ethics by Pinker

Okay, the relevant documents are, first, Human Dignity and Bioethics: Essays Commissioned by the President’s Council on Bioethics. Then, a response by Stephen Pinker. Then, critiques of Pinker by Yuval Levin and our mutual friend Ross. Got all that?

Though he never quite admits it, Pinker is perhaps today’s most passionate advocate of the idea that the sciences and humanities form two cultures and that, like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort, they are predestined to eternal enmity: one of them must destroy the other. And while, as Levin and Douthat point out, Pinker does get quite bizarrely exercised about religion — anyone unfamiliar with the dramatis personae of this whole affair would come away from Pinker’s essay convinced that Leon Kass is actually the Papal nuncio posted to Washington — it’s also literature, indeed any non-scientific use of language, that tends to confuse and frighten him.

Here’s an example. Pinker is exercised by the fact that Padre Kass and some of the the other monks and nuns of the Council think that human beings possess intrinsic dignity. Au contraire, says Pinker, finger held aloft, “Dignity can be harmful.” And why is that? Because “Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity.” There you have it: Stephen Pinker actually thinks that the dignity assumed by tyrants is the same thing that Kass et al. are writing about. What a shock Pinker will receive when, someday, he opens a dictionary and discovers that some words have more than one meaning.

Or this: Pinker is deeply disturbed by Kass’s “disconcerting habit of treating fiction as fact.” Evidence: in his essay for the collection, Kass comments that the Greek gods lived “shallow and frivolous lives.” Obviously, the only possible explanation for such a comment is that Kass actually believes in the Greek gods! (This could be a problem when word gets back to the Vatican.) Then Pinker lands this haymaker: “Kass cites Brave New World five times in his Dignity essay.” There you have it: who would cite works of fiction as though they were potentially relevant to ethical reflection? Surely, only someone too dim to understand the difference between fiction and fact.

This is not the first time that literature has proved to be too much for Pinker. Ten years ago, in How the Mind Works, he worried mightily over the question of why human beings read stories. Hamlet for example — what’s up with that? Here’s the answer Pinker sweated out: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?”

To this Jerry Fodor gave the best possible response: “Good question. Or what if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world? It’s important to think out the options betimes, because a thing like that could happen to anyone and you can never have too much insurance.”

Pinker wants scientists, like himself, to be the social arbiters of morals. How’s he doing so far?