Steven Pinker tells us what’s new in the study of morality

January 14, 2008 | By | 1 Reply More

In Steven Pinker’s article, published in the NYT Magazine, you’ll learn of many of the new developments in the scientific study of morality, many of these new findings unearthed by neuroscientists.  The study of morality has come a long way in the past ten years.  It’s no longer an exercise in near-futility led by academic philosophers rehashing Kant’s categorical imperative for the umpteenth time.  The cognitive scientists, many of them relative newcomers on the scene, have given us a lot more to talk about. 

Steven Pinker has written a terrific review of these recent developments in his article, covering much ground in a comprehensive, though quite readable, article.  Here are a few of the sub-topics:

What are the sources of morality?

Morality, then, is still something larger than our inherited moral sense, and the new science of the moral sense does not make moral reasoning and conviction obsolete. At the same time, its implications for our moral universe are profound.

Pinker warns us not to be so quick on the trigger when we accuse others of being immoral:

At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us.

What is the core element of a moral belief?  Empathy.

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. 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. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.


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Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. "Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind."

    Even a Galactic Overlord must do this. "Because I'm the mommy" does not exempt mommy from following the rules. Seeing things as God sees them is like burning our idols. It is our idols {our false ideas about who and what God is}, and the disgust with the idols of others, as well as our inability to see the big picture, that keep us from appreciating Him.

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