Reason vs. compassion: Rebecca Newberger Goldstein and Steven Pinker at TED2012

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Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Steven Pinker  is a linguist and psychologist. Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a philosopher and novelist. The pair are also married, and they have taken to the TED stage, in front of a dinner table with several luminaries, to have a very public argument, or, in their rather more academic terms, a Socratic dialogue. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: Reason appears to have fallen on hard times. Popular culture plumbs new depths of dumb; political discourse has become a race to the bottom. We live in an era of scientific creationism, 9/11 conspiracy theories, psychic hotlines and an insurgence of religious fundamentalism. People who think too well are often accused of elitism. Even in the academy there are attacks on logocentrism, the crime of letting logic dominate our thinking.

Steven Pinker: Is this necessarily a bad thing? Maybe reason is over-rated? Maybe it’s dominated by overeducated policy wonks, like the best and brightest who dragged us into the quagmire of Vietnam. They threatened our way of living with weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps compassion and conscience, not a whole-hearted calculation, will save us. My fellow psychologists have shown we live by our bodies and emotions; they use a teeny power of reason to rationalize feelings after the fact. Wasn’t it no less a thinker than your fellow philosopher, David Hume, who famously wrote: “reason is, and ought to be, only the slave of the passions?” Perhaps  if irrationality is inevitable, we should lie back and enjoy it?

RNG: Alas, poor Hume. He implied no such thing. How could a reasoned argument logically entail the ineffectiveness of reasoned arguments. You’re trying to persuade us of reason’s impotence. You’re not threatening us or bribing us asking us to resolve the issue with a beauty contest or a show of hands. By the act of trying to reason us into your position, you’re conceding reason’s potency. Reason isn’t up for grabs here. It can’t be.

SP: But can reason lead us in directions that are good or decent or moral? You pointed out that reason is a means to the end and the end depends on the reasoners’ passions. Can reason lead to peace and harmony if the reasoner wants peace and harmony just as reason can lay out a roadmap to conflict and strife? Can reason force a reasoner to want less cruelty and waste?

RNG: On its own, the answer is no. But it doesn’t take much to switch it to yes. You need two conditions: firstly, that reasoners all care about their own well-being, and secondly that we are members of a community of reasoners who can affect people’s messages and reasoning. That is certainly true of our gregarious and loquacious species. Combine self-interest and socialism with reason and you arrive a morality that requires you to take others’ interests into account. Suppose I say “please get off my foot” or “don’t stab me with a steak knife because you are curious to see how I’ll react.” My appeal to you can’t privilege my wellbeing over yours if I want you to take me seriously. I can’t say my well-being matters because I’m me and you’re not. Any more than I can persuade you that the spot I stand on is always somehow special because wherever I stand I get to say “I’m here and everyone else is there.” You’d be very quick to point out the inconsistency, not to speak of the lunacy of my position. You could counter with the same argument, only substituting yourself for me. There is complete parity: logical and moral.

SP: That sounds good in theory, but it hasn’t worked that way in practice. In particular, the momentous historical development: we seem to be getting more humane. Centuries ago, our ancestors burnt cats alive, knights waged war on each other by trying to kill as many peasants as possible. Governments killed people for frivolous reasons, like stealing a cabbage. Executions were designed to be prolonged and painful as possible: crucifixion, disembowlment, on the wheel. Respectable people kept slaves. For all of our flaws, we have lost these practices.

RNG: So human nature has changed?

SP: Not exactly. We still harbor instincts that can erupt in violence like greed, tribalism, sadism,m but we have instincts that steer ourselves away: we also have empathy, fairness, what Abraham Lincoln referred to as the “better angels of our nature.” Our circle of empathy has expanded. Years ago, we used to empathize with blood relations and a small circle of allies. With expansion of literacy and travel, that’s expanded to include race, nation, perhaps eventually all humanity.

RNG: Can hard-headed scientists really give so much credit to soft-hearted empathy?

SP: They can and they do. Empathy emerges early in life, perhaps before the age of one. And books on empathy have become best sellers, like The Age of Empathy.

RNG: I’m all for empathy. Who isn’t? But all on its own, it’s a feeble instrument for making moral progress. For one thing it’s innately biased toward blood relation, toward babies or warm fuzzy animals. Outsiders can go to hell. Even our best efforts to remain connected with others fall miserably short, a sad truth of human nature. Take Adam Smith, who wrote: “if he was to lose his little finger tomorrow, he would not sleep tonight; but provided he never saw them, he would snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred million of his brethren.”

SP: So if empathy wasn’t enough to make us more humane, what else was there?

RNG: One of our most effective better angels might be reason. Reason has muscle. Reason provides the push to widen that circle of empathy. Every one of the humanitarian developments you mention originated with thinkers who gave reasons for why some practice was indefensible. They demonstrated that the way people treated some particular group of others was logically inconsistent with the way they insisted on being treated themselves.

SP: Are you saying reason can actually change people’s minds? Don’t people stick with the convictions that serve their interests or conforms to the cultures they grew up in?

RNG: Here’s an fascinating fact: contradictions bother us. At least, when we are forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying we are susceptible to reason. Look at the history of moral progress; trace a direct pathway to changing the way we actually feel. Time and again, people lay out an argument as to why some practice is indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held. The essay would go viral, be translated into many languages, get debated at pubs, coffee houses, at salons and dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency. Few of us today feel the need to put forth rigorous philosophical argument about why slavery is wrong, or public hangings or beating children. By now these things feel wrong. But just those arguments had to be made, and they were, in centuries past.

SP: Are you saying that people needed a step by step argument to know why there was something a wee bit wrong with burning heretics at the stake?

RNG: Oh, they did. The Frenchman Sebastian Castellio wrote precisely on this topic.

SP: And of cruel and unusual punishment like breaking people on the wheel?

RNG: Look at a pamphlet circulated in 1764 by the Italian jurist, Cesare Beccaria: “That a punishment may produce the effect required, it is sufficient that the evil it occasions should exceed the good expected from the crime.”

SP: But surely anti-war movements depended on demonstrations and catchy tunes by folk artists and wrenching photographs of the human costs of war?

RNG: No doubt, but modern anti-war movements reach back to a long chain of thinkers who had argued as to why we ought to mobilize our emotions against war.

SP: But everyone knows the abolition of slavery depended on faith and emotion, and was driven by Quakers. It only became popular when Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a best-seller.

RNG: Yes, but the ball got rolling a century before. John Locke bucked the tide of millennia that had regarded slavery as perfectly natural. He argued that it was inconsistent with principles of rational government.

SP: Sounds familiar. Where have I heard this before? Oh yes, Mary Astell extended this plight to women and the family.

RNG: The logic is the same. Once that’s hammered home it becomes increasingly uncomfortable to ignore the inconsistency. Look at the 1960s, with civil rights, gay rights, children’s right, even animal rights. But fully two centuries before the enlightened thinker Jeremy Bentham had exposed the sensibility of insensible practices such as cruelty to animals and the persecution of homosexuals.

SP: Still, in every case it took at least a century for the arguments of these great thinkers to trickle down to the population as a whole. Could there be practices we take for granted where the argument is against us for all to see but nonetheless we persist in them?

RNG: You mean, will our great grandchildren be as appalled by some of our practices as we are by slave owning heretic burning gay-bashing ancestors?

SP: I’m sure everyone here could think of an example. The imprisonment of non violent drug offenders or tolerance of rape in prisons? The possession of nuclear weapons?

RNG: The appeal to religion to justify the unjustifiable such as the ban on contraception?

SP: What about religious faith in general? So, I have been convinced that reason is the better angel that holds the greatest hope for the moral progress our species will enjoy and holds out the greatest hope for the future.

RNG: And if there’s a flaw in our argument, you’ll be depending on reason to point it out.

That ended the talk, but the discussion then moved back to the dinner table. Chris Anderson invited the participants to ask questions.

Stewart Brand: Now what? This removes the tragic theory of history from the stage of history. That is an astounding thing to do?

SP: To the extent that history is driven by ideas, the ideas are changing. The debate over gay marriage is raging, but it used to be whether it was legal at all. We often forget the progress that’s been made.

Stewart Brand: Is that progress irreversible?

SP: No, there can be unexpected surprises, but that is the drift. Even though some parts of the world are behind the curve, they get caught up. My favorite example is the abolition of slavery.

Seth Godin: Mass movements involve lots and lots of people. But reason isn’t interpreted in the same way by all people at all times. A lot of what goes into a mass movement doesn’t have much to do with the idea at the center, but with the perception of what our neighbors think, and things like that. Is reason really the driving force?

RNG: I have a great deal of confidence in people’s reason. When those arguments are out there it penetrates. It takes a long time. It’s fascinating what’s happening with animals. You can see the ideas moving, people are becoming more accepting of vegetarians and vegans.

Seth Godin: But none of that has to do with reason.

Chris Anderson: My impression was that the argument is that reason is the slow burn that wins the day. It’s not the only part of the story. Is there another question?

Ken Robinson: Slavery is illegal now, but there are more people in slavery than any time in history. (The audience applauds, in recognition that it’s an important topic to discuss.)

SP: Percentagewise it’s at an all-time low.

Ken Robinson: But if you’re one of them. Now, there wasn’t much talk about religion, which is often seen as a place where emotion and compassion come together. There was a debate recently between Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury (so not very enlightening), and the Archbishop at the end admitted that some other animals may have souls. The headline read: “Monkeys may have souls, says primate.”

Chris Anderson: And that’s why you invite Sir Ken to dinner.