According to the Amazon blurb on “Rationality,” Steven Pinker’s latest book, “Rationality matters. It leads to better choices in our lives and in the public sphere, and is the ultimate driver of social justice and moral progress.” In fact, Pinker addresses the issue of morality in the book. However, the degree to which he’s rational about it is open to question. According to Pinker,
One realm that is sometimes excluded from the rational is the moral. Can we ever deduce what’s right or wrong? Can we confirm it with data? It’s not obvious how you could. Many people believe that “you can’t get an ought from an is.” The conclusion is sometimes attributed to the philosopher David Hume. “Tis not contrary to reason.” He famously wrote, “to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.”
Pinker then goes on to tell us that, “Philosophers in the first half of the twentieth century took Hume’s argument seriously and struggled with what moral statements could possibly mean if they are not about logic or empirical fact,” and “Hume may have been technically correct when he wrote that it’s not contrary to reason to prefer global genocide to a scratch on one’s pinkie. But his grounds were very, very narrow.” Pinker doesn’t elaborate on the latter statement, probably for the very good reason that it’s nonsense. Hume’s grounds weren’t “narrow” at all. They were a straightforward elaboration of what had already been written on the subject by, among others, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and, more importantly, Francis Hutcheson.
Using Pinker’s prized “rationality,” Hutcheson demonstrated beyond any “rational” doubt that morality can’t be derived from reason, either narrowly or broadly, but must originate from what he referred to as a “moral sense.” His brilliant, “An Essay on the Nature and Conduct of the Passions and Affections, with Illustrations on the Moral Sense,” includes such amazingly “modern” passages as,
These Moral Perceptions arise in us as necessarily as any other Sensations, nor can we alter, or stop them.
Let us once suppose Affections, Instincts or Desires previously implanted in our Nature: and we shall easily understand the exciting Reasons for Actions.
The Question then is, “Does a Conformity to any Truth make us approve an ultimate End, previously to any moral Sense?” For example, we approve pursuing the publick Good. For what Reason? Or what is the Truth for Conformity to which we call it a reasonable End? I fancy we can find none in these Cases, more than we could give for our liking any pleasant Fruit.
These passages were published in 1728, more than a century before Darwin, so it is not surprising that Hutcheson imagined that God was the source of our moral sense. We now know that it exists as a result of natural selection, because the innate predispositions that give rise to it happened to increase the odds that our ancestors would survive and reproduce.
Hume presented similar arguments, but with a more secular foundation. Pinker’s attempt to relegate him to the “first half of the twentieth century” is absurd. I can only suggest that he consult “The Righteous Mind,” by his fellow public intellectual, Jonathan Haidt, published as recently as 2012. Therein he will find a significantly more “rational” discussion of Hume. Speaking of individuals in a study who were “morally dumbfounded – rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively,” Haidt wrote,
These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of the emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume, who wrote in 1739 that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.
A bit later in the book Haidt writes,
Given Hume’s concerns about the limits of reasoning, he believed that philosophers who tried to reason their way to moral truth without looking at human nature were no better than theologians who thought they could find moral truth revealed in sacred texts. Both were transcendentalists.
Recall, now, that Pinker imagines himself a great fan of the Enlightenment, and even published a book with that title. Haidt continues,
Hume’s work on morality was the quintessential Enlightenment project; an exploration of an area previously owned by religion, using the methods and attitudes of the new natural sciences… Hume got it right. When he died in 1776, he and other sentimentalists had laid a superb foundation for “moral science,” one that has, in my view, been largely vindicated by modern research. You would think, then, that in the decades after his death, the moral sciences progressed rapidly. But you would be wrong. In the decades after Hume’s death the rationalists claimed victory over religion and took the moral sciences off on a two-hundred-year tangent.
Now we find Pinker off on this same tangent, a self-described “rationalist,” rejecting one of the quintessential works of the Enlightenment he claims to champion. In fact, Hume’s relevance to the question of morality is at least as great today as it was a decade ago. Apparently Pinker never actually read Hume, or, if he did, didn’t comprehend what he was reading. Hume, and Hutcheson before him argued very convincingly that you could follow a chain of reasons back as far as you pleased, but you would never find some ultimate reason as the source of human morality, for the very good reason that the foundation of morality lies in human emotions and human nature. Pinker never attempts to challenge these arguments. Instead, he imagines he can hand-wave them out of existence by claiming they’re too “narrow.” The same goes for his fantasy that Hume is no longer relevant “since the first half of the 20th century.”
After his breezy dismissal of Hume, Pinker writes, “In fact, it is not hard to ground morality in reason.” Let’s consider the “rationality” of his arguments in favor of that statement. According to Pinker,
But now let’s just say that we prefer good things to happen to ourselves over bad things. Let’s make a second wild and crazy assumption: that we are social animals who live with other people, rather than Robinson Crusoe on a desert island, so our well-being depends on what others do, like helping us when we are in need and not harming for no good reason.
This changes everything. As soon as we start insisting to others, “Your must not hurt me, or let me starve, or let my children drown,” we cannot also maintain, “But I can hurt you, and let you starve, and let your children drown,” and hope they will take us seriously.
Well, no, they won’t take us seriously, but how does that “change everything?” Why does Pinker imagine there’s any connection between being taken seriously and morality to begin with? He continues,
That is because as soon as I engage you in a rational discussion, I cannot insist that only my interests count just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can insist that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe because I happen to be standing on it. The pronouns I, me, and mine have no logical heft – they flip with each turn in a conversation. And so any argument that privileges my well-being over yours or his or hers, all else being equal, is irrational.
It’s hard to imagine anything more irrational than this. Does Pinker imagine that human beings are no different than the indistinguishable particles of physics? If what Pinker writes is true, then the genes that are responsible for the existence of morality must be completely irrational, because, to the extent that they fail to “insist that only their interests count,” they quickly go extinct. Apparently, we are to forget about the reasons morality exists, and simply agree with Pinker that whatever he personally feels is “fair,” must therefore be moral. QED. Lions must be both irrational and immoral because they kill the cubs sired by others so they can substitute their own. Male gorillas must be irrational and immoral because they kill unprotected infants, a behavior which promotes their own genetic interests, but which Prof. Pinker would doubtless consider manifestly unfair.
Pinker doesn’t entirely ignore the evolutionary origins of morality, writing, for example,
How do rational agents come into existence in the first place? Unless you are talking about disembodied rational angels, they are products of evolution, with fragile, energy-hungry bodies and brains. To have remained alive long enough to enter into a rational discussion, they must have staved off injuries and starvation, goaded by pleasure and pain. Evolution, moreover, works on populations, not individuals, so a rational animal must be part of a community, with all the social ties that impel it to cooperate, protect itself, and mate.
This passage is truly ironic. Some time ago in his bowdlerized history of the Blank Slate, Pinker air brushed out of existence the two men most responsible for the demise of the Blank Slate orthodoxy in the behavioral sciences, Robert Ardrey and Konrad Lorenz, because they claimed that “evolution acted for the good of the species.” Now we find him making exactly the same claim. Elsewhere he makes it clear that he does not believe that natural selection acts at the level of populations, but so did Ardrey and Lorenz. Is it not, then, “rational” to dismiss Pinker as well, based on his own arguments? Reading on, we find,
When you combine self-interest and sociality with impartiality – the interchangeability of perspectives – you get the core of morality. You get the Golden Rule… Versions of these rules have been independently discovered in Judaism, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Islam, and other religions and moral codes.
That’s certainly good evidence that human moral emotions tend to be similar across populations, just as one would expect if those emotions exist because they evolved. However, it is hardly rational to conclude that the similarity of these rules somehow means they are objectively true, independently of the emotions responsible for their existence in the first place. Pinker continues,
Impartiality, the main ingredient of morality, is not just a logical nicety. Practically speaking, it also makes everyone, on average, better off. Life presents many opportunities to help someone, or to refrain from hurting them, at a small cost to oneself. So if everyone signs on to helping and not hurting, everyone wins. This does not, of course, mean that people are in fact perfectly moral, just that there’s a rational argument as to why they should be.
Really? Help them do what? Isn’t it wise to consider what their goals happen to be, and whether they either support or diametrically oppose our own before we “help” them accomplish those goals? Does Prof. Pinker seriously believe that everyone on the planet must have the same goals, and they must be identical to his own? Apparently, we are to dismiss anyone who doesn’t agree with Prof. Pinker on what our goals ought to be as “irrational.”
Indeed, one is at a loss to imagine what species Pinker is thinking about. It can’t be human beings. Regardless of what culture or ethnic group we belong to, we perceive others in turns of ingroups and outgroups. Our species is never “impartial” when it comes to treatment of the “other,” the denizen of the outgroup. That is simply a fact, and to deny it would be the very opposite of rationality. All Pinker is really doing is insisting that the types of behavior he and his academic tribe consider “nice” must therefore magically be “moral,” and to disagree is to be, by definition, “irrational.”
To be “rational,” we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with. To be “rational,” we must abandon the goals we have set for ourselves in life if Prof. Pinker and his tribe don’t deem them “nice,” regardless of whether those goals are in harmony with the genetic origins of morality or not. To be “rational,” we must forget about the relevance of our behavior to either our own genetic survival or the long-term survival and continued evolution of our species. To be “rational,” we must assume that behavioral traits that evolved eons ago, because they happened to promote the survival of individuals living in small groups of hunter gatherers, will automatically be just as “useful” to us today. In the process, we must ignore the fact that, while such individuals may have helped members of their own group, they were generally hostile to individuals in the next group over. It never occurred to them to help these “others.” No, we must limit ourselves to behaviors that Prof. Pinker deems “fair,” on pain of being anathematized as “irrational.”
No thanks, Prof. Pinker. Your version of morality is the very essence of irrationality.
2 thoughts on “On Steven Pinker’s “Rational” Morality”
I see you’re still conflating objectivity with empiricism. It is not always the case that they are synonymous. Rationality, I would say, is metaphysical objectivity. A contradiction in terms, you say? Only a postmodernist would think so.
I’m confident my readers understand my idiosyncratic lingo, Autisticus. If my use of a particular term doesn’t agree with the definition in your philosophical dictionary, you’ll just have to roll your eyes and put up with it.