Steven Pinker is a neo-Darwinist — a member of the scientific sect that has pieced together convincing evidence of the power of our genetic endowment in shaping human behavior. Neo-Darwinists come in many varieties, from scholarly types like the late Edward Wilson to fire-and-brimstone missionaries like Richard Dawkins. But all seem overcome by the need to explain: they have the initiates’ faith in their discoveries, and wish to show us benighted heathen how much they have learned, and how little we know.
Even in this uncommonly heady and persuasive crowd, Pinker stands out as bright, articulate, and reasonable. Which is not to say he is modest. Pinker’s personal urge to explain takes on large subjects, ancient problem sets: what the mind is, or human nature, or morality. He clearly believes the answers lie well within his capabilities.
In this NYT Magazine article, Pinker reviews the latest evidence showing morality to be part of our evolutionary inheritance. In brief, the neo-Darwinists believe, with good evidence, that human beings are guided by a moral sense, an intuition of what is right and wrong. The moral sense is a generic capability, like our gift for language. The moral system we are taught is a local expression of this universal capability, like learning English instead of Chinese.
The moral sense, like all sense perceptions, is immediate and not really influenced by rationalisms or logical deductions. Like all sense perceptions, too, the moral sense can fall prey to illusions: for example, the idea that because someone looks just like me, he must be infinitely wise.
Pinker is at his best analyzing the mechanisms that trigger the moral sense — what he calls the “moralization switch.” He notes, with some humor, that there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization “so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it.”
Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.
Many of these moralizations, like the assault on smoking, may be understood as practical tactics to reduce some recently identified harm. But whether an activity flips our mental switches to the “moral” setting isn’t just a matter of how much harm it does. We don’t show contempt to the man who fails to change the batteries in his smoke alarms or takes his family on a driving vacation, both of which multiply the risk they will die in an accident. Driving a gas-guzzling Hummer is reprehensible, but driving a gas-guzzling old Volvo is not; eating a Big Mac is unconscionable, but not imported cheese or creme brulee. The reason for these double standards is obvious: people tend to align their moralization with their own lifestyles.
The last sentence, alas, demonstrates a type of naive one-directional thinking frequently met with among the neo-Darwinists. Everything must be explained in terms of material advantage. Altruism, for example, must be either kin-based or reciprocal. Yet that is demonstrably an incomplete picture of human behavior. People no doubt tend to align their moralizations with their lifestyles, but they also struggle to align their lifestyles to their moralizations. The firemen who rushed up the World Trade Center on 9/11 weren’t expecting reciprocity. Like most members of his sect, Pinker seems utterly unable to fathom the power of symbolic ideals over human behavior.
The neo-Darwinists have penetrated to a profound truth about the origin of morality, yet are unable or unwilling to draw the obvious conclusions. The moral sense is driven by emotion. We don’t reason our way into action if we see an adult abusing a child, and we don’t propose categorical imperatives when we hear a drowning man crying for help. Driven by powerful emotions, we act. We know that to be right.
But where do the emotions come from? How do we know our actions to be right? The emotions are tuned during a lifetime of being taught — by nursemaids, parents, teachers, songs, and stories — that in specific situations some behaviors are right and others wrong.
The moralization switch is triggered by those situations, much like our ability to speak English is triggered by the need to communicate. The switch activates an emotional response, as the research cited by Pinker demonstrates. The sophist Protagoras, without assistance of evolutionary science, had already figured this out in the fifth century B.C.
We know our actions are right because a long tradition so judged previous instances of the case. Pinker, a scientist by trade and a liberal by temperament, appears blind to the force of tradition over all human decisions (most surely including scientific decisions). He mocks (gently, it must be added) Leon Kass for opposing human cloning out of moral repugnance and arguing “Shallow are the souls who have forgotten how to shudder.”
People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.
While Pinker rejects the “shudder test,” there can be no other kind. We can put forth more rational-sounding words, or a calculus of profit or happiness, or an appeal to lofty principles, but the driver behind all that eloquence would be a moral shudder that conveys to us, quite viscerally, the message that a particular action is wrong.
The fact that our moral intuitions sometimes go astray, or are misled by illusion, is no more meaningful than the fact our senses often suffer the same fate. Hallucinations happen, but that doesn’t entail the rejection of our eyes.
Ultimately, Pinker is a materialist and a rationalist. That’s the scientific mindset, which has carried the human race far in its ability to manipulate the world. But it creates for Pinker — as for most other neo-Darwinists, who also tend to be rationalists in mindset and liberals in politics — a number of unresolved dilemmas.
If we are mere chunks of matter, selected by the random survival of our ancestors, why should we believe in liberty, equality, or virtue? The liberal in Pinker rebels against this conclusion, and he expends a great deal of energy arguing that no, there’s no need for alarm, you can be a random chunk of matter yet keep all your moral and political principles.
On the other hand, the rationalist in Pinker rejects any appeals to tradition. He treats religion as a form of mental weakness, making unfavorable comparisons between Mother Theresa and (yes) Bill Gates, and dismissing divine sanction of morality with a strange kind of argument: “Putting God in charge of morality,” he writes, “is one way to solve the problem, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago.”
Putting Plato in charge of morality may seem to some at least as odd as having God on the job — where he has labored, in our tradition, for even longer than 2,400 years.
Pinker won’t accept either the determinism implicit in his neo-Darwinist ideas, or the traditions which counter such determinism with the belief in freedom and human dignity. He wants to reason his way to these beliefs. But that places him on the side of the idealists, with Plato and Kant, against the empiricists like Charles Darwin, and against the philosophical assumptions of modern science.
Reading Pinker is a pleasure, but only if one has a tolerance for such inconsistencies.