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).
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.