Pages Menu
TwitterRssFacebook
Categories Menu

Posted by on Aug 19, 2013 in Evolutionary Psychology, Featured Inc, morality | 2 comments

Steven Pinker: Less morality for a better society?

and other highlights plus predictions from his interview with Lane Greene at the The Economist’s World in 2013 Festival held last December (video below).

Steven Pinker and Lane Greene

In the opening minutes Pinker suggests that the conclusion supported by findings of “many sciences” turns our intuition on its head: instead of finding ways to get people to engage in moralizing more, we might benefit from getting them to do it less often. Pinker justifies this position with the following arguments.

  • The motive for most homicides is moralistic, such as revenge or retribution against an unfaithful spouse and not purely selfishness, as in robbery
  • The largest episodes of bloodletting have moralistic causes: the holocaust, Pol Pot, the crusades, Stalinist purges, et cetera were all enacted by people who believed that they were carrying out a moral good
  • moralistic motives include deference to an authority, conformity to social/community norms, and the safe-guarding of pure divine essences against contamination and defilement; This can lead people to moralize actions that hurt nobody such as homosexuality or writing a book about Muhammad then prompting horrific punishment

Pinker suggests that instead of attaching virtue to such things as conformity to authority and purity, we ought moralize maximizing human flourishing and minimizing harm which do not come naturally to us. He summarizing this brief opening, Understanding, recruiting, and indeed minimizing human moralization is a great way to leverage greater understanding of human nature to make the world a better place.

On genome sequencing
Rock star-haired Pinker humorously points out he has been identified to have the “gene for baldness”. What does it mean to say a person has a “gene for x”, even for traits shown to be highly heritable? According to him, this means that someone did a study with perhaps 100 people in which a particular trait were sampled and if 80% of them had a given gene in common, it may be labeled as correlated with that trait.

Even though many traits are highly heritable, finding the one gene that captures the trait is much more difficult. Even for physical traits like height,  where we know it is massively heritable, it’s very hard to find a gene that accounts for more than a millimeter or two of the difference in height.

Pinker calls this “Geno’s paradox”, (a play on the famous Zeno’s paradoxes) and says it could be resolved a couple of ways. It could be there are many genes with small effects on each trait or that there are a small number of genes, but everyone has a different version making comparisons between individual genomes unfruitful in detangling effects.

On mimicking the paleo environment
Greene mentions such phenomena as the “Paleo diet” fad.

Since studying  the history of violence I’ve backed off from evolutionary romanticism. It’s crucial that we understand our evolved nature, but in some cases indulging our evolved nature will make us happier living in more comfortable harmonious circumstances. In some cases human nature is the enemy and when it comes to violence I’ve become a fan of modernity. As violent as the world is today, it used to be worse.

Pinker explains we sometimes have to develop “work arounds” for human nature, and this is one of the reasons violence has declined over time.

On relations between the sexes
Greene: Is there anything interesting that’s coming out of that research that you think will hold up as we look at the natural differences between men and women?

I don’t think that men and woman are biological indistinguishable. …the reason I think this is less relevant to issues of workplace equality or general women’s rights is that even if there are statistical differences in all these cases the imperative is to treat people as individuals. If someone is a few points higher or lower than the average for their gender, it’s both unfair to the individual and irrational for the organization to judge the individual on the basis of their gender or ethnic group.

On Homosexuality
In reply to an audience question about how homosexuality can’t be adaptive, but the changing social current about homosexuals could lead to discoveries about human nature and sexuality.

. . . to the extent that homosexuality has a genetic basis it’s very unlikely that those genes were selected because they are disadvantageous in the biologist’s strict sense of how many babies you pump out, so it’s a scientific mystery.  . . .there does seem to be some biological basis that is that people really don’t choose to be gay . . . The question is how should this affect our attitude toward homosexuality? Both in the case of laws restricting homosexuality which fortunately have been declare unconstitutional and now it’s advanced to the issue of gay marriage. For a long time homosexuality, was an exception to the general principle that liberals like things to be learned and conservatives like things to be innate. Homosexuality was the exception because if it is innate, and you couldn’t choose it, it’s not a fit subject for moralization, gay people can’t help it therefore homosexuality should not be stigmatized or criminalized.

Now I think this is not a very good argument because if you restrict morality, as I think you should, to the promotion of flourishing and the avoidance of harm, since homosexual behavior between consenting adults doesn’t harm anyone. In fact it enhances pleasure, then it shouldn’t be moralized whether it is learned or innate. There is an interesting age shift in acceptance of homosexuality. You probably all know that young people pretty much have no problem with homosexuality. . . but in addition to that, there is another change which is just as interesting. Among older people, you can in part predict their attitude toward their moralization of homosexuality from their own nature versus nurture theory. All of the people who think that homosexuality is innate are called tolerant, those who think it is a choice are intolerant.

Among younger people, it does not matter what their theory is of the biology of homosexuality, they say it’s no problem either way. So we’re seeing a beneficial change in moralization, namely you don’t have to look for some biological basis for tolerating homosexuality. It’s simply a matter of living and let living.

  • MosesZD

    Baldness/hair loss is a matter of degree and a complex issue. Looking at old pictures and current, it appears his old forehead was much shorter, especially to the sides, than his current. His hair was denser, from what I can tell, too. So, like it or not, I think it’s clear he’s suffered some lost hair even if he’s kidding himself like so many men I know.

    As for the point he was illustrating, I get it. And I actually agree that small-sample/correlation studies are often not very good, especially in something complex like male pattern baldness.

    I just wish he’d not made it ‘personal experience laugh at this’ moment when he’s obviously lost some hair.

    PS, I really do like and respect Pinker. I just think his example detracted.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      There were other examples in the video that I don’t mention above. I do mention his height example. But even so, I think his slightly thinner hair (not something I noticed at all when I met him last month) underlines his point, if anything. Just as one gene we identify perhaps accounts for ~1mm in variance for height for a species typically 1752mm in height, slightly thinning hair at age 59 is not what I would call MPB. I started losing my hair at age 17. Post-middle age, almost all people experience thinning hair (including women). That is not usually what is meant by baldness.

      But that may underline his point that there may be tiny additive effects of many genes, so he has a very minor effect that a single gene might predict.