Steven Pinker
Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
01:38

Steven Pinker Defines Morality

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The experimental psychologist confronts the contradictions of moralists.

Steven Pinker

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.”

Transcript

Pinker: At heart, morality is treating other people the way one would want to be treated oneself; and some version of that, of interchangeability of perspectives.  It’s the fact that I’m not the only entity in the universe, and I have no grounds for privileging my interests over yours.  That’s really what most or all moral systems ultimately boil down to.  And again, as long as I’m talking to someone, as long as I am providing reasons, I can’t say that I am a unique, privileged person and hope for you to take me seriously.  Why should you?  You’re you, I’m me.  Anything that I come up with as a code of behavior . . . any reason that I give you for how you should behave has to apply to me in order for me not to be a hypocrite or to contradict myself.  And once you do that, then I think much or all of morality follows.  And I think that the alternative that many people appeal to, mainly faith, is . . . immediately refutes itself.  Faith means believing something with no good reason to do it.  Once you’re talking to someone about what they . . . what is good to do, what they ought to do, or what they have reasons to do, you cannot appeal to faith.  You’re committed to reason.


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