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Daniel Bhatti

The Moral Instinct

WRT 102-36

In his paper, The Moral Instinct, Steven Pinker elucidates the meaning of moral science
and the latent contradictions that exist within the typical persons morality. In doing so, Pinker
wishes to rectify the infamous interpretation of this so-called moral science and unveil to the reader
its benefits in understanding ourselves better in our search for morality. In this manner, Pinker
demonstrates that there is more to morality than our instinctive impressions may suggest and that
from truly understanding where, why, and how morality comes about, we may properly understand
ourselves and put the world through a more objective lens. He does so through developing the
concept of a moral switch, the manner in which we derive our morality, generalizing certain moral
concepts, and accounting for variations within such a universal morality. While Pinkers case is
certainly compelling, his analysis of morality is not comprehensive and many of the examples he
brings up to question the common morality of our age can themselves be put up to question. These
minor concerns aside, however, I believe that Pinker sets up a valid argumentative framework for
why society can benefit from the expansion of moral science.
Pinker begins his paper with a simple question; Which of the following people would you
say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? (427) He does so in order
to demonstrate the abstract moral switch within our minds. The majority of people immediately
associate Mother Teresa with sanctity and holiness, Bill Gates with infamy and annoyance, and
Norman Borlaug with nothing. To most, Mother Teresa is indisputably most admirable. But
Pinker seems to ask, is Mother Teresa truly most admirable? He provides evidence of the significant
altruism brought about by Gates and Borlaug, and that they have an overwhelmingly positive impacts
on billions of lives across the globe. In contrast, while Pinker acknowledges the compassion and
religious sentiments of Mother Teresa, he also notes that Mother Teresas missions (while providing
much prayer) did not provide patrons with sufficient medical care or comfort. So then, despite this
knowledge of immense selflessness from Gates and Borlaug, why is there a tendency for many to
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Daniel Bhatti

The Moral Instinct

WRT 102-36

still feel that Mother Teresa is most admirable? I would conjecture this phenomenon occurs as a
result of the availability heuristic; that people associate with each individual whatever most quickly
comes to mind and uses that to generalize (or perhaps, over-generalize) his/her character. Teresa is
associated with devoutness and sanctity, Gates with riches and intellect, and most dont even know
who Borlaug is. Regardless of reason, however, it seems odd that the question posed by Pinker is not
put under a more analytical, objective lens.
Pinker describes the moral switch as something that causes us to judge whether something is
immoral or simply disagreeable. The mindset that comes about from this switch is instinctive and
assumed to be universal. Thus, people will find killing in general to be immoral, that wrong-doers
must be punished, and so on. To juxtapose the on and off configurations of the moral switch,
Pinker references a study made by Paul Rozin on the differences between health vegetarians and
moral vegetarians. Rozin found that the presence of morality (i.e. moral switch is on) tends to
polarize and create a cascade of opinions. Whereas health vegetarians chose not to eat meat for
(evidently) health-related purposes, moral vegetarians chose not to eat meat because they viewed it as
wrong to do so. And in consequence, moral vegetarians would treat meat as a contaminant. They are
less likely to support meat or animal-related products and likelier to try to convince others to join
their cause. This seems to prompt the question of what causes people to flip this moral switch, to
which Pinker (and others) are not quite sure. As it turns out, what is viewed as moral in society has
always fluctuated; morality can be molded. Pinker refers to the amoralization of homosexuality or
the homeless and the immoralization of drug abuse (430). One might suppose that morality is thus
determined by beliefs of what is an identified harm to one or many, but this is fallacious. Pinker
counters that while a gas-guzzling Hummer is reprehensible that a gas-guzzling old Volva is not.
Or that eating a Big Mac is unconscionable but not imported cheese or crme brle. Pinker
instead suggests that ones morality is also determined by ones lifestyle choices. While this idea of a
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Daniel Bhatti

The Moral Instinct

WRT 102-36

moral switch is an interesting one that may perhaps facilitate understanding in how morality works,
Pinker does not actually corroborate his claim of the moral switch. Rather, he seems to rely it on
merely as a tool for understanding than a state of the mind. However, in ease of understanding
comes a loss in information; it may not necessarily be the case that there is a dichotomy between
what is moral and what is not. To cite a common example; is it moral for a man who steals
medication he cant afford for his dying wife? As we do not currently know of a theory of an
absolute morality, it is ambiguous whether the situation is moral or immoral entirely, because it has
aspects of both (i.e. it is immoral to steal, but moral to save a life). In this circumstance, the moral
switch does not feel like a switch that instantaneously comes to an answer, but rather a more
complicated process that sometimes causes people to react either instinctively or analytically to a
prompt. Regardless, despite the notion provided, Pinker demonstrates that in general, it appears that
peoples actions can be attributed to this abstract moral switch.
In order to properly understand where morality comes about, Pinkers opts to understand the
rationality and reasoning behind morality. The flip of the moral switch is instinctive and immediate;
there is little to no time for the mind to come up with an argument for why a certain behavior is
immoral, only that it is. This reasoning for morality is far from rational; rather than scrutinizing a
scenario and then judging its morality, most people seem to trust their gut and justify their decision
afterwards. There seems to be an innate reprehension towards certain acts, whether genetic or sociocultural, that over-generalizes the extent of immorality in an action. In particular, when Joshua
Greene and co. decided to study the famous Trolley Problem in psychology, they found evidence
suggesting that people are equipped with an emotional and rational portion of the frontal love
region in the brain. Based on the context of the scenario, whichever portion becomes more active is
generally the side that determines the morality of a situation. So while the reasoning for peoples
choice in morality may not necessarily be rational in the sense that they are not utilitarian, it is clear
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Daniel Bhatti

The Moral Instinct

WRT 102-36

that there is some framework in play that causes us to have the morals that we do. However, despite
this existence, it is not sufficient to prove that an absolute, or universal, morality truly exists. In the
same sense that having an opinion does not make that opinion true, having a moral code of conduct
does not necessarily make that (or any) moral code true and all-encompassing. In fact, the Trolley
Problem can be made a bit more complicated in order to perhaps counter the view of utilitarianism
as rational. As brought up by a student in class (you are cool but I forget your name and dont know
how to cite you, sorry!), if one could control the trolleys path between hitting five rapists or a future
Einstein, wouldnt most people hit the five rapists? Clearly, morality is more complicated than a
simple number-sum game and utilitarianism is only a portion of the picture. The seeming paradox
for why people would not kill the fat man might be simply because he is not doing anything wrong.
So then, Pinker asks, is there a universal morality after all? In particular, can we discover a
sort of absolute morality that can permeate all societies? Perhaps or perhaps not, but there is
evidence suggesting that a moral sense is at least an innate part of us. Whether this innate morality is
the same in all of us, however, is questionable and perhaps untrue. Whereas we would value life
above a name, those in Sudan would rather persecute a British teacher that permitted her students to
name a bear Muhammad. It is quite clear that in our world, moral systems conflict with one another
on many occasions. It is perhaps interesting, however, to consider that there is some uniformity in
the development of morals across the globe. In particular, Pinker notes that moral psychology, Haidt,
has theorized that there are 5 general colors to morality; harm, fairness, community/loyalty,
authority, and purity. Using these categories, one can qualitatively measure which of the five a
culture places most emphasis on when considering its moral system. Individualistic countries (e.g.
USA) may value most fairness but not so much authority highly, whereas collectivist countries
(e.g. China) may value most community but not so much fairness. Under these categories,
morality becomes less of a mold that can be shaped into whatever one chooses, but instead a number
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Daniel Bhatti

The Moral Instinct

WRT 102-36

of pieces that can attached together in different ways. The idea that different cultures place different
emphasis on different aspects of some sort of morality might suggest that a universal morality exists
in a more variable sense. Whatever the potential consequences, Haidts categorizing of morality
remains to be a useful explanation towards the different attitudes of morality found in different
cultures. It is important to note, however, that while this classification system is useful, we do not
know for certain if it is universal. Could there perhaps be a sixth color to morality that we do not yet
know about it? Regardless, for its intended purposes, the system of classification is efficient enough
to accomplish what it endeavors to organize; how different morality systems differ and in what ways.
In that sense, it is akin to classification systems in biology and can be used to further our
understanding of what distinguishes one individuals morality from anothers.
Pinkers paper ends with a defense of the moral science, which he and other seek to develop.
Criticized for seeming to trivialize morality and assert its subjectivity, Pinker demonstrates that this is
not the case. In fact, he argues that through a better understanding of morality, we have realized that
morality is more than simply a moral intuition or sense. Through its study, we now understand that
controversial figures such as Hitler or Stalin were not psychopaths behaving out of the cruelty of
their hearts, but individuals who believed they were in the moral right. Through a better
understanding of morality is a better understanding of people. If we understood why people believed
global warming was immoral, for example, could we not entice them and others to believe so and
take action against it? Moral science does not make morality obsolete, but instead innovates it so
that we may hopefully better ourselves as a society, as morality is intended to do.