Monday, 12 May 2008

are some things REALLY right and wrong?

Stephen Pinker is an experimental psychologist at Harvard who has researched and written on language and mind, and has written a number of newspaper articles on ethics, including The Moral Instinct, published in the New York Times earlier this year.

In this article he discusses:

  1. Whether someone who achieves a lot for the disadvantaged in the world (e.g. Bill Gates) is more admirable than someone whose personal motivation is "good" (like Mother Theresa). This is a question of utilitarian ethics vs personal ethics.
  2. Whether it is morally justified to sacrifice one innocent person to save a number of equally innocent people. Studies show that most people think it is in some circumstances, but not in others.
  3. Addressing the dilemma of where our moral sense comes from (see my previous blog, selfish genes?), Pinker supports the idea that it is innate, a genetic result of evolution. He describes five ethical "themes" that are found in societies around the world: avoiding harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity.
  4. He argues that variations in ethics around the world can be explained the different emphases given to these different aspects of morality - for example, some Middle Eastern cultures place greater weight on the community/family aspects, which western people can see as threatening the fairness aspects.
  5. He discusses how altruistic behaviour can, in the long run, result from mutual benefit - societies may find that if individuals help each other, both gain.
  6. Finally, Pinker addresses the question of whether ethical behaviour can be considered objectively right or wrong. He mentions moral realism (the view that ethical truths are a feature of the universe just as mathematical truths are), but doesn't offer any conclusion.

I have no problems believing that the ethical behaviour sanctioned by different societies may have evolutionary origins, though I can't help feeling that many of the evolutionary explanations offered to explain different types of altruistic behaviour are mere surmise, based on the assumption that natural selection has produced the behaviours rather than any evidence.

But it seems to me that Pinker's analysis leaves the most important questions unanswered, for example:

  • Why should I follow an ethical injunction if it doesn't suit me?
  • Are some things (e.g. pedophilia, rape, murder, treachery, genocide) really wrong, or do we just feel that they are?
  • If a society evolves an ethic that we find repugnant - e.g. the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, terrorism, or treachery (as occurred in an Irian Jayan tribal group reported by Don Richardson in Peace Child) - does that make that ethic "right", for them at least?

It still seems to me that evolutionary psychology and sociology explain lots of things about ethics very well, except for many of the things we most deeply hold to.

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