Sunday, January 13, 2008

Stephen Pinker: Instinct for Morality

There's a nice essay about the evolutionary foundations of morality by Stephen Pinker in the New York Times today:

Pinker: The Moral Instinct


Avi said...

Here's a link, NYT no longer has the pay-wall.

Matt McCormick said...

Sorry about that. Thanks, Avi. It's fixed now.


Anonymous said...

For the most part this article shows how our moral beliefs might be products of evolution, regardless of truth. The author at least seems aware of the problem with this.

The author offers this as a possible explanation of how moral beliefs might actually be grounded in reality.

"This throws us back to wondering where those reasons could come from, if they are more than just figments of our brains. They certainly aren’t in the physical world like wavelength or mass. The only other option is that moral truths exist in some abstract Platonic realm, there for us to discover, perhaps in the same way that mathematical truths (according to most mathematicians) are there for us to discover."

The problem is that mathematical truths do in fact have material manifestations that can guide evolution to true beliefs. The wrongness of something does not.

We can see many examples of how the truth of a mathematical claim has material consequences or indicia. For example if I think 2+3 = 10 then I will have a disadvantage in trade. This will have a material consequence. Richard Joyce gives an example involving 3 lions chasing you. If you think you can stop running after 2 give up the chase that third lion will have a very real material manifestation.

Moral truths, the wrongness of something has no such similar material manifestations and therefore evolution would be blind to them. I did a blog that explains this more in depth.

Unlike mathematical truth and other truths. There really is no way (other than pure coincidence) that evolution could "discover" moral truths and thereby track them.