Reading Time: 6 minutes

I am insanely busy just now – as ever – so here is an extract from Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now. It has been a very enjoyable book, despite disagreeing with a couple of sections, such as his IDW-style attacks on the left for cancel culture-type things. I’ll ignore them.

Here, he is in his concluding chapter and in the midst of establishing humanism (Chapter 22):

Spinoza’s dictum is one of a family of principles that have sought a secular foundation for morality in impartiality—in the realization that there’s nothing magic about the pronouns I and me that could justify privileging my interests over yours or anyone else’s.5 If I object to being raped, maimed, starved, or killed, I can’t very well rape, maim, starve, or kill you. Impartiality underlies many attempts to construct morality on rational grounds: Spinoza’s viewpoint of eternity, Hobbes’s social contract, Kant’s categorical imperative, Rawls’s veil of ignorance, Nagel’s view from nowhere, Locke and Jefferson’s selfevident truth that all people are created equal, and of course the Golden Rule and its precious-metallic variants, rediscovered in hundreds of moral traditions.6 (The Silver Rule is “Don’t do to others what you don’t want done to yourself”; the Platinum Rule, “Do to others what they would have you do to them.” They are designed to anticipate masochists, suicide bombers, differences in taste, and other sticking points for the Golden Rule.)

To be sure, the argument from impartiality is incomplete. If there were a callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath who could exploit everyone else with impunity, no argument could convince him he had committed a logical fallacy. Also, arguments from impartiality have little content. Aside from a generic advisory to respect people’s wishes, the arguments say little about what those wishes are: the wants, needs, and experiences that define human flourishing. These are the desiderata that should not just be impartially allowed but actively sought and expanded for as many people as possible. Recall that Martha Nussbaum filled this gap by laying out a list of “fundamental capabilities” that people have the right to exercise, such as longevity, health, safety, literacy, knowledge, free expression, play, nature, and emotional and social attachments. But this is just a list, and it leaves the list-maker open to the objection that she is just enumerating her favorite things. Can we put humanistic morality on a deeper foundation—one that would rule out rational sociopaths and justify the human needs we are obligated to respect?

According to the Declaration of Independence, the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “self-evident.” That’s a bit unsatisfying, because what’s “self-evident” isn’t always self-evident. But it captures a key intuition. There would indeed be something perverse about having to justify life itself in the course of examining the foundations of morality, as if it were an open question whether one gets to finish the sentence or be shot. The very act of examining anything presupposes that one is around to do the examining. If Nagel’s transcendental argument about the non-negotiability of reason has merit—that the act of considering the validity of reason presupposes the validity of reason—then surely it presupposes the existence of reasoners.

This opens the door to deepening our humanistic justification of morality with two key ideas from science, entropy and evolution. Traditional analyses of the social contract imagined a colloquy among disembodied souls. Let’s enrich this idealization with the minimal premise that the reasoners exist in the physical universe. Much follows.

These incarnate beings must have defied the staggering odds against matter arranging itself into a thinking organ by being products of natural selection, the only physical process capable of producing complex adaptive design.7 And they must have defied the ravages of entropy long enough to be able to show up for the discussion and persist through it. That means they have taken in energy from the environment, stayed within a narrow envelope of conditions consistent with their physical integrity, and fended off assaults from living and nonliving dangers. As products of natural and sexual selection they must be the scions of a deeply rooted tree of replicators, each of whom won a mate and bore viable offspring. Since intelligence is not a wonder algorithm but is fed by knowledge, they must be driven to sop up information about the world and to be attentive to its nonrandom patterning. And if they are exchanging ideas with other rational entities, they must be on speaking terms: they must be social beings who risk time and safety in interacting with one another.8

The physical requirements that allow rational agents to exist in the material world are not abstract design specifications; they are implemented in the brain as wants, needs, emotions, pains, and pleasures. On average, and in the kind of environment in which our species was shaped, pleasurable experiences allowed our ancestors to survive and have viable children, and painful ones led to a dead end. That means that food, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love, sex, and camaraderie are not shallow indulgences or hedonistic distractions. They are links in the causal chain that allowed minds to come into being. Unlike ascetic and puritanical regimes, humanistic ethics does not second-guess the intrinsic worth of people seeking comfort, pleasure, and fulfillment—if people didn’t seek them, there would be no people. At the same time, evolution guarantees that these desires will work at cross-purposes with each other and with those of other people.9 Much of what we call wisdom consists in balancing the conflicting desires within ourselves, and much of what we call morality and politics consists in balancing the conflicting desires among people.

As I mentioned in chapter 2 (following an observation by John Tooby), the Law of Entropy sentences us to another permanent threat. Many things must all go right for a body (and thus a mind) to function, but it takes just one thing going wrong for it to shut down permanently—a leak of blood, a constriction of air, a disabling of its microscopic clockwork. An act of aggression by one agent can end the existence of another. We are all catastrophically vulnerable to violence—but at the same time we can enjoy a fantastic benefit if we agree to refrain from violence. The Pacifist’s Dilemma—how social agents can forgo the temptation to exploit each other in exchange for the security of not being exploited—hangs over humanity like the Sword of Damocles, making peace and security a permanent quest for humanistic ethics.10 The historical decline of violence shows that it is a solvable problem.

The vulnerability of any embodied agent to violence explains why the callous, egoistic, megalomaniacal sociopath cannot remain disengaged from the arena of moral discourse (and its demand for impartiality and nonviolence) forever. If he refuses to play the game of morality, then in the eyes of everyone else he has become a mindless menace, like a germ, a wildfire, or a rampaging wolverine—something to be neutralized by brute force, no questions asked. (As Hobbes put it, “No covenants with beasts.”) Now, as long as he thinks he is eternally invulnerable, he might take that chance, but the Law of Entropy rules that out. He may tyrannize everyone for a while, but eventually the massed strength of his targets could prevail. The impossibility of eternal invulnerability creates an incentive even for callous sociopaths to re-enter the roundtable of morality. As the psychologist Peter DeScioli points out, when you face an adversary alone, your best weapon may be an ax, but when you face an adversary in front of a throng of bystanders, your best weapon may be an argument.11 And he who engages in argument may be defeated by a better one. Ultimately the moral universe includes everyone who can think.

Evolution helps explain another foundation of secular morality: our capacity for sympathy (or, as the Enlightenment writers variously referred to it, benevolence, pity, imagination, or commiseration). Even if a rational agent deduces that it’s in everyone’s long-term interests to be moral, it’s hard to imagine him sticking his neck out to make a sacrifice for another’s benefit unless something gives him a nudge. The nudge needn’t come from an angel on one shoulder; evolutionary psychology explains how it comes from the emotions that make us social animals.12 Sympathy among kin emerges from the overlap in genetic makeup that interconnects us in the great web of life. Sympathy among everyone else emerges from the impartiality of nature: each of us may find ourselves in straits where a small mercy from another grants a big boost in our own welfare, so we’re better off if we bestow good turns on one another (with no one taking but never giving) than if it’s every person for himself or herself. Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.13

Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook:

A Tippling Philosopher

Please support by sharing or donating, or both! You can buy me a cuppa. Or buy some of my awesome ATP merchandise! Please… It justifies my continuing to do this!

Avatar photo

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...