Pinker on Morality: Libs and Cons

The NYT Magazine‘s cover story this week is “The Moral Instinct” by Steven Pinker. (Full disclosure: He’s my idol; I am such a groupie for this guy.)

Here’s one of the things I like about the article:

  • He cites five “spheres” of morality devised by psychologist Jonathan Haidt: not harming, fairness, loyalty, respect for authority, and purity.
  • He explains that in Haidt’s surveys, liberals value harm and fairness “inordinately,” while conservatives value all five equally.
  • He identifies two reality-based touchstones for morality: mutual interest (non-zero-sum games), and other-perspectiveness (putting yourself in another’s shoes). I would characterize both as “selflessness.” And as Pinker points out, these have been widely and repeatedly codified as the core of morality. Viz, the golden rule.
  • He somewhat casually, sort of under the tablecloth, associates the liberal values with those two touchstones, contrary to the three values that are given equal weight by conservatives.

Seems right to me–avoiding harm and fairness are selfless values, while loyalty, authority, and purity are about propagating genes.

(Who says I’m a political axe-grinder? This is hardly a summary of the article–just me cherry-picking for the sake of rhetorical advantage. Successfully? For you to decide.)

In place of “authority,” btw, I would put Concern with Status. It’s universal, stunningly powerful, and utterly unrelated to selfless morality. Though recasting it as “reputation” makes it more morality-related, because a good reputation usually requires avoiding harm and being fair. Though, again, Osama Bin Laden has an awfully good reputation with an awful lot of people.






3 responses to “Pinker on Morality: Libs and Cons”

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