In his 2002 book The Blank Slate: The Modern denial of Human Nature, Pinker describes the ways scientists betrayed the values of science to maintain loyalty to the progressive movement. Scientists became “moral exhibitionists” in the lecture hall as they demonized fellow scientists and urged their students to evaluate ideas not for their truth but for their consistency with progressive ideals such as racial and gender equality.

Nowhere was the betrayal of science more evident than in the attacks on Edward O. Wilson, a lifelong student of ants and ecosystems.

It seemed clear to Wilson that what rationalists were really doing was generating clever justifications for moral intuitions that were better explained by evolution. Do people believe in human rights because human rights actually exist, like mathematical truths, sitting on a cosmic shelf next to the Pythagorean theorem just waiting to be discovered by Platonic reasoners? Or do people feel revulsion and sympathy when they read accounts of torture, and then invent a story about universal rights to help justify their feelings?

In the dog story (one of the questions asked in Haidt’s research, where responders told him what they felt about a family eating a pet that had died in an accident), for example, many people said that the family itself would be harmed because they would get sick from eating dog meat. Was this an example of “informational assumptions” that Turiel had talked about? Were people really condemning the actions because they foresaw these harms, or was it the reverse process—were people inventing these harms because they had already condemned the actions?

They said things like “I know it’s wrong, but I just can’t think of a reason why.” They seemed to be morally dumbfounded—rendered speechless by their inability to explain verbally what they knew intuitively.

These subjects were reasoning. They were working quite hard at reasoning. But it was not reasoning in search of truth; it was reasoning in support of their emotional reactions. It was reasoning as described by the philosopher David Hume, who wrote in 1739 that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

If morality doesn’t come primarily from reasoning, then that leaves some combination of innateness and social learning as the most likely candidates…We’re born to be righteous, but we have to learn what, exactly, people like us should be righteous about.

The Azande (Sudanese tribe) believed that witches were just as likely to be men as women, and the fear of being called a witch made the Azande careful not to make their neighbours angry or envious. That was my first hint that groups create supernatural beings not to explain the universe but to order their societies.


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