Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Moral Instinct by Steven Pinker

This morning's New York Times features an article by Steven Pinker called The Moral Instinct. It does not relate to the Enneagram per se, but it does touch on individual differences in several places. Pinker:

- asks who is the most admirable, Mother Theresa (2w1), Bill Gates (5w6), or this other, way less famous dude, Norman Borlaug, who's apparently done a lot for humanity.
- mentions the agreeableness and conscientiousness scales on the Big 5 personality test, also known as the OCEAN (for openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, neuroticism),
- explains how and why there may be evolutionary niches for some of us to be high-minded self-sacrificers, some to be grudging reciprocators, and others to be outright cheaters.
- mentions that Hitler probably thought he was acting morally, which I consider enneagram-related -- look at the chart in the back of Personality Types by Riso and Hudson that shows how each type is trying to SOLVE a problem when they're spiraling down the levels. (In this case, type 6.)

I'm also guessing that people interested in the Enneagram are likely to be interested in psychology and morality generally, which is what the article is about.

But before you read it, you will want to go to and take the Moral Foundations questionnaire: Findings will be discussed in the Pinker article, so this is your last chance to take it before you are forever tainted by hearing what it's about. (The site also features many other tests you can take; most, if not all, are ongoing psychology experiments so if you take 'em, you're also helping some researcher.)

Also, you will want to take this test, the Moral Sense Test (also an actual research project. You will be helping out a researcher named Fiery Cushman, if that makes a difference. If you are like me, you are wondering whether Fiery is a man's name or a woman's; a foreign name or just some American whose mom and dad thought Fiery was underused as a first name. He is a man and looks to be a regular American; his brother's name is O'Neill and his sister's name is Holly. Here is a website that he and his wife Julie have started.) Again, findings from this research project (or a very similar one) are discussed in the article so here's your chance to take it fresh (although granted, the Moral Foundations test is sort of a spoiler for part of the Moral Sense test. So, like, half of y'all take this one first, ok?)

Now, here is the article:
The Moral Instinct by Steven Pinker

Some thoughts, randomly presented:

Who can explain the significance of the Adrian Tomine drawing of two women running to catch a cab?

I'm not sure I agree with Pinker about human cloning. In other words, I think this Kass fellow is onto something with his "wisdom of repugnance" as it relates to human cloning. A cursory web search shows that most writers agree that Kass's argument is bogus, and Wikipedia has it listed under fallacies here. (You might also want to check out some of the links; for example, the Uncanny Valley is pretty cool.) And yes, everybody's making really valid points that lots of other things like interracial marriage, homosexual sex, and in vitro fertilization either were once considered repugnant, (or still are, at least to some people, at least the homosexuality.) However, to me human cloning is more similar to murder in the sense that there should just be a line drawn there. For instance, let's say there are some good reasons to kill somebody -- ok, I don't have to think too hard, since I've been reading ethical dilemmas. You are a doctor, and you have five patients needing organs who will die if they don't get organs. And a pharmaceutical rep comes in, who happens to have matching versions of all five organs. And for whatever reason you would never be caught if you were to take them out of the pharmaceutical rep and put them in those five people, saving five people but killing one, and just a pharmaceutical salesman at that. Should you do it? Of course not, and you didn't even have to think hard about it. Should be the same with human cloning; a bright line should be drawn between things up to human cloning and human cloning itself.

As for the trolley problem: I've heard of it before, and I always wondered why most people say that yes, they would push the lever. (Note: here begin those spoilers I was talking about.) Because I said no. For the same reason as not harvesting the organs; you can't kill people even if you think it would help in a utilitarian sense. However, when I actually took Fiery Cushman's test (ok, it's not just his test), I said yes; why? Because what was asked was not whether you'd do it, but whether it is morally permissible, and I think it is: I can certainly see why someone else would do it. Also, in the version where you are actually DRIVING the train, of course I would turn down the track with only one person on it to avoid hitting five. Why is this different? This scenario doesn't posit an inanimate object barrelling down on those five as a fact of nature with me as a by-stander who has the option to not get involved (and not be hauled into court); it is me driving an out-of-control vehicle and I know when I am in that situation I will turn to avoid the worse obstacle to hit; that's just how driving is. Also, there is no question of being a criminal versus not; if there is a question of vehicular homicide it would apply in both cases here.

About a month ago we held a poll about who is more famous, Steven Pinker or E. O. Wilson. The (statistically meaningless) results were: Steven Pinker 2, E.O. Wilson 3, and I've never heard of either of them, 2. Our discussion of this "controversy" here and here. Well, this morning I woke up at 3:35 am, January 13th. This Pinker article came out on January 13th. I'm on Central time, so it had been out for about 4 and a half hours, assuming it comes out right at midnight. In that 4 1/2 hours in the middle of the night, enough people had emailed it around that it had already shot up to number one on the NYT's most emailed articles list. (New articles usually appear on the list after everybody's woken up and had time to look at them.) I think this speaks to Pinker's fame (and the quality of the article, and the appeal of the subject matter.) But don't count E.O. Wilson out! Because a brief web search also turns up this article, Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion, which is where I first encountered these ideas about the 5 strands of morality (harm, fairness, authority, purity, and ingroup loyalty) and the Trolley Problem. In it, the author states:

"Most people who study morality now read and write about emotions, the brain, chimpanzees, and evolution, as well as reasoning. This is exactly what E. O. Wilson predicted in Sociobiology: that the old approaches to morality, including Kohlberg's, would be swept away or merged into a new approach that focused on the emotive centers of the brain as biological adaptations. Wilson even said that these emotive centers give us moral intuitions, which the moral philosophers then justify while pretending that they are intuiting truths that are independent of the contingencies of our evolved minds."


"I think E. O. Wilson deserves more credit than he gets for seeing into the real nature of morality and for predicting the future of moral psychology so uncannily. He's in my pantheon, along with David Hume and Charles Darwin. All three were visionaries who urged us to focus on the moral emotions and their social utility. "

Incidentally, if you like articles like these, check out the blog, which is where I found this article initially.

Finally, one last link, the brain in a vat problem here. Hee.

1 comment:

rusnash said...

Who can explain the significance of the Adrian Tomine drawing of two women running to catch a cab?

One woman is pale, the other is dark-skinned, and the taxi is driven by a brain in a vat (which is why you can't see in the windows).