Friday, January 18, 2008

Pinker on the 'moral instinct'

It would have been nice to put a discussion of Pinker's NY Times Magazine article alongside the post on Metzinger's essay "There are no moral facts" but I didn't get around to it in time. Pinker is an exceptionally bright and clear writer. Even so, a bit of nit-picking can't be resisted, a few of his sentences have hidden land mines. Take for example:
...dissecting moral intuitions is no small matter. If morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear, our very grounds for being moral could be eroded. Yet as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can instead be seen as a way to strengthen those grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions.
A continuous drumbeat throughout this blog has been to make the point that even our sense of having a purposeful "I" is a 'mere trick of the brain' (See also The "I" Illusion). A damned useful one, to be sure, that has resulted in a our dominance as a species on this planet. Seen in the light of evolution, an evolved moral sense can also be viewed as a yet more refined way of passing on or genes, and influencing the competition between groups of humans that has driven recent human evolution. Pinker's "how morality should steer our actions" flirts with the "naturalistic fallacy" (because this is what our biology gives us, it is the way things should be.) That "should" is relevant to passing on our genes, not to any ultimate criteria for morality. Metzinger's essay nails it:
...all we have to go by are the contingent moral intuitions evolution has hard-wired into our emotional self-model. If we choose to simply go by what feels good, then our future is easy to predict: It will be primitive hedonism and organized religion.
Or, take this gem from Pinker's article:
Though no one has identified genes for morality, there is circumstantial evidence they exist. The character traits called “conscientiousness” and “agreeableness” are far more correlated in identical twins separated at birth (who share their genes but not their environment) than in adoptive siblings raised together (who share their environment but not their genes). People given diagnoses of “antisocial personality disorder” or “psychopathy” show signs of morality blindness from the time they are children.
The villain here is the phrase "genes for morality". By now, most popularizers have left behind phrases like this, because it implies a causality that does not exist. Genes are not for anything by themselves, but have an unfolding expression that requires vastly complex interactions with other genes and the environment. They can be "permissive of..." or "increase the probability of..." a particular outcome, but they don't run the show. This why the phrase "genes for X" (where X is any complex behavior) should not be used.

Pinker proceeds through of very elegant and structured review of moralization switches, reasoning and rationalizing (including examples such as the well known "Trolley Problem" - for other examples see MindBlog's 'morality' category in the left column of the web page your are viewing.)

One of his best lines is: "When psychologists say “most people” they usually mean “most of the two dozen sophomores who filled out a questionnaire for beer money.”

Further topics include the idea of a universal morality, varieties of moral experience, and the genealogy of morals. He does a nice discussion of the five spheres of moral behavior that are shared by humans and many animals living in groups, suggesting ancient evolutionary origins of the behaviors (doing harm, fairness, community, authority, purity).

My favorite section in the esay is "Is morality a figment", where Pinker partially, but not completely addresses the first issue I raised above. Here is a clip, on where moral reasons might come from:
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. ... 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.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

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.

1 comment:

  1. "(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.)"

    How do you get four out of two teaspoons of salt and two teaspoons of water? Things can be more complex than they appear when applied to in different manners.