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…
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:
I find the whole “selfish vs. unselfish” thing polarizes in exactly
the wrong way, and contributes to irrational moralization rather than
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.
I believe this term ‘Selfish’ is ambiguous for a reason: It serves
the needs of irrational cults to conflate the two. Thank Zeus for
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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.
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.