Can reason force us to want less cruelty and waste, or can we be saved only by a good heart and moral clarity? Two interlocutors debate the possibilities.

This is a talk that will make your day. It is worth listening to/watching for two reasons, firstly for the creative manner in which it has been presented by TEDtalks, and secondly for its content. A discussion between Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Steven Pinker titled “The Long Reach of Reason” begins with two figures in animation, Steven Pinker and Rebecca Goldstein, getting down from a taxi and walking into a restaurant. Every argument they put forward to defend or propose their contention is beautifully illustrated in black and white figures with humour standing by in attention.

Pinker wonders if reason is overrated. “Many pundits have argued that a good heart and steadfast moral clarity are superior to triangulations of overeducated policy wonks, like the best and brightest, and that dragged us into the quagmire of Vietnam. And wasn’t it reason that gave us the means to despoil the planet and threaten our species with weapons of mass destruction? In this way of thinking, it is character and conscience, not cold-hearted calculation, that will save us. Besides, a human being is not a brain on a stick. My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalise our gut feelings after the fact… can reason lead us in directions that are good or decent or moral? …reason is just a means to an end, and the end depends on the reasoner’s passions. Reason can lay out a road map to peace and harmony if the reasoner wants peace and harmony, but it can also lay out a road map to conflict and strife if the reasoner delights in conflict and strife. Can reason force the reasoner to want less cruelty and waste?” asks Pinker.

Goldstein responds by saying, “All on its own, the answer is no, but it doesn’t take much to switch it to yes. You need two conditions: The first is that reasoners all care about their own well-being. That’s one of the passions that has to be present in order for reason to go to work, and it’s obviously present in all of us. We all care passionately about our own well-being. The second condition is that reasoners are members of a community of reasoners who can affect one another’s well-being, can exchange messages, and comprehend each other’s reasoning. And that’s certainly true of our gregarious and loquatious species, well endowed with the instinct for language.”

Pinker refers to one of his earlier contentions that we are living in a more peaceful time in history. “Centuries ago, our ancestors would burn cats alive as a form of popular entertainment. Knights waged constant war on each other by trying to kill as many of each other’s peasants as possible. Governments executed people for frivolous reasons, like stealing a cabbage or criticising the royal garden. The executions were designed to be as prolonged and as painful as possible, like crucifixion, disembowelment, breaking on the wheel. Respectable people kept slaves. For all our flaws, we have abandoned these barbaric practices….though we still harbour instincts that can erupt violence like greed, tribalism, revenge, dominance, sadism…we also have instincts that can steer us away like self-control, empathy, a sense of fairness… our circle of empathy expanded. Years ago, our ancestors would feel the pain only of their family and people in their village. But with the expansion of literacy and travel, people started to sympathise with wider and wider circles, the clan, the tribe, the nation, the race, and perhaps eventually, all of humanity.”

Even though Pinker asserts that neurophysiologists have found neurons in the brain that respond to other people’s actions and so empathy has grown, Goldstein quotes Adam Smith to say we still care only about ourselves. How much do we cry about devastation in another part of the world? And with that she brings Pinker back to reason, saying it was reason that brought about awareness of rights which in turn led to the growth of empathy. She quotes Cesare Beccaria, an Italian jurist (1864) as having said that punishment should match the crime. Anything more is tyrannical. And there were thinkers like Erasmus who led public opinion against war. So any influential book/ song that influenced opinion has, says Goldstein, a long history of reasoners who developed the idea.

She wins the debate.

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