Monday, January 14, 2008

A Moral Sense?

Another riveting (polarizing ?) piece by Pinker in the N.Y.T. magazine this week. (read it here, copy/paste, still haven't taken time to solve problem of linking from this blog:)

While undeniably fascinating, I have two criticisms to voice (at this precise moment, maybe more will come.)

The first is that it starts out with a bang but ends in a fizzle. Unlike his recent book “The Stuff of Thought”, it is pleasantly short, thus more digestible (another way to put that would be to admit I still haven’t reached the end of the book, though I’ve had it in my possession for over three months.) What is enticing in both endeavours is the method used to explore the workings of the human mind, the old “catalogue” system, whereby everything gets a category, a permanent slot from which information relating to it may be retrieved with ease and speed. Very convenient. The problem with the article however is, though he applies neat little labels to the various components listed, they don’t actually add up to much, do they? “…harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity” are the pillars upon which he would have us build a moral system independent of religion, and, truth be told, I was with him in spirit all the way. Who wouldn’t be? After all, the faithless and faithful alike would welcome any sort of system that would unite all mankind into observing rules to guarantee safety and well-being to all the world over, independent of local variants. But to my mind, the thread doesn’t lead us anywhere near so much as a hint of such a solution.

His final paragraph, the all important closing argument, feels less than satisfactory, never mind conclusive:

“Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

Uhm… Not.

Unfortunately, “Man” will just find newer, more clever ways of perpetuating same self-serving behaviour, and I’m quite sure that Mr Pinker’s research and thought experiments have already led him numerous times smack into that wall. We rationalize after the fact, and though his various arguments and illustrations do highlight the fact that we are as inclined to do “good” as we are to do the opposite, we rarely think things through on a conscious level before we act upon our numerous and contradictory urges.

My second caveat concerns the very basis from which he builds his essay, the “Moral Instinct” a.k.a. the moral “Sense”. While I’m rarely sceptical of the notorious major five (and open to some others, like proprioception, and anything else that is physically grounded) I have a hard time accepting the idea that there may exist anything remotely close to a category encompassing such a thing as morality. This so clearly smacks of the tail wagging the dog that I find it difficult not to resist.

A “Moral” sense? That’s as acceptable an idea as something like a healthy sense. We all have a variety of factors to consider to keep us on track for a long and healthful life, some related, many not. These factors cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be placed under a single umbrella, and to continue with the same comparison, we all know how observant we are of those rules, and this despite the sometimes immediate and painful consequences not abiding to them can bring.