Steven Pinker on the Moral Instinct

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Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker examines the evolutionary roots of morality in a fascinating article in the Sunday New York Times. Among other things, Pinker outlines University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt's work which identifies five consistent themes of moral thinking. As Pinker explains:

…Haidt counts five β€” harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity β€” and suggests that they are the primary colors of our moral sense. Not only do they keep reappearing in cross-cultural surveys, but each one tugs on the moral intuitions of people in our own culture…

The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots… Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest….

According to Pinker, Haidt has also identified differential evaluations among the five moral themes between liberals and conservatives in America.

The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It's not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.

Haidt thinks that this means that conservatives are better at understanding liberals (since they share the values of no harm and fairness) than liberals are at understanding conservatives (whose values also include group loyalty, deference to authority, and concerns about purity). Does science demystify morality and thus undercut it?

The institutions of modernity often question and experiment with the way activities are assigned to moral spheres. Market economies tend to put everything up for sale. Science amoralizes the world by seeking to understand phenomena rather than pass judgment on them. Secular philosophy is in the business of scrutinizing all beliefs, including those entrenched by authority and tradition. It's not surprising that these institutions are often seen to be morally corrosive….

Far from debunking morality … 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."

Whole Pinker article here. reason's 2002 interview with Pinker here.

NEXT: To Suggest That We Can Learn Anything About the Simian Nature from a Study of Man is Sheer Nonsense

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  1. Is this that same thing linked a few months back where we all went and answered questions and it gave us a bar graph of the 5 areas we cared about?

    I remember a thread where a bunch of us posted our results.

  2. Nevermind. That past thread was linked here.

  3. Well, the only good thing about this, is it is a direct refutation to JG’s fascist theorems.

    (conservatives put more emphasis on purity and authority than liberals according to these folks).

  4. than liberals are at understanding conservatives (whose values also include group loyalty, deference to authority, and concerns about purity)

    “Liberals” are way into purity (environmentalism, etc.), deference to authority (the state), and group loyalty (I’m a Democrat, dammit!). So this is sort of bullshit. I think that your average “liberal” and “conservative” are very, very similar. They have staked out different positions, but they way they behave regarding their positions is essentially the same.

    Which is why I find these “studies” to be so laughable. Even if there is merit in them, TEAM BLUE and TEAM RED will distort and freak out about it–because their group identity/loyalty is so important to them.

  5. Pinker is the smartest nativist around…but he is still a nativist, so he’s always looking for that inborn, innate explanation for everything.

    Must be something in his gene’s that makes him that way.

  6. Speaking of racism, the President of the Austin NAACP has now gone on two radio shows this week defending Ron Paul against accusations of racism. NAACP 4 Ron Paul! Wow!

    Sorry, I couldn’t wait for todays Ron Paul Racist thread. πŸ™‚

  7. Episiarch,

    deference to authority (the state)

    I wouldn’t call that a liberal trait.
    Liberals may see the state as a useful tool, but they do not, in general, defer to state authority…(the man).

    A subtle difference in the way liberals and conservatives view the individual’s relationship to authority exists. It has predictable results, it seems to me.

  8. Neu Mejican:

    What?

    Did we suddenly return to the blank slate theory of human developemnt?

    I missed the memo again.

  9. Episiarch pretty well summed up what I was going to say about the “liberal/conservative” dichotomy.

    Lets run this test for libertarians:

    No harm – 100%
    Fairness – Do you mean equal rights or equal outcomes? – If the former, 100%; if the latter 0%.
    Group loyalty – 0%
    Respect for authority – 0%
    Purity – 0%

    Guess that’s why neither side likes us.

  10. MysteryFish,

    The Blank Slate theory is a strawman as much as total Nativism.

  11. Liberals may see the state as a useful tool, but they do not, in general, defer to state authority…(the man).

    Yeah, right. Liberals love love love to defer to the state, as long as they perceive it to be regulating/criminalizing/whatever for a “good” reason.

    Which is exactly like conservatives. Just because one group likes health care regulation and the other likes assfucking regulation doesn’t change the fact that they both dig the regulation.

  12. MysteryFish,

    Don’t get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for Pinker. It is just amazing how consistent he is with the form of his explanations.

    Like there is an inborn drive to find inborn drives.

  13. Neu Mejican,

    The only difference that I see in the way liberals and conservatives view the authority relationship is defining “the man”.

    If “the man” is their man, then its group has no problem deferring to it. Otherwise, forget it.

  14. “No harm – 100%
    Fairness – Do you mean equal rights or equal outcomes? – If the former, 100%; if the latter 0%.
    Group loyalty – 0%
    Respect for authority – 0%
    Purity – 0%”

    It seems that the only difference in us and the liberals according to the above is that we believe in equal rights and they believe in equal outcome.

  15. Episiarch,

    I think we are using different defintions of “defer.”

    Liberals are very interested in having your business defer to authority…but they are not likely to defer to state authority themselves.

  16. The Blank Slate theory is a strawman as much as total Nativism.

    Gasp! You mean that nature and nurture might both have a role in our inherited and learned behavior? Stop the Presses! πŸ˜‰

  17. Liberals defer to the state the way plumbers defer to the wrench.

    Reading one’s opponents’ beliefs to be the mirror opposite of one’s own is a rookie mistake.

  18. Liberals defer to the state the way plumbers defer to the wrench.

    Liberals think they defer to the state the way plumbers defer to the wrench, but in fact serve the state by supporting its growing size. Suckers.

  19. liberal admiring his handiwork…

    [ducks]
    sfw

  20. For those who might be interested, Johnathan Haidt has a nice essay on Edge from a few months ago

    http://edge.org/3rd_culture/haidt07/haidt07_index.html

    This kicked off a vigorous and interesting discussion among Edge contributors (including Michael Shermer) here:

    http://edge.org/discourse/moral_religion.html

  21. Episiarch,

    Since this a discussion of what people believe, your comments about a disconnect between beliefs and outcomes would be irrelevant cheap shots, even if they were true.

    How about not jacking this thread into a treatise on how you think liberals are teh suck? That would be a unique experience.

  22. JsubD,

    I know.
    Amazing.

    Episiarch,

    1. to yield respectfully in judgment or opinion (usually fol. by to): We all defer to him in these matters.
    -verb (used with object)
    2. to submit for decision; refer: We defer questions of this kind to the president.

    I wonder which side over the last 6 years, liberal or conservative, have used an argument about supporting the president’s decisions on Iraq.

  23. Liberals are very interested in having your business defer to authority…but they are not likely to defer to state authority themselves.

    To a liberal, as far as I’m concerned, authority is “the people.” Because a liberal is “the people,” they think that they only have to defer to themselves while business has to defer to them.

    This study might as well come out and say “conservatives have a daddy fetish,” because they do.

  24. Who is more likely to defer to the authority of corporate bosses?

    Who is more likely to defer to the authority of the clergy?

    Who is it that thinks the phrase “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” is useful in a discussion of what our immigration laws should be?

  25. How about not jacking this thread into a treatise on how you think liberals are teh suck? That would be a unique experience.

    How about not spinning total bullshit about how liberals don’t defer to the state? It’s such utterly predictable TEAM BLUE GO GO TEAM RED STUPID garbage.

    That would be an even more unique experience.

  26. Whether liberals or conservatives value these different moral spheres is irrelevant, only which spheres they believe should be covered by the government. As a libertarian, I would argue that harm (as it relates to property rights) and fairness (as it relates to equal protection under the law) are the only spheres government can cover. Everything else does have value, but only in my personal interaction with others.

  27. MattW,

    A good link.
    I had forgotten about it.

    This also ran a while back on 3quarks daily
    http://3quarksdaily.blogs.com/3quarksdaily/2008/01/pinker-on-the-s.html

  28. How about not spinning total bullshit about how liberals don’t defer to the state?

    Temper, temper. Some of us are trying to discuss ideas.

  29. psycholinguist Steven Pinker

    “Psycholinguist?” Ughh.

  30. “How about not spinning total bullshit about how liberals don’t defer to the state? It’s such utterly predictable TEAM BLUE GO GO TEAM RED STUPID garbage.

    That would be an even more unique experience.”

    true – and then it would depend on which panda you most closely relate to …

    hier

  31. Temper, temper. Some of us are trying to discuss ideas.

    No, you’re stroking yourself like you do every time a “study” comes out that paints TEAM BLUE in a way you like. When opposite studies come out, you decry them.

    It’s so horribly tribal.

  32. Remember when the ACLU defered to the authority of the state in the Miranda Case?

    Remember when liberals gullibly accepted the government’s statements about Iraqi WMDs and al Qaeda connections, even though there was plenty of countervailing evidence coming out?

    Liberals are willing to use state power to achieve their ends, but they do not have respect for au-thor-i-tai as a an ethic they value in and of itself, the way the Daddy Party does.

  33. Episiarch, do you have any ideas to add other than “I don’t like what this would mean if it was true, so it must not be?”

  34. Episiarch,

    The liberal/conservative argument, much like the libertarian/communist argument rages because of what the two sides share (oppositeness requires a high degree of alignment to exist), but there are differences that are real and meaningful. The relationship to/nature of authority, seems to be a real difference in the liberal/conservative world view.

    Much like libertarians and communists disagree on property rights, despite having very similar world views.

    These discussions often make me feel like a Hindu listening to a Baptist explain how Lutherans got is all wrong.

  35. When was the last time you heard a liberal use “because it’s illegal” as a reason why something is wrong? As opposed to poining to the philosophical justifications behind that law?

    For example, do liberals say that paying starvation wages is wrong because there are minimum wage laws, or do they say that paying stavation wages is wrong because of the harm it does to workers, and base their support for the law on that moral judgement?

    (Hint: “Minimum wage laws have bad effects” is not an answer to this question.)

  36. alternately, someone asking an agnostic if they worship god or the devil.

    maybe deference to authority could run on a sliding scale – cons up high, libs in the middle, libertoids near the bottom and anarchists on the far end.

    that interferes with the TEAM RED TEAM BLUE hamster dance and all but whatevs.

  37. “No harm – 100%
    Fairness – Do you mean equal rights or equal outcomes? – If the former, 100%; if the latter 0%.
    Group loyalty – 0%
    Respect for authority – 0%
    Purity – 0%”

    It seems that the only difference in us and the liberals according to the above is that we believe in equal rights and they believe in equal outcome.

    You obviously have never sat in a legislative hearing where the liberal representative for one labor union said, “I’m unclear on what that other labor union wants, but whatever it is, I’ll support it.”

    Seriously. This actually happened — more than once.

  38. dhex,

    A spectrum of deference is, of course, more realistic…but now the argument will be where different groups fall on the spectrum.

    It seems to me that the different groups have different criteria for who/what authority is, so the talk past each other.

  39. Liberals, just like conservatives, are highly deferential to authority. However, liberals pride themselves on a (false) self-image of non-deference to authority. And as we see here, they will argue until hell freezes over to preserve their self-image.

  40. When was the last time you heard a liberal use “because it’s illegal” as a reason why something is wrong?

    I’ve heard plenty of people, liberal and conservative, fall back on “but — but — it’s illegal” when they’ve lost an argument about the legitimacy of their claim.

    Of course, if you’re never, ever wrong, then this fallback retort becomes unnecessary. πŸ˜‰

  41. P.S. Nice try, joe, conflating “below minimum wage” with “starvation wages”. You do see that they are different things, yeah?

  42. Episiarch,

    Yeah, that’s it…false self-image…something only libertarians are immune from…

    πŸ˜‰

  43. “For example, do liberals say that paying starvation wages is wrong because there are minimum wage laws, or do they say that paying stavation wages is wrong because of the harm it does to workers, and base their support for the law on that moral judgement?”

    On the other hand, a libertarian or a conservative may argue besides being a violation of property rights, minimum wage laws are wrong because they result in higher unemployment for the lower skilled.

  44. Episiarch,

    Libertarians never defer to authority on anything…(c.f., Rothbard, Hayek, etc…)

    =/;^)

  45. The phrase “respect for authority” is interesting. I have respect for legitimate authority, but only know of one source of legitimate authority.

    So, since I dont consider (most of the time) government to be legitimate, I dont respect them. Ditto other “authority figures”.

    But I would consider myself at 100% on this question. πŸ™‚

  46. Cactus Jack,

    I find it interesting that you conflate the libertarian and conservative positions…aren’t there real differences between people who identify with each label?

  47. You obviously have never sat in a legislative hearing where the liberal representative for one labor union said, “I’m unclear on what that other labor union wants, but whatever it is, I’ll support it.”

    Also known as knowing who butters your bread.

  48. robc,

    And that one source is…?

  49. NM,

    Well, I can tell you what the Lutherans got it all wrong, so you can figure it out from there.

  50. how not what. Ugh. I ask once again, when is Reason going to add some way to read thru a post before it is finally submitted?

    Sigh.

  51. There’s a completely different axis of moral measuring for libertarians. That axis is the moral authority for coercion.

    You can have a moral code for yourself, another one for those close to you, and another one that you want encoded in law. It’s the ability to permit a greater separation between these codes that most distinguishes libertarians from all other political philosophies.

    Ron Paul is one of the best examples. If he applied his personal moral code more closely to what he’d like encoded in law, he’d be a fairly typical Republican. If I did the same thing, I’d probably be a fairly typical Democrat. We both see such an application of personal morality as immoral when it comes to the coercive morality of the law.

  52. “Human behavior is economic behavior. The particulars may vary, but competition for limited resources remains a constant.”

    That is to say: It’s not instinct, it’s economics.

  53. prolefeed,

    re: below minimum wage vs. starvation wages…

    $5.85 per hour x 40 hours = $234 gross a week.
    So if we round that to 1000 a month

    Last I checked, median rent was around 600 a month, add in utilities, transportation, clothing…

    Depending on the number in the household and the location, starvation wage may be appropriate for wages below this level.

  54. …when is Reason going to add some way to read thru a post before it is finally submitted?

    Don’t you have a “Preview” button right next to the “Submit Comment” button that I assume you used to make that post?

  55. In my experience, libertarians split into left-libertarians (who have liberally-low levels of deference to authority) and right-libertarians (who have conservative-high levels of deference to authority).

    That the latter wish to place this authority in churches, social leaders, corporate heirarchies, tradition, heads of families, and other private-sector authorities doesn’t change the deference they have for those authorities.

  56. “Psycholinguist?” Ughh.

    Since 3 of Pinker’s books are on how brain structure and function give rise to language, this seems to be a pretty good label.

  57. TheDumbFish

    My “preview” button was stolen by the same person who stole your “humor recognition device”.

    Oh, except in real life, I have a preview button, I just never use it.

  58. Ever since I stumbled on his early book The Language Instinct way back in 1994, I’ve known that Steven Pinker totally rocks.

  59. prolefeed and Episiarch get a big “whatever.” Complete absence of any argument or evidence beyond “nuh-uh,” and prolefeed’s typical self-serving misreading of my point.

    Boys, THIS, form Cactus Jack, is what an argument looks like:

    On the other hand, a libertarian or a conservative may argue besides being a violation of property rights, minimum wage laws are wrong because they result in higher unemployment for the lower skilled.

    Setting aside the latter point about their efficacy, which tells us nothing about moral reasoning, the “property rights” you mention are, in fact, based on deference to the proper authority of the property/business owner.

    Compare: Is paying starvation wages wrong?

    Liberal: Yes, it harms people and is not fair.

    Conservative/Libertarian: Look, that’s not my call. It is the right of the boss to decide what he wants to pay, and workers can take it or leave it.

  60. joe,

    That is where I was going with my comment. Im not an anarchist, but, you seem to be saying that a Christian Anarchist, for example, has a high level of deference to authority. It just seems odd. But, it is the same point I made claiming a 100% deference to the only legitimate authority I acknowledge. However, I know many left-leaning christians who have the same 100% deference to authority, so I think that shoots down your right/left argument.

  61. Not to get into a “liberals suck, no conservatives do” debate, but it seems pretty stupid to say that liberals don’t value or somehow value less than conservative loyalty to the group and the power of authority. Group rights anyone? It takes a village anyone? To me the real difference between liberals and conservatives is that one side (liberals)believes that all problems can be solved if only enough thought and effort are put into it while the other (conservatives) believe that man is inherently fallable and that some problems cannot be solved through human action no matter how much effort is put into solving them and the only real wisdom man has the collective wisdom of history and tradition that has been built not by one man but through 100s of years of trial and error the full extent of which we can never understand. Pretty much any liberal or conservative difference can be boiled down to that split of assumptions.

  62. Rimfax,

    I find that libertarians are more than willing to see coercion used to enforce the rightful authority of property owners, especially right-libertarians.

    Left libertarians tend to be a bit squishier on absolutist property rights arguments, such as anti-discrimination in employment laws, specifically because they value the harm and justice concerns more highly, and the authority of the businessowner less, than their right-libertarian bretheren.

  63. Neu mejican — You can get about 1,000 calories for a buck at many fast food places. “Starvation” doesn’t mean “sometimes going hungry”, it means, “dying because you didn’t get enough food to eat.” People can and do survive in some Third World countries on about a dollar a day. When I went to college, I lived on considerably less than what a full-time minimum wage earner makes, and gained weight. My transportation was a bicycle, I lived in really cruddy housing, but I did the opposite of starve.

  64. I haven’t had time to read the article, but how does Pinker account for changing views? When I was 30, I was a flaming liberal, by the time I was 40, I was a libertarian, and now I suppose I could be described as a libertarian on most policy issues but a conservative philosophically.

    If those are innate characteristics, how is it possible for one’s views to change over time?

  65. robc,

    I would say that a Christian anarchist would be quite explicit is his purposeful subjection of himself to what he deems the property authority, and would have no difficulty at all with my point about the state not being the only, or even the highest, authority.

  66. Haidt thinks that this means that conservatives are better at understanding liberals (since they share the values of no harm and fairness) than liberals are at understanding conservatives (whose values also include group loyalty, deference to authority, and concerns about purity).

    Bwwaaahhhaaaaahhhaaaa.

    Ha ha.

    HA!

    OK, I have control of myself again. Liberals don’t value deference to authority, group loyalty, and purity? Methinks this is yet another case of fish not feeling the water.

  67. joe,

    I dont disagree with that point. However, a left wing Christian is quite explicit in his purposeful subjection (I like that phrase) of himself to what he deems the proper authority (I think you meant that, not property authority πŸ™‚ – you need a preview button too). Therefore, there isnt anything special about right/left on views on authority.

    Maybe “christian” overrides Pinker’s points.

  68. John,

    Group rights anyone? In my experience, liberals argue for “group rights” in order to mitigate what they perceive to be harms and injustices to weaker minority groups. Is not the fundamental premise of multi-culturalism – that our society and the status of individuals therein should not be defined in terms of membership in a group – a direct refutation of group identity?

    It takes a village anyone? This is a point about the responsibility of the group to individuals, and of each individual in the group to each other individuals, not about the need for the individual to conform to the group. The saying is not “A child needs to obey the village.”

  69. robc,

    I would say that the Christian left has characteristics that would commonly be thought of as conservative.

    But let’s think about the Christian left – who are they? I can think of two examples right away, the Unitarian Universalists and Catholics who dissent from Church doctrine on issues like birth control.

    The former refuse to mandate beliefe in God as a condition for inclusion in their church, and the latter like to insist on their individual freedom of conscience and the wrongheadedness of the heirarchy’s position.

  70. Neu Mejican,
    According to Wikipedia, median income in 2006 was $48,201.00, which I think works out to about $23/hour. Granted, if you’re looking only at renters that would skew downward somewhat, but not all the way down to minumum wage. So you’re basically saying that a substantially sub-median income can’t support paying median rent? I really can’t say that’s a surprise.

    In other news, do you realize that fully 50% of the people in this country have a sub-median standard of living? Something must be done to correct this!

  71. Joe,

    Liberals value the collective over the individual. The village has to raise the child because it owes a duty to the collective good of the group. The rich black kid gets a scholarship over the poor white kid because as a group blacks are disavantaged so it doesn’t matter what the individual circumstances are. The rich black kid has a right to the scholarship by virtue of his membership in the group not any individual set of circumstances. Affirmative action is an absolute affirmation of group identity, group privilege and collective guilt.

  72. prolefeed’s typical self-serving misreading of my point.

    joe — If by “misreading” you mean pointing out that you used wildly inaccurate wording that said absolutely nobody believes an assertion when, arguably, about half the country does in fact believe said assertion, then yeah, I “misread” your point.

    If you’re arguing for an Alice in Wonderland POV that words mean whatever the speaker intends them to mean, then it’s hard to hold a meaningful discussion.

  73. But let’s think about the Christian left – who are they?

    Many are evangelicals. Really. I know them. Trust me. And yes, a lot of them have characteristics that are commonly thought of us conservative.

    Also, there are the leftist catholics who DONT dissent from the church on birth control or abortion. So, I guess they have characteristics that are commonly thought of us conservative too.

  74. I find that libertarians are more than willing to see coercion used to enforce the rightful authority of property owners, especially right-libertarians.

    So, that means that supporting laws against theft and armed robbery constitute “defering to authority” — since a person’s right to the property in their pockets is being coercively enforced — while supporting gun control, trans fat bans, anti-smoking laws, etc, are just “using govt as a tool”?

    Seriously, joe, you’re spinning everything except govt regulation into “deference to authority”, and then patting yourself on the back for not deferring to authority like everyone else.

  75. In my experience, libertarians split into left-libertarians (who have liberally-low levels of deference to authority) and right-libertarians (who have conservative-high levels of deference to authority).

    I would define left-libs as those who believe in close to 100% freedom for social issues, but lower levels of economic freedom, while right-libs believe in close to 100% freedom for economic issues, and lower levels of social freedom.

    High levels of deference to authority, OTOH, is pretty much unlibertarian.

  76. For those of you arguing red/blue (or whatever), try reading the articles, there is a lot of good stuff. For instance, try not to fit in this category:

    People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

  77. I say “ughh” not for the arcane science but for the type and variety of pointless argumentation it fosters as evidenced above.

  78. Speaking of racism, the President of the Austin NAACP has now gone on two radio shows this week defending Ron Paul against accusations of racism.

    Sounds like a goddam neo-confederate if you ask me! Maybe we should be thinking about purging the NAACPers from our tolerant cosmopolitan ranks as well!

  79. “Speaking of racism, the President of the Austin NAACP has now gone on two radio shows this week defending Ron Paul against accusations of racism.”

    Because eventually all hit and run threads regarding any topic lead to a Ron Paul fest.

  80. prolefeed/Salvius

    Don’t read too much into the minimum-wage post.

    But definitions matter: Starvation does not equal death from malnutrition…Dictionary.com gives this one

    1. a state of extreme hunger resulting from lack of essential nutrients over a prolonged period

    I will note that I said it would depend on the number of individuals in the household, and the location.

    Median of 600 a month is a national median. In most large cities, 600 a month is the floor rent available…Add in a dozen kids, take out taxes, etc…malnutrition can be a real possibility with detrimental consequences. There are many in this country that suffer this way.

    My whole career has been working with families in poverty…I don’t base my sense that “starvation wages” exist in this country on some theoretical model.

  81. Pig Mannix,

    What’s that saying: If you are 20 and not a liberal then you have no heart but if you are 50 and not a conservative then you have no brain… or something like that.

    I don’t know if Pinker deals with this at all but it seems to me that only a small percent of what a person believes is “innate”…. Most is learned over the course of a lifetime.

  82. To defend Pinker a bit here.

    He would not claim that beliefs are innate, but that tendencies to react in certain ways are innate.

    Beliefs operate on a much different cognitive level than innate proclivities, even in Pinker’s nativist model.

  83. Pinker, I think, would say that genetics restricts the domains that you get to form a belief around…like universal grammar restricts the kinds of choices a particular language can provide a language community.

  84. joe wrote: Setting aside the latter point about their efficacy, which tells us nothing about moral reasoning, the “property rights” you mention are, in fact, based on deference to the proper authority of the property/business owner.

    This is so tendentious it’s probably question-begging. Most libertarians see property rights as part of the ‘harm’ sphere of morality, not as part of the ‘respect for authority’ sphere. After all, most libertarians see property rights as well as rights against assault and murder as instances of a general right not to be aggressed against (hence all the emphasis on non-initiation of force).

    Admittedly, you can characterize property rights as deference to the authority of the owner. But likewise, you can characterize rights against assault or murder as deference to the authority of the potential victim. Generally, all rights not to be harmed (anything falling under the ‘harm’ sphere of morality) can be characterized as deference to the authority of potential victims of harm. This might well call into question the distinction between the ‘harm’ sphere and the ‘deference to authority’ sphere. But I seriously doubt that it reveals anything special about property rights, or shows any embarrassing authority-loving streak in libertarian ideology.

  85. “I don’t know if Pinker deals with this at all but it seems to me that only a small percent of what a person believes is “innate””

    I think people may have a tendency to form certain beliefs based on certain proclivities that are a result of their personalities which are largely innate.

  86. But definitions matter: Starvation does not equal death from malnutrition

    Neu Mejican — I assume you’re some kind of social worker, based on your statements above. So, how many people have you worked with who died from not getting enough to eat? Any? How many have died from health complications brought on by overeating, such as heart attacks or diabetes? Many?

    Up until fairly recently from a historical standpoint, “starvation” meant “dying from not eating enough”. Now that, in our country, we’ve virtually eradicated deaths from not eating enough, and now that one of the biggest killer of poor people is health complications of obesity, people have started to water down the phrase to mean “hungry” or even “not entirely satiated”. I’ve seen really fat people, without a hint of irony, say they are “literally starving”.

  87. prolefeed,

    Literally doesnt literally mean literally anymore.

  88. Last I checked, median rent was around 600 a month, add in utilities, transportation, clothing…

    Perhaps if you are making sub-median wages, you shouldn’t be trying to live a median lifestyle.

  89. I don’t know if Pinker deals with this at all but it seems to me that only a small percent of what a person believes is “innate”…. Most is learned over the course of a lifetime.

    I’ll say. I’ve got four siblings, all with similar genetic makeup and similar upbringings. The political views? One far-left bleeding heart liberal; one libertarianish person with an eclectic mix of leftish and hard-right views; a moderate Democrat; a moderate populist Republican; and a minarchist bordering on anarcho-capitalist (me).

  90. Mr. Bailey,

    So we have animals with some apparent sense of morality who, according to Walker’s post below, seem to choose more cooperative societies, where unwanted behavior is actively discouraged and where they’ll be treated better… …which almost appears like something of a social contract situation…

    Does any of this make you any more sympathetic to the suggestion that some animals may have a claim to some rights?

  91. John,

    I don’t think you understand liberals very well.

    Liberals value the collective over the individual. You mean like our vigorous support for restrictions on the police and CIA’s right to search, interrogate, and detain individuals, even when it comes at the cost of collective security?

    The village has to raise the child because it owes a duty to the collective good of the group. No, the village has to raise the child because the village owns a duty to the individual good of that child.

    prolefeed, again, whatever. You’ve yet to make a point on the entire thread, you know.

    crimethink,

    So, that means that supporting laws against theft and armed robbery constitute “defering to authority” — since a person’s right to the property in their pockets is being coercively enforced — The depends. Both left and right support the enforcement of these laws. The liberal justification would be that theft and armed robbery harm a person and are unfair, while the conservative justification would be those two, as well as the fact that robberty intrudes on the rights of the property owner.

    while supporting gun control, trans fat bans, anti-smoking laws, etc, are just “using govt as a tool”? Yes, they are “just using government as a tool.” Nobody supports these things for the purpose of increasing government’s authority in and of itself, but for protecting people from harm.

    Gaping in incredulity at these arguments and asserting that they can’t possibly be made in good faith doesn’t actually, you know, refute them.

  92. BTW, I never wrote anywhere that minimum wages were starvation wages. Read it again if you’re confused.

  93. joe, maybe I’m misunderstanding you, but do you think that appeals to rights are (by their very nature) different in kind from prohibitions on harm?

  94. Dave2,

    Most libertarians see property rights as part of the ‘harm’ sphere of morality, not as part of the ‘respect for authority’ sphere.

    As my comment above states, I think there can be more than one reason to support a particular law.

  95. Dave2,

    They are two different strands of reasoning, though they can get you to the same place, and are not necessary contradictory.

    Let’s look at the case of squatters who take over an abandoned building, fix it up, live “openly and notoriously” there for ten years, run businsses out of it…and then the owner who walked away from it tries to send in the cops to kick everyone out.

    As we’ve see on previous threads dealing with this situation, some people side with the squatters, and others with the owner, and this typically breaks down into a left-right divide.

    The lefties are plainly motivated by concern about the harm and injustice being visited on the squatters. The righties argue about the old owner having rightful authority to kick them out. I suppose you could phrase support for his cause in terms of not wanting to see him harmed by, er, no longer owning that which he abandoned of his own free will ten years before, but not very convincingly, especially when you compare this harm to that which would be done to the squatters.

  96. prolefeed,

    Not a social worker, an educator.

    Please re-read my post.
    Death by starvation is distinct from starvation.
    Always has been.
    Always will be.

    The more common consequences of starvation in the US are growth deficiency, health problems, learning difficulties.

    RC Dean,
    That’s already been covered.
    Lots of straw has been made of my use of that number. Devil’s in the details.

  97. Fools. Steve Plinker is A FOOL. COSMOPOLITANS need to STEP down from their HIGH HORSES.

    Steve Plinkers HEAD is MUSH. No matter how COSMOPOLITANS like d-Hex might wish OTHERWISE.

  98. prolefeed,

    Up until fairly recently from a historical standpoint, “starvation” meant “dying from not eating enough”.

    Look up “starvation” in the Oxford English sometime…

    I find the distinction between “starvation” and “death by starvation” going back as far as the early 1800’s, with no entries conflating the meanings at all… the oldest entry for the word being 1802… sorry, but I won’t defer to your authority on the subject.

  99. joe,

    Just a thought: I’m starting to think that maybe you’re taking the ‘harm’ sphere of morality to involve an overall balancing out of harms, as opposed to a prohibition on harming innocent people. This would be similar to Nozick’s distinction between ‘utilitarianism of rights’ and ‘rights as side constraints’–the first says to minimize rights-violations overall (even if that means violating some rights along the way) and the second says not to violate rights (even if that means more rights-violations occur overall).

    So in the squatter case I would think most libertarians would think that the owner has the rightful authority to kick them out, but that this is only because the squatters have harmed the owner by using the owner’s (we’ll assume) peacefully acquired resources against or without the owner’s consent. This sounds like ‘harm’-style reasoning to me, though it’s not an overall balancing out of harms approach — libertarians might well agree with you that the harm to the owner is pretty minor compared to the harm to the squatters. Instead, it’s an approach which prohibits harming in the first place, with the owner’s retaliatory harm classified as mere self-defense.

  100. “I’ll say. I’ve got four siblings, all with similar genetic makeup and similar upbringings. The political views? One far-left bleeding heart liberal; one libertarianish person with an eclectic mix of leftish and hard-right views; a moderate Democrat; a moderate populist Republican; and a minarchist bordering on anarcho-capitalist (me).”

    I’ve come to believe that genes play a bigger part in people’s personalities than I once believed, but environment is still important. Studies of identical twins raised apart have shown some remarkable similarities in their viewpoints and choice of occupations, etc.

    Birth order also plays a big part in siblings’ personalities also. It has been found that in most cases, the oldest child often takes on a leadership position in his or her occupation. The middle child is often reflective, sometimes the black sheep of the family because often he or she doesn’t get the attention that the oldest sibling or the baby of the home gets. The youngest sibling often becomes spoiled because of the attention that he or she gets. They often feel entitled.

    Of course, you can always point to exceptions, but birth order often has an impelling effect.

  101. Dave2,

    I think the moral reasoning Pinker is talking about comes prior to the ideological reasoning you’re describing. Someone could reason himself to the position that the former owner is being “harmed” by not getting back that which he abandoned, and that the squatters are not being “harmed” by losing their homes and businesses and investments, but only if they really, really wanted to.

  102. joe,

    Sure, maybe you think that this line of reasoning is a real stretch. But remember that the innate moral structures Haidt, et alia talk about are supposed to be flexible enough to be developed by culture and ideology in a variety of ways (after all, the analogy is to innate linguistic structures). I suspect that the libertarian take on property rights is ultimately grounded in the ‘harm’ part of moral psychology, though it has been developed in a complicated way by culture and ideology. I suppose it’s possible that it is grounded in the ‘authority’ part, but I see no reason not to take the ‘harm’ appearances at face value.

  103. joe | January 14, 2008, 12:20pm | #

    When was the last time you heard a liberal use “because it’s illegal” as a reason why something is wrong? As opposed to poining to the philosophical justifications behind that law?

    For example, do liberals say that paying starvation wages is wrong because there are minimum wage laws, or do they say that paying stavation wages is wrong because of the harm it does to workers, and base their support for the law on that moral judgement?

    I do not understand how a literate person could read this to mean that the federal minimum wage is a starvation wage. I just don’t.

  104. Dave 2,

    I’d say that the rational, intellectual reasoning behind the libertarian stance on property rights is meant to overcome the pre-rational moral “reasoning” Pinker describes.

  105. Dave2 (and joe I guess),

    This sounds a lot like mine and joe’s Earl/Clarence racial discrimination argument from last week.

    I think the Nozick distinction applies there too.

  106. “Conservative/Libertarian: Look, that’s not my call. It is the right of the boss to decide what he wants to pay, and workers can take it or leave it.”

    Libertarians believe in property rights, but we often look for pragmatic arguments to bolster our argument. It happens that minimum wage laws bring about higher unemployment, so the libertarian can argue in this case that not only are minimum wage laws a violation of property rights, they are also bad for the workers by creating more unemployment. You’re more likely to starve on no wages than on low wages. So, in the case the libertarian’s opposition turns out to be morally superior to the proponent of minimum wages.

  107. The liberal justification would be that theft and armed robbery harm a person and are unfair,

    How are they unfair unless there’s a presumption of the right to control one’s private property?

    Yes, they are “just using government as a tool.” Nobody supports these things for the purpose of increasing government’s authority in and of itself, but for protecting people from harm.

    It doesn’t matter what the motive behind it is — you’re still demanding that I submit to govt authority. If I disagree, and don’t think owning a gun, or eating trans fats, or smoking is harmful, I still have to obey the authorities.

    I’m sure the Saudi authorities believe they’re preventing the souls of both men and women from being harmed when they require women to wear burqas, but that doesn’t make it any less authoritarian.

  108. morally superior?

  109. Crimethink,

    You are still conflating the concept of the government having authority with deference to that authority.

  110. “It doesn’t matter what the motive behind it is — you’re still demanding that I submit to govt authority. If I disagree, and don’t think owning a gun, or eating trans fats, or smoking is harmful, I still have to obey the authorities.”

    And even if I agree that eating trans fats and smoking is harmful, it’s still my business. Is it my body or the government’s?

  111. robc,

    I agree. The different weight the left and right put on harm vs. authority goes a long way towards explaining how some people can look at the bans on discrimination in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and see a restriction on freedom, while others can see an advance for freedom.

  112. crimethink,

    It doesn’t matter what the motive behind it is Yes, as a matter of fact, it does. Since this is a discussion about the moral reasoning behind people’s political beliefs, then yes, the moral reasoning behind their support or opposition to a particular law matters very much.

  113. How are they unfair unless there’s a presumption of the right to control one’s private property?

    Because of the objective harm done to a person who is robbed. Liberals believe in the “right” to health care, and absolutely none of their reasoning relies on the belief that a poor individual has property rights-based authority over the fraction of the Medicare budget that would cover his prescription. Instead, they believe in this right because of the harm experienced by a person who is denied health care.

  114. And even if I agree that eating trans fats and smoking is harmful, it’s still my business. Is it my body or the government’s?

    And there we have it. The people who want to pass these laws are worried about harm. Cactus Jack, even if he agrees that the laws are harmful, is more concerned with authority.

  115. “And there we have it. The people who want to pass these laws are worried about harm. Cactus Jack, even if he agrees that the laws are harmful, is more concerned with authority.”

    It’s individual rights vs. the nanny state.

  116. In other news, do you realize that fully 50% of the people in this country have a sub-median standard of living?

    Is this supposed to be parody? By DEFINITION 50% of the people have a sub-median standard of living… that’s what “median” means: 50% of group X is below this level. If you were to argue that the median income isn’t enough to adequately feed and house a family of four, then that would be more useful.

  117. …which is an argument between those who value harm higher on one side, and those with certain ideas about rightful authority on the other.

  118. “Because of the objective harm done to a person who is robbed. Liberals believe in the “right” to health care, and absolutely none of their reasoning relies on the belief that a poor individual has property rights-based authority over the fraction of the Medicare budget that would cover his prescription. Instead, they believe in this right because of the harm experienced by a person who is denied health care.”

    Rights to health care are found nowhere in the Constitution, but property rights are. It is never justified to take money from some to give to others. If there are needy people who need health care, voluntary organizations could be formed to provide for those needs. It is constitutionally not the duty of the federal government.

  119. joe,

    I agree. The different weight the left and right put on harm vs. authority goes a long way towards explaining how some people can look at the bans on discrimination in the 1964 Civil Rights Act and see a restriction on freedom, while others can see an advance for freedom.

    I disagree with you agreeing with me. Without repeating our previous discussion, it isnt harm vs authority, its the definition of harm that is the disagreement. Its not harm to be denied something you have no inherent right to.

  120. joe,

    Liberals believe in the “right” to health care… Instead, they believe in this right because of the harm experienced by a person who is denied health care.

    Proving my point from previous post. Their is no right (although you did say “right”, so Im gussing you are acknowledging that) to health care. There are no positive rights. A person denied health care isnt harmed, they are in the exact same state as just before being denied, so no harm is done. Health care “helps”. Lack of help isnt harm.

  121. (Standard exceptions on previous post for “violating contract” and etc. In that case, not helping could be considered harming.)

  122. Unless you believe “rights” are created by men, there can be no such thing as a “right” to healthcare. And, if you do believe “rights” are created by men, the basis of any argument based on “rights” becomes pretty shaky.

    Joe, may I suggest a quick read (pdf).

  123. Cactus Jack, you are WAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYYY off-topic.

    Once again, the topic of this thread is the moral reasoning which leads political to their political views, and how that differs between liberals and conservatives.

    robc,

    Its not harm to be denied something you have no inherent right to. Whatever. If you look at a person who is suffering, who has been caused to suffer, that person has been harmed. Whether that harm is justified or not is irrelevant. A guy who gets shot robbing a house has been harmed, but he probably deserved it. Ditto with a guy whose paycheck gets garnished to pay his baby’s child support. That electric chair sure as hell harmed Ted Bundy.

    All of these meditations on rights and their provenance are, as the article says, post facto justifications for the basic moral reasoning that leads people to their positions.

    That guy bleeding from his head, did that shovel harm him?

    Gee, I’d have to know the circumstances…

    No, you don’t. He’s been harmed, whether he had it coming or not.

  124. joe,

    Reading is fundamental.

    I said: ts not harm to be denied something you have no inherent right to

    You gave multiple cases in response:
    1. Guy shot robbing house
    2. Garnishment of paycheck
    3. Electric chair
    4. guy whacked with shovel

    3 of those (1,3,4) have nothing whatsover to do with being denied something that they had no right to. All 3 have been harmed, maybe justifiably. #2 might actually apply, but I would say he has not been harmed because it was never his money to begin with – it always belonged to his baby. That one is tricky though – it could be argued that he has a right to the money, and then a judgement against, it which case it could be considered harm, but still doesnt apply because he had the initial right to the money.

    The hospital case and the motel case are your best fitting cases and I deny both of them involve harm.

  125. Cactus Jack: “I think people may have a tendency to form certain beliefs based on certain proclivities that are a result of their personalities which are largely innate.”

    Joe: “All of these meditations on rights and their provenance are, as the article says, post facto justifications for the basic moral reasoning that leads people to their positions.”

    These statements both echo one of my favorite quotes ever:
    Benjamin Franklin (in Life of Dr. Franklin): “How convenient does it prove to be a rational animal, that knows how to find or invent a plausible pretext for whatever it has an inclination to do.”

  126. robc,

    You are parsing the meaning of harm beyond all recognition, and in line with your political philosophy.

    You are doing this specifically because you know that your politics lead to accepting harms – standard English definition – because you have higher priorities.

    Pinker’s argument most certainly does not use the term “harm” as you are using it, but in the familiar, common English sense of somebody suffering. That you can come up with a different definition of the term is irrelevant.

    Pick some other word for Pinker’s concept if you want to claim “harm” for your political philosophy. Fucked-over-ness. Human misery. Bad stuff. Whatever. The fact that you are willing to accept other people being _____________ed when it would violate your ideas about people’s property rights just backs up Pinker’s point.

    Lemme guess, you could do the same thing with “justice.” “It’s not really unjust for someone to be hungry in the richest country in the world, because” yadda yadda yadda, something that has to do with rightful authority. All this shows is that you define justice more narrowly than us liberals, and are more likely to put other concerns before it. This is Pinker’s point.

    Noticing and admitting this, btw, is completely value-neutral, yet you seem extremely defensive about it.

  127. joe,

    Im defensive about it because it is not true. Actually, I completely agree on jsutice. I have a narrower view of it than liberals because I am right and they are wrong. Harm isnt equal to someone suffering, it is someone CAUSING suffering.

    From dictionary.com almost all of the definitions agree with me. Someone (or something) must CAUSE harm.

  128. The substantive behavioral analysis is actually pretty interesting, once you get into the meat of the article. But dear God, the examples he starts out with! Norman Borlaug? Bill Gates? He’s just asking to be lampooned with a Vulgar Libertarianism piece.

    The worst of it is, I suspect Borlaug and Gates were the hooks that caught Ron in the first place.

    ” Vulgar Libertarianism Watch, Number…. I’ve Lost Count”

  129. Harm isnt equal to someone suffering, it is someone CAUSING suffering.

    Says you. That is not the sense in which Pinker is using the term.

  130. The President on the Austin NAACP must not have seen the photographic evidence of Ron Paul being a racist.

  131. joe,

    Says you. That is not the sense in which Pinker is using the term.

    Actually, it is. I just searched thru every use of the word harm in the article. The first 7 (of 9) clearly line up with my definition of harm. The last 2 dont have any examples/actions attached so neither agree with my nor YOUR definition of harm. The first 7 involve one person or monkey or government doing harm to another person.

  132. I knew Reason would run with Pinker’s article because it essentially justifies two of Western society’s primary cultural myths:

    1) Earth is an infinite ball of green resource cheese; and

    2) Technology, “free” markets and human ingenuity will solve all our problems and enable us to continue the urban legend of exponential growth on a finite planet

    My money is still on Kirkpatrick Sale (concerning his bet with Kevin Kelly).

    With regard to Chekhov’s quote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like”, I think, Europe Takes Africa’s Fish, and Migrants Follow (just one example of an ever increasing body of similar evidence), shows us exactly what we are like. It is a classic example of population overshoot and resource depletion, regional human primates exceeding local carrying capacity.

    I don’t foresee any substantive, positive change for the better on the human primate’s horizon as a result of this kind of enlightening and disturbing revelation.

    I see only more of the same:

    “Jared Diamond’s recent book detailing the ways societies collapse suggests that American society, or industrial civilization as a whole, once it is aware of the dangers of its current course, can learn from the failures of the past and avoid their fates. But it will never happen, and for a reason Diamond himself understands.

    “As he says, in his analysis of the doomed Norse society on Greenland that collapsed in the early 15th century: ‘The values to which people cling most stubbornly under inappropriate conditions are those values that were previously the source of their greatest triumphs over adversity.’ If this is so, and his examples would seem to prove it, then we can isolate the values of American society that have been responsible for its greatest triumphs and know that we will cling to them no matter what. They are, in one rough mixture, capitalism, individualism, nationalism, technophilia, and humanism (as the dominance of humans over nature). There is no chance whatever, no matter how grave and obvious the threat, that as a society that we will abandon those.

    “Hence no chance to escape the collapse of empire.”

    – Kirkpatrick Sale, Imperial Entropy

    Libertarianism in One Lesson

    Libertarianism in One Lesson; The Second Lesson

  133. RE: There are no positive rights.

    Some disagree.
    http://www.un.org/Overview/rights.html

    Another example of note
    In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

  134. Cool stuff! I always knew conservatives were smarter than liberals. Now I have empirical truth. Please don’t mistake “smarter than” for “smart, unlike”.

    Please don’t get confused by the evolutionary paleobabble in the article. We have here data (the 5 primary moral bases) and interpretation (evolutionary basis). A creationist could easily interpret this data into the biblical model. An evolutionist and a creationist could argue about if either all 5 are important or if they are evolutionary leftovers.

    Ronald Bailey asks, “Does science demystify morality and thus undercut it?”

    Depends on how you interpret the facts that science uncovers.

    As for the last paragraph of the article, these scientists are assuming that people respond with reasonable rationality. If you prove that eating bacon makes you fat, people will keep eating bacon and make excuses. If you tell them to observe 5 morals because they are ingrained in our DNA, they will make excuses to act against them. Don’t assume humans are perfect, the Constitution doesn’t.

  135. Liberals are willing to use state power to achieve their ends, but they do not have respect for au-thor-i-tai as a an ethic they value in and of itself, the way the Daddy Party does.

    If liberals don’t respect authority, why do they believe that making laws depending on that authority will solve almost any problem?

    For example, do liberals say that paying starvation wages is wrong because there are minimum wage laws, or do they say that paying starvation wages is wrong because of the harm it does to workers, and base their support for the law on that moral judgment?

    For example, do conservatives say that homosexuality is wrong because there are anti-sodomy laws, or do they say that homosexuality is wrong because of the harm it does to families, and base their support for the law on that moral judgment?

    Explain the difference. Show your work.

    The idea that government should enforce morality instead of protect individual rights is the fundamental difference between both RED and BLUE, and libertarian. Republicans and Democrats both believe that individuals are incapable of running their own lives, and therefore need government to enforce laws that make life decisions for them. Libertarians call bullshit on that philosophy, and point to the long and varied history of government for confirmation.

    In my experience, liberals argue for “group rights” in order to mitigate what they perceive to be harms and injustices to weaker minority groups.

    In my experience, liberals argue for “group rights” in order to ban firearms.

  136. I am sorry to see Steven Pinker, who I much admire, give in to the urge to find the golden chalis of moral grounding. There is none. Get over it. Just because there may be tendencies to react in certain ways that are innate, even if they are universal, does not suggest that we “ought” to behave in that manner. There is no ‘there’ there.

  137. LarryA,

    If liberals don’t respect authority, why do they believe that making laws depending on that authority will solve almost any problem? For practical purposes, as a means to an end.

    For example, do liberals say that paying starvation wages is wrong because there are minimum wage laws, or do they say that paying starvation wages is wrong because of the harm it does to workers, and base their support for the law on that moral judgment?

    For example, do conservatives say that homosexuality is wrong because there are anti-sodomy laws, or do they say that homosexuality is wrong because of the harm it does to families, and base their support for the law on that moral judgment?

    The liberal opinion is based on harm being done to people, the conservative opinion is based on purity concerns. Both are moral judgements, but there’s this guy named Pinker, and he’s got this theory about five different…

    Ah, fuck it. If you were serious about this, you would have figured this out by now.

  138. I think davedoyal has it right. Pinker confuses the innate drive to make and follow moral rules with the substance of the rules. I don’t think Pinker succeeds in showing that moral rules (right or wrong) arise innately. They arise from rational thinking. I wrote an article on this if anyone’s interested (manning2887@sbcglobal.net).

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