Saturday, January 12, 2008

Speaking of Values....

Harvard Psychology Professor and author Steven Pinker has a New York Times Magazine story about the biological origins of morality. Talk about heavy reading. I note this article for two reasons. One it seems to be an appropriate follow on to the recent posts about values. Since values reflect a "moral" position or sense of priority at least. The other is this closing quote:

And nowhere is moralization more of a hazard than in our greatest global challenge. The threat of human-induced climate change has become the occasion for a moralistic revival meeting. In many discussions, the cause of climate change is overindulgence (too many S.U.V.’s) and defilement (sullying the atmosphere), and the solution is temperance (conservation) and expiation (buying carbon offset coupons). Yet the experts agree that these numbers don’t add up: even if every last American became conscientious about his or her carbon emissions, the effects on climate change would be trifling, if for no other reason than that two billion Indians and Chinese are unlikely to copy our born-again abstemiousness. Though voluntary conservation may be one wedge in an effective carbon-reduction pie, the other wedges will have to be morally boring, like a carbon tax and new energy technologies, or even taboo, like nuclear power and deliberate manipulation of the ocean and atmosphere. Our habit of moralizing problems, merging them with intuitions of purity and contamination, and resting content when we feel the right feelings, can get in the way of doing the right thing.

Far from debunking morality, then, the science of the moral sense can advance it, by allowing us to see through the illusions that evolution and culture have saddled us with and to focus on goals we can share and defend. As Anton Chekhov wrote, “Man will become better when you show him what he is like.”

It begs the question that changes have to go beyond conscious decision, but unconscious as well. As much as I have been beating up my co-workers for their paper cup affections a more drastic solution may have to happen. A friend of mine's husband work at a firm where the kitchen has no disposable cups, just washable mugs. People don't complain they just use it as the default position. But as Pinker says, that just might be boring.


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