Thursday, 31 January 2008

What makes us good?

Earlier this month the New York Sunday Times Magazine had a cool and cogent article by Steven Pinker called The Moral Instinct which attempts to analyse the influences which have created our moral codes, or at least our sense of morality. He mentions Kant, Russell, Chomsky, Spinoza, Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke and a host of lesser-known philosophers, anthropologists, neuroscientists and psychologists—and quotes Chekhov—but it is not until near the end of the piece that he mentions a possible source of our morality which until recently most of mankind believed was the only one, and which many still do.

Putting God in charge of morality is one way to solve the problem of how we know right from wrong, of course, but Plato made short work of it 2,400 years ago. Does God have a good reason for designating certain acts as moral and others as immoral? If not—if his dictates are divine whims—why should we take them seriously? Suppose that God commanded us to torture a child; would that make it all right, or would some other standard give us reasons to resist? And if, on the other hand, God was forced by moral reasons to issue some dictates and not others—if a command to torture a child was never an option—then, Pinker asks, why not appeal to those reasons directly?

The article poses many other questions in its nearly eight thousand words, and attempts to answer some of them. Here are the opening paragraphs:

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? And which do you think is the least admirable? For most people, it’s an easy question. Mother Teresa, famous for ministering to the poor in Calcutta, has been beatified by the Vatican, awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and ranked in an American poll as the most admired person of the 20th century. Bill Gates, infamous for giving us the Microsoft dancing paper clip and the blue screen of death, has been decapitated in effigy in “I Hate Gates” Web sites and hit with a pie in the face. As for Norman Borlaug . . . who the heck is Norman Borlaug?

Yet a deeper look might lead you to rethink your answers. Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.

It’s not hard to see why the moral reputations of this trio should be so out of line with the good they have done. Mother Teresa was the very embodiment of saintliness: white-clad, sad-eyed, ascetic and often photographed with the wretched of the earth. Gates is a nerd’s nerd and the world’s richest man, as likely to enter heaven as the proverbial camel squeezing through the needle’s eye. And Borlaug, now 93, is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks for pointing this reader towards this brilliant article. What breadth and depth! It's interesting that he ends with two "external" sources of morality: the mathematics "of the nature of things". One could almost give these the shorthand name: God. Increasingly, it seems that the underlying maths (not that I'm numerate) of the universe IS what other generations would have called God.

Tony said...

Yes, good, isn't it?
An awful lot of rubbish is talked about God and mathematics: put "God math" into Google and you will see what I mean.
I notice you say maths; I take this to indicate that you are not one of those ex-colonial persons.

Elizabeth said...

No, one of those persons uncommonly known as CelticAngloNordicNorman living on your side of the increasing language divide or should I say division?

Antonius Maximus said...

Bully for you. Aren't we lucky?

Elizabeth said...

Oh dear. Never mind, I love your blog.

Tony said...

My friend Grumio has just emailed me:
"Did you intend to tell "Elizabeth" to get lost? I read your comment the same way she did but wasn't sure if that was how you intended it."

It was not. On re-reading it, I can see why you might have misunderstood my brusqueness, but the truth is that nothing was further from my intentions than to be dismissive of you.

God knows, there are few enough intelligent, literate and charming commenters on OMF and I can ill afford to lose one by offending her.

Therefore I beg that you will tell me that on reflection you accept, first, my fervid assurance that it was not of industry but of case that I offended, and, second, my most humble apologies for the commission of what appeared to be an unfriendly gest, which you now see could in no way be deemed molestful.


P.S I now realise that Grumio will probably tell me that I am being a patronising git, but the hell with him.

Elizabeth said...

Thank you Tony. Only aback was taken. Will continue to enjoy OMF very much.

Tony said...

Oh, that's all right then. I am much relieved.