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Pinker, On Morality

Pinker, On Morality

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Steven Pinker. Source: Henry Leutwyler hide caption

toggle caption Source: Henry Leutwyler

In "The Moral Instinct," Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, describes a new sixth sense. "The moral sense," he calls it. It's the way we, as human beings, determine what issues are moral or amoral. Take smoking, for instance. Years ago, it was widely considered to be a health issue. Many non-smokers didn't smoke because they worried about how cigarettes could affect their lungs and heart. When scientists determined that second-hand smoke was unhealthy too, smoking became a moral issue.

By Pinker's estimation, there is a new science of morality. Scientists study how we decide what we think is moral, and why and how our interpretation of morality changes. In our second hour, Pinker will join us to talk about our moral instinct. How have you decided what is right and wrong? Has your sense of what is right and wrong changed?



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There is another possible choice in the runaway trolley scenario, which is that one could also save the five workers by jumping off the bridge oneself. Where might that show up in the brain, or moral spectrum?

Sent by Phil Tomlinson | 3:15 PM | 1-28-2008

how does this relate to the Sapir-Wharf hypothesis? That is, how well can one be "untrained" culturally what is 'moral"

Sent by Alicia | 3:20 PM | 1-28-2008

The first time I heard Steve Pinker discuss his 'trolley problem; I was amazed that he did not consider another alternative...the altruistic action of sacrificing one's one life (by throwing oneself onto the tracks) in order to save the group of workers. Please comment on this ...hard-wired? I think for many this would be a thought=provoking possibility.

Sent by Peg Wuelfing, (Wolf-ing_ Boise ID | 3:23 PM | 1-28-2008

Is there any relationship between your research on the moral sense and Dr. Fowler's "sense of altruism"?

Sent by Chance | 3:24 PM | 1-28-2008

I've always wondered whether difference in reactions that people have to the two versions of the "trolley" thought experiment was not due more to the fact that in the one situation there is a seemingly legitimate dichotomy (either 1 or 5 people will die). In the other case, the certainty that a fat man will derail the trolley is questionable so there may be 6 deaths in stead of 5.

Sent by David Stefan | 3:24 PM | 1-28-2008

My moral code is, I think, strongly influenced by my reasoning. And, I think that my instantaneous reactions based on my moral instinct arise from my trained "blink" response... the same response is sometimes called intuition, that serves as my primary instantaneous "experience filter", so to speak. I can change my instantaneous response by training myself to think in a different way about it. The training happens throughout my childhood, so it may seem like I'm born with it, but I don't think so. What I'm born with is parents and a culture which shapes my instinct.

Through the fat man in front of the train? To me the critical difference is personal choice. If there are two groups already in danger, then my decision is the only one to consider. With the fat man in the train, I would be taking away another person's freedom to decide. This is an added moral conundrum, which tips the balance. I must allow the fat man to throw himself in front of the train.

Sent by Ana Johnson | 3:25 PM | 1-28-2008

I'm sorry to say that even though a friend sent along Pinker's piece in the Times, I have yet to read it. My question is how Pinker sees the connection between his psychological question about the evolution or development of morality and the philosophical or "first-person" question: What should I do?

Sent by Jacob | 3:25 PM | 1-28-2008

Re: Bumper sticker- if you are against abortion don't have one- does not trivialize the moral issue. As a vegetarian I think it is immoral to eat meat but I don't force my morality on others, I just live it. So although I know that there are people that think abortion is murder, just as those who think capital punishment or war is murder, they do not have to participate in this immoral act but shouldn't try to stop others who have a different moral view.

Sent by Diana Drucker | 3:27 PM | 1-28-2008

Morality = an ideal code of conduct expressed with great empathy.

Male-Female morality differences involve control issues:

Males tend to be in-control or out-of-control due to their turbo-charged endogenous steroids, thus they exhibit:
-Control & Manipulate
-Obsessed with power and authority
-Reactive rather than reflective judgment

Females tend to be more contemplative, thoughtful, thus they
-Avoid conflicts due to size/strength dimorphism
-Long-term investors
-Obsessed with harmony and simplicity and empathy
-Reflective rather than reactive judgment

Males could benefit from Contemplative Practice and tame their urge to react.

Sent by Judith L. Wible, M.D. | 3:29 PM | 1-28-2008

I feel like "morality" is one of the most socially and environmentally constructed phenomenons in humans! We are not born with any innate set, and morals are extremely flexible. They change on an individual basis daily and in whole societies! His Pinker mentioned any actual proof of a genetic source of morality?

Sent by Andrew Busch | 3:30 PM | 1-28-2008

As an atheist, I've found it interesting that religious people will always note their moral superiority over non-believers, despite evidence to the contrary. Could it be that morals as a sixth sense doesn't work when morals are imposed as a sociological phenomenon (e.g.; homosexuality is morally wrong 'cause god says so). I don't think you can develop a true sense of morality until you learn to justify your morals through reason.

Sent by Dennis Fecko | 3:34 PM | 1-28-2008

One specific form of morality can be seen with altruism. This a a fairly straight forward concept and "morality" in humans is an unbelievably complex concept, yet Richard Dawkin's argument that people are inherently not altruistic still has yet to be accepted. I feel that because humans are not born with an innate set of morals and because of the wide variation of individual and group morals throughout ones life, that morality is one of the most environmentally and socially constructed phenomenons in humans!

Sent by andrew busch | 3:37 PM | 1-28-2008

A very common ailment among adults is that they fail to remember that they were once children. Children are completely selfish.

this is the innate human tendency. Only through smacking up against societies rules do we learn to curb our selfish tendencies.

Sent by Matt | 3:46 PM | 1-28-2008

I'd have liked to hear Steven Pinker's response the the final callers concern about the person who sacrifices his life by diving on a grenade. How can such an action lead to passing on of (apparently) selfless genes since the action leads to the destruction of said genes?

If the self sacrificing genes were essentially programing the body they had coded for to sacrifice itself in order to save members of its family, those genes would likely see an increase in future copies of themselves, since family members have about a 50% chance of containing the same genes (if only one parent contains the genes). As long as the grenade dive saves more than two family members the diver's genes have benefited themselves, and such a self-sacrificing dive gene (or set of genes) would increase in the population.

if the military manipulates people into feeling they are fighting for family, it would make sense that such a grenade dive is a misfiring of that gene selfishness.

This makes sense to me, but I would have really liked to hear Professor Pinker's comments on the matter.

Sent by John Gilmore | 4:09 PM | 1-28-2008

The problem with the trolley concept is that switching the lever to kill one instead of five gives the one and the five an equal chance to respond and survive but switching to the one reduces the number and does not kill anyone but pushing the fat man may not save anyone but could kill the fat man.

The idea that the answer is that people don???t like pushing the fat guy because of the physical aspect is not the case.

This is a ridiculous comparison.

Sent by Arran | 4:33 PM | 1-28-2008

I would love to hear Steven Pinker's take on how a public elementary school teacher can address/accept/influence the moral development of young learners (3rd grade).
What are the guidelines and/or research regarding teaching/modeling/expecting the classroom environment to be based on my own moral values? What is appropriate and what crosses the line?

Are there other educators that grapple with moral issues with their students, parents, administrators, and policy-makers.
How do you manage the cultural and biological differences of moral development among us all in order to create a learning environment?

Sent by Jean Nelson | 4:59 PM | 1-28-2008

The example given of diverting a train from killing 5 workers to kill 1 worker versus pushing a fat man into the path of the train to save the 5 is an interesting one. Mr. Pinker argued that the two are equal in terms of physics but not equally moral--that causing harm in order to do good is considered immoral. This argued equality seems very counterintuitive.

The person on the bridge seems to be in a position of higher risk (and here I'm using risk to refer to the risk to the bystander as well as the repercussions to he-who-pushes). Can he appropriately gauge the weight of the man next to him? Can he guess the speed and weight of the train, the distance in which the train must stop? Can he do the math? That's a big mental burden to place on someone who realizes that a speeding train is about to be involved in a fatal accident. Making the observer omniscient and free of what happens after the collision kills the humanness--what after all is being measured--of the whole thought experiment.

On the other hand, the person standing next to the switch can presumably confirm, at least visually, the result of his action. He doesn't risk killing a bystander plus five by making a decimal point error. The intuitive notion to not push seems much more reasonable in this light, making this scenario a better example of hindsight bias than of inconsistent moral choices.

This doesn't mean that morality isn't objective or can't be approached scientifically. Intuition (perhaps a fancy term for inconcrete mental math) is a poor guide when it takes the wrong factors into account or weighs them wrongly. Discovering objective measures for moral questions--what is helpful to take into account--is certainly smart, but there's too much uncertainty in the world to hope for codified rules. Isaac Asimov's four laws of robotics seem like a fine start until you realize that all his stories about the four laws point out how utterly they fail the test of working in the real world.

Sent by Nathan | 5:09 PM | 1-28-2008

As a child of the '50s, I was indoctrinated in psychology classes in the motivation theories of the behaviorists' physical needs reduction and Freudians' sex and aggression. This "science" conflicted with my own observations, and it formed a foundation of negative ethics and, in turn, morbid social institutions. I transcended that conditioning, and formulated a counter theory of motivation that included instinctive compassion and altruism. When I suggested it to a psych teacher in the '70s, I found that it was still scientific heresy! THANK YOU, Prof. Pinker.

Sent by Carol Kuczora | 5:15 PM | 1-28-2008

Perhaps empathy itself is in part responsible for the apparently paradoxical responses to the trolly question. I don't remember whether the question was "what would you do?" or "What would be the right thing to do?" but I think my point hold in either case.

Lets assume that that throwing the man off the bridge will in fact achieve the desired effect but will in fact kill the guy, And that throwing the switch will just as certainly kill the single individual on the track and save the 5 in the train.
The fact is that being grabbed and thrown from a bridge before a speeding train would be much more horrific that being struck suddenly by an unseen train. Maybe this weighing of immediate suffering effected peoples calculations.

The fact that the idea of throwing oneself off the bridge was never raised as an alternative is I believe because the 'self' was assumed not to be fat enough.That's a discussion in itself.

Sent by laura | 8:29 PM | 1-28-2008

What an interesting & though-provoking program. As a public school Kdgn. teacher, defining morals can be tricky--especially when I am required to leave religious influence distinctly out. It has become 2nd nature to me to discuss with children the need for respecting others as part of the golden rule rather than as the word of god. By intentionally pointing out when another class is noisy or when others are rude and then discussing how that behavior caused our class to view them or how the behavior negatively affected our classroom, children quickly learn to understand the reasoning behind the desired behaviors and are able to act accordingly out of mutual respect & understanding instead of acting due to fear of punishment. It is interesting that as children internalize morals and rules, tattling behaviors emerge--it is their way of making sure they know the rules, it is how they let adults know they know the rules and how kids show that they want the rules to be followed and enforced. Any infraction they witness is immediately pointed out to the nearest authority figure. Many adults do the same with religious/morality issues, do they not? The difference is, of course, that adult issues do promote conversations and discussions, which we refer to as society's moral issues, and though consensus is generally never achieved, a compromise is reached (tolerance of homosexuality, 2nd hand smoke, divorce, etc.)that most can live with. It is interesting, though, that some adults never get past the tattling stage.

Sent by C. L. McMullen | 8:53 PM | 1-28-2008

What if the one on the track was your son? Would you still pull the switch to save the five? Christianity answers, "Yes!" For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son... Without any hesitation I would sacrifice my life for any one of my six children. But what if I had to sacrifice 1 for the remaining five? With unspeakable sadness, yes I would.

Sent by Michael | 9:22 PM | 1-28-2008

Since having the power at one's fingertips to decide in a split second who gets to live and who deserves to die so that others might live is in reality an awesome responsibility, is it possible that the part of the brain that lights up during the fictional Trolley Car story is really the "Playing God In Hypothetical Scenarios That Have No Actual Repercussions In Real Life" area instead?

Sent by David | 8:19 AM | 1-29-2008

The switch was pulled when we went to war with Iraq. Thousands of soldiers, (countless men women and children) are being mowed down day after day. May their sacrifice be remembered by all who ride this train.

Sent by Michael | 12:21 PM | 1-29-2008

Where is the NPR love? The amazing WNYC program, RadioLab covered this exact topic months (years?) before Pinker wrote his article. And they did a fantastic radio-theatre version of the trolley problem.
Great to cover this on TOTN, but I think RadioLab has earned itself a plug (as it got from This American Life).

Sent by Matthew | 3:51 PM | 1-29-2008

Listening to Dr. Pinker discussing to the difference between killing someone with your bare hands, as opposed to simply starting a chain of events which leads to his death, the image which immediately came to my mind was that of a man signing his name, and having a GPS guided bomb dropped on an enemy, without so much as getting his suit dirty, from an ocean away. Surely this is a far cry from sticking a knife into someone's heart, while looking him in the eyes. Is it more civilized? Does it matter? Perhaps we're no different from the ancient Romans, who shaved off their beards and put the stamp of civilization on their every atrocity. I imagine they considered table manners as much as morality, or at least considered them in much the same way.

Empathy is fine, but it is limited. We empathize with people who are like us. More to the point, we imagine empathy for whom we imagine are like us. I imagine the Hatfields and McCoys, living opposite each other, getting to know each other, maybe enough to hate each other. That's a very different thing from the sorts of international conflicts in which the U.S. is now engaged, with people who speak other languages, of other faiths, whose faces are unseen and whose voices are unheard. There's little room for empathy there, for getting to know the enemy, for hatred, for us. To us, it's about deference to vague principles, large indifference to the adversaries, as such, except for a certain amount of visceral disgust. Death is dealt with a sort of detachment, with which one might dispatch an unwanted cockroach. It isn't personal, mostly... except, no doubt, they take it personally.

Sent by John Lloyd | 1:45 AM | 1-30-2008

re: Diana Drucker's comment
I will use the moral issue of homicide to relate to the moral issue of abortion. As a society, we generally desire law enforcement to stop a homicide before it happens. To decide not to be a murderer does not stop other people from engaging in homicide. I think we can all agree that homicide is immoral. We have chosen a side and agreed to have the police stop attempts at homicide.

The bumper sticker stops short of taking sides on the abortion issue. It's saying, "Everyone can do as they please." Were this sentiment applied to the laws on homicide, the police would not be stopping homicides.

Likewise this sentiment makes no effort to address a solution for the abortion issue. If you do not take a stand on whether abortion should be legal or illegal then you also can not reach a decision on whether it is moral or immoral. Thus, the sentiment of the bumper sticker trivializes the moral issue.

Sent by Ryan | 2:53 AM | 1-30-2008

There was a failure by the good doctor to give a robust definition of what "morality" is, which I think is necessary when speaking about moral decision-making. The fact is, if morality is subjective (culturally, personally, or otherwise), like the doctor implied, then there's nothing obligatory about them. And if morality is objective, then what is the source of these objective, immaterial entities, and how does a material brain aprehend an immaterial entity? Moreover, if decision-making is the result of electro-chemical activity in the brain, then there's no decision-making occurring whatsoever. In such a case, morality is an illusion, as well as volition and free-will. Such a view renders notions of duty and responsibility as illusory also. I find this Darwinian theory of ethics is poorly developed, naive, and entirely insufficient to explain the human condition and human behavior.

Sent by D. Mann | 3:03 AM | 1-30-2008

I usually put my kids together for bath in the tub. My older one used to hate getting water in her eyes, now she is past that but my younger one still dreads water on the face. Sometimes I am forced to pour water on their heads to move things along, at which point the younger one cries and complains, and the older one almost always hugs her and consoles her. This is a display of empathy, its based on her own experience being in a similar situation. I am not a religious person; my older child is still too small to have learnt empathy from her family or friends, so she has to have been born with empathy. Now that we have established that, I think morals are just rules societies make up based on intrinsic qualities like empathy.

Sent by M Thomas | 9:15 PM | 1-30-2008

Prof. Pinker erred in admonishing that Jesus wholly accepted the Old Testament Actually, Jesus indicated that he came as a reformer of the old law, sent by "his father" (God).

Sent by Constance Ashton Myers | 1:14 PM | 1-31-2008

It seems to me that although culture and the severity of times has a restricting or liberating effect on our public morals, our conscience is rooted in the natural law placed in our hearts by the creator.

Rom 2:14-15(Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, 15 since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them.)NIV

Sent by Louis William Rose | 11:39 AM | 2-5-2008

I've been very concerned about our political and judicial leaders using situational ethics to decide whether waterboarding is acceptable. Our nation needs to stand for more than "right now."

Sent by MeloDee French | 3:18 PM | 2-13-2008

The loud background noise did not create anxiety reducing kindness. Rather, the observer considers the embarrassment felt by the person dropping the papers to be less when the background noise is high. Assistance was more forthcoming to support the greater embarrassment felt by the "droppee" when the sound of the drop was higher above the background.

Sent by John Meares | 3:37 PM | 2-13-2008

Hell is religions' security cameras. Both systems of morality have voluntary and involuntary imperatives to behave in certain ways.

Sent by David Todd | 3:38 PM | 2-13-2008