Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Stupidity of Steven Pinker

Actually, I don't think Steven Pinker is stupid. I admire his writings, which I often use in my teaching and research. But his article in the new issue of The New Republic (May 28, 2008), entitled "The Stupidity of Dignity," which can be found here, is remarkable for its shallowness.

This spring, the President's Council on Bioethics issued a 555-page report on the idea of "human dignity" in bioethics. Pinker's article is supposedly a response to this report. But anyone reading his article along with the report would suspect that he has not actually read the report. In his determination to attack Leon Kass and the neoconservative opponents of biotechnology, Pinker has skimmed over the report to support his intemperate scorn.

Here's an example. Pinker writes that in the report, many of the authors "assert that the Old Testament is the only grounds for morality (for example, the article by Kass claims that respect for human life is rooted in Genesis 9:6, in which God instructs the survivors of his Flood in the code of vendetta: 'Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God was man made.')"

Now, if one actually reads Kass's contribution to this report, which can be found here, one sees the following passage that Pinker is citing: "Human life is to be respected more than animal life--Why?--because man is more than an animal; man is said to be god-like. Please note that the truth of the Bible's assertion does not rest on biblical authority." Notice that Pinker ignores Kass's disclaimer that the truth of this assertion does not depend on biblical authority alone--in contrast to Pinker's claim that the authors of the report are asserting "that the Old Testament is the only grounds of morality."

There is a serious point here. In Kass's book on Genesis, and in some of his other writings, Kass does sometimes suggest that the Bible might provide a moral teaching that goes beyond secular reasoning. But Kass is rather evasive about this. And Pinker has no interest in probing into the complexity of Kass's writing. All that Pinker cares about is condemning Kass as a conspirator in promoting theocracy in America.

In some of my blog posts on Kass--which can be found here, here, here, and here--I have criticized Kass on many points.

But I have also indicated that my defense of "Darwinian natural right" agrees with Kass's early writings in which he sought a Darwinian basis for a naturalistic ethics, following in the tradition of Hans Jonas. Even in his latest contribution to the PCB report, Kass writes that the natural ground of human dignity is to be found in the human "powers of reason, freedom, judgment, and moral concern." But he does not indicate to the reader--as he did in his earlier writings--that Darwinian biology would agree with this, and that Jonas saw Darwinian biology as showing the natural biological roots of these distinctively human powers.

In recent years, Kass has moved away from this biological naturalism--grounded in the tradition of Aristotle, Jonas, and Darwin--while moving towards a purely religious morality rooted in the Bible. But he never explicitly explains the change in his position. Pinker rightly sees this reliance on Biblical religion. But Pinker does not help us to understand what exactly is going on in Kass's intellectual development.

By the way, I agree with Pinker about the silliness of Kass's disgust with licking ice-cream cones. In his book The Hungry Soul, Kass has a chapter on "civilized eating," in which he condemns "those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice-cream cone--a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know why eating in public is offensive," and he goes on to describe the "doglike feeding" of those who eat in public (pp. 148-49).

Well, I personally prefer to eat my ice cream (preferably Baskin-Robbins' mint chocolate chip) in a bowl in the privacy of my home. But I will defend to the death the right of every American to lick an ice-cream cone in public!


Anonymous said...

Pinker does get a bit shallow when dealing with religion. Nowhere near the shallowness of the "neo-atheists" though.

It's a good reminder that most of us have at least one area that we are too biased in to properly critique.

Lawrence Gage said...

Good post. I'm glad you're defending Kass (his ice-cream position does amaze me though).

Not only does Pinker misunderstand Kass, he also completely misunderstands (bio)ethics. You might be interested in my recent post on Pinker's article. Like the new atheists, Pinker is not interested in understanding, but in propagating his prejudices.


Bad said...

A single questionable quibble is not, frankly, enough to establish that Pinker merely skimmed the report, or indeed that he gets much of anything wrong in his characterization of it.

You call his article shallow, but don't respond to any of his core assertions, so how are we to judge? And worse, you even undermine your only critique of him over and over by admitting that Kass is evasive and unclear. Is Pinker's big sin really that he "does not help us to understand what exactly is going on in Kass's intellectual development."

Frankly, who cares what is going on there? If someone finds Kass' arguments deeply unconvincing, and says how, we'll leave Kass to figure out and explain what the heck he's about once he gets his act together. In the meantime, critiquing the very common and very glaring sin of trying to found moral positions on endlessly flexible weasel words is far more important.

RBH said...

I've not read the whole set of essays, but I have to say that given the chapters I've sampled so far I'm dismayed that this is an 'official' document created to inform policy making. To take but one example, Robert Kraynack founds his set of five "lessons" solely on "... the mystery of the human soul as the basis of human dignity ...". He takes as the first lesson to be drawn that science "...should moderate [its] ambitions ... and accept the fact that it will not be able to produce the “miracle” of unending life or the knowledge of aging and death that it promises." When did that become a "fact"?

In other words, admit that we'll never know everything so we should back off on trying. Who says religion isn't a science stopper?

Now, there may be good reasons for moderating the ambitions of science, but there are no good reasons for doing so on account of what Kraynak can only call a "mystery." By its very nature a "mystery" cannot provide moral guidance. Kraynak's mystery is a Rorschach blot for eliciting responses based on other, hidden grounds, not a source of guidance in itself.

Anonymous said...

"Pinker is not interested in understanding, but in propagating his prejudices."

There is nothing prejudiced about dismissing arguments based on the bible. That is science.

Religion that impinges on personal freedom should be scoured from the earth.

Rob said...

I don't know why Professor Arnhart thinks it's Pinker's job to "help us understand what exactly is going on in Kass's intellectual development." That's the work of a biographer, not a scientific commentator.

The burden lies with Dr. Kass to delineate why he uses words such as "soul" and "dignity." Kass is really unfairly ignoring a long tradition in bioethics which uses the principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice as grounds for judgement. Not only does he disregard tradition, but he also introduces essentially controversial religious language ("soul" and "dignity")into a contentious field, thus muddying the waters further.

Pinker is right to criticize Kass's use of the term "dignity" because that term is not clearly articulated, is not consistent with principles used by other bioethicists, and unfairly introduces religious language where it is unneeded.

Larry Arnhart said...


I agree with you about the problems in the way Kass writes about "dignity" and "soul" as grounds for bioethical reflection.

But since the point of this new volumne of essays from the PCB is to clarify and defend such language, Pinker needs to specify how exactly those essays fail to do that. As I said in my post, Pinker doesn't do that, because he engages in a crude rhetoric of vituperation without actually examining the texts of the essays.