Steven Pinker: Morality arises from shared perspectives, not faith

From a talk by the Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, given at Jewish Book Week, in London
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The Independent Online

Over the course of history one can see a sense of sympathy or empathy, which formerly was restricted to one's own clan, being expanded to larger and larger groups, most recently all of humanity. So how can that happen?

Over the course of history one can see a sense of sympathy or empathy, which formerly was restricted to one's own clan, being expanded to larger and larger groups, most recently all of humanity. So how can that happen?

I am not sure that one can point to religion as the force that propels the circle outward. There is a certain inexorable logic to the expanding circle. Namely, that as soon as you begin to do moral reasoning, as soon as you have to persuade other people that there are certain ways they ought to behave, you can't not treat them as equivalent in interest to yourself.

Since there is no logical defence of egoism once you are engaged with other people, it becomes impossible to maintain that blacks ought to be slaves but whites shouldn't, that women should be disenfranchised but men shouldn't, and so on. So part is just the inherent nature of the idea of morality as some kind of rising from your own parochial perspective and taking the universalist position. Once you start that, it inexorably expands outward.

Regarding religion: unlike the interchangeability of perspectives, which is a kind of intellectual endpoint that reason itself forces you toward, faith by definition would be the belief in something for which you had no reason to believe it. That is inherently non-universalist, because there is no compelling reason for people born in different times and places to arrive at the same faith.

The faith you acquire from your peers, from your elders, is naturally going to be different from the faith someone else acquires from their accumulated community traditions. So, unlike reason itself, faith could be a divisive force. And, of course, historically we do not need to be reminded of the ubiquity of sectarian religious strife.

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