Steven Pinker “The Moral Instinct”

            People regard the knowledge of choosing what is right and acceptable as morals. People have different ideas as to what morals are and every individual may hold a different view on a certain action. Morals revolve around actions and decisions or judgment, and actions that people are ready to be accountable for after doing them. As people have different ideas about what is right or wrong, so do moral values vary from individual to individual and from community to community depending on the culture and norms that are generally accepted as right. In The Moral Instinct by Steven Pinker, moral instincts are regarded as a complex organ in the brain that has been influenced by evolution. It goes further to illustrate that this can be proven scientifically and free from cultural influence. Morality instincts are dependent on the actions that people take, decisions, and judgments as well as doing what is accepted as right or what others consider responsible. On to the contrary, Pinker’s article is based only on judgment that is proven in a laboratory without recognizing that cultures influence morality. It also suggests that our moral capability is embedded innately in our mind as we are born resulting from evolution.

Pinker’s article defines morality being the result of evolution based on five “spheres” that are harm, fairness, community, authority, and purity. He argues that these are universal and exist in every place or society. However, they might differ in ways. The disparities are classified according to their rank in terms of which is more important than the other, which is depends on the culture, such as government, religion, commerce or even diet such as refraining from eating certain foods while in other cultures they are morally edible. Religion may be centered around authority where priests or prophets are considered respectable and doing something against them is wrong in some cultures while in others they stand to be questioned and criticized. He regards the five spheres as universal but at the same time variable depending on the culture in question. He does make a point that is quite true, that people are born with a moral intuition that develops as people grow up.

However, I fail to understand how this intuition would not be affected by the cultures independent from the five spheres. As a child grows, he or she learns the moral values from their elders and parents; hence, all its moral believes are influenced by the culture and the community. In Pinker’s research, he engages people from different corners of the earth through the internet. It is worth noting that the world has become a global village and people are exchanging ideas and cultures every moment of the day from everywhere, hence people can have the same thoughts concerning a certain action. Regarding the trolley problem, Pinker tries to make us believe that the people he interviewed gave the same answer because of the instincts inside of them that have evolved, and over which they had no control. In the first example where a respondent had to choose from either hitting five people or diverting the trolley to hit one, the person will be controlling the direction of the trolley, and he does not consider himself the cause of death. On the other hand, deciding to throw a fat man off the bridge to save the five people is directly causing the death of a person, which is quite different and many would not have the guts to do that.

Pinker further presents three characters and ranks them in terms of the one who could be considered moral than the others. The first person is Norman Borlaug whom he considers more moral than the rest for spending his life in laboratories for nonprofit work to save millions through studying agronomy and starting the green movement. The second is Gates, whom contributed his wealth for fighting Malaria that is now helping fight a worldwide miserly and the third is Mother Teresa who was well financed and who helped the suffering through prayer and “dangerous primitive medical care.” This illustrates that Pinker appreciates the laboratory technician researching for the purpose of the people, and considers him more moral than the others, while he takes a negative attribute to the other two but not Borlaug. This can be concluded by how Pinker repeatedly mentioned science alongside morality illustrating that it is scientific or comes biologically. Further citing that morality has been made possible by evolution suggests that man has not consciously contributed to the evolution of morality. In this regard, he tends to suggest that those who are not morally right have no choice since it is their biological nature to be so, rather than making a choice, hence suggesting that a man cannot consciously change his or her moral thoughts.

Through this comparison, Pinker suggests that moral values should be concerned about the results rather than the means used. This suggests lack of humanity in doing some certain acts, where he implies that throwing a man off the bridge attains the same results as pulling the switch to divert the trolley, hence the means should not be the problem, and rather, the results should be considered first. This further suggests that there is a difference between what humans do, and what they are on the inside. Hence, morality is not real since many people consider morality as what human beings can account for and what others feel is generally acceptable. More so, his theory suggests that material possession is more valuable than spiritual wealth where he suggests considering the consequences first rather than the means. He further suggest that having personal values does not mean anything if it does not earn human beings anything. In the Mother Teresa example he provided, he did not have regard for her work nor consider that she mingled with people who were regarded outcasts, praying for them and encouraging them. On the other hand, Gates, whom Pinker supports, only signed papers to go to help the needy through other people. In return, according to Pinker’s theory, by giving more one will receive more. Gates did it as a way of spending his money to help others but did not mingle with those he helped. Hence, Mother Teresa went further, but because she did not gain anything extra, according to Pinker, her actions did not have much value. Many people admire Mother Teresa for her actions, which they believe were much greater than those of Gates in terms of morals and humanity, but Pinker does not share this view.

In one of his other arguments, he argues that “moralization” can be switched off and on in the mind. As far as I know, there is no way I would switch of my moral values even when making a judgment that is not morally right. I would still be conscious of it, but only acting against it and not switching it off completely. This is comparable to refusing to think of what one is doing, or switching ones conscience, which I believe makes the moral judgment. Further, it is morally right to forgive those who break morals, although Pinker suggests that it is right to punish them, and more still, it is wrong not to punish them. This tries to imply that forgiving is wrong when one has broken a moral, which happens, as people are not perfect. He suggests that the brain or the moral instinct inside the brain works this way, further advocating notion that moral instincts come naturally and man doe not have control of them when it comes to making judgments.

In conclusion, it is evident that Pinker feels that the moral instincts of a man have evolved over the years people as are born with them, which I do agree. However, suggesting that these instincts come in naturally, and are not influenced by culture or community except for the five spheres he suggests does not shed light as to how people choose to make certain decisions of which they are well aware. More so, using the brain scans to suggests the scientific explanation of morality instincts does not mean people cannot be influenced by the community and more still, the scans only show the active parts but do not say what the person is thinking or the decision they would take in uncontrolled situations. Pinker suggests that our moral capabilities are innate in us and it requires science to understand them, which I do not believe considering that people think differently.

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