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01/14/2008

Steven Pinker on “The Moral Instinct”

Yesterday’s NYT Mag included an article by Steven Pinker about the science of morality:

… Illusions are a favorite tool of perception scientists for exposing the workings of the five senses, and of philosophers for shaking people out of the nave belief that our minds give us a transparent window onto the world (since if our eyes can be fooled by an illusion, why should we trust them at other times?). Today, a new field is using illusions to unmask a sixth sense, the moral sense. Moral intuitions are being drawn out of people in the lab, on Web sites and in brain scanners, and are being explained with tools from game theory, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and more steadily we reflect on them, wrote Immanuel Kant, the starry heavens above and the moral law within. These days, the moral law within is being viewed with increasing awe, if not always admiration. The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations.

These quirks are bound to have implications for the human predicament. Morality is not just any old topic in psychology but close to our conception of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings. We seek it in our friends and mates, nurture it in our children, advance it in our politics and justify it with our religions. A disrespect for morality is blamed for everyday sins and historys worst atrocities. To carry this weight, the concept of morality would have to be bigger than any of us and outside all of us.

So dissecting moral intuitions is no small matter. If morality is a mere trick of the brain, some may fear, our very grounds for being moral could be eroded. Yet as we shall see, the science of the moral sense can instead be seen as a way to strengthen those grounds, by clarifying what morality is and how it should steer our actions.

The whole thing is definitely worth reading. Pinker’s take on the subject includes discussions of neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, altruism, repugnance and many other topics that come up here on the blog-dot frequently. Pinker ultimately argues that the scientific study of morality can actually help us to become better people.

-Greg Dahlmann

Earlier on blog.bioethics.net:
+ Evolution and morality
+ Steven Pinker on “dangerous” ideas
+ Weekend reading: experimental philosophy

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