Can We Reason Our Way to a Better Morality?

In a 2012 TED talk, NYU professor Rebecca Goldstein, author of Plato at the Googleplex, sat down with her husband Harvard professor Steven Pinker for an interesting (and polarizing) conversation: Does pure reason eventually lead us to a better morality?

Goldstein argues yes; all progress is necessarily reason-based, and this should give us hope. Arguing against that fact would, indeed, require reasoning! Pinker, author of the controversial but well-received The Better Angels of our Nature, takes the devil’s advocate position (though clearly for rhetorical effect). Perhaps reason is overrated? Perhaps morality is indeed a matter of the heart?

The animated (literally) conversation is below. Here’s an interesting excerpt, and if you make it to the end, they also speculate on the things that we do today which may eventually be judged harshly by history.

Rebecca: Well, you didn’t mention what might be one of our most effective better angels: reason. Reason has muscle. It’s reason that provides the push to widen that circle of empathy. Every one of the humanitarian developments that you mentioned 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.

Steven: Are you saying that reason can actually change people’s minds? Don’t people just stick with whatever conviction serves their interests or conforms to the culture that they grew up in?

Rebecca: Here’s a fascinating fact about us: Contradictions bother us, at least when we’re forced to confront them, which is just another way of saying that we are susceptible to reason. And if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held. Their essay would go viral, get translated into many languages, get debated at pubs and coffee houses and salons, and at dinner parties, and influence leaders, legislators, popular opinion. Eventually their conclusions get absorbed into the common sense of decency, erasing the tracks of the original argument that had gotten us there. Few of us today feel any need to put forth a rigorous philosophical argument as to why slavery is wrong or public hangings or beating children. By now, these things just feel wrong. But just those arguments had to be made, and they were, in centuries past.


Still Interested? Check out Pinker on how to educate yourself properly and how to improve your professional writing.