Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct

By Daniel Lende 

Steven Pinker is selling something.  Here’s what’s on the table: “the human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity.”  This organ has been built into our brains by evolution, culture-free except for how its five domains (harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity) are “ranked” and “channeled” in different places around the globe.  Ready to buy? 

Let’s sweeten the deal.  Pinker is offering his “deeper look” which will help you “rethink your answers” about life and morality.  He’s providing “a more objective reckoning” to help people get over their moral “illusions.”  And he’s got the data to show it, from people in the lab, Web sites, and brain scanners.  (I can’t help asking, these are his moral examples?  People in artificial situations, people who don’t physically interact, and a series of images?) 

Need more details before you decide?  Here’s Pinker’s ranking of moral figures.  Numero Uno: Norman Borlaug, agronomist, a life in labs and non-profits, helped start the Green Revolution that saved millions of lives.  Dos: Bill Gates, capitalist extraordinaire, crunched the numbers, now alleviating worldwide misery with his enormous wealth.  De ultimo, Mother Teresa, the well-financed saintly illusion, offering plenty of prayer and suffering along with “dangerously primitive medical care.” 

To help you make a final decision, a linguist like Pinker will surely appreciate a little content analysis of his New York Times essay, “The Moral Instinct.”  The word “science” appears ten times in the article, often in close association with “moral” or “morality.”  How about Bill Gates helping out?  “Help” appears six times, four of those times about how selfish genes can get ahead through reciprocal altruism.  And justice?  You guessed it.  Zero, zilch, nada. 

Okay, you’re not buying.  Me either.  I don’t like his dangerous medicine of morality, ranked much like the figures above.  First comes his innate view from the Ivory Tower, rationality newly reinforced by evolutionary theory and brain scans.  After that, his version of the Golden Rule—some discussions on tit-for-tat reciprocity and how we can all get along if we realize that through the logic of “nonzero-sum games,” “you and I are both better off if we share our surpluses.”  At the bottom, hide-bound appeals by people (not him!) who use the “shudder test” to decide moral issues, simply because it feels like it violates some core part of our humanity. 

So, the plight of the poor?  Science and capitalism will take care of them.  After all, rationality trumps all.  As Pinker argues, it’s there to lend that crucial external support for our internal moral sense.  Any particular reason Mother Teresa dedicated her life to helping the disenfranchised, the rejected from society?  Such a thing doesn’t bother Pinker.  Inequality, and the need for justice, only touches him in the most speculative and sickeningly humorous of ways when he imagines himself a Galactic Overlord.  Overlords don’t exist in Pinker’s “moral realism.”  I can see Pinker now, frizzy-haired and walking through tony Harvard Square, taking a moment to ask that homeless man looking for a buck, hey, isn’t my theory of morality cool? 

The sad thing about Pinker’s argument is that he gets both the morality and the science wrong.  Early on in the essay he argues that one of the hallmarks of moral judgments is “that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished.”  I guess Jesus and Buddha didn’t get the fax that forgiveness and enlightened renunciation are no longer moral acts. 

From my unenlightened view, morality is concerned not just with judgments but actions, and holding people accountable.  (Just for the record, “judgment” appears seven times in the essay; accountable, not at all).  But if you’re Pinker, who cares about what people actually do?  What matters is what they think they will do in a lab. 

That’s where the “science” comes in.  Pinker recounts the findings of “trolleyology.” In thought experiments, people make an easy judgment to pull a switch that diverts a runaway trolley onto a track where it will kill one worker, sparing the five workers on the main track.  More easy still is to push a heavy object from a bridge onto the tracks, again saving those workers.  But push a very fat person to the same effect?  People hesitate there, though they easily sacrificed one person for the sake of five in the first example. 

Brain imaging has now shown that in the first situation, only the brain area “involved in rational calculation stood out” (the dorsolateral surface of the frontal lobes) lit up.  But pondering pushing someone with your bare hands?  Then another two networks flash, the medial part of the front lobes, implicated in emotions about other people, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which “registers a conflict between an urge coming from one part of the brain and an advisory coming from another.” 

So, what’s the problem with the science?  First, his mis-characterization of the brain.  The experiments show different patterns of activation based on differing ethical situations.  Pinker’s take?  That we have a “moralization switch.”  Once again, the pseudo-science of hard-core evolutionary psychology takes precedence over an actual understanding of the brain and of human evolution. 

Because there’s his second mistake, his facile evolutionary thinking.  Here’s an example, some rhesus monkeys will “go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey.”  So what?  Some hamsters will run and run on their wheels all day.  Does that make getting caught up in today’s rat race the morally right thing to do? 

A more interesting comparative approach would have looked at primate-human similarities and differences.  One human difference might be relevant, generally covered in that Anthropology 101 class that Pinker obviously slept through.  While reciprocal altruism has been demonstrated in many social species, from vampire bats to humans, only humans have “generalized reciprocity,” sharing with others with the expectation that if you give, eventually you shall receive, but not necessarily from the same person. 

Another difference is that humans find sharing just as rewarding as some hamsters find wheel running, lighting up the more “primitive” reward areas of the brain (Rilling et al. 2002).  What does that do to Pinker’s “reason is better than emotion” approach? 

Finally, if Pinker could break out of his evolutionary innate approach to human capacities, he would be able to explain more easily why people reason so differently about pushing someone over the edge versus having a train run someone over.  But then he doesn’t much like George Lakoff’s approach to cognitive linguistics or philosophy (for example, Lakoff & Johnson’s embodied critique of rational/innatist approaches in philosophy, moral or otherwise, in their 1999 Philosophy in the Flesh). 

Here I am thinking of Lakoff’s (1987) Women, Fire and Dangerous Things.  Lakoff makes a central distinction in how people think about causality, of billiards-ball causality versus human action.  We treat billiard-ball causality and human causality as very different things.  And for good reason, since this distinction builds from everyday experiences and is mediated by language and cultural models.  There is a dramatic but quite real difference between pushing someone off a ledge and watching some people get run over.  In the latter case, the train—that massive billiard ball—is the immediate cause of death.  But pushing?  That’s human doing, and it lights up all sorts of systems in the brain that generally light up when people think about doing stuff and what that might mean in the real world. 

So, better use of brains, evolution, experience and language, and yes, even morality, and then we might have a robust anthropology of morality that addresses the same issues raised by Pinker. 

Such an endeavor could start with at least the following minimum.  Pinker writes, “The scientific outlook has taught us that some parts of our subjective experience are products of our biological makeup and have no objective counterpart in the world.”  In his mind, our moral sense is innate, born of evolution, and pure science can understand it best.  Yet the words he writes, just like the words in the Bible or in the Bill of Rights, are just as real as anything biologically internal.  The rules concretized in these documents, made real in this way and then shared and discussed and interpreted, are as objective a counterpart to any image of the brain or feeling of right and wrong. 

Let me end by saying that the best part of Pinker’s essay is how he draws on cultural anthropology, not evolutionary science, to make a point about global warming.  He points out that 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.”  Global warming will need to be addressed through lots of “morally boring” ways, like a carbon tax and new energy technologies, and perhaps even take on “taboo” topics like nuclear energy. 

It was good comparative anthropology, work done by Richard Shweder and Alan Fiske, that let Pinker make that argument.  Not some “science of the moral sense.”  Unfortunately, that would have made for a more boring and less provocative essay than this one, which surely helps him stay as well financed and publicly present as Mother Teresa once was.  At least she did something for other people. 

Pinker?  He violates every one of Shweder and Fiske’s moral domains.  Causing harm?  People who love Mother Teresa, feel the pain!  Fairness?  He plays the evolution-genes-innate-organ hand well, but then he cherry picks the evidence that suits him.  Community?  Pinker wants to be your Galactic Overlord.  Authority?  Well, Pinker is it, isn’t he?  Who cares about Jesus or Buddha?  Purity?  Ah, can’t you smell the sanctity of science?  Like napalm in the morning. 

Maybe if Pinker did something moral, like giving away the proceeds from his book sales, I might take him more seriously as a scientific saint.  For now, he doesn’t look very moral to me.

27 thoughts on “Steven Pinker and the Moral Instinct

  1. Daniel, this one made me laugh. Thanks for the skewering of Pinker, who deserves a fair bit more of it. The moral organ stuff is even worse than some of his other stuff, which always reads to me like he poorly understands — simultaneously — Chomsky and Fodor’s stuff on brain architecture, neurosciences, evolutionary theory, philosophy, and sociology. It would be interesting to learn how he’s thought of in psychology, his home discipline, because he so badly mangles insights from other fields.

    But you’re right, the point from Shweder and Fiske about moral domains is one of the most interesting, and also not in keeping with his other thoughts about the evolved organ of moral sense. So much of that ‘evolutionary’ theory that he comes up with reads like retreaded rational choice modeling or functionalism.

    As you point out, pure utilitarianism is so difficult for humans to realize because we do not think about ‘billiard ball’ causality and human intentional action in the same way. Morality would seem to be much more about human intentionality, and moral expectations can be diminished if we are able to distance ourselves, culturally or psychologically, from the realization that our own actions are the result of our intentions. We can do more immoral actions when we convince ourselves that our actions are out of our own control, or the result of ‘natural’ forces even if we are the immediate cause. This recategorization of immoral action into the ‘billiard ball’ category would seem to be one of the great top-down causes of humans’ inhumanity, certainly in a Western, large-scale society.

    We’ll have to keep thinking about Pinker though, unfortunately, as he seems to be one of the most prominent interpreters of the sorts of data were interested in. It’s tragic how poorly he understands it though — I sometimes wonder if he’s really that dense or if he just writes these things to piss off the serious theorists. Does he actually read the research that he allegedly bases his speculations on? Or does he just read the reviews of it? Sometimes it’s hard to know.

  2. Well said Daniel! Pinker, Hauser, Dugatkin, are all barking up the same tree with recent books and articles about our innate morality. They dress up their thoughts in the guise of an evolutionary approach while ignoring the recent innovative work in anthropology, evolutionary biology and neurological and endocrine research. Pinker has his “organ”…a sort of Chomskian hard-wired grammar of morality (Hauser also makes this argument) whereas Dugatkin tells us the Trivers and Hamilton explained it all with kin selection and reciprocal altruism. What if we take a broader view of this? Could searching for a altruism gene or organ or any fixed template for “moral” behavior be misdirected? Maybe we should be looking at broad bonding relationships and complex behavior patterns rather than narrowly (as Daniel pointed out above) defined moral behaviors.

    For example, it is well documented that humans are able to engage in physiological, behavioral and emotional bonding with diverse members of their community. Well beyond the mother-infant or male-female friendship bonds in many primate societies and more akin to the strong social pairbond found in a minority of primate societies (Fuentes 2002). It appears that humans have expanded on basal primate social bonding patterns (Silk 2007) and amplified their importance in creating an intense structure of social bonding involving complex social cognition (Hermann et al. 2007) using integrated parameters from neuroendocrinological, symbolic, and behavioral processes. This is, at least in part, proposed to be a major factor in our evolutionary history (Goldschmidt 2006, Fuentes 2004, Hermann et al. 2007, Sussman and Chapman 2004). Humans have an ability to cast this physiological and behavioral bonding “net” beyond biological kin, beyond reciprocal exchange arrangements, beyond mating investment, and even beyond our species (see Smuts 1999).

    Why is this different from the pop evolutionary psychology approach practiced by Pinker? Because it suggests that this bonding (maybe even general altruistic and/or “moral”) behavior can arise because of the combination of a multitude of biocultural, historical and contextual facets. However, because the behaviors themselves are not linked to heritable genetic elements the pattern cannot be simply proclaimed to be the product of genic selection. To change the famous explanation of kin based altruism; One might jump in to the river to save your cousin and not your brother (even thought he is more closely biologically related to you) because you like your brother less than your cousin. Alternatively, you might jump in to save your dog because you like her more than the other two. The basic quote about saving your closer relatives over strangers (attributed to the early geneticist Haldane), rather than being amazingly insightful, misses the importance of context, contingency, plasticity, and cognitive ability in the emergence human behavior and choices. With all respect to William Hamilton, kin selection may be a poor model to understand the range of altruistic behavior and bonding in humans. This is not to say that some adaptive patterns are not in play. If one attempted to explain this system from a purely cultural constructivist perspective one would have no recourse to understanding the physiological and neuroendocrinological facets of these behaviors. These facets have social and biological impacts, an important evolutionary history and trajectory, and are core elements in facilitating and reproducing the actual behaviors and repercussions involved in the altruistic actions.

    Humans are not necessarily altruistic, but can extend their net of caring, investing and bonding more widely than genetic relatives, even beyond our species. If one discards the notion of optimality as driver in evolution, adds the ideas of Developmental Systems Theory, niche construction, and social and symbolic inheritance and places them in the context of contingency in human behavior and individual agency we can then combine them with Neo-Darwinian selection, drift and gene flow concepts. Through utilizing aspects of all of these lenses we see that human behavior can be explained by a variety of complex approaches wherein one “driver” or “architect” (or moral organ) is not privileged.

    Fuentes, A. (2004) It’s Not All Sex and Violence: Integrated Anthropology and the Role of Cooperation and Social Complexity in Human Evolution American Anthropologist 106(4):710-718
    Fuentes, A. (2002) Patterns and trends in primate pair bonds International Journal of Primatology 23(4):953-978
    Goldschmidt, Walter (2006) The Bridge to Humanity: How affect hunger trumps the selfish gene. Oxford University Press, New York
    Hermann, Esther, Call, Josep, Hernandez-Lloreda, Maria Victoria, Hare, Brina, and Tomasello, Michael (2007) Human have evolved specialized skills of social cognition: the cultural intelligence hypothesis. Science 317:1360-1366
    Odling-Smee, F. John, Laland, Kevein, N. and Feldman, Marcus W. (2003) Niche Construction; the neglected process in evolution. Princeton, Princeton University Press,
    Silk, J.B. (2007) Social component of fitness in primate groups Science 317:1347-1351
    Smuts, Barbara (1999) Reflections. In The Lives of Animals. Amy Gutmann, ed.
    Pp. 107–120. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
    Sussman, Robert and Chapman, Audrey Eds. (2004) The Origins and Nature of Sociality Aldine de Gruyter

    • Excellent theoretical approach on the comments of Pinker: “Moral Instinct”. However, there is a neurophysilogic connection between behavior and different brain centers, all of them in a chaotic relationship that explains aggressiveness, discrimination, envy, lust, and so on. Rationality and culture organize and disguise all these tendencies. There is no need to invoke any evolutionary or social explanations to a subject that is unravel by neurology.
      Any inputs?

  3. Fantastic response to Pinker and responses to the responses. I read the article this morning and was quite disgruntled. You hit on most points I was annoyed about, viz., his simpleton’s version of reciprocity, the just-so evolutionary psychology approach, and especially his idea of what constituted good cross-cultural research, responses to surveys from people in different countries. I particularly thought that justification for the validity of the “trollology” survey was a hoot. Having more “colored” and “normal” people saying what they would do might increase the statistical significance of, …, wait for it, what “most” people “imagine” they would do. I guess then that his point is made. As long as people say they will do something in a hypothetical situation, we can rest easy. Unfortunately, there is a reason why we have the cliche “do as I say and not as I do” that has to be repeated to every generation.
    But here is where ethology and anthropology diverge from psychology (especially experimental psychology)and the divide is enormous. The idea that behavior within closed and controlled settings can be extrapolated onto a complex, open and non-linear reality is as sacrosanct to them as it is ridiculous for us. In his watered-down version of moral science, there is no room for variation, contingency, emergence, or complexity. But I try to understand this from an economic point of view. The public wants some answers on complex topics such as morality or the rise/collapse of civilizations. And there is a multi-million dollar demand for these questions, as the popularity of these people and their work bears out. This demand is not fulfilled by us who may have better answers because we value knowledge over outreach and because such activities have not been seen as conducive to academic research. So along come the Pinkers, the Diamonds, to fill in the void and say, voila, QED [or in words of an Indian colleague: Quite Easily Done :)]. Since they do offer, from what seems like an authoritative platform, reasonable sounding answers, the public is satisfied. Why shouldn’t they be? We aren’t supplying JDS (Jack Diddly …).
    In response to Greg’s question, I personally don’t think that Pinker (or other such people) care about the nuances or the caveats of the research they exploit in their work; for such popularizers, such details are “piffle” in pursuing their grand narratives. I mean, the public is not going to go back and tell Pinker: “I went to the Schweder and Fiske source and your interpretation is not quite accurate.” We would, but we only talk to each other. And since his academic career is made, what does he care? After all, he is a public intellectual now.
    I agree with Greg though that these people need to taken seriously and not just because they are slaying science. What happens when these idea influence public policy, as Daniel clearly pointed out? When we enforce super-rational or market mentalities to contemporary issues because they have been “scientifically proven?” When we gloss over the complexities of past in favor of some deterministic pathway and say, “it’s all good” and some invisible hardwired morality will take care of it all? And how do these people know it? Because a lot of people said so. I am sure that in a hypothetical situation, Hindus don’t want to kill Muslims, Israelis and Arabs would eat from the same plate, and Luos and Kikuyus would be singing Cumbaya. But what does reality suggest? Not that these people are always at each other’s neck but that morality is not as hardwired as Pinker thinks it is.

  4. I thought of a caveat to the “trolleyology” thought experiment. You may divert the train and sacrifice one man to save five. You may throw something heavy on the tracks to stop the train. But before saying “no” to throwing a fat man on the tracks to save five, what if I told you that the fat man is Richard Cheney? Would you hesitate? What if I said further that there is a chance that even if you push Cheney on the tracks, the train will still go ahead and kill the five people? Would you still do it? That would indeed be the moral dilemma of the century.

  5. Glad that there are others out there who share our ‘disgruntled’ response to Pinker. Agustín pointed out in an email to me that we made the NYTimes blogroll for places where Pinker’s piece is commented upon, but I have to say that we are in the minority. The vast majority of the blog entries seem to be celebratory. Lots of ‘fantastic piece by Pinker’ and other comments.

    Why is it that what Pinker is selling, as Daniel put it, is so congenial to so many people? Is it just that most people tend to like simplistic answers to complex questions? Do we like to be reassured that everything is exactly as it was intended to be, whether in Creationist or genetic predestinationist terms?

    To me, for example, Agustín’s discussion is just so damn much more interesting (whether or not I would shove Cheney in front of the train — and I’m against the death penalty — hmmm…) than anything Pinker and his ilk is serving up. I guess I’m just curious what it is about the Pinker-esque answers to these things that makes them compelling? I really am at a loss. It’s almost as if people turn off their bullshit detectors when talk of the brain or genes comes up because we’re so amazed at the sorts of things being discovered….

  6. Well, talk about Pinker or Jared Diamond. They both are cut from the same cliche: simplistic answers to complex questions. And bullshit is swallowed for genes, brain, complexity, civilization and collapse. But there is a reason. How would people know this is bs when these works are the only accessible and “authoritative” resources that offer straightforward answers to their questions. At the 2006 AAA meeting, Parker Shipton stated it correctly, Diamond and his ilk are the only ones who are providing answers, any answer at all to the public. I quote Shipton directly from his talk, when he said that if someone asks you why did the Maya societies collapse, you sigh, and say, “well, it is a complex process, and many factors go into answering that question, if indeed it is a valid question, for did it really collapse, yadayadayada,” by which time the person who asked is either dead of boredom or wishing s/he were dead of boredom. Our slightly pedantic responses come across as patronizing to some and overly-semantic to others. I have also noticed that when we respond, we do so from a slightly apoplectic mind frame and hence give a rather high context and confused answer, againg making the listener wish they had a gun to shoot themselves or a red hot poker to shove into …..

    Pinker and Diamond have found the language on how to talk about science, though they themselves patronize and ultimately cheat the public by their glossy and superficial narratives. The public wants someone to give them the answers. But they are not to blame, and nor are Pinker and Diamond, as egregious as they are. We are to blame.

    The public is capable (though not able and willing) of understanding complexity. I saw that clearly. As part of an agreement during my fieldwork in a cluster of villages on the West Coast of India, I was asked to give a talk to the villagers. I was quite nervous when I began but I found them far more able to handle complexity than I had imagined. So I was able to explain to them why it was not the fault of Indians and Hindus or Muslims that the British colonized India, but neither was it preplanned and executed by the British and from there, what is the role of accident and contingency in social process. They related it to their lives and came up with an interesting explanation for the current violence over land in their village. They had first blamed the government, the local Muslims, etc. But when we discussed the matter, they realized that when the government tried to regulate land tenure among communities that practiced communal property management, the officials, for the sake of convenience, wrote only one person’s name on a plot of land managed by three or four individuals. That became enshrined by the bureaucracy but was forgotten by the people who worked the land as before. But as developers moved in recently, they checked the records and chose to deal only with the person whose name was on the land. Hence instead of paying all the “partners,” they paid only the paper owners, who needless to say, were rather recalcitrant at sharing their largésse and hence the violence between those who felt cheated and those who were cheating. They also understood that in the two legal systems (government legal and communal) that operated in their world, the unwritten would ultimately lose as development pushed its way into their lives. It would have been easy to analyze this and blame it on the developers who were from a non-local trading community and they would have accepted that willingly, for I was an authoritative source.

    So it is not what the public will accept, it is what is kept in front of them and whether it is accessible. I think that we drop the ball with a bang on this kind of engagement.

  7. You bring up a lot of interesting points, but I’m not entirely sure how they’re so completely incompatible with Pinker’s article or approach. Pinker’s “moralization switch” looks to me like a clever placeholder for a more complicated thing that he explains in his article: a well-documented tendency for humans to treat moral situations differently than practical ones. Nevertheless, you find something about the concept (“morally”?) reprehensible, and you find a much more natural cause for some of the thought experiments: “we treat billiard-ball causality and human causality as very different things.” But Pinker doesn’t disagree with that point, or even sidestep it! One page 3, Pinker says pretty much exactly what you do, that scientific evidence suggests people are quite averse to the hands-on dilemma, versus the hands-off dilemma. So what’s the problem? Hands-off is less true than billiard ball?

    And you inflate one or two quotes from Pinker to make them seem much more central than they are. You and I both disagree with the idea that “those who commit immoral acts [necessarily] deserve to be punished” but then you have to keep in mind that has nothing to do with Pinker’s point! He means it only as a statistical side-detail, a common and harmless rhetorical strategy, not a thesis. That is, he means it like this: “There’s a lot of stuff people take for granted about morality. For instance, most people out there tend to feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished…” He could have left that out without changing anything else, and his argument would have remained intact.

    Same goes for the rhesus monkey example.

    You have a unique perspective and many fascinating bits of evidence for it. Instead of bashing and criticizing a popular article that has done nothing to undermine your approach (let alone proclaim Pinker Galactic Overlord), why not add your own elaboration with a sense of fairness and decency?

  8. Note from a layman’s point of view: the very notion of a moral sense, and the science derived from such a postulate set my alarms off. Though we may find it useful to put many facets of human behaviour under the same heading because it suits our purposes in studying the way our minds work, reading through the article made me want to stand up in the middle of the auditorium and interrupt the lecture repeatedly.
    Stridently, and understandably self-consciously, I question the validity of such a category as morality as a central pivot from which human behaviour might stem.

  9. Fascinating article and replies. For what it’s worth, there is a free, non-profit educational web site that has several full interviews with Dr. Norman Borlaug about his work in agriculture. Go to and click on the “Media Resouces” for video podcasts of his interviews. Or go to the “Farming in the 50s-60s” section and click on the “Crops” subsection to see longer articles about the history and debate about the Green Revolution. Again, it’s totally free and non-profit.

  10. Thanks for this post!
    I just wrote the following to the NYT magazine:

    To the Editor:

    Steven Pinker’s discussion of “trolleyology” (“The Moral Instinct”) ignores one obvious problem. If I push the “fat man” on the tracks, and I miss, the ethical consequences are quite different from any switch-pulling failures. In the one case, five people who would have died anyway have died, and I’ve killed a man besides. Appreciation of such problems of fallibility and contingency is entirely missing from Pinker’s confident interpretations of brain scans, his own moral reasoning, and his anti-religious West-is-best narrative. The irony is that it is this very skepticism that has done so much to advance the scientific liberal utilitarianism Pinker seems to espouse. Perhaps we should think twice before letting go of it and placing ourselves in his “Galactic Overlord” hands.

    Stephen Engelmann

    This question of what Pinker’s selling and why there’s such a market for it is really intriguing. I think what’s for sale is a nice technopolitical version of enlightenment. Understanding it in this way is, I think, the only way to make it coherent and understand its appeal (but most emailed article? c’mon, people!). Pinker is saying what a long tradition of (first) British moral philosophy and natural religion has maintained–that the secret to cooperation is sewn into our souls. That tradition has always taken aim at enthusiasts on the one side (e.g. religious fanatics, political radicals) and skeptics on the other (e.g. Hobbesians and other misanthropic types). It has always indulged in a certain imperial self-satisfaction and eagerness to control those who seem incapable of controlling themselves. Mix in Pinker’s type of social science (the psycho-econ-bio package that is all the rage) and you forward an understanding of politics that matches the intuitions of the average American undergraduate: politics is about elites and masses, specifically active and knowing elite manipulation of passive masses. When we read him we can imagine ourselves as part of his elite–identifying the irrational in ourselves and others and taking steps to purge or contain it for the betterment of ourselves *and* the world (in a typically convenient neoliberal harmonious convergence).

    The problem is, how does one compete with this? You don’t get anywhere by saying “hey, it’s more complicated.” You don’t get anywhere by saying, “hey, we can learn a lot from this science but it’s not going to make the old problems of morality and politics go away.” Maybe you can point to the Iraq disaster and say, “see what happens when you think you can do politics without dialogue”? But then Pinker thinks he’s got dialogue and communicative rationality covered. He’ll happily absorb an isolated tidbit of just about anything into his frame (one moment we’re evolutionary psychologists, the next we’re brain scientists, the next we’re behavioral geneticists, etc.). That’s why he’s got to be the most annoying author out there for academic readers. Perhaps some of it is envy–if I could write like he does then maybe the fame and royalty checks might come rolling in–but the problem is, it is *what* he has to say that sells, and many of us aren’t willing to say it (and perhaps its that kind of very traditional ethical thinking–that ethics is really fundamentally about our relationship with ourselves–that is most missing in his piece).

  11. Anyone who seeks to address a popular audience about a given subject risks losing some specificity and nuance in attempting to communicate the broad sweep, or “take-away” message they want to convey. Whenever I read outside my subject I can no longer exercise critical judgment with the same effectiveness; instead I hope that the writer concerned is sufficiently knowledgeable, and sufficiently honest, not to abuse the trust I place in them to give me an informed, albeit broadly sketched, picture of whatever it is they are talking or writing about. And that’s where I have problems with Pinker. As I see it, he has a considerable axe to grind, and he is prepared to mischaracterize an entire subdiscipline (cultural anthropology) in order to do it (for all I know he does this to other specialities too, but I wouldn’t know about them). There are plenty of people in this world that if they start ranting about the “tabula rasa” conceit of the “standard social science model” of human behavior, for example, I would simply dismiss them as ignorant; but what’s Pinker’s excuse? While Pinker’s immorality in this regard doesn’t rise to the level of pushing people onto train tracks, still it merits some consideration. I look forward to Pinker covering this topic in a future NYT article….

  12. I am sorry to see Steven Pinker, who I much admire, give in to the urge to search for the Golden Chalis of moral grounding. There is none. Get over it. Just because there may be tendencies to react in certain ways that are innate, even if they are universal, does not suggest that we “ought” to behave in that manner. There is no ‘there’ there.Nor is there anywhere.

  13. I’ve come across a couple blog posts that offer a more nuanced version of the same sort of topics that Pinker tries rather badly to discuss. So have fun.

    Here’s the first:
    It poses questions, not assertions, at the beginning: Are humans “wired for empathy”? How does this affect what Chomsky calls the “manufacturing of consent”?

    And the second:
    It opens: Morality is one of those basic aspects of humanity, like sexuality and eating, that can’t fit into one or two academic fields. I think morality is unique, however, in having a kind of spell that disguises it. We all care about morality so passionately that it’s hard to look straight at it.

  14. Gary Olson’s essay describes and quotes all those seekers of the Golden Chalis of moral grounding. In these cases, most are of the liberal persuasion that hope for peace and equality in our time. They choose one natural trait from all the others and hope that this trait can be nurtured (read ‘indoctrinated’) and we will all become fuzzy, peace loving egalitarians like themselves. Give up the quest. Go read some Hume. The ‘ought’ will never be determined by the ‘is’. And if it could be, which of all the other evolved traits will accomplish this wished for overcoming. Just because there may be tendencies to react in certain ways that are innate, even if they are universal, does not suggest that we “ought” to behave in that manner. There is no ‘there’ there.Nor is there anywhere.

  15. Neil Shubin, author of Your Inner Fish, has a nice editorial on ideas about nature and morality, in this case discussing sex, reproduction and biological variation. Here’s the ending to the op-ed piece called “Birds Do It. Bees Do It. Dragons Don’t Need To”: “Biology is about variation. Without variation, the world would be static and unchangeable, and species would gradually disappear as they failed to meet challenges like changing climates and environments. So as we continue our very necessary debates over ethical issues, let’s bear in mind that morality is a concept limited to our species. The natural world is a fuzzy place that doesn’t always accommodate our decidedly human need to find cut-and-dried categories.”

    The link:

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  18. Some readers may be interested in my recent piece, “We Empathize, Therefore We Are: Toward a Moral Neuropolitics,” found at the website: (November issue)

    Gary Olson

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  21. I don’t understand this “morality is innate” idea. It says nothing at all – if you break it down, it comes to this: that all humans like some things more than others (labelling them “good”) due to their make-up, and make decisions based on these preferences. Well, of course. How is that an explanation for anything? Further, it’s assumptive of absolute morality – that there is a “good” that we all act in the interests of, and no one needs to explain how absurd that.

    Further still, it fails to account for the totality of morality, which is to say, why it is that things like virginity, music and words are given moral positions. Clearly there are totally differing points of view on such things with no consensus or evident biological reason to pick one or the other position, positive or negative, for something like heavy metal music. To say that morality is inherent and then back it up with evidence from lab psychology is to ignore an enormous part of what morality is, thus changing the meaning of the word to suit the argument. Seems silly and incorrect. More than that, it explains nothing.

    It’s also evident that things like altruism are hard-wired in some sense, but it’s not like they can’t be overridden. So where does that leave us? With perfected, prescriptive ideas about morality, which won’t help anything.

    The whole thing seems like an attempt to use psychology to back up the idea of having “pure” free markets. Don’t get me wrong – capitalism’s a fine thing, and it seems to produce for a large number of people well enough. But it seems fairly obvious that there need to be some controls. The idea of totally free markets is a lovely idea (an enlightenment idea, with lots of light and mechanistic Bach-type music playing when you imagine it) but the reality is a much grubbier, more realistic system, if what you want is happiness for the greatest number.

    Anyway, I’m not actually an anthropologist – yet. I will be studying social anthropology soon, but right now, I’m studying Chinese, while trying to read as much in the way of anthropological classics as I can. It’s possibly the most fascinating subject in the world, to me, at least.

    • Al, it sounds like you get a lot of anthropology already! Great comment, from the totality point to how stories/explanations are often used for ideological ends. Best of luck with your studies!

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