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The Arrow of Moral Progress with Steven Pinker



Dr. Steven Pinker is a Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He conducts research on a number of topics, including visual cognition, psycholinguistics, and social relations. His work has received a number of prestigious prizes, including the Troland Research Prize from the National Academy of Sciences. In addition to his impressive scholarly work, Dr. Pinker has also drawn attention as a public intellectual. He is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, and has written nine books, including the New York Time best sellers, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now. In this podcast, we discuss humanism and his popular books, trends of declining violence, and the general state of moral psychology.


APA citation: Cazzell, A. R. (Host). (2020, September 8).  The Arrow of Moral Progress with Steven Pinker [Audio Podcast]. Retrieved from https://www.ambercazzell.com/post/msp-ep39-StevenPinker


Note: This transcript was generated automatically. Please excuse typos and errors.


Amber Cazzell (01:57):

All right. Hi everybody. Today I am very excited to be here with Steven Pinker and I think we're going to have a lot of really interesting things to discuss. So I'm going to just go ahead and jump right in. Steve, I usually start these podcasts by hearing about a researcher's background and what led them to their line of research and work. And I know in your case, you study a lot of different things. And so I'm curious how over the years he became more interested in moral psychology. When I was speaking with Jesse Graham last year on this podcast, he mentioned that he felt your New York times article the Moral Instinct. Actually, this is when I first read it that that really drew attention and popularized moral foundations theory, and brought a lot of attention to moral psychology in general. So I'm curious how you developed that interest on your own. 


Steven Pinker (03:00):

I've always been interested in moral philosophy ethics, but we starting with my, my religious education, which was reformed Judaism. And there was very little theology. There was no miracles, no, not even so much God, but there's an awful lot of ethical argumentation. I even became a Sunday school teacher. I taught 11 year olds. And at the subject that I was one of the main subjects that I was deputized to teach was moral philosophy and ethical debates. We had a textbook called the right way with moral dilemmas, which of course is exactly how moral philosophy is is, is done. You clarify your principles by seeing how they ought to apply in difficult moral decisions. My, my work in my professional work in psychology did not make contact with that, that lifelong interest for, for quite awhile, but I didn't, I am interested in all aspects of human nature.


Steven Pinker (04:00):

I've I wrote a book with a grandiose title, how the mind works. And so if it has to do with the with the human mind, I'm interested in it. And in and I think a kind of preparation for my interest in moral psychology was my interest in visual perception and where the the, the key issue there going back to Humboldt's and probably earlier is are there do we have faculties that are grappling with an external reality that may subject us to illusions and fallacies when we're confronted with atypical situations? And can we contrast a kind of a vertical perception with a set of illusions that our brains make us vulnerable to? So that's an obvious question to ask when it comes to say the perception of depth and color guess it's a question that we can also ask when it comes to right and wrong.


Steven Pinker (05:06):

Are there some moral intuitions that feel overwhelming as we feel them, but that can't can't withstand the kind of screwed me of the kind that we apply when we to pull out a ruler to show that the the door is really straight or the two lines that appear to be on equal lengths really are equal lengths. And of course that raises the question in philosophy of really moral realism mainly is there any moral ground truth against which we can compare human judgments and needless to say there's much to be debated on that issue.


Amber Cazzell (05:46):

Right? Yeah. And the Moral Instincts, that was a phrase you used a few times, these moral illusions, and there was a suggestion. The sense I was getting as I was reading was that you thought our minds can be fooled by these moral illusions and the backdrop. And we need to compare that to figure out how morality ought to be deployed, how we ought to use these various moral instincts. So I I'm, I'm curious, I know it's a broad question and it's complicated, but how do you personally distinguish between what is a moral illusion and what is more real.


Steven Pinker (06:30):

Yeah, well, another another prompt or, or, or stimulus to raising these questions was the work that I've done on the historical decline of violence and the ways in which practices and customs that were seen as perfectly, either neutral or unexceptionable, or, or even moral in their Titans now are borage to us slavery being the obvious example, but also be the burden of heretics, the persecution of, of gay people the debt bondage animal cruelty is a form of entertainment or for that matter public torture executions as a, as an occasion to bring out core family for an afternoon of fun, to see someone burned to death or, or Claude with iron books. What, what were these people thinking clearly to the extent that we can make a judgment now, slavery really is wrong and the people who thought it was okay they, they were mistaken now to the extent that we can make that judgment.


Steven Pinker (07:37):

We feel very confident in it. What are we appealing to? How could, what makes us so sure that slavery is wrong, given that it seemed perfectly natural to them, most of humanity for, for most of history so that that itself raises the question of whether we can be mistaken about our moral convictions but also the the work done by Rick Shweder, a John Haidtand Alan Fiske and Josh Greeneand the whole enterprise of moral psychology that suggests that there are intuitions that people can have, which they cannot defend. That is. And, and classic examples from John Haidt, where now classic, such as consensual incest, such as disrespecting the flag in private, such as breaking a deathbed vow where no one's hurt. The moral case that wrong has been done is, is not trivial to make, but nonetheless people have strong intuitions, which they're dumbfounded when called upon to justify. So that's another hint that has with perception. There is a distinction between our our intuitions and what we might want to reality that that of course is self tendentious. But certainly if you at least distinguish what we can argue is right or wrong, defend as right or wrong, has the kind of ground truth. How do our gut intuitions of morality diverged from that?


Amber Cazzell (09:14):

Yeah, I think that, that, isn't interesting. It sounds like you use rationality as the litmus test for how moral something is, is that fair?


Steven Pinker (09:28):

Well, not necessarily because the rationality per se, as philosophers since Hume have pointed out cannot by itself ground morality. Right? I do tend to think that rationality combined with a couple of fairly unexceptional assumptions, number one, each of us cares about our own existence and wellbeing and flourishing. If we, if we didn't, we probably wouldn't be here to debate them if we didn't work to stay alive and keep ourselves well fed and healthy. So as soon as you've got a rational agent, who's an incarnate in, you're talking about some agents who will least concerned with himself or herself. Again, that's not rational, but it's hard to imagine how we would be us without it. And that we're social. We are, our wellbeing depends on how others treat us. We're in discourse with other people.


Steven Pinker (10:27):

And again, that's at the very fact that we're raising these issues. I mean, this, we already are in discourse with each other. Now you put those together. The rationality self-interest and some degree of sociality. And I think I tend to think that morality fall falls out of that mainly as soon as soon as I implore you to do anything that respects my interests, you know, not to kill me, not to explore me, not to rate me not to, to torture me. I can't very well turn around and say, well, it's okay for me to do it to you. And, and there, I think there are two reasons to be nice if we could reduce it to one, or maybe, maybe a clever philosopher and I can do it, but one of them is this logically, there's no distinction between me and you.


Steven Pinker (11:19):

Me, it's just the way I refer to a person when the words come out of my mouth and you, when you use the word, you refer it to me when it comes out of your mouth, but as long as we are in discourse and we're appealing to some kind of coherence in the realm of ideas me and you makes no difference. So any argument you make about me has to be true of you once you grant that you have a lot of the normative statements of morality that have worked persistent through the ages, the golden rule the categorical imperative, the veil of ignorance, the view from nowhere, the perspective of eternity, all of these are forms of impartiality. I think it was a Sidgwick who kind of named it that they're always of saying the difference between me and you ultimately can't bear any, any, any burden in a rational argument.


Steven Pinker (12:15):

What's true of me has to be true of you. The other grounding in addition to that logical distinction is that it's so much easier to cause damage than to help. It's probably a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics that a complex system is vulnerable to disorder, even through random changes that if we refrain from harming each other we're both better off. Then even if we had some symmetrical arrangement where, you know, I get to kill you, you get to kill me. Granted going back to our first grounding of morality, there's nothing in that that privileges me or you, but nonetheless, it's obviously not an arrangement that either of us would want where each of us is willing to sacrifice our prerogative to harm the other in exchange for not being a vulnerable ourselves, not being farmed or exploited ourselves.


Steven Pinker (13:15):

And we, we, everybody wins. I mean, it's granted the best situation for me, selfishly, would be if I get to explore everyone else and no one gets to exploit me, and I'm not gonna be able to convince you that that's a viable arrangement. And we're really, it's both in each of our rational self-interests to enforce a social contract in which neither gets to exploit the other. And that is another kind of grounding of morality, namely not, not just avoid writing any rule or system that privileges me over you, but figure out a set of rules where we all are better off agreeing to be rules. And if we floated them.


Amber Cazzell (14:00):

I see. Yeah. Thank you. And so if I've sort of looked at your work information, you mentioned Better Angels of Our Nature. I've read enlightenment now as well, which was really good. These all imply to me that you have a sense of moral progress and that's already, that's already come up just in our conversation. It seems that you have a sense that moral progress is occurring. That there's sort of an arrow to the direction of, of morality. And I wonder if you think that certain societies are also like more advanced with respect to moral progress, that sounds like a very provocative idea to, but I've gotten that sense from you and I, and I would like to hear from you about whether that is accurate or inaccurate, or sort of your thoughts on that.


Steven Pinker (15:01):

Yes, no. And you're, and you're right to identify the, a, the dilemma according to contemporary sensibilities. And I do think that a lot of the intellectual world has tied itself into a a contradiction or a knot because on the one hand, you've got to be a radical relativism that has become sacrosanct and large parts of academia. No society is better than any other society I'm going to hand. You really do have commitments like a women shouldn't be exploited, right? And they shouldn't be slaves. Now you can't believe in both of those things. You can't believe that a women should have equal rights and say, well, it's perfectly fine to face society you know, which enslaves and mutilates, and it uses women as sexual slaves that we will that just get a culture where we are criticized. I mean, you just cannot both.


Steven Pinker (15:51):

And so the, the answer is if we have any kind of moral convictions at all, if we really do think slavery is, is, is bad, genocide is bad. We can't also say, well, that culture over there that, that approach that perpetrates genocide is just following the mores and values of their culture. You have to say that what they're doing is wrong. And now this so yes, it is a culture that that Outlaws slavery and sexual exploitation and oppression of women and gay people talk hypocrisy and torture. And so on really is morally we're backward. But the one that doesn't and I say backward, knowing how freighted and incendiary that, that word is, cause it does apply, but there is such a thing as moral progress. And I do think there is such a thing as moral progress that if you abolish slavery, that's progress, if you eliminate loss with the script that oppressed gay people, that really is progress, I think it is a, a current I don't think it's magic.


Steven Pinker (16:59):

And I don't think it is linear or irreversible or in the nature of things. I think it comes about because to the extent that society allows open debate discourse discussion, the the conversation is going to move in certain directions in the same way that he allow mathematicians to do their thing and criticize each other. Look at the idea that one on one equals three, just isn't gonna survive for very long. Just goes one on one isn't three, and likewise, as soon as you play the world game at all any argument that slavery is okay, is just going to fall by the wayside. Likewise, that it's okay to discriminate against gay people or to oppress women. The arguments are bad and you can suppress them. You can fail to notice them, but once they're out there, they, they, as long as you don't get to kill the people who disagree with you, then the, the, as long as you're in an arena of open debate, better ideas will in the long run push out worse ideas.


Steven Pinker (18:06):

So this returning to a, the, the the political minefield that this tiptoes through this can't be acquainted with some kind of Western chauvinism saying, well, hurry for the West because the West of course is has, and it's dope as do repugnant things. The West had plenty of slavery and bend and denial of BV, the vote and rights to women and all the rest and, and continues, continues to have a lot of these ideas did not originated in the West. And we're, we're the West fought them tooth and nail and many parts of the West still do. So it has to be an argument for the principles themselves. some Western countries or some parts of some Western countries that sometimes do endorse them. But the fact that, that, that it is a lot of Western countries is is irrelevant. So it's not hooray for the Netherlands. It's hooray for universal franchise abolition of slavery, abolition of torture and all the rest.


Amber Cazzell (19:17):

Yeah. How do you so I have a few thoughts on that. One is that I agree, I share, I share your values, but I, but it does need to be pointed out that the reliance on this taking place in a circumstance in which people are free to express their ideas is sort of itself this implicit privilege and privileging of the value of freedom in this abstract sense. So that's one thought I had the other, the other thought that I had as you were speaking was Oh boy, now I've lost my train of thought. Let's stick with just, I'm curious what you have to say about the freedom comment, and then hopefully the other idea will return to me as you're speaking.


Steven Pinker (20:04):

Yeah. I'm, I'm well familiar with that state of mind all too familiar with it. Yeah. The well, the, the, the value of freedom is almost presupposed if you're having a discussion at all on anything. So if we're, if we're having a debate of disagreement and each of us has to be free to articulate views, otherwise we would settle it with you know, with a fist fight or a beauty contest or or, or, you know, whoever can pride the other the fact that we're engaged in intellectual discourse, and we believe that it's worth discussing it in the first place as opposed to be bullying you or vice versa. So, so we're already committed to freedom. It's too late. And of course the commitment of freedom is part of the impartiality. The fact that I don't get to I'm not missing into order and fallible.


Steven Pinker (20:53):

I don't get to impose my views just because I am stronger than you. I've got to persuade you. And that means I've got to allow you to try to persuade me. So yeah, if you, there is the ground rule of freedom of speech and thought but the, we all exceed that ground rule. If we're even debating something, as opposed to settling it by a brute force. And if we settle it by brute force, and we've got to say, okay, well, if you're if you could lock me up, if you can torture me, you can imprison beat, then you win. I don't think since neither of us is willing to concede that it's too late, we've already signed on to you.


Amber Cazzell (21:31):

Okay. Yeah. And I did have the other thought returned to me. And it's related to this this idea that of abstract principles in general. So like freedom is this abstract principle. You had said that, you know, morality, it has to be, it's not about like Western society. It's about commitment to the principles in, and of themselves, these impartial principles. And it made me think of Tage Rai and Alan Fisk's relational models. I forget the exact, the exact name, but their, their theory of war.


Steven Pinker (22:08):

It was fun first who was violence? Yes. Brilliant book.


Amber Cazzell (22:11):

Oh, yes. That book. I actually haven't read it, although I did read your introduction to it, but, but anyway, it made me think of that because these abstract principles and standing behind them is one thing how they actually get implemented into the world is quite another thing. And it can make adherence to these abstract principles in, and of themselves tricky to implement. So for instance, like abstract principles of fairness, we see liberals and conservatives disagree on what fairness means in practicality. And so do you think that there is a disconnect between rational discourse in being able to implement morality and make progress through rational discourse when there's sort of that abstract and particulars gap going on?


Steven Pinker (23:08):

Yes. So I think that the the work by Alan Fiske and Tage Rai is fascinating as as a as a work of anthropology and psychology and sociology and history, and it shows why it's often so hard to arrive at what we would defend as the best moral principles, because, and again, this, this harks back to the beginning of our conversation, not coincidentally because Alan Fiske, like Jonathan Haidt worked with Rick Shweder, all of whom highlight the differences in or the, the, the diversity of moral intuitions and the way that different cultures, different historical periods apply different ways of, of moral thinking, different foundations or different relational models to different domains of, of life in particular much of the world and much of history and us today often conflate morality with intuitions of purity of communal sharing of deference to legitimate authority, as well as to the more central foundations or, or, or models of caring, empathy, avoidance of harm.


Steven Pinker (24:32):

But that's it, if you would appear to our skulls with a kind of a moral floor sculpt to see what's what people's moral thoughts are. A lot of them have nothing to do with preventing harm and extending care, AF people, judge violations of sexual purity of dietary purity of of insulting legitimate authority of feelings. You take responsibility for those that you're empowered to to protect paternalistically. All of those get conflated with morality in most societies most times. But this relates again to our discussion of moral relativism, if you acknowledge that that's the way we're wired, we're subject to these moral intuitions, they're powerful. They can parametrically vary from culture to culture. Still, can you say somewhere right, and some are wrong. That is even the cultures that thought slavery was okay.


Steven Pinker (25:37):

They were wrong. Slavery is not okay. Not just that our culture doesn't like slavery in the way that our culture say it doesn't like men wearing skirts. But it's really different at likewise with genocide and rape and so on. And so over the course of history, as a lot of these traditional spheres of morality, relational models, if you will, or, or moral foundations start to get cast by the wayside, that when you start to say, I don't care if a gay sex grosses you out, there's nothing wrong with it. And if it grosses you out that just too bad, you're going to have to swallow it, even though it that sense of your, your own sense of this role discomfort which you are likely to translate into moral condemnation sorry. You're wrong about that? And so keep it, keep it, keep it to yourself, learn to overcome it.


Steven Pinker (26:30):

And that is a way in which I think that the work of Fiske and of Haidt can be, I think misinterpreted as, as licensing a kind of relativism, as fascinating as it is as psychology, namely outlining the claims of moral fallacies that were vote, we're all vulnerable to. It doesn't prevent you I think from also making the normative argument that lots of people are wrong about a lot of things. A lot of time, again, going back to perception in the same way that a appreciating human perception means that we can say people are vulnerable to, to all the illusions on the back of the cereal box. You know, they think the two lines are a different length and in reality, that the same way they, two colors are different reality that they're, they're the same. And in the case of you brought up the book Virtuous Violence by by Fisk and Rai, and that is in particular interest of interest in the reason that I agreed to write a foreword is that it it jived with a conclusion that I came to in writing the Better Angels of Our Nature on the history of decline of violence, which is that if you were to try to ask the question, why do people, I asked to ask two questions?


Steven Pinker (27:45):

One of them is, how did violence decline? The other one is why was there so much of it? Why is there still a lot of it psychologically? Why does it that it helps people to harm one another? One of the answers could be just sheer exploitation, a native population is on land that you want, so you clear them and you enjoy the land. You rob a liquor store, you shoot the clerk so that he doesn't identify you in court. There's a sexual exploitation. I don't think it needs a fancy, fancy explanation. It's just raw callousness toward being an interest of the victim. But I think a majority of the killings in human history have not been out of sheer exploitation, they became out of world reasons. The the genocides of the Nazis of the communists of maybe other episodes in history where there's been mass killings, the killers thought that they were doing the moral thing. They didn't accrue any material advantage out of their violence, but they thought that they were were meting out justice. And in fact, the probably, I, I have no exactly quantifying this, but I suspect more people have been murdered in the pursuit of justice and morality than in their pursuit of being out of a raw exploitation. And that's a point to that Fiske and Rai make in their excellent book.


Amber Cazzell (29:13):

And so what was the, what was the reason, the conclusion for why that has gone away over time? It seems like, go ahead. Go ahead.


Steven Pinker (29:24):

Yeah. I think there are a number I wasn't able to single out one grant historical, cause I think they, I singled out a number. One of them was the the implementation of the rule of law, as opposed to the the chaos of, of anarchy that if you've got the government disincentivizing you from exploiting someone else, it will make it not worth your while because of the anticipated cost of the punishment will negate whatever you hope to gain by robbing or murdering or raping. Another is infrastructure of exchange and commerce and a non zero sum trade that if you're, if it's cheaper to buy things and just steal them, then you're, you're less likely to be tempted by plunder. And if other people are more valuable to alive and dead, because you're getting stuff from them in exchange for stuff, you're giving them then commerce replaces conquest.


Steven Pinker (30:26):

Another is the expansion of our sense of empathy, our moral concern so that we partly because of perhaps because of artistic rendering of the inner lives of other people, what is it like to be a Black person in America? What it's like to be a slave? What is it like to be an animal I am partly out of, out of just rational discourse? How can you really defend the idea that you get to keep slaves and someone else has to be slaves? Does that really, can you really defend that? Does that really make sense? So the combination of reason and empathy, I can expand our circle of moral concern, and then we can also apply our reason, our cognitive faculties to figuring out a ways of reducing violence as a, as a problem to be solved such as a court system or restorative judge justice or international organizations like the UN, the UN and the EU and anger management and all of the different gimmicks and gadgets we come up with.


Steven Pinker (31:35):

So is there anything they all have in common? Why should these forces all seem to push in the same direction? I took a stab at saying that they all fall into this game theoretic dilemma that we spoke of at the beginning of the conversation, namely since it's so much easier to harm than to help and you can do so much more damage by harming them and by helping and since each of us is vulnerable to that kind of damage, a social contract in which we all refrain from harming each other in exchange for not being harmed ourselves, is irresistible to a self interesting, rational and social agent. Now it's not automatic the various moral intuitions that that, that judge Shweder and Haidt and Fiske have laid out means that we don't often see it that clearly because we value the authority.


Steven Pinker (32:35):

We value the aesthetic. We are disgusted by what other people do. So all of these kind of emotional and cognitive impediments to see with clarity at the best way of arranging our affairs. But as long as you allow people to argue with each other to point out each other's flaws in each other's reasoning, it tends to push in the direction of greater equality. I feel our social contract. We saw just the if I can date our conversation a little bit by referring to the events of yesterday when the Supreme court ruled that employers may not discriminate against gay or transgender employees, even a highly conservative Supreme court, but they kind of were trapped by their own by the, by the words of the law and words of laws that they themselves had to agree to. And then they just sort of crank through what they meant and what they applied. And even if their own culture, even if their own intuitions went against the judgment, the judgment prevailed.


Amber Cazzell (33:40):

Yeah. Yeah. Interesting. I recall watching a lecture that you gave, I think it was at Harvard and I think it might've followed a lecture that Josh Greene gave, but in that lecture, you were discussing the process of progress and how this takes place and the things that you've said today have echoed that. But I remember some elements of that. You were talking about the role of elites like academics and government and policymakers and, and this sort of a thing. And I'm wondering if you could for listeners just talk about that process for moral progress here. So I thought that was really interesting and provocative. Do you recall which lecture I'm talking about?


Steven Pinker (34:37):

I remember the lecture I'm not sure I can reconstruct the the arc. You could say another couple of words.


Amber Cazzell (34:44):

No problem. I ever as I recall it, and this was some time ago, so I don't want to put words in your mouth. So I'm just warning to listeners. I am trying to recall this from watching it a few months ago, but it was something along the lines of there's rational discourse amongst these powerful people in society. They come up with these new policies that the public initially dislikes, and then they lobby it into policymaking. Eventually it's adopted despite upheaval amongst a lot of the, a lot of the population, but once it's implemented people, see that life goes on and is improved, and then it becomes sort of the commonly accepted, universal new standard for.


Steven Pinker (35:31):

Well, I think, okay, now, now it's coming back to me. So I think this is an argument. I am now I'm suffering a brain freeze as to the scholar that did this work, but it was somebody who looked at the history of capital punishment in the West. And capital punishment is one of these phenomena, such as the abolition of slavery, the abolition of laws that discriminate against women against sticky people, where it feels like there's some historical tide. I mean, it's a kind of nonsensical notion, but you just plot the number of countries that have abolished capital punishment. And it, it, it keeps going up capital punishment might even vanish even in the United States, which as with another number, number of American customs, we are very far behind the curve of of liberal democracies. We still have capital punishment.


Steven Pinker (36:24):

Most of our most other affluent democracies don't but even the United States is diminishing. So how does that happen? How did this process get propelled? And the answer is historically, it's not because there is a groundswell of popular opinion that people have demonstrations to abolish capital punishment. It often on the contrary starts from elites from, from jurists and journalists and academics who make an argument that capital punishment is barbaric it's unfair. It's it's, it's primitive and in countries more often in Europe than in the U S where the intellectual and moral elites have a say in the drafting of laws often they got to pressure governments to outlaw at a time at which if you took it at an opinion poll, most people would say, Hey, capital punishment is only fair. You take a life, you deserve to lose your own.


Steven Pinker (37:25):

So the elites in this case are in a kind of in the Vanguard, ahead of their populaces, but once it does get outlawed, then people get used to it. They see that all hell hasn't broken loose. And so they tend not to clamor for reinstating it. Now that there are exceptions, there are cases where there's a gruesome, you know, rape murder or children get murdered, and there's a call to reintroduce it. But by and large, the momentum is a against reinstitution of capital punishment. Again, some American States being an exception, but they are an exception. That's a case where if the elites not elites to the sense of the people with the iron rule by, by elites, I mean, kind of intellectual, moral journalistically.


Amber Cazzell (38:15):

Hm. So people with like social capital, you mean?


Steven Pinker (38:19):

Yes. Although not only social capital, because it isn't the plutocrats, it's not necessarily, it's not the military elites. It's in this case, the intellectual elites now that doesn't always that's not always the way it works. There are grassroots changes. There are people who are not at the necessarily, you know, professors or clergy people or or editorialists, but often it does even say, you know, Martin Luther King, who was he an elite? I mean, in some ways, absolutely not. He was an African American at a time when they were terribly oppressed. On the other hand, he was a minister. He was highly educated. He had the, he gained the platform the women's suffrage movement. Again, these weren’t people who started out as elite, but often it was highly educated women who answered the cost. I wouldn’t want to say this always happens. And it isn't true of all elite, such as financial or military or governmental elites, but there are times at which there are moral thinkers who are in the Vanguard or ahead of public opinion and drag public opinion with them.


Amber Cazzell (39:40):

Interesting. Okay. So you're using a, elites more closely as aligned with education in a way, is that


Steven Pinker (39:50):

Exactly. Yes. Not, not, not financial elites, at least like, you know, like you and me.


Amber Cazzell (39:56):

Okay. Interesting. Very interesting. Do you think that, I think, I think the question has to be asked that that that's sort of a stroke to the ego for us because we're intellectuals. And, and we think about these things. To what extent do you think that this is really documented versus this idea that sort of feels good for an intellectual to talk about this idea that maybe we're driving moral progress forward? I don't, I don't know that everybody would agree, you know, and, and so I, there, there was, you gave the example of capital punishment as sort of having this documented history. Are you aware of other types of what you see as moral progress that also have that documented?


Steven Pinker (40:47):

Yeah, I know it's a, it's a, a, a good point and I certainly would not make the argument that the history of capital punishment, just the way that all moral progress happens. That was what I found to be a very interesting case study. And it must be said that a lot of intellectuals are, were behind some of the histories of worst atrocities. Not only cases in which the elites disagreed amongst themselves. So you can't really even say what the elites wanted, but cases where there were rationales for, for, for, for genocide, for oppression from the Nazis, had plenty of intellectuals propping up their their ideology. Hitler was a kind of pseudo intellectual. He fancied himself as a well-read, the Marxist at genocidal regimes of the 20th century had no shortage of intellectuals, including defenders in the West. ho were all too happy to say, you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs the eggs there being and millions of people. So, yeah, I would not make the argument that intellectual elites are in general at Vanguard progress, although in the specific case of capital punishment, they seem to be.


Amber Cazzell (42:03):

Interesting. So as you have this I think one of the things I really admire about your work is you have this panoramic view of research that's being done on morality, at least in psychology, but I think in some other disciplines as well, I'm curious what you anticipate being the future direction for moral science to take over the coming years, or also like your opinion of what you think it should take over the next few years.


Steven Pinker (42:43):

Well, I, I do think it should be, it should be eclectic that disciplinary boundaries, I get in a way of insight and understanding. So history is relevant and moral philosophy and moral psychology and anthropology and economics that we should apply every intellectual tool that we have. And, and neuroscience has in the work of my colleague, Josh Greene that we should clarify issues such as the, to what extent can we speak of a kind of ground truth when it comes to morality against which we can compare human judgment. We need clarity on that. I do think that the issue that you and I just discussed as to who and what drives moral progress when there is moral progress is something that I would love to see more, more work on your right to be skeptical of any suggestion that it's intellectual elites who drive it in general.


Steven Pinker (43:46):

But to what extent are there does it work by grassroots agitation, by community leaders who become a elites by virtue of the power of their rhetoric and ideas and organization versus top down intellectuals, how much harm do intellectuals do? I think that is actually an understudied topic for exactly the reason that you mentioned, namely, that intellectuals like to flatter themselves. And it's actually quite appalling to see the kinds of positions that a lot of our lauded intellectual heroes have taken that the, the number of intellectuals in the 20th century crazed genocidal dictators, like, like Mao like even, Hitler is kind of revolting.


Amber Cazzell (44:35):

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that is, that is interesting. And I wonder too, and I know you've over the years defended the, the decline in violence so many times. And I also wonder to what degree, like your intellectual positioning, as well as your, your own positioning as a scholar in specifically the Westernized world privileges a certain view of things like violence that could be indicators of moral progress that not all others would share. So certainly it seems you've defended really well the decline in violence in terms of like homicides and, and things like this. A friend of mine when we were discussing the book Better Angels and, and, you know, caveat here is I have not read Better Angels myself. So I, I can't defend this friends question, but they were saying they felt that perhaps a certain definition of a violence was privileged that could exclude other types of violence that others might consider.


Amber Cazzell (45:55):

So I don't know if in the book, for instance, you addressed abortion, like some people would see that as a type of violence that might indicate a regression, a moral regression or another type of violence that they brought up was this idea that there's no longer lands that you can just go out and forage, there's sort of this mentality with large corporations of, well, you better work or starve. There's no land for you to just go out and be in anymore. You really have to you're really forced to labor or there are consequences. Now I think he could also make the argument that that's been the case in a lot of, a lot of history. Although like also, I'm not sure if you're familiar with 


Amber Cazzell (46:52):

I'm not sure if you're familiar with Darcia Narvaez’s work. She's a psychologist who has she, she almost takes the opposite perspective from yours. That there's been a, I mean she really romanticizes Hunter gatherer times and thinks that quality of life has decreased over time. Quality of life has decreased over time. And I think, you know, she points to some similar issues of, well, what, what about the fact that people used to only gather for three hours a day and then kind of enjoy life and have more touch and these different other elements. So perhaps this is a question you feel is beating a dead horse that you've talked about it so many times. I'm sure. But I am curious to get your answer in light of this conversation.


Steven Pinker (47:52):

Sure. I often get the objection. Well, isn't such and such a form of violence too. Isn't going to be quality. A form of violence is Adobe city, a form of violence is an advertising, a form of violence. And I, the first answer is you can play with words all you want, but and you can study the causes of obesity and and how to mitigate it. But you just confuse things. If you stretch the meaning of words beyond the way that most people understand it and I'm seeking insight and understanding and communication. And so when I use violence, I really mean physical force. And that that's the way it's commonly understood. It doesn't mean that inequality is a isn't itself, a bad thing, but the fact that Jeff Bezos makes more money than, than I do is really, really different from someone sticking their, their a knife into someone else's heart to steal their wallet or rounding up Jews at the edge of edge of a pitch and, and shooting them in the back of the neck.


Steven Pinker (48:58):

They're just really different phenomenon. Even if the one thing in life is regrettable, deplorable. If you call them all violence, then you really not gonna understand anything. Now in the particular cases in the case of abortion, you're absolutely right that the abortion debate is the debate over whether we ought to consider abortion to be a form of violence. And if you believe that a an embryo is a, a human being, then with the same moral status as a human being, then abortion is a form of violence. The I didn't take up the abortion debate in veteran's angels, partly because I suspected that the vast, vast majority of my readership had already made up their mind that abortion is not a a form of violence, otherwise they would although some do, there are pro lifers who consider abortion tantamount to murder.


Steven Pinker (49:51):

I don't, most people I know don't but it is still a question to be debated as it happens. I actually did talk about the, the history of abortion and abortion itself. As a matter of fact, is in decline. Now it rose to a peak in the, probably the early eighties, but since then abortions have been going down in virtually every country in the world. So even if you do consider abortion a form of violence, it actually conforms to be the overall pattern. Land exclusion, I mean, there is a sense which that is a form of violence to the extent that governments enforce property, right. And therefore, if you trespass you’ll be met with guns, we'll, we'll, we'll force you to leave and might put you in jail if you do it repeatedly. And so one could indeed argue yeah. Whether and, but for that matter, all laws, all government is a form of violence.


Steven Pinker (50:49):

This is the max Weber's definition of government is a the body that has the exercises and legitimate use of force. And as long as we've got rule of law, and as long as we people can't just go out and do whatever they want without consequences from, you know, a democratically elected court system then, then we can ask the question, is it okay to tolerate some forms of violence, mainly the rule of law in order to minimize other forms of violence, such as a constant reading of territory by neighboring tribes, each of whom tries to push the other off the land, or are we better off having a disinterested third party set of referees police under the guidance of the rule of law. And that raises the whole issue of of course, whether the police are actually doing that are overstepping their democratically licensed function topic very much in the news leads this past few weeks.


Steven Pinker (51:58):

But yeah, that would be a case in which there is violence, but I think that it's better to localize the violence in a democratically controlled court system and police force than to have a hierarchy where each side beats at its own justice against the others, because we just know historically that leads to vendettas and blood feuds and cycles of violence with a much greater violence overall. So it's a little bit of violence in that case to prevent much greater violence. In the case of Hunter gatherers, there's, there's really two different debates here. One of them is, would it be better to be a Hunter gatherer in terms of how, how good life is compared to alternatives like the first peasant societies? The answer is probably yes, because toiling in the field from sunup to sundown being a feudal surf being a laborer and a factory at the outset of the industrial revolution were probably pretty grim ways to live.


Steven Pinker (52:58):

I think that's less true of the way the majority of people live live now. And it's also important not to romanticize the likes of Hunter gatherers, because even though there is that factoid, that they only gather food for three hours a day, they often spend enormous amounts of time preparing the food like pounding knots with rocks fetching water, and doing things that we count as work like having arguments go into the middle of the night about divorces and about sharing antibiotics work responsibilities. So if you add up the amount of work that Hunter gatherers do, it's actually it takes up a lot of, a lot of their day. Now that doesn't even raise the issue of levels of violence and the the Better Angels of Our Nature. I suggest that one of the reasons for the transitions from a Hunter gatherer to state societies is that in general state societies have less overall levels of violence that when you have a, and of course they have States that themselves implement a lot of violence, like slavery, like human sacrifice, like conscription. But on the other hand, when you have a constant cycles of feuds and raids and ambushes with your neighbors, which is very common in non-state societies, in tribal societies then there is some security to living within the walls of a city where, you know, you won't be abducted by the tribe next door. So it's a kind of a devil's bargain for the first people that that, that abandoned the Hunter gatherer way of life. I can be extraordinarily dangerous but life in the first state societies was no picnic either.


Amber Cazzell (54:46):

Yeah. Thank you really interesting. So we're just about at time, but with the last few minutes, I'd love to hear about what you're mulling over now, what you're thinking about, are you writing another book at this time? Yeah. What, what are, what are your thoughts.


Steven Pinker (55:04):

Glad you asked? I am writing a book I have recently completed teaching a course in Harvard's general education curriculum called Rationality. And I am at turning my course into a book. A tentative title is Rationality: What It Is, Why It's Scarce, Why It Matters. And it's a combination of a tutorials on, again, going back to our theme of juxtaposing, the psychology and the, the, the normative theories discussion of tools of rationality, like game theory, rational choice theory, Basie, reasoning, statistical decision theory, logic with the relevant psychological literatures and why we often would float basic and reasoning and logic and rational choice theory and what we think could be done to make us collectively more rational.


Amber Cazzell (56:01):

Really interesting. And when is that book projected to come out?


Steven Pinker (56:06):

It could be a year from the fall, depending on how I'm efficient I am at writing it.


Amber Cazzell (56:11):

Cool. That's, that's really neat. I look forward to that coming out. Steve, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and the conversation. It's been a lot of fun to get to dialogue somebody whose work I had read for a long time. So thank you.


Steven Pinker (56:26):

It's a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me good luck with the series.