The science of morality: a layperson’s primer

The New York Times Magazine has published a basic overview of the science/psychology of morality: The Moral Instinct (13 Jan 2008). It’s interesting to note that this article topped the “Most emailed” charts for a while.

The article is by Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard. In it, Pinker draws heavily on Jonathan Haidt’s taxonomy of five major spheres of moral intuition: harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity. Pinker adds that two of these — fairness and community — form the building blocks of altruism. Perhaps they encircle what many of us mean colloquially when we talk about “morality,” especially as something that needs to be “inculcated.” Or perhaps each sphere can reach a level of refinement that requires social and not just genetic transmission: what we mean by harm, for example, changes quite a bit based on the cultural and legal norms. (Pinker notes that Western liberals put a premium on the spheres of harm and fairness, while others put the emphasis elsewhere).

The article also touches on two potentially universal themes that we’ve hit upon as well in our discussions about morality in games (and the lack of sophistication therein): non-zero-sum games, and interchangeability of perspectives (the opposite of our natural tendency towards self-sanctification).

Most importantly to me, Pinker hits on my core concern about the intersection of morality and our postmodern, globalized condition: that our genetically-endowed sense of morality may not be adequate to the task of, for example, global warming. He starts the article by posing Mother Theresa, Bill Gates, and Norman Borlaug as moral figures and our instinctive bias that Mother Theresa is, among these, the most saintly. Yet in practice the other two (arguably) have / are doing more to change the actual world we live in for the better. (He’s addressing Bill Gates’ philanthropy here, not business).

So essentially the science of morality opens not not the problem of free will, but how we can learn, identify, and ultimately overcome the limits that a biologically-based morality has set. And in that endeavor, I do believe games have a role to play in at least two different ways: (1) they may be able to teach us to deploy systems-thinking, to borrow Eric Zimmerman’s phraseology, in the service of moral advancement (I alluded to this idea elsewhere); or (2) they may teach us new ways of creating user interfaces to systems that align our bio-morality with a systems-morality.

– Gene Koo

One thought on “The science of morality: a layperson’s primer

  1. Interesting topic, needs more in-depth handling, will keep monitoring this especially these days which anything goes.



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