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Can We Reason with Morality?: A Wrestle with Steven Pinker

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Growing Freedom Posted: Wed, Jan 16 2008 1:50 AM

Steven Pinker, are you selfish? The New York Times Magazine article “The Moral Instinct” by Steven Pinker is a good read, and I find myself in accord with most of what he has to say. Its serves as a general intro to the psychology of morality. But I did find a few things that I’d like to comment on here.

Link to the article. Its a little long, but I think enjoyable, and delves gently into evolution+altruism, game theory, and what psychologists are doing in the realm of morality.I won’t summarize the article, but rather put put some quotes out there that I either take issue with or think are useful (thanks to Google Notebook for keepin’ my quotes).
Part of the intro might sound a little familiar…

Pinker-intro wrote:
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 Moralization SwitchThe starting point for appreciating that there is a distinctive part of our psychology for morality is seeing how moral judgments differ from other kinds of opinions we have on how people ought to behave. Moralization is a psychological state that can be turned on and off like a switch, and when it is on, a distinctive mind-set commandeers our thinking. This is the mind-set that makes us deem actions immoral (“killing is wrong”), rather than merely disagreeable (“I hate brussels sprouts”), unfashionable (“bell-bottoms are out”) or imprudent (“don’t scratch mosquito bites”).

Pinker-1 wrote:
One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

Pinker-2 wrote:
This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover.

Pinker-3 wrote:
When a mother stays up all night comforting a sick child, the genes that endowed her with that tenderness were “selfish” in a metaphorical sense, but by no stretch of the imagination is she being selfish.

Thanks to my friend Zebra Foal for providin’ the link in the TMP thread
To respond to the quotes I chose:

Pinker-Intro: I think Pinker is right to assert that moralization ‘comandeers’ our thinking. Enough said.

Pinker-One: I really take issue with this kind of syntax, and not just to be a prude of some kind. I think the imprecision and inaccuracy here belies a deeper cultural problem that is directly related to the Moralization Switch. What needs to be said is “proximate selfishness” vs. “ultimate selfishness”, not “selfish” vs. “unselfish”. So I’d rewrite:

Pinker wrote:
“Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish.”


Far more useful wrote:
“Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that what will bring us the best returns is in many cases long-term selfishness: IE long-term cooperative voluntarism”.

I find the whole “selfish vs. unselfish” thing polarizes in exactly the wrong way, and contributes to irrational moralization rather than disambiguating it.

Pinker-2 implies that mathematics exists in the Platonic realm of forms. He could have, with maybe 100 more words, shown that ethical steady-states are empirical and perfectly testable. Instead he farms this off with the wrong words: “Platonic Realm”. I hate to think of the 100s of people now heading off to read Plato, hoping to find verification in the ethereal. But maybe I’m misreading Plato.

Pinker-3: Like Pinker-1, abuses terms: “but by no stretch of the imagination is she being selfish.“. Really? What have you just been saying about long-term goals and trade-offs Steven? Did you read that bit about game theory, or did you crib it from the wikipedia?

By no stretch of the imagination is she being unselfish” would be far more useful and accurate. We don’t suppose that people willingly act against their self interest at all, and that clears things right up. You’ve said it yourself, so why keep confusing things?

My argument might seem to be more about semantics than anything else, as I do get that Pinker ‘gets it’. However, I do think that deliberate conflation of the connotations of the term ‘Selfish” has been disastrous for humanity, and I cringe when someone like Pinker continues this tradition.

I think that the term ’selfish’ is too bound up with ‘only about me’, when it can also mean ‘acting out of self interest’, which often means acting ‘only about you’ or acting ‘about us both’.

Also, ’selfish’ can be contrasted with ’selfless’, which is a real moral thought disease not to be underestimated. All these implications get compounded when someone takes up the term ’selfish’ without specifically noting that they are using it to mean ‘those actions which benefit me at the expense of you’. This is only a small subset of selfishness in common usage.


“# Selfishness is, at base, the concept and/or practice of concern with one’s own interests in some sort of priority to the interests of others; it is often used to refer to a self-interest that comes in a particular form, or above a certain level. “

with this

concerned chiefly or only with yourself and your advantage to the exclusion of others;

I believe this term ‘Selfish’ is ambiguous for a reason: It serves the needs of irrational cults to conflate the two. Thank Zeus for Socrates.

Come by and visit us at Liberating Minds Many of us are big Mises fans and try to keep up with happenings here. 

-For our Growing Freedom -



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Inquisitor replied on Thu, Jan 17 2008 11:18 PM

By reasons for morals I take it you mean the physiological/psychological urges that impel us to be moral? If Pinker is speaking of philosophical reasons he is indeed right that this is not a matter of empirical fact, but rather of conceptual truths. I agree largely with your criticisms though.


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kaxahdan replied on Fri, Jan 18 2008 11:24 PM

I have yet to read his latest essay again. Pinker raised many points there, one of them concerning reasoning and rationalizing it. According to Kantian views that I subscribe, the answer is: yes.  Through reason we can leave and arrive at moral positions.  Moreover, in one of the early chapters in the Market for Liberty that I am still reading, the authors believe that it is through reason that we must arrive at moral positions. Personally, I renewed my stances on certain moral issues through reasoning.

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