Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, Pinker has also taught at Stanford and MIT. His research on vision, language, and social relations has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and other publications. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
Question: Collectively, what should we be doing?
Pinker: I think that one general attitude towards solving our problems is to keep in mind that not all problems have to have a moralistic solution; that often, things that improve the value of life and that, in that sense, are highly moral outcomes may not have come about through moral saber rattling, posturing, persuasion. So to be concrete, let’s say you’ve got a problem that needs to be solved. A doctor makes an error, sends the wrong drug into a patient and the patient dies. There are two ways of solving that problem. One is you could punish the doctor and have a policy that any doctor that is careless in the future will face severe penalties. That would be a kind of moralistic solution. Or you could design the IV valves so that you can’t snap together the wrong drug with the wrong patient; that no matter how careless you are, you just can’t have that bad outcome. Probably the second one is . . . will save more lives than the first. It won’t give us that bittersweet glow of having punished the careless. On the other hand, more people might be alive. I think that probably a lot of improvement in the human condition – more than we acknowledge – has come about through non-moralistic improvements than we commonly acknowledge. If you ask who saved the most lives in the past generation, one answer might be Norman Borlaug, winner of a 1970 Nobel Peace Prize – someone that no one has heard of. He’s the father of the green revolution. He devised streams of crops and methods of agriculture that are more disease resistant, more energy efficient. He probably deserves credit for savings tens, maybe hundreds of millions of lives. No one’s heard of him. Why? Because he wasn’t a moral crusader. He was a technologist; but he accomplished wonderful things. Many of the problems that we face might be solved . . . I don’t want to say all of them. There is a role for Martin Luther King and abolitionists of slavery and so on. But there is also a role, I think, for the engineer, for the scientist, for the planner, for the policy maker who figures out how people can get more of what they want given the resources that they have.
Question: What should the U.S. be doing?
Pinker: If the United States has some role in spreading the values that we associate with the enlightenment – like tolerance, and reason, and skepticism and so on – then it clearly can’t hold itself as a . . . as exceptional. It can’t say that there’s something uniquely special about the United States because it’s the United States and _________ anyone else to take that seriously. In doing so, that would be immediately contradicting the very idea that it would be nice to spread – namely that no entity is special by virtue of being that entity. It’s got to make its case to other entities that ________ are considered to be equal partners in the conversation. So while I think it’s okay to say for the United States and other liberal democracies to say, “We found a system that works. Here’s why it works. Here’s what’s good about it,” they can’t do it by virtue . . . by saying, “We’re going to impose it because we’re us and we can do that.” Those two ideas are in contradiction. The whole advantage of liberal democracy is that you make your case not because of who you are, but because you’ve got a good case and you can persuade others. And you don’t privilege your own vantage point over theirs.
Question: What should we be doing as individuals?
Pinker: Probably knowing that each of us is a fallible and partly self-deluded agent. If I had to put my finger on anything, that is the beginning of wisdom and enlightenment; that as right as I think I am – and like most humans I think I’m right all of the time – I have to step outside myself and realize, “Well no. Probably some percentage of the time I’m wrong and that other people are right.” Both me as an individual, and my family, and my society, and this point in history that there’s always something to learn, ideas that have to be discarded in the light of the appearance of better ideas that we have to absorb from other people. That, I think, is the hardest nugget of knowledge that’s necessary for everything else to fall into place. It’s the opposite of faith. It’s the opposite of dogmatism. It’s the opposite of certainty.