Pinker: I Don’t Get It

Ross Douthat identifies a serious flaw in the reasoning in an article that Steven Pinker published recently in the New York Times. Based on this and other posts about it, I read the original article. I’m hesitant to say this for fear that I’m the one not getting the joke (Pinker is a famous Harvard professor and all these smart people seem to take it very seriously), but the article struck me as poorly reasoned from front to back. I’ll focus only on one problem that I think is central.

Pinker cites the following hypothetical:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

Referring to this and a couple of other hypotheticals, he says that:

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

Here’s my hypothetical:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night she decides that it would be both interesting and fun to shoot Mark in the head. She takes careful precautions not to be caught, shoots him, hides the body and invents an alibi. She is never suspected of committing this action. She keeps it a special secret that makes her feel more in control of her own life. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for her to kill her brother?

The obvious difference is that coercion, more specifically violence causing physical harm, occurred in the second case. So what? Have you assumed the “conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion” that it’s bad to kill people?

No, of course not, you’re a sophisticated moral thinker. As per Pinker, you recognize that we have evolved (or to be more precise, it is “plausible” that we may have evolved) so that we have biochemical processes that pre-dispose us to be averse to violent coercion (teenage boys, maybe not so much). After all, social groups can be more successful when people behave this way (or so it is plausibly theorized).

But why should Julie give a crap? After all, the premise of the hypothetical is that she finds it fun and interesting to kill her brother, suffers no material deprivation as a result, and feels no remorse afterwards. If you argue that nobody would ever feel this (an empirically false claim, as sociopaths do exist) and it is Julie’s anticipatable feelings of remorse that should prevent her from doing this, you are merely making the prudential argument that Julie is disadvantaged by this action – that some quirk of human programming makes us better off by not doing this. But then, the moral admonition against killing is merely a rule like “don’t touch a hot stove”, and your definition no longer allows for a special category of action called “moral” as opposed to “intelligently self-interested”.

But suppose, as per the hypothetical, that Julie is a sociopath. That is, it is in her material self-interest to kill h brother. Is it “wrong” for her to do it?

This is where Pinker completely falls down. He carefully avoids addressing this question. After using pages to mike-check various psychology experiments and theories, he gets to the point:

Perhaps we are born with a rudimentary moral sense, and as soon as we build on it with moral reasoning, the nature of moral reality forces us to some conclusions but not others.

Moral realism, as this idea is called, is too rich for many philosophers’ blood. Yet a diluted version of the idea — if not a list of cosmically inscribed Thou-Shalts, then at least a few If-Thens — is not crazy. Two features of reality point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction. And they could provide a benchmark for determining when the judgments of our moral sense are aligned with morality itself.

But he’s dodged the question. We are “born with a rudimentary moral sense” that conforms with the “nature of moral reality” – but is this merely a physically-contingent product of evolution, like the distribution of eye colors, or is it the implantation via a physical mechanism of moral laws that are independent of human opinion?

Consider his subsequent review of “two features of reality” that “point any rational, self-preserving social agent in a moral direction.” Ross’s criticism of these points strikes me as correct, but way too mild.

First, Pinker says that:

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. … 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.

This is simply a form of the argument that I am better off materially by cooperating and we’re back to the “hot stove” problem. That is, if I can get $10 by killing somebody in a manner guaranteed never to be detected, where is the argument that I shouldn’t do it? I’ll also note that his claim is empirically nonsense. I’m often way better off, at lest materially, playing you for a sucker if I’m more cunning and ruthless than you, often by cooperating with some third party to hose you. It’s like the guy never spent ten minutes in a high school.

Pinker then asserts, as the second “external support for morality”, that:

If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously.

It’s kind of embarrassing even to criticize this. Isn’t obvious that in a such a situation I need to appeal to you in a way that doesn’t appear to privilege my interests over yours. Has Pinker never bought a car, negotiated a raise or listened to a politician give a speech?

Pinker was obviously wrestling with a huge issue in this essay, and has a lot of relevant knowledge, but it seems to me that he flinches from addressing the central question: as Ross put it in the title of his post, “Why Should We Be Moral”?