Thursday, August 15, 2013

For People Who Have Read Too Much Pinker

H. Allen Orr in the NY Review of Books:
Fourth, I argued that Pinker minimized his debt to Enlightenment thought. One of his key claims in TBS {The Blank Slate} was that evolutionary psychology poses no threat to human decency. Another was that morality evolved. But I pointed out that the morality Pinker used at every turn to pacify evolutionary psychology was a product of Enlightenment liberalism, not evolution. Pinker now says that he is “the first to agree.” It’s too bad he couldn’t find room to agree in his 509-page book.
Which is exactly also why I who rarely agree with Douthat agree with him here. I read Pinker as saying that common sense (some unexceptionable conviction) + science provides us an adequate moral system.

The facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet. For the same reason, they undercut any moral or political system based on mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, struggles, or messianic ages. And in combination with a few unexceptionable convictions— that all of us value our own welfare and that we are social beings who impinge on each other and can negotiate codes of conduct—the scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings. This humanism, which is inextricable from a scientific understanding of the world, is becoming the de facto morality of modern democracies, international organizations, and liberalizing religions, and its unfulfilled promises define the moral imperatives we face today.

The problem, as H. Allen Orr points out is that those unexceptionable convictions that he has are really a specific product of a specific worldview.