Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Pinker & Morality

Stephen Pinker graced last Sunday's New York Times Magazine with a lengthy article titled "The Moral Instinct". In it, he seeks to explain (and applaud) recent research by psychologists, "evolutionary psychologists" (a term I use with roughly the same appreciation as Stephen Jay Gould did) and neuroscientists into the origins of morality.

(Many thanks to the reader who sent the article along and went a couple rounds of discussion on it with me via email.)

Working from the basic assumption that morality consists of a set of emotional/psychological urgings and repugnances which find their origin in humanity's evolutionary past, those investigating the moral instinct have tried to classify sets of moral reactions and speculate on how these might have come to be. Though lengthy, Pinker keeps things spiced up with illustrations and dilemmas. However, many of these seem to assume a very un-reflected view of morality -- on where moral "thought" is basically a matter of gut urgings which one is at a loss to explain. For instance, when talking about taboos Pinkers provides the following examples:
Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

Two things strike me in this set of examples:

First, Pinker assumes that any rationale behind moral prohibitions must be pragmatic. All possible reasons provided for disapproving of incest are pragmatic, and the example is formulated in order to foil these sorts of objections. From his overall tone, I think this reflects an assumption (indeed, probably a deeply held belief) on Pinker's part that moral objections to something must, at root, be pragmatic and physical in their repercussions. If he'd posed the incest question to me, my response would have been something along the lines of, "It was wrong because their action violated the inherent meanings both of the relationship between siblings and the meaning of sex/relationship between lovers." I have a feeling that Pinker would see that as just being a fancy way of saying, "I don't like it", but that simply serves to underscore the fact that we'd be talking about different things in regards to morality.

Second, he doesn't seem to take into account any difference between inherent meaning and cultural meaning. Using the flag as a dustcloth and eating the family pet are both violate senses of respect and meaning which are cultural in nature. The flag does not have an inherent meaning. However, using it as a dustrag is offensive because of certain cultural understandings both of what the flag means and what using a piece of cloth as a dustrag means. Similarly, the relationship of family to pet and the prohibition of eating pets are cultural. Incest and sex outside of marriage, however, violate inherent relationship types which cross cultural bounds. (This is not to say that all cultures necessarily share a prohibition against incest, though certainly most do, but rather that the relationship of "siblings" is something inherent to the human person, and that relationship inherently does not include "someone you have sex with".)

Pinker realizes he's playing with fire here, and concedes that many may see trying to develop an evolutionary understanding of morality as explaining it away:
And “morally corrosive” is exactly the term that some critics would apply to the new science of the moral sense. The attempt to dissect our moral intuitions can look like an attempt to debunk them. Evolutionary psychologists seem to want to unmask our noblest motives as ultimately self-interested — to show that our love for children, compassion for the unfortunate and sense of justice are just tactics in a Darwinian struggle to perpetuate our genes.

However, he goes on to try to argue that discerning the evolutionary origins of morality will in fact reveal certain very real norms:
In his classic 1971 article, Trivers, the biologist, showed how natural selection could push in the direction of true selflessness. The emergence of tit-for-tat reciprocity, which lets organisms trade favors without being cheated, is just a first step. A favor-giver not only has to avoid blatant cheaters (those who would accept a favor but not return it) but also prefer generous reciprocators (those who return the biggest favor they can afford) over stingy ones (those who return the smallest favor they can get away with). Since it’s good to be chosen as a recipient of favors, a competition arises to be the most generous partner around. More accurately, a competition arises to appear to be the most generous partner around, since the favor-giver can’t literally read minds or see into the future. A reputation for fairness and generosity becomes an asset.

He goes on to argue that both the necessity of cooperation suggested by the iterative variation of the prisoner's dilemma and the golden rule as a means to persuading others to treat you nicely are moral norms that have been hardwired into humanity by evolution.

Many may find that they want something a bit more, when it comes to morality. Sure, in a society with certain assumptions (notably an idea that people are inherently or functionally equal) it may be the case that most people will benefit most of the time by treating others as they want to be treated and cooperating rather than betraying, but "most people most of the time" is not exactly what the majority of people seek when they look to "morality".
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.

Will all due respect, Pinker was sleeping through his Plato class. Plato didn't argue that morality couldn't come from God, rather he argued that "the Good" must always be singular. It can't simply be "what pleases the gods"; especially when you have a bunch of bickering gods who often do things ever their devotees regard as immoral. This is one of the reasons that Christians so readily embraced Plato, because they saw his singular "the Good" which remained untouched and eternal above the strife of the pagan deities as being a close approximation to the one, good and eternal God of Jewish/Christian revelation.

But sticking to the realm of human reason -- does he present a good reason for rejecting a Platonic approach to morality? Well, it's "too rich for many philosophers’ blood". Are we to take that as much of anything more than, "They don't like it"? This certainly seems to underline the idea that faith is an act of the will as much as the intellect.

Plato held that we often know truths without recognizing it, until those truths are drawn out of us. Pinker seems to be suffering from something of a lack of drawing out in his reactions to morality.

On the one hand, he wants to see morality as a biological/psychological phenomenon: a set of basic rules for how primates best get along together which has been programmed into us through countless generations of human social interaction. He boils these down to rules basic enough to be acceptable to modern culture "be fair to other people", "treat others as you want them to treat you", etc. But then in his closing he attempts to use this to make all sorts of absolute assertions: Being against human cloning is irrational. Homosexual relationships are okay. Racism is bad.

And yet, none of these can be conclusively derived from the rules which he has decided to keep. And indeed, nothing can be conclusively derived from them, since the very nature which he assigns to morality is one of "society functions best if most people do X" rather than "everyone must do X".

The fact is, Pinker himself is not comfortable with certain things he despises (racism, genocide, sexism, homophobia) being only wrong some of the time, or only wrong for some people, and yet in the end he cannot come up with an explanation of strictly psychological/biological morality which shows that it always and everywhere wrong to violate his preferred norms of behavior. The understanding of morality he puts forth allows him to discard those norms that he doesn't like, but it doesn't allow him to retain those that he does.


Anonymous said...

My good man, this is why I forwarded the article to you; because I knew you'd take it apart like a cheap piece of cotton candy.

Pinker wants to have it both ways: he wants to reduce morality to mere biological programming so that he can debunk the morals he doesn't like, but he wants to keep some things (like genocide and slavery) in the realm of universal wrongs. If he were being intellectually honest about his position, he'd state that there isn't anything inherently "wrong" about genocide and slavery, just that we've developed pretty strong revulsion against them because of our evolutionary development.

Or he could go back and reconsider his statements about Plato and those silly Thou-Shalts.

Clearly, Pinker operates with a truncated form of reason. If it doesn't show up on an MRI or in a petri dish, it's not reasonable. He criticizes Leon Kass' "Wisdom of Repugnance" for its supposed lack of rational argument against human cloning, yet that essay clearly shows our repugnance for human cloning points to rational objections. Unless you think that it's irrational to be concerned about a new technology that has the potential to radically alter everything we know about human and social relationships...

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Darwin, thank God you read this stuff so the rest of us don't have to. :)

Excellent points.

Patrick said...

Well, I should probably post on the question of why biological explanations of moral thought don't necessarily imply relativism; but I can say something to the first point you raised, since I in essence agree with Pinker here.

He makes some prior assumptions that you reject (first among them being atheism), and fails to make them clear in the article. In particular, he presumes that there are no such things as objective moral facts- in particular, that such things as the "intrinsic meaning of sex" are fictions. There are of course causal relationships to be found in human psychology- acts do have internal as well as external consequences- but they no more amount to an intrinsic meaning of an action than gravity amounts to the "intrinsic meaning of matter".

Frankly, that's the part you need God to make sense of- facts about the universe could have intrinsic meaning only if the facts were authored. To steal a quote I just found, in response to a question about the meaning of life:

"The definition of the word "meaning," is something that is conveyed. So, who is conveying this "meaning" that you speak of? To put it another way, if "life" is a painting, then who is painter? Whoever is the painter is the one who decides what meaning the painting has. Now, depending on your outlook, the painter is either yourself, or God. Depending upon how you answer that question, you should now be able to figure out the answer."

Darwin said...


Certainly, I recognize that Pinker takes it as an assumption that God does not exist, and it is mainly because of his decision not to accept that (or some other strictly Platonic hierarchy of universals) that my answer on the incest question would be a non sequitor to him. My issue is that that, however is dual:

1) He dispenses with any sort of moral realism with a "that's too rich for our blood" comment which indicates nothing other than taste. (Which I suspect is mainly what it indeed is.)

2) He imagines that he can still somehow get absolute prohibitions of things he believes uncivilized, yet makes no real case for how he can do that.

And now I think about it, 1) above follows from:

3) He massively mis-represents (though perhaps through ignorance) Plato's reasoning to make it seem that getting morality from religion was dispensed with as a logical possibility 2500 years ago -- when that was very much not the case.

Patrick said...

Oh, I have to agree that Pinker badly misrepresents Plato, but I don't quite think it's from ignorance.

This may be an overly charitable reading, but I think that Pinker just doesn't feel there's enough space to explain why he holds his assumptions (i.e. moral a-realism and non-relativism) without cutting out vital material on the trolley experiments and evolutionary psychology. And frankly, explaining the assumptions would consist of (for one segment of the readers) preaching to the choir or (for the other segment) spouting ugly heresy; so I assume he decided to skip it in favor of material that would be new and enlightening to those who already shared his presuppositions.

I'll write my thoughts on moral realism and relativism soon enough.

Darwin said...


Fair enough.

I assume that Pinker does in fact know his Plato -- or at least ought to. I've heard the meme before (appropriate use here perhaps?) that Plato destroys any possibility of believing in God, and science destroyed any possibility in believing in Plato. However, that set of claims seems to rest on enough a-historical claims that I would think an expert wouldn't use it so blithely.

Of course, the other possibility, perhaps likely, is that Pinker is simply using Plato as a quick traditionalist cover for what amount to simply being his own views. If so, it's a rather shabby trick to attempt on his readers.

Tippy said...

Pinker's concept of morality is based entirely on our evolved responses. The obvious counter to this is, "Why should our evolved responses hold any sway whatsoever?" If we are all just sets of randomly evolved chemical reactions and our genes are all going to die out sooner or later anyway once the Sun explodes in a few billion years, well, who cares what we think?

Tippy said...

Pinker also misses a fundamental concept of God. God IS truth and love and goodness. So the idea that God could order us to torture children is an impossibility. It's fine if Pinker wants to reject God. But he can't trick believers with that little nonsensical question.