The Utopian Dream of Evolutionary Psychology

In today's progressive milieu, the evolutionary psychologist is the anointed high priest to the morally disoriented masses. This new breed seeks to "dissect our moral intuitions", while he hides behind the seemingly unbiased pretext that he is called to merely examine phenomena, not extract moral principles from it. Thus he swiftly reduces our moral quintessence to the presumably unmerited status of glorified simians. Such is the setting in which Harvard University professor Steven Pinker (a zealous advocate of Evolutionary Psychology) finds himself in his element.

On a rather provocative essay, Steven Pinker suggests that our moral intuition is a kind of inner switch that is flipped when we are confronted with certain activities that have the potential of causing some harm to others or oneself. At such junctures we react in accordance to our "moral sense" and exercise what we deem to be the appropriate moral response to the situation. But just like with every other sense, we can sometimes be easily misled by our moral sense.

For Pinker and his colleagues in the cognitive psychology field, "the distinction between right and wrong is a product of our brain wiring", and we have no reason for believing that this judgment is any less subjective "than the distinction between red and green". If the latter is a subjective experience of our physical senses then it follows that the former is also a subjective experience of our "moral sense".

Mr. Pinker's argument is also based on the premise that there are things we sometimes mistake as matters of virtue when they are actually only matters of prudence or preference, such as culturally prescriptive attire or religious culinary ordinances that in times past may have been extolled as ethical practices.

Pinker further elaborates that a tendency of this moral sense to capriciously lead us to pass judgment often does more harm than good, as it pits us against each other in a hostile attempt to claim the moral high ground on an array of contentious social issues. In the end, Pinker argues that a conscious suppression of our instinctive moral discomfiture is the best way to achieve harmony between the multitude of cultural conventions and ideological mindsets that often trigger such apprehensions.  

He suggests that instead of being led by these evolutionary explainable moral intuitions that often end up polarizing us, we should be guided by remembering that those whom we view as our adversaries are probably also motivated by principles as honorable as those which compel us to take an opposite stance; in other words, we are all in the same boat, and good intentions should, more often than not, trump our fear of potentially negative outcomes.

The problem with Pinker's argument is that there isn't always a way to discern if our adversaries are driven by the purest intentions - they seldom are, which is one of the reasons we call them our adversaries - not to mention that the best of intentions can often have catastrophic consequences. But primarily, there are certain moral principles that should simply never be compromised, notwithstanding the best of intentions from those who seek to violate or merely tweak them, or the moral challenges that may tempt us to flirt with a utilitarian approach.

Pinker's proposal for consensus in the midst of deeply held convictions or polarizing opinions is commendable but also overrated, in that he underestimates the easily corruptible nature of humanity.

But when all is said and done, Pinker's rationale stems from nothing more than that which is indeed a truly universal allure: to abandon ourselves to all of our impulses, eschewing all inhibition, fearing no judgment, and refusing to acknowledge the consequences of our actions by distilling their moral significance.

In this he also has the world's reluctant assent, for at some point or other all of us have to admit of such prodigal frailties. The carnal longing to have absolute power; the naïve desire to re-invent a world were moral laws do not exist, or at least one in which they can be violated with impunity; a world of license and without the negative consequences that typically follow the unfettered pursuit of our basest desires; but such is not the world in which we live.

Steven Pinker may long for emancipation from the bondage of a transcendent moral code, but behavior that discreetly violates unseen moral laws has its consequences. And the utopian dream which Pinker alludes to, in which we are summarily shielded from the consequences of our choices, i.e. in which our choices do not matter, yields a universe in which there is no real freedom.

Ultimately, in a world where morality is deemed to be merely a product of evolutionary forces, it is the "morally fittest" who decrees what moral code is to prevail, even if it is a code that commands that there shall be no moral judgment on anyone (except of course against those who presumably prompted by an imaginary transcendental moral being are compelled to caution others of the folly of ignoring a basic moral code).

The frightening audacity of Pinker's thesis lies in the fact that, although he acknowledges there may be consequences to pursuing his philosophical ventures all the way to their logical conclusion, the possibility of leading whole generations into a blind alley of moral depravity and lawlessness does not deter him from his belief that this could also be a path well-suited to a better understanding of humanity.

What Pinker craftily proposes (even if he pleads ignorance to the inference) is a world in which all is tolerated, transgressions are treated as potential cultural innovations, and a contrived harmony is attained at the expense of suppressing all moral judgment. Yet he does not seem to realize that this proposal also decrees a moral universe of sorts, only one in which moral outrage is sentenced to exile.

In time, he may just get his wish.
In today's progressive milieu, the evolutionary psychologist is the anointed high priest to the morally disoriented masses. This new breed seeks to "dissect our moral intuitions", while he hides behind the seemingly unbiased pretext that he is called to merely examine phenomena, not extract moral principles from it. Thus he swiftly reduces our moral quintessence to the presumably unmerited status of glorified simians. Such is the setting in which Harvard University professor Steven Pinker (a zealous advocate of Evolutionary Psychology) finds himself in his element.

On a rather provocative essay, Steven Pinker suggests that our moral intuition is a kind of inner switch that is flipped when we are confronted with certain activities that have the potential of causing some harm to others or oneself. At such junctures we react in accordance to our "moral sense" and exercise what we deem to be the appropriate moral response to the situation. But just like with every other sense, we can sometimes be easily misled by our moral sense.

For Pinker and his colleagues in the cognitive psychology field, "the distinction between right and wrong is a product of our brain wiring", and we have no reason for believing that this judgment is any less subjective "than the distinction between red and green". If the latter is a subjective experience of our physical senses then it follows that the former is also a subjective experience of our "moral sense".

Mr. Pinker's argument is also based on the premise that there are things we sometimes mistake as matters of virtue when they are actually only matters of prudence or preference, such as culturally prescriptive attire or religious culinary ordinances that in times past may have been extolled as ethical practices.

Pinker further elaborates that a tendency of this moral sense to capriciously lead us to pass judgment often does more harm than good, as it pits us against each other in a hostile attempt to claim the moral high ground on an array of contentious social issues. In the end, Pinker argues that a conscious suppression of our instinctive moral discomfiture is the best way to achieve harmony between the multitude of cultural conventions and ideological mindsets that often trigger such apprehensions.  

He suggests that instead of being led by these evolutionary explainable moral intuitions that often end up polarizing us, we should be guided by remembering that those whom we view as our adversaries are probably also motivated by principles as honorable as those which compel us to take an opposite stance; in other words, we are all in the same boat, and good intentions should, more often than not, trump our fear of potentially negative outcomes.

The problem with Pinker's argument is that there isn't always a way to discern if our adversaries are driven by the purest intentions - they seldom are, which is one of the reasons we call them our adversaries - not to mention that the best of intentions can often have catastrophic consequences. But primarily, there are certain moral principles that should simply never be compromised, notwithstanding the best of intentions from those who seek to violate or merely tweak them, or the moral challenges that may tempt us to flirt with a utilitarian approach.

Pinker's proposal for consensus in the midst of deeply held convictions or polarizing opinions is commendable but also overrated, in that he underestimates the easily corruptible nature of humanity.

But when all is said and done, Pinker's rationale stems from nothing more than that which is indeed a truly universal allure: to abandon ourselves to all of our impulses, eschewing all inhibition, fearing no judgment, and refusing to acknowledge the consequences of our actions by distilling their moral significance.

In this he also has the world's reluctant assent, for at some point or other all of us have to admit of such prodigal frailties. The carnal longing to have absolute power; the naïve desire to re-invent a world were moral laws do not exist, or at least one in which they can be violated with impunity; a world of license and without the negative consequences that typically follow the unfettered pursuit of our basest desires; but such is not the world in which we live.

Steven Pinker may long for emancipation from the bondage of a transcendent moral code, but behavior that discreetly violates unseen moral laws has its consequences. And the utopian dream which Pinker alludes to, in which we are summarily shielded from the consequences of our choices, i.e. in which our choices do not matter, yields a universe in which there is no real freedom.

Ultimately, in a world where morality is deemed to be merely a product of evolutionary forces, it is the "morally fittest" who decrees what moral code is to prevail, even if it is a code that commands that there shall be no moral judgment on anyone (except of course against those who presumably prompted by an imaginary transcendental moral being are compelled to caution others of the folly of ignoring a basic moral code).

The frightening audacity of Pinker's thesis lies in the fact that, although he acknowledges there may be consequences to pursuing his philosophical ventures all the way to their logical conclusion, the possibility of leading whole generations into a blind alley of moral depravity and lawlessness does not deter him from his belief that this could also be a path well-suited to a better understanding of humanity.

What Pinker craftily proposes (even if he pleads ignorance to the inference) is a world in which all is tolerated, transgressions are treated as potential cultural innovations, and a contrived harmony is attained at the expense of suppressing all moral judgment. Yet he does not seem to realize that this proposal also decrees a moral universe of sorts, only one in which moral outrage is sentenced to exile.

In time, he may just get his wish.