The Null Device
Posts matching tags 'steven pinker'
The New York Times has an excellent piece by Steven Pinker on the human instinct for moral reasoning:
At the same time, many behaviors have been amoralized, switched from moral failings to lifestyle choices. They include divorce, illegitimacy, being a working mother, marijuana use and homosexuality. Many afflictions have been reassigned from payback for bad choices to unlucky misfortunes. There used to be people called “bums” and “tramps”; today they are “homeless.” Drug addiction is a “disease”; syphilis was rebranded from the price of wanton behavior to a “sexually transmitted disease” and more recently a “sexually transmitted infection.”
This wave of amoralization has led the cultural right to lament that morality itself is under assault, as we see in the group that anointed itself the Moral Majority. In fact there seems to be a Law of Conservation of Moralization, so that as old behaviors are taken out of the moralized column, new ones are added to it. Dozens of things that past generations treated as practical matters are now ethical battlegrounds, including disposable diapers, I.Q. tests, poultry farms, Barbie dolls and research on breast cancer. Food alone has become a minefield, with critics sermonizing about the size of sodas, the chemistry of fat, the freedom of chickens, the price of coffee beans, the species of fish and now the distance the food has traveled from farm to plate.While what is considered a moral issue differs between cultures and societies (and, to an extent, periods of time), there appear to be five categories for moral judgment hardwired into the human psychology: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity.
The five spheres are good candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots. The impulse to avoid harm, which gives trolley ponderers the willies when they consider throwing a man off a bridge, can also be found in rhesus monkeys, who go hungry rather than pull a chain that delivers food to them and a shock to another monkey. Respect for authority is clearly related to the pecking orders of dominance and appeasement that are widespread in the animal kingdom. The purity-defilement contrast taps the emotion of disgust that is triggered by potential disease vectors like bodily effluvia, decaying flesh and unconventional forms of meat, and by risky sexual practices like incest.
The ranking and placement of moral spheres also divides the cultures of liberals and conservatives in the United States. Many bones of contention, like homosexuality, atheism and one-parent families from the right, or racial imbalances, sweatshops and executive pay from the left, reflect different weightings of the spheres. In a large Web survey, Haidt found that liberals put a lopsided moral weight on harm and fairness while playing down group loyalty, authority and purity. Conservatives instead place a moderately high weight on all five. It’s not surprising that each side thinks it is driven by lofty ethical values and that the other side is base and unprincipled.And, further down:
Though wise people have long reflected on how we can be blinded by our own sanctimony, our public discourse still fails to discount it appropriately. In the worst cases, the thoughtlessness of our brute intuitions can be celebrated as a virtue. In his influential essay “The Wisdom of Repugnance,” Leon Kass, former chair of the President’s Council on Bioethics, argued that we should disregard reason when it comes to cloning and other biomedical technologies and go with our gut: “We are repelled by the prospect of cloning human beings . . . because we intuit and feel, immediately and without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear. . . . In this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done . . . repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.”
There are, of course, good reasons to regulate human cloning, but the shudder test is not one of them. People have shuddered at all kinds of morally irrelevant violations of purity in their culture: touching an untouchable, drinking from the same water fountain as a Negro, allowing Jewish blood to mix with Aryan blood, tolerating sodomy between consenting men. And if our ancestors’ repugnance had carried the day, we never would have had autopsies, vaccinations, blood transfusions, artificial insemination, organ transplants and in vitro fertilization, all of which were denounced as immoral when they were new.
Evolutionary psychologist and language specialist Steven Pinker has an article on the neurology and psychology of swearing, how obscene language differs from regular language and whence it gets its power to perturb:
The upshot is that a speaker or writer can use a taboo word to evoke an emotional response in an audience quite against their wishes. Thanks to the automatic nature of speech perception, an expletive kidnaps our attention and forces us to consider its unpleasant connotations. That makes all of us vulnerable to a mental assault whenever we are in earshot of other speakers, as if we were strapped to a chair and could be given a punch or a shock at any time. And this, in turn, raises the question of what kinds of concepts have the sort of unpleasant emotional charge that can make words for them taboo.
The historical root of swearing in English and many other languages is, oddly enough, religion. We see this in the Third Commandment, in the popularity of hell, damn, God, and Jesus Christ as expletives, and in many of the terms for taboo language itself: profanity (that which is not sacred), blasphemy (literally "evil speech" but, in practice, disrespect toward a deity), and swearing, cursing, and oaths, which originally were secured by the invocation of a deity or one of his symbols.
Ths secularization has rendered religious swear words less powerful, creative speakers have replaced them with words that have the same degree of affective clout according to the sensibilities of the day. This explains why taboo expressions can have such baffling syntax and semantics. To take just one example, why do people use the ungrammatical Fuck you? And why does no one have a clear sense of what, exactly, Fuck you means? (Some people guess "fuck yourself," others "get fucked," and still others "I will fuck you," but none of these hunches is compelling.) The most likely explanation is that these grammatically baffling curses originated in more intelligible religious curses during the transition from religious to sexual and scatological swearing in English-speaking countries:Pinker goes on to discuss the correlation between the hierarchy of obscene words functions and the disease-carrying power of the substances involved, the social forces behind sexual taboos, and concludes that, since obscene language does have power, it should neither be proscribed outright nor used thoughtlessly:
- Who (in) the hell are you? >> Who the fuck are you?
- Holy Mary! >> Holy shit! Holy fuck!
- Damn you! >> Fuck you!
The common denominator of taboo words is the act of forcing a disagreeable thought on someone, and it's worth considering how often one really wants one's audience to be reminded of excrement, urine, and exploitative sex. Even in its mildest form, intended only to keep the listener's attention, the lazy use of profanity can feel like a series of jabs in the ribs. They are annoying to the listener and a confession by the speaker that he can think of no other way to make his words worth attending to. It's all the more damning for writers, who have the luxury of choosing their words off-line from the half-million-word phantasmagoria of the English language.
When Norman Mailer wrote his true-to-life novel about World War II, The Naked and the Dead, in 1948, his compromise with the sensibilities of the day was to have soldiers use the pseudo-epithet fug. (When Dorothy Parker met him, she said, "So you're the man who doesn't know how to spell fuck.") Sadly, this prissiness is not a thing of the past: Some public television stations today fear broadcasting Ken Burns' documentary on World War II because of the salty language in his interviews with veterans. The prohibition against swearing in broadcast media makes artists and historians into liars and subverts the responsibility of grown-ups to learn how life is lived in worlds distant from their own.
(via Mind Hacks)
A paper recently published by the University of Utah makes several controversial statements: that Ashkenazi Jews have genetic mutations which enhance their cognitive abilities, making them more intelligent than average, that this originated from selection pressures in mediæval Europe (where Jews could only make a living in various cognitively-demanding niches, many of which Christians were barred from), and that the same mutations cause many of the degenerative diseases common among the Ashkenazi population, as well as high incidences of depression (could it be no coincidence that cities with high Jewish populations (such as New York and Buenos Aires) have the most psychiatrists?):
Greg has referred to this hypothesis as "overclocking". The analogy is to overclocking computer processors (computer processing units or CPUs). Some hobbyists turn up the clocks on their desktop PCs to them run faster than they were designed to run. This can cause system instability and other problems. In the case of the Ashkenazis in Europe the hypothesis proposes that selective pressures for higher Ashkenazi intelligence were so high that it caused the propagation of mutations that pushed their intelligence up so quickly (evolutonarily speaking) that the selective pressure overrode the reduction in reproductive fitness caused by the deleterious side effects on some of those who received those mutations. The problem with overclocking is that "Sometimes you get away with it, sometimes you don't."
More generally, if this is what I think it is, all these Ashkenazi neurological diseases are hints of ways in which one could supercharge intelligence. One, by increasing dendrite growth: two, by fooling with myelin: three, something else, whatever is happening in torsion dystonia. In some cases the difference is probably an aspect of development, not something you can turn on and off. In other cases, the effect might exist when the chemical influence is acting and disappear when the influence does. In either case, it seems likely that we could - if we wanted to - developed pharmaceutical agents that had similar effects. The first kind, those affecting development, would be something that might have to be administered early in life, maybe before birth. while the second kind would be 'smart pills' that one could pop as desired or as needed. Of course, we have to hope that we can find ways of improving safety. Would you take a pill that increased your IQ by 10 or 15 points that also had a 10% chance of putting you in a wheel chair?The article goes on to suggest that mediæval laws on Christian and Jewish occupations were ultimately responsible for the founding of the state of Israel. Meanwhile, there's a New York Times piece on the paper here, which has a quote from evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker:
"It would be hard to overstate how politically incorrect this paper is," said Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, noting that it argues for an inherited difference in intelligence between groups. Still, he said, "it's certainly a thorough and well-argued paper, not one that can easily be dismissed outright."Anyway, back to selection pressures in medieval Europe; I imagine that the fact that the brightest Christians were put into monasteries and sworn to celibacy could also have had an effect on inherited intelligence among that group. Could it also be that Europeans of Christian descent are (inadvertently) bred for low cognitive ability?