Monday, April 01, 2013

Steven Pinker: Abandoning Morality

Stephen Pinker and others like him are in the process of setting moral philosophy back 300 years.

I mean this as a literally true statement. David Hume published his work "A Treatise on Human Nature" 275 years ago. His work, and the work of philosophers since then, are utterly ignored - almost as if they never existed.

A couple of people have pointed me to a video where Stephen Pinker talks about advances in the understanding of human nature in 2013. In it he makes the following claim:

You might think that . . . The world needs more morality. If we can find out what makes people moral we can get people to do more of it. In fact, I would say that the main conclusion of a lot of this research is that that is exactly the opposite of what we should do."

Pinker should take the hint - if what he is studying is the opposite of what we SHOULD do, then he is studying the opposite of morality. Morality is the attempt to answer the question, "What SHOULD we do?"

Pinker tells us that we have too much morality. We ought to have less if it.


That is a moral term.

What does "Ought" mean? What are the requirements for an "ought" claim to be true? What are the relationships between "ought" and "is" if any? What ought we to do? These are the questions of moral philosophy. Yet, these are the questions that moral philosophers have been working on for 300 years - and they are the questions that Pinker ignores. He does not even try to provide an answer. He does not even provide a hint that there are questions to be answered.

Thus, the claim that he has ignored 300 years of moral philosophy.

To Pinker, the incoherent ideas like the one quoted above make sense because he has redefined the term "morality" to mean "the set of emotions and sentiments commonly associated with people's claims about what we should so".

If we were to put his claims into terms that the moral philosopher can understand, we would say that Pinker's research supports the position that moral intuitions are not to be trusted. Moral emotions and sentiments are such that they provide a very poor defense of what we SHOULD do. Intuitionism often leads to error, and it should be abandoned in favor of a more external and objective method of determining what we SHOULD do.

In presenting and supporting his conclusions, Pinker is not giving us anything new. He is giving support to something that moral philosophers decided quite some time ago - and even for the same reasons. Why should we not trust moral intuitions when those intuitions have justified crusades and inquisitions, the Holocaust and slavery and the subjugation of women? We should, in fact, reject intuitionism because the racist, the rapist, the child molester, the murderer, and the thief all - more often than not - act in ways that their intuitions tell them is legitimate. When a form of demonstration is associated with so much failure, we need to reject it.

In its place, the two dominant threads in moral philosophy for the past 200 years have been "utilitarianism" (we should do that which brings the greatest good to the greatest number), and Kantianism (always treat others as an end in themselves and not merely as a means).

Neither of these fit into Pinker's definition of what we have too much of. If we were to apply Pinker's claim that we have too much morality to these theories, we would be forced to conclude that we have too much good for the greatest number, or that we have too many people treating others as ends in themselves and not merely as means.

It is odd, at best, for Pinker to offer a definition of morality that utterly fails to capture the two dominant moral theories of the past 200 years. It would be like offering a definition of religion that did not apply to Christianity or Islam - or a definition of "science" that excluded physics and chemistry.

Indeed, if we look at Pinker's own moral imperative - "We should attach our moral sentiments to that which promotes human flourishing and minimizes harm" with his claim "We have too much morality", we get, "We are putting too much effort into attaching our moral sentiments into that which promotes flourishing and minimizing harm."

"Logic" is not "that which a person claims to be sound". It concerns that which is sound in fact. The fact that a lot of people claim that things are sound that are not does not give us a reason to abandon logic.

"Truth" is not that which people claim to be true. It is that which is, in fact, true. The fact that a lot of people claim things to be true that are, in fact, false, does not provide a reason to hold that we should abandon truth.

And "Morality" is not that which people claim we should do. Morality asks the question, "What should we, in fact, be doing?" The fact that a lot of people attach moral terms to things we ought not, in fact, to be doing does not argue for abandoning morality.


Martin Freedman said...

Where is the link to the Pinker article you are criticising?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

It was there. I promise.

(Re-inserted at the end. Thank you.)

Anonymous said...

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker quite strongly comes out in favour of Kantian morality. He repeats it over and over again. So maybe it's not in that one quote you have, but it's definitely present in his most popular and best-selling book to date.