Moral Truths

As promised, Steven Pinker has written what I think will be seen as a a fairly important article for the New York Times Magazine about human morality. Having banged on the topic of morality a great deal myself lately, I encourage all of you to read it. I found little to disagree with, though his attempt to ameliorate the discomfort of moral nihilism by arguing that moral systems such as ours are sort of an evolutionary “forced move” — which I also think is about the most one can do in that department — will be unsatisfying to some. (Then again, the Copernican system was unsatisfying to some, too.)

Here’s a sample:

It’s not just the content of our moral judgments that is often questionable, but the way we arrive at them. We like to think that when we have a conviction, there are good reasons that drove us to adopt it. That is why an older approach to moral psychology, led by Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg, tried to document the lines of reasoning that guided people to moral conclusions. But consider these situations, originally devised by the psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

Julie is traveling in France on summer vacation from college with her brother Mark. One night they decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. Julie was already taking birth-control pills, but Mark uses a condom, too, just to be safe. They both enjoy the sex but decide not to do it again. They keep the night as a special secret, which makes them feel closer to each other. What do you think about that — was it O.K. for them to make love?

A woman is cleaning out her closet and she finds her old American flag. She doesn’t want the flag anymore, so she cuts it up into pieces and uses the rags to clean her bathroom.

A family’s dog is killed by a car in front of their house. They heard that dog meat was delicious, so they cut up the dog’s body and cook it and eat it for dinner.

Most people immediately declare that these acts are wrong and then grope to justify why they are wrong. It’s not so easy. In the case of Julie and Mark, people raise the possibility of children with birth defects, but they are reminded that the couple were diligent about contraception. They suggest that the siblings will be emotionally hurt, but the story makes it clear that they weren’t. They submit that the act would offend the community, but then recall that it was kept a secret. Eventually many people admit, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.” People don’t generally engage in moral reasoning, Haidt argues, but moral rationalization: they begin with the conclusion, coughed up by an unconscious emotion, and then work backward to a plausible justification.

The gap between people’s convictions and their justifications is also on display in the favorite new sandbox for moral psychologists, a thought experiment devised by the philosophers Philippa Foot and Judith Jarvis Thomson called the Trolley Problem. On your morning walk, you see a trolley car hurtling down the track, the conductor slumped over the controls. In the path of the trolley are five men working on the track, oblivious to the danger. You are standing at a fork in the track and can pull a lever that will divert the trolley onto a spur, saving the five men. Unfortunately, the trolley would then run over a single worker who is laboring on the spur. Is it permissible to throw the switch, killing one man to save five? Almost everyone says “yes.”

Consider now a different scene. You are on a bridge overlooking the tracks and have spotted the runaway trolley bearing down on the five workers. Now the only way to stop the trolley is to throw a heavy object in its path. And the only heavy object within reach is a fat man standing next to you. Should you throw the man off the bridge? Both dilemmas present you with the option of sacrificing one life to save five, and so, by the utilitarian standard of what would result in the greatest good for the greatest number, the two dilemmas are morally equivalent. But most people don’t see it that way: though they would pull the switch in the first dilemma, they would not heave the fat man in the second. When pressed for a reason, they can’t come up with anything coherent, though moral philosophers haven’t had an easy time coming up with a relevant difference, either.

Anyway, thanks to the Times’s recent dismantling of their “walled garden” policy, you can read the article here. It should give rise to some lively discussion, I think. I’ll likely be commenting at more length shortly.

Related content from Sphere


  1. Fascinating article and replies. For what it’s worth, there is a free, non-profit educational web site that has several full interviews with Dr. Norman Borlaug — who is featured in the original article — about his work in agriculture. Go to and click on the “Media Resouces” for video podcasts of his interviews. Or go to the “Farming in the 50s-60s” section and click on the “Crops” subsection to see longer articles about the history and debate about the Green Revolution. Again, it’s totally free and non-profit.

    Posted January 14, 2008 at 12:01 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Thanks, Bill, and welcome — I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I’ll take a look at the links you recommend.

    It is indeed an interesting article, and I am gestating a few remarks about it that I will assemble into a post when time permits. In particular I want to comment on Pinker’s attempt to place morals on an objective footing in virtue of their arising as natural (predictable?) solutions to game-theoretical optimizations. I think there is some philosophical sleight-of-hand going on there.

    Posted January 14, 2008 at 12:08 pm | Permalink