Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Steven Pinker - Human Flourishing and Harm

As I wrote yesterday, Steven Pinker claims that we ought to abandon morality and, instead, replace it with a system where we attach our sentiments to that which promotes human flourishing and minimizes harm.

There are elements in this that are common to what I have been defending - namely, the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires. However, I do not call for "abandoning morality". This is, in fact, a moral theory - consistent with the claim that we need more morality (more promoting of desires that tend to fulfill other desires), not less of it.

However, Pinker's formulation is poorly defined and, ultimately, mistaken.

What is "human flourishing?" What is "harm"? Why do these deserve our attention and nothing else?

Because of these ill-defined terms, Pinker's formulation does not even solve the problem he wants to solve by adopting this principle and "abandoning morality."

Pinker's argument for abandoning morality rests on the fact that people offer moralistic justifications for all sorts of destructive actions. Murderers "justify" killing as an act of capital punishment. Rapists assert that their victims deserve punishment for the way they dress or the way they treat men, or because the man performed "his part of the bargain" in going out with a woman is now owed some sort of compensation that is a part of an implied contract.

Adolescent girls and young women are murdered by their own family members for dishonoring the family, homosexuals are imprisoned or killed or forced to endure abstinence for moralistic reasons.

On a larger scale, the Holocaust, religious wars and crusades, inquisitions, are all justified in moralistic terms.

If we abandon morality, Pinker argues, we can end this source of violence and have a more peaceful society.

Pinker ignores the fact that people also couch their defenses in terms of human flourishing and minimization of harm.

Hitler's Third Reich was supposed to bring 1000 years of human flourishing - once we eliminated the "harmful" contaminations - genetic and cultural - that were limiting human potential.

Slavery was justified, in part, by the idea that mentally simple-minded blacks are better off in the care of a paternalistic slave owner who sees rationally to their welfare than they could hope to obtain on their own.

The "traditional family" that limited the options of both men and women for centuries was defended in part by the idea that healthy "flourishing" family requires a male bread winner and female care taker - and it was not possible to thrive in any type of relationship. We cannot remove any of these parts and expect the family to function any more than a watch will continue to function without one of its parts. Nor can we change parts such that the spring becomes a wheel and the wheel becomes a spring - or the woman becomes the bread winner and the man becomes the care taker. Each piece of the family machine was built for its own function.

Opposition to homosexual marriage itself is still largely predicated on the grounds that people living such a depraved lifestyle cannot truly flourish.

Rich people hoard their wealth under the claim that it counts as a harm for their hard-earned property to be stolen from them and given to others who did not earn it, and that human flourishing is not possible where we reward the lazy and slovenly and punish the industrious entrepreneur.

Child molesters will claim that their actions help to liberate children from harmful puritan ideas about sex. They claim that their actions promote a healthier attitude towards sex that would contribute to flourishing if not for the hysterical overreactions of others who so insist on telling the child "You must have been harmed!" that the child comes to believe it.

Every catastrophy from 9-11 to Hurricane Katrina to every mass shooting is blamed on abandoning God and promoting secularism.

Protests against teaching evolution are grounded on claims like, "If you teach children that they come animals, they will act like animals,"

Islamic terrorists protest the harms that others do to Islamic communities that would presumably thrive in the absence of these harmful external influences. Almost all religious sects will tell a story about how humans can only flourish in a community that fully embraces God's laws.

In these and countless other examples we can see how a poorly defined principle of promoting human flourishing and reducing harm can still be used to promote the types of activity that Pinker thinks we can do away with by "abandoning morality." It does not solve the problem - it simply rewrites the problem in a different set of terms.

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