Steven Pinker on the Muhammad bear: “Moral Judgments Can’t Be All That Universal”

Posted by Lazar, additional comments by RL

Steven Pinker, prominent experimental psychologist and author, has much to offer to the contemporary debate over the origin and nature of societies, especially regarding the West’s understanding of the Muslim world. Pinker wrote the feature article in last week’s The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Moral Instinct”. In it, he discusses the ethical impulses that evolution has endowed us with, and how they manifest themselves in day-to-day existence. But Pinker emphasizes that despite all the common moral traits among humans, major differences remain between cultures. He makes his point in a very direct and poignant fashion.

The moral sense, then, may be rooted in the design of the normal human brain. Yet for all the awe that may fill our minds when we reflect on an innate moral law within, the idea is at best incomplete. Consider this moral dilemma: A runaway trolley is about to kill a schoolteacher. You can divert the trolley onto a sidetrack, but the trolley would trip a switch sending a signal to a class of six-year-olds, giving them permission to name a teddy bear Muhammad. It is permissible to pull the lever?

This is no joke. Last month a British woman teaching in a private school in Sudan allowed her class to name a teddy bear after the most popular boy in the class, who bore the name of the founder of Islam. She was jailed for blasphemy and threatened with a public flogging, while a mob outside the prison demanded her death. To the protesters, the woman’s life clearly had less value than maximizing the dignity of their religion, and their judgment on whether it is right to divert the hypothetical trolley would have differed from ours. Whatever grammar guides people’s moral judgments, it can’t be all that universal.

By framing the situation so well and clearly, Pinker effectively emphasizes how different Muslim culture’s values are from those of the West.


Pinker’s discussion centers around the question of the evolutionary logic of altruism.

Fairness is very close to what scientists call reciprocal altruism, where a willingness to be nice to others can evolve as long as the favor helps the recipient more than it costs the giver and the recipient returns the favor when fortunes reverse. The analysis makes it sound as if reciprocal altruism comes out of a robotlike calculation, but in fact Robert Trivers, the biologist who devised the theory, argued that it is implemented in the brain as a suite of moral emotions. Sympathy prompts a person to offer the first favor, particularly to someone in need for whom it would go the furthest. Anger protects a person against cheaters who accept a favor without reciprocating, by impelling him to punish the ingrate or sever the relationship. Gratitude impels a beneficiary to reward those who helped him in the past. Guilt prompts a cheater in danger of being found out to repair the relationship by redressing the misdeed and advertising that he will behave better in the future (consistent with Mencken’s definition of conscience as “the inner voice which warns us that someone might be looking”). Many experiments on who helps whom, who likes whom, who punishes whom and who feels guilty about what have confirmed these predictions.

Menckens witty sarcasm gets at the core of the difference between guilt and shame. For him, guilt is just scrupulous shame, and in many cases that’s precisely right. All this discussion could use a more direct discussion of the difference between honor-shame and integrity-guilt precisely because some of the critical issues about what motivates people to “be altruistic” even when they won’t get any advantage have to do with whether “other people” know that you’ve been altruistic. Thus in honor-shame cultures, where what other people know and think is the primary concern, altruism is less likely to develop than in integrity-guilt ones in which internal concerns play significant roles.

But overall, reading Pinker, one gets the sense that awareness of “rule or be ruled” is not a major dimension of his approach. He takes into account the behavior of psychopaths, but considers them by and large genetic abnormalities. Primarily he is interested in “natural morality” as the search for positive-sum — i.e. rational — relations.

One is the prevalence of nonzero-sum games. In many arenas of life, two parties are objectively better off if they both act in a nonselfish way than if each of them acts selfishly. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children in danger and refrain from shooting at each other, compared with hoarding our surpluses while they rot, letting the other’s child drown while we file our nails or feuding like the Hatfields and McCoys. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one in which we both are unselfish. These spreadsheet projections are not quirks of brain wiring, nor are they dictated by a supernatural power; they are in the nature of things.

So positive-sum is hard-wired in nature? Strange, Eli Sagan, a psycho-historian, thinks domination is hard-wired, and the vast stretch of human political history agrees with Sagan. For Pinker, though, Sagan’s option is not really viable, except for a “galactic overlord.”

The other external support for morality is a feature of rationality itself: that it cannot depend on the egocentric vantage point of the reasoner. If I appeal to you to do anything that affects me — to get off my foot, or tell me the time or not run me over with your car — then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours (say, retaining my right to run you over with my car) if I want you to take me seriously. Unless I am Galactic Overlord, I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

One could not ask for a better example of the association of reason with positive-sum relations. Zero-sum domination is relegated to galactic fantasy. This is a more serious problem than mere oversight. What seems absent from the otherwise imposing scientific discussion are all those emotions — many of them “Darwinian” (like envy) — that drive us in the direction of the short-sighted by highly satisfying decisions that, by “rational” standards, are immoral. Indeed, in its own peculiar combination of extreme angelism with its “positive-sum” cognitive egocentrism and petty moral Schadenfreude, and its consequent politics of resentment, Europe may well be committing suicide.

Not coincidentally, the core of this idea — the interchangeability of perspectives — keeps reappearing in history’s best-thought-through moral philosophies, including the Golden Rule (itself discovered many times); Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity; the Social Contract of Hobbes, Rousseau and Locke; Kant’s Categorical Imperative; and Rawls’s Veil of Ignorance. It also underlies Peter Singer’s theory of the Expanding Circle — the optimistic proposal that our moral sense, though shaped by evolution to overvalue self, kin and clan, can propel us on a path of moral progress, as our reasoning forces us to generalize it to larger and larger circles of sentient beings.

These are all Western thinkers who secularize biblical morality (Hobbes is a secular Augustine; Kant, a secular pietist). Not coincidentally, the “golden rule” has been discovered time and time again, and it always runs into the stone wall of the “other” golden rule: “Do onto others before they do onto you.” The issue, it seems to me, is not whether you can squint your evolutionary eye and say, “in the long run, the former golden rule will win out sufficiently for society to survive.” On the contrary, the shift from prime divider to civil societies occurs when the former wins over the latter in by a critical mass, and pace Jared Diamond, that’s civil society is neither an evolutionary foregone conclusion, nor even a small probablility, but, in Sagan’s words, a virtual miracle. (Sagan is a secular humanist.)

At the very least, the science tells us that even when our adversaries’ agenda is most baffling, they may not be amoral psychopaths but in the throes of a moral mind-set that appears to them to be every bit as mandatory and universal as ours does to us. Of course, some adversaries really are psychopaths, and others are so poisoned by a punitive moralization that they are beyond the pale of reason… But in any conflict in which a meeting of the minds is not completely hopeless, a recognition that the other guy is acting from moral rather than venal reasons can be a first patch of common ground. One side can acknowledge the other’s concern for community or stability or fairness or dignity, even while arguing that some other value should trump it in that instance. With affirmative action, for example, the opponents can be seen as arguing from a sense of fairness, not racism, and the defenders can be seen as acting from a concern with community, not bureaucratic power. Liberals can ratify conservatives’ concern with families while noting that gay marriage is perfectly consistent with that concern.

This isn’t science, it’s empathy. And the problem with our empathy, and its desire to reach positive-sum solutions, is that people who are morally committed to zero-sum solutions — as in, [my interpretation of] Allah must rule mankind — can systematically exploit our good intentions and turn us into useful idiots. And when that zero-sum mentality is reinforced by a pervasive peer group that considers any dissent — even that which, seeing in the long-run, argues that this approach is ultimately self-destructive — shameful, indeed treasonous, then people will do incredibly nasty things in the name of “morality.” And my guess is that most of those who are the objects of this “morality” should not wait around for the evolutionary scales to readjust.

One of the (sad) keys to Israeli character is the expression “frier” — a sucker who plays by the rules and gets taken to the clearners as a result. As some speculate, it’s only the threat from the outside that gets Israelis to “rise above” this noxious social tic and engage in altruistic collective behavior. It’s as if only the worst brings out our best. As Starman says to Jenny, “Shall I tell you what I find beautiful about you? You are at your very best when things are worst.”

Let’s return to our “Muhammad Bear.” Why are there people ready to lynch this woman for naming her class teddy bear Muhammad, even when it was in reference to a kid in the class rather than the prophet Muhammad. In my reading this behavior comes from the following sources:

  • What Pinker refers to as authoritarianism — the importance of “top-down” imposition of “respect” for the sake of maintaining order. But that’s not enough. Even extreme authoritarianism, at a time of crisis, does not lead to this kind of extreme.
  • Honor-shame culture: the idea that it is legitimate to shed another’s blood for the sake of your own face… a fortiori, for the sake of your God’s face. [Note the element of idolatry.] Again, this is not sufficient. The explanation that this was about the name of one of the kids in the class should have sufficed here. Given the dhimmi behavior of the English woman, who certainly didn’t want to create a scene, the “macho” response should have been placated.
  • Bullying rage: the desire to bully others as an expression of frustration with how the world has humiliated you. This gets closer to the core of the problem. A lynch mob to kill a European Christian woman, no matter how sweet and well-intentioned, suggests a worrisome level of anger and bullying which uses the “honor-shame” authoritarian morality as an excuse.
  • That last point brings up more interesting issues. How much of the bullying is “learned” from the pathetically weak responses of the West to the kind of “enraged bullying” that accompanied previous, global events like the Muhammad Cartoon affair, the Kuran in the toilet, and the Pope’s criticism… all occuring on the world stage, all great victories for Islamic rage boy.

    It may be unfair of me to judge the “science of morality” on the basis of a popular article in the MSM. But it strikes me as heavily weighted to Western individualist thinking. And despite the nods in the direction of knowing who one is dealing with, the level of awareness of emotions and reciprocal relations — i.e., the impact of one person’s behavior on the other, not only aggression but concession — seems underdeveloped. Not something we can afford right now.

    9 Responses to Steven Pinker on the Muhammad bear: “Moral Judgments Can’t Be All That Universal”

    1. […] Augean Stables wrote an interesting post today on Steven Pinker on the Muhammad bear: âMoral Judgments Canât Be All That UniversalâHere’s a quick excerpt Steven Pinker, prominent experimental psychologist and author, has much to offer to the contemporary debate over the origin and nature of societies, especially regarding the West’s understanding of the Muslim world. Pinker wrote the feature article in last week’s The New York Times Magazine, entitled “The Moral Instinct”. In it, he discusses the ethical impulses that evolution has endowed us with, and how they manifest themselves in day-to-day existence. But Pinker emphasizes that despite all t […]

    2. fp says:

      i wonder if that does not have something to do with my comment in another thread that implied cultures may reach different stages of moral evolutions at different times and that a culture’s “different” ethics may signify a different moral evolution stage.

      this is particularly pertinent insofar as religion is concerned, because all major religions were invented in early stages of human history when our knowledge was minimal and, thus, any morality included in them would have been in an early evolutionary stage too. than differences in the centrality of religion in the culture could result in differences in advancement of knowledge and therefore differences in moral evolutionary advances.

      this is just a hypothesis — i can’t say I have evidence to prove it, i simply wonder if that would not be a possible perspective on the pinker argument.


    3. Eliyahu says:

      fp, I would argue that humanity has gone backwards in some important ways, since the fall of the Roman Empire –and even more so since the Arab-Muslim conquests. So evolution does not go in only one direction. How do you know that some ancient knowledge wasn’t lost in all those conquests by barbarians that surely meant loss or destruction of books, archives, technologies, etc?? Even on the technical-material level, we know that some places in the world are more “backward” today in some respects than 2000 years ago. For instance, Iraq –then called Babylonia or Mesopotamia in the West– had a wonderful irrigation system that made the areas reached by the system green, verdant, flourishing. Today, as we know, much of the area that was verdant & flourishing 2000 years ago is now desert. The Mongols destroyed the system during their conquest in the 13th century [as I recall from reading]. But why didn’t the Arabs repair or restore that system??? They had 700 years to do it in.

      As far as Islam is concerned, how can you be sure that they are going to evolve in a direction that rejects jihad and rejects the “justice” [as Muslims perceive it] of oppressing and humiliating non-Muslims??

    4. fp says:

      first, my comments were just speculation, as i don’t have specific evidence and knowledge on the subject.

      if my understanding of pinker is correct and humans are endowed with the propensities he refers to, then depending on history and environment some cultures will evolve and some will not. certain knowledge may be lost, which inhibits or slows down evolution for a while.

      as far as i can tell there is nothing in pinker’s theory to guarantee that evolution will be in a certain direction or that time alone will do it. my speculation was that some societies improve in a darwinian sense (survive, thrive, progress) and some don’t and that this probably depends on the interaction of genes with environment).

      for example, islamists reject much of western knowledge, thus inhibiting its culture from evolving on purpose. and the west is discarding knowledge and reason, thus slowing down evolution. if both societies continue down this path, their future won’t be pretty.

    5. fp says:

      I was reading a quite interesting book — GOD’S GOLD — an archeologist’s study of the fate of the Jerusalem’s temple treasure — when I came across this quote about Tunis after the vandals lost to islam:

      “the customs of the middle ages snd religious intolerance are the commanders who rule over an army as obstinate as it is orthodox….At the gate of the fortress the islam keeps watch and rejects every innovation, and every change of what has existed for centuries, with the consciousness of a prussian custom-house officer. emancipation of women, the press, machinery, free trade, social entertainment, theater, sport, dinners, evening parties–all stand outside this gate. — Ernest Hesse-Wartegg

      this is in fact what hitchens, one of the four horsemen in the videos i linked to, says it’s the biggest problem in islam: the quran is all there is and nothing more is necessary.

    6. Eliyahu says:

      I and others insist that Islam is really resistant to progress in many ways, of many kinds. In fact, Muslim-ruled lands have gone backwards. That’s my point.

    7. Rich Rostrom says:

      Between Sagan and Pinker: I think Pinker is right. Plus-sum thinking has become more and more widespread through history. The whole idea of Law as being above Interest is plus-sum thinking; in the formal doctrines of Islam, Law is celebrated. Arab culture is different in practice, but the ideal of impartial law is there. And I don’t believe a society can function without a general belief in Law. To the extent that Arab and Moslem societies have functioned successfully, Law has trumped Interest. When Interest wholly trumps Law, everything breaks down – as in Palestine today, as in much of Africa.

    8. Fat Man says:

      Pinker is arguing from the premise that the brain is has biologically determined artibutes. Neuroscience has demonstrated that Pinker’s viewpoint is not correct. The human brain changes through growth and development. I don’t think that anyone claims it is perfectly plastic, but they have demonstrated that it is not fixed.

      The problem with Pinker’s line of argument is that it cannot prove anything outside of our culture. The human brain begins life as a highly interconnected network of neurons. As children turn into adults, connections are pruned and new ones are established. That is the biological corollary to learning. By the time men are old enough to have established moral and ethical judgments, often in their mid-20s, they have re-programed their brains with their culture. Looking at neural activity in an adult cannot tell you what is innate and what is learned.

      One of the oldest problems in philosophy is the attempt to establish a basis for morality that is objective and accessible to human reason without divine intervention. Philosophers from Plato to Kant and on to Pinker have tried to find it. I do not think they have made their case. Plato, at least, had the good grace to confess his failure in the Republic, see Book X page 614, the Story of Er. Kant, OTOH, blustered when Benjamin Constant called him out.

      Pinker and other seekers of a biological basis for morality are bound to be disappointed. There is no morality in biology only appetite.

      Is there a moral order in the universe? I think so. Can it be found by bare reason? I do not think so.

    9. fp says:


      do i take it that sharia law and western law are the same — general belief in them will have the same consequences?

      fat man,

      that’s the old argument of genes vs. environmentand the truth is probably a combination of both which is extremely complex and probably itself changing over time. it’s also probable that both the genetic and cultural components have been and are targets of natural selection. the complexity is beyond human understanding, at least for now.

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