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Instincts and Illusions January 23, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy, Science.

As usual Stephen Pinker is good on the science; not so good on the moral philosophy. Pinker’s recent article in the NYTimes on the science of morality begins by suggesting that, although most people would judge that Mother Theresa was more worthy of moral admiration than Bill Gates, such a judgement is an irrational illusion.

“Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care….I doubt these examples will persuade anyone to favor Bill Gates over Mother Teresa for sainthood. But they show that our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish. It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks.

In other words, a rational point of view would lead us to judge moral worth based on the consequences of an action–utilitarianism.

But when Pinker describes the lastest research in moral psychology, that research shows why we are not utilitarians.

“Joshua Greene, a philosopher and cognitive neuroscientist, suggests that evolution equipped people with a revulsion to manhandling an innocent person. This instinct, he suggests, tends to overwhelm any utilitarian calculus that would tot up the lives saved and lost. The impulse against roughing up a fellow human would explain other examples in which people abjure killing one to save many, like euthanizing a hospital patient to harvest his organs and save five dying patients in need of transplants, or throwing someone out of a crowded lifeboat to keep it afloat.”

There is an interpersonal dimension of morality that includes emotional responses and reactive attitudes that often conflict with purely rational calculation, a view which is supported by MRI research in brain activity.

The moral goodness of Mother Theresa’s activity is not an illusion. It is the product of a well-functioning brain that responds to caring activities regardless of outcomes.

Aside from this peculiar account of moral illusion, Pinker’s essay is full of important information about the science of  morality.



1. Nina Rosenstand - January 28, 2008

Thanks for posting this–I’ve added the link to Pinker to my course website. Haven’t read the entire (very long) article yet, but off the cuff: there is indeed more to moral responses than intuition. I am overjoyed that the emotional component has finally acquired scientific legitimacy, and a subsequent renewed interest among philosophers. It’s about time. But I also have to agree with Peter Singer (which I do sparingly, and reluctantly) that sometimes the correct moral decision may have to go against instinct…our moral instinct is not infallible…if your instinct tells you that it is wrong to cause your child any anguish and tears, well then your instinct is wrong, if the result is that you keep her away from the dentist’s office…if your instinct tells you (Saving Private Ryan) that you should spare the life of the sniper, you may live to regret it…

2. Huan - January 29, 2008

That’s a long article indeed. I got to the part where the example of the British woman. I think there are universal built in biological moral ideas isn’t right, as the example shows, they can be easily “over-written” by other ideas. The universal thing would then seem to be the brain function that governs morality, the dogmatic emotional response. What the moral ideal involves however isn’t universal. Various influences from one’s surroundings may program this moral function through time, each with their own reasoning. After it is programmed, the function no longer needs reasoning, it’s like running a program you made on your computer, you only need to code it the first time, after that you can just double click it or have it activate as a result of certain activities.

I remember a previous blog here regarding a brain function that sends the STOP impulse, seems to be the same idea with this moral emotional response, a programmable brain function. May not be the same brain function, but the idea is the same, a programmed impulse that does not require much thinking or rationalizing.

3. Huan - January 29, 2008

Sorry for the horrible English, guess i typed that response carelessly. I meant:

“I got to the part about the British woman. I think the idea that there are universal built in biological moral ideas isn’t right, as the example shows.”

Philosophy seems to be one of those subjects that absolutely demands clearly expressed thoughts, hehe.

4. Body Snatchers, Then and Now « Philosophy On The Mesa - September 5, 2008

[…] mean it is always the morally wrong thing to do. Long debate, and we’ve touched on it before, on several occasions. But what I want to get to is the contribution by the 2007 version, The Invasion, maybe more so […]

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