Everything on the Topic of Suffering

2008 January 14

Suffering and the new science of the moral sense

Filed under: Uncategorized — robertdaoust @ 10:47 pm

Quotations in italics below are from The Moral Instinct, an article by Steven Pinker in the New-York Times of January 13 2008.

Which of the following people would you say is the most admirable: Mother Teresa, Bill Gates or Norman Borlaug? (…) Borlaug, father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history. Gates, in deciding what to do with his fortune, crunched the numbers and determined that he could alleviate the most misery by fighting everyday scourges in the developing world like malaria, diarrhea and parasites. Mother Teresa, for her part, extolled the virtue of suffering and ran her well-financed missions accordingly: their sick patrons were offered plenty of prayer but harsh conditions, few analgesics and dangerously primitive medical care.


(…) our heads can be turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish.

Well, we might wonder endlessly whether Borlaug has made more bad than good by contributing to an overpopulation that could precipitate an end of our world that would bring us back again to slow painful Darwinian evolution for millions of years… Some critics have also questioned the wisdom of Gates’ solutions… As far as we can tell for sure, you who are reading could as well be the savior of the world just because you moved your chair an inch closer to the screen. But let us remain probabilistically sensible, and let us receive gratefully the author’s thesis.  

What strikes me in this article, to my delight, is that Pinker seems to speak of suffering as the ultimate yardstick to judge whether something is moral or not. For instance:

A disrespect for morality is blamed for everyday sins and history’s worst atrocities.

On the other hand,

(…) people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished. Not only is it allowable to inflict pain on a person who has broken a moral rule; it is wrong not to, to ‘let them get away with it.’ People are thus untroubled in inviting divine retribution or the power of the state to harm other people they deem immoral. Bertrand Russell wrote, “The infliction of cruelty with a good conscience is a delight to moralists — that is why they invented hell.”

As a conclusion, with which I concur wholeheartedly:

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.”

I’d like to add that if it is true that

The human moral sense turns out to be an organ of considerable complexity, with quirks that reflect its evolutionary history and its neurobiological foundations. These quirks are bound to have implications for the human predicament.

then how much more important is an approach like that of algonomy which addresses directly the ultimate core of all predicaments and the touchstone of morality, that is to say suffering itself.

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