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.