and later, rationally.

But not before.

This is more compatible with the pinkerian idea that we increase our concern about a more ample circle of people when we feel security in the previous circle. That a more accurate picture of the moral instinct.

I doubt that Aristotles questioned slavery at his time, though Aristotle was a master of introspection, and thus a great researcher of human nature.

Thai said...

Interesting post, interesting comments. Yet I do not see the need to frame this issue via a liberal vs. conservative framework, with are both just ways of looking at information to explain the world around us-- neither more right nor wrong than the other.

The arguments you makes sometimes seem a little to me like the early days of quantum mechanics, when everyone argued over Schrodinger's cat, until physicists realized the way the question was asked was part of the problem itself.

I too wrote a recent post for my own blog after reading Pinker's article (this is actually how I came across yours). I would very much be enjoy hearing your opinion