Steven Pinker’s The Moral Instinct
My son and I continue to talk about equality and religion. My interest was always to know if our respect for one another, our giving value and importance to each individual life, if this stemmed from religious teachings, or from our very nature. I still tend to believe the latter.
Now that same son has given me to read Steven Pinker’s The Moral Instinct, a cover story from the NYTimes magazine of January 13 of this year. He had been holding on to this particular edition of the magazine upstairs in his room. I don’t think he has a collection of them, although not a Sunday goes by when I’m visiting (often “staying”) at his home in Tampa when he is not (if he’s home because he travels a lot) sprawled out on his couch reading the Sunday Times.
Pinker’s article doesn’t speak directly of equality (nor of liberty) but it does convincingly present five universal values, or, as he calls them, moral spheres. These five spheres, he says, are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense, both because they are ubiquitous, and because they seem to have deep evolutionary roots.
They are, 1) the impulse to avoid harm, 2) respect for authority, 3) exalting purity, cleanliness and sanctity while loathing defilement, contamination and carnality, 4) loyalty to a group, solidarity and conformity to the group’s norms, and 5) fairness, one should reciprocate favors, reward benefactors, and punish cheaters. They are, in the words of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist, at the University of Virginia, the primary colors of our moral sense.
Does, I would ask my son, our moral sense spoken of in this manner tell us anything about equality, not to mention freedom? Fraternity, yes, for that’s group loyalty. Freedom and equality, unlike respect for authority, purity concerns, and group loyalty, are late arrivals in the history of man. These are most of all modern, present day values.
Are they also moral values? (What other kinds of values are there?) And if so don’t we have to look for them, for their origins in the “primary colors of our moral sense?”
Perhaps our respect of others, our sense of our being created equal, comes most of all from the impulse to avoid harm, to ourselves and others. Freedom may also stem from this same impulse, whereas both equality and freedom have often clashed with three of Pinker’s moral themes, with respect for authority, exalting purity, and group loyalty…Explore posts in the same categories: Evolution