Steven Pinker Redefines Moral Relativism

Psychologist and Linguist
The experimental psychologist says not all problems have to have a moralistic solution.
  • Transcript


Steven 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.