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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The world has far too much morality

Quote from Steven Pinker (p. 622 of The Better Angels of Our Nature): "The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor of killing unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples. The incalculable suffering that has been visited upon the world by people motivated by a moral cause is enough to make one sympathize with comedian George Carlin when he said, "I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who's lying around all day watching game shows and stroking his penis, and I'll show you someone who's not causing any fucking trouble!'"


Bubblecar said...

True, but then unfortunately the rest of us are expected to apply remedial morality in order to clean up the mess caused by the moralist's mad and misplaced morals. When we'd rather just be enjoying ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Wow, nice quote.

Still, if we examine the causality at play in greater detail... Those "religious" genocides were often due to humans seeking more power, weren't they? The burning of witches can be explained by xenophobia, or the need for a scapegoat. And the concept of honor isn't solely a religious one - the American south was/is an honor culture, but not because any religion said it had to be.

It seems to me that while humans may use their religions to provide rationalizations for immorality, the motivation for that immorality doesn't necessarily come from the religion. The desire for power exists quite well on its own, and I'm sure it was responsible for some of the "amoral conquest" that Pinker mentions.

So is religion or religious morality really to blame? And if so, how do you define religion?

Tim Martin

Russell Blackford said...

His point is that a lot/most of the harm doesn't come from amoral predation and conquest.

But no one is saying it is all from religion, even if it is playing a role. The bigger problem is ideology, of which religion is just a sub-set.

Anonymous said...

You might need some morality to judge these acts as wrong, or at least undesirable.

Russell Blackford said...

You might - but how much is too much?

Anonymous said...

I don't know. How about asking some famous moral philosopher like Peter Singer? He seems to know a bit about the subject.

Charles Sullivan said...

I haven't read the book yet, but it sounds like he's using the word 'morality' to refer to people who want to mind others people's private business, when those people are hurting no one else.

Darrick Lim said...

Pinker seems to be using the word 'morality' in a totally pejorative sense. I'd argue that 'morality' is a neutral term; Pinker is right about the harms that the negative sort of morality (or perhaps 'moralism', which I think has a more appropriately negative connotation) can cause, but what about the good sort of morality? Y'know, the sort that makes reasonable, compassionate, intelligent, freedom-loving people stand up and fight against all kinds of bigotry, superstition, hate, stupidity, tyranny and oppression.

Svlad Cjelli said...

^ I think his point is meant to refer to morality as a whole. I don't see Pinker saying that morality is never useful, but that there is an excess of morality where none is needed.

It is not always, or necessarily, better to do something, anything, than to do nothing.

You need water to live, Darrick Lim, but if you live under the surface it will kill you.

Darrick Lim said...

Svlad, I get that Pinker is making that point. My counterargument is that:

1) Pinker really means 'moralism', not 'morality'. There's a difference between the two.

2) Given that moralism exists, and can often cause great harm, to not push back against it is a moral failure on the part of good, decent people. I believe Edmund Burke's axiom holds true - for evil to triumph, good people only need do nothing.

Aetherwizard said...

You cannot apply modern culture to past cultures. The laws of today, apply only to today. The laws of yesterday, apply only then. It's the laws of tomorrow, assuming we will be participating, which we should be most concerned about.

Morality is the actions and behaviors that lead to good health and well-being of individuals and communities. Since our technologies change, the actions and behaviors that can be acceptable, or not, also change. It is an unavoidable fact that living beings must always do what is necessary, with the means at hand, to ensure the health and well-being of the multitudes. Human survival depends on it.

Passing judgment about the lives of others during historical periods does not make us right and them wrong. That was a right given only to the peers in their time.

Jason Streitfeld said...

I don't think Pinker is talking about morality or moralism here. From what he has published and said elsewhere, Pinker views morality as an instinctive mechanism which has served some adaptive function in the evolution of our species and which continues to ground our sense of humanity. Specifically, he thinks it is how we see ourselves and other people as in some way interchangeable. (Here's his view in a nutshell.) He also thinks that morality can be guided by reason or by faith. So it seems like he's not fairly representing his own views when he says that the world has far too much morality, or that the moral sense is to be blamed for false motives or bad excuses. What he likely means is that the world has too much faith and not enough reason. I doubt he's so careless as to confuse these concepts, so I suppose he's putting it a different way because he thinks it might be more effective. I'm not sure it works, though.

As far as his claim that morality (or faith, if that is what he means) provides false motives or bad excuses for atrocities, there's a problem when we try to distinguish the reasonable motives from the false ones, and the justifiable excuses from the unjustifiable ones. I'm guessing he has a pretty strong view about how to answer these questions, and I'm guessing it is a lot less pragmatic than mine. In any case, I don't see reason to conclude that there is too much morality or too much faith in the world.

Pinker seems to think that being a good consumer doesn't hurt anybody. I'm afraid he might have a skewed view of how the world and its violence really works.

I don't want to jump to any conclusions, but this quote, at least, doesn't inspire me to pick up his book.

As a side note, I wonder--Russell, perhaps you can clarify this point for me--does Pinker take violence in third world countries seriously in his study? For example, does he view the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as in any way connected to late 20th Century capitalism? If he doesn't--if he estimates the violence caused by our first-world, Western way of life only in terms of the violence directly caused by first-world countries, then I think there is something very wrong with his analysis.