Steven Pinker On Morality

Steven Pinker on Morality

According to Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, morality comes from our ability to reason and our need to cooperate together. Without interactions and dependence on other human beings, we wouldn’t have a sense of morals. We would only have our individual self-interest. However, humans live in complex social groups within complex social communities and we have to live and work together for survival and general life satisfaction. As Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue in The Elephant in the Brain, social and political tribes drove the evolution and need for large rational brains, which Pinker argues allow us to reason from a point of mutual unselfishness, ultimately creating our ideas of morality.
 
 
To demonstrate, Pinker writes, “if I appeal to you to do something that affects me – to get off my foot, or not stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning – then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours.” All humans are self-interested, which conflicts with our social lives. We all want to act in our own self-interested ways, but we have to cooperate with others and work with others to get what we desire or need for survival. Therefore, you must demonstrate that your interests go beyond simply your own self-interest in order to get people to respect you, respect your interests, and to cooperate with you. Pinker continues, “I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not.” To work together we have to find ways in which our interests align. I may have to pay you to do some physical effort that I don’t want to do. I may have to agree to respect your property if I want you to respect my property. I may have to give up some level of individual rights if I don’t want you to abridge liberties of mine. “Mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests,” Pinker writes.
 
 
What Pinker argues, flowing from this discussion of mutual unselfishness, self-interests, and social cooperation, is that our morals are not given to us by a supernatural power and that our morals do not exist separate from humans. Morals are created through human rationality and through our ability to recognize that we have individual feelings and preferences, and therefore other people who are like us probably have the same capacity for all the feelings, emotions, preferences, and desires that we have. Our morals exist because we have to work together, to interact in social groups and organizations, and to rely upon institutions to order our relationships and collective efforts.
 
 
Pinker writes, “Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.” By interchangeability of perspectives Pinker is referring to the human ability to consider that other people have thoughts and feelings and the human ability to imagine or adopt other perspectives. Positive-sum games are situations where everyone is made better through cooperation. By all working together and combining inert pieces of material, we can create a house which which shelter us, keep us warm in the winter and shaded in the summer, and will give us a place to meet and hang out. The total value of the house is greater than the individual value of each component piece. Much of our world is structured around positive-sum interactions that occur when we cooperate through mutual unselfishness. Our morals derive from our ability to reason and help us harness these positive-sum moments. But it all comes back to our desire to pursue our own self interests while having to compromise as part of a larger social group.
Flourishing In Positive-Sum Games

Flourishing In Positive-Sum Games

“A zero-sum game … leaves predation as the only way people could add to their wealth,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. One argument that Pinker makes in his book is that humans are social creatures because cooperation and living in a group creates more positive-sum scenarios for humans as opposed to zero-sum situations. Basically, when you have a group of people, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The collective abilities of people is greater than you might expect if you evaluated all the people and their individual skills on their own.
 
 
Pinker explains it this way, “a positive-sum game is a scenario in which agents have choices that can improve the lots of both of them at the same time.” If I am not very good at sewing, but have an excess of corn, and you are good at sewing but need food, we can engage in a trade where both of us win. I get new warm clothes for the winter, and you get food to survive the winter. We both are better off, but I now have warm food and can be productive outside by planting winter vegetables and you now have food and can continue to produce more warm clothes. The value we provided to the group we are a part of is greater than the clothes you sewed for me and the corn I gave to you.
 
 
Positive-sum games are much more complicated than the little example I just shared and are more common than we might think. We tend to simplify the world when we think about relationships between people and we often fall back on binary ways of thinking. We see the world as zero-sum because it is easier than seeing the complexities of the positive sum situations of our social world. In simplifid ways of thinking, people are either good or bad, you either win or lose, I either survive or a I die. The reality, of course, is that we don’t actually face a lot of zero-sum situations like these in our day to day lives.
 
 
“A key insight of evolutionary psychology,” Pinker continues, “is that human cooperation and the social emotions that support it, such as sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, and anger, were selected because they allow people to flourish in positive-sum games.” We are evolved for positive-sum games as social creatures. We are not evolved for zero-sum games as isolated individuals. We work together as teams, share surpluses, and work toward shared goals because most of our social interactions are positive-sum. Most of the day to day interactions we go through make the world better for everyone when we follow pro-social norms. We flourish in positive-sum games, and we often don’t even recognize how much of our lives are guided by such positive-sum moments.

Limitations of Money: Market Outsiders and Impersonal Systems

Something I have noticed in my own life recently is that I am less patient and less personable with random strangers in stores. My wife and I do most of our grocery shopping on the weekends, but typically each week we have a meal planned that will turn out much better if I pick up a single ingredient the day we cook that meal rather than four or five days ahead of time during our weekend shopping. This means that usually at least once a week (more if I forgot an important item) I am running to the store after work. During these trips I’m usually in a little hurry to pick up what I need, get through the afternoon rush hour traffic quickly, and make my way through the store and everyone else who is at the store after work to get home and start cooking. I know what I want at the store, where it is in the store, and I’m not really interested in chatting with a random person who I may never see again about the weather, local sports, or some peculiarity of the grocery store. Sometimes I feel bad about it, but I just don’t feel like engaging in personal chit-chat with the grocery store employees or other shoppers. I’m simply on a cold and heartless shopping mission.

My story reflects one of the limitations of money and markets. It enables trust between people and helps organize and order our lives, but it doesn’t really build community or relationships between people. This heartless impartiality of money is a fair critique and it is one of two primary critiques that Yuval Noah Harari presents against money in his book Sapiens. Harari isn’t denouncing money, but he is demonstrating that money and economics are an insufficient explanation for human global expansion and dominance. Humans live as a globally connected species, forming relationships and connections with people from Alaska to Japan to South Africa to England and back again. Money and modern economies helped us forge this global path, but there are things within the human experience that lie beyond the reach of money and the markets that currencies enable. To explain how we got to where we are today, we have to consider economics, but also look beyond money.

“Human communities and families,” Harari writes, “have always been based on beliefs in priceless things, such as honor, loyalty, morality, and love. These things lie outside the domain of the market.” There are certain things we cannot buy and sell, or at least if we do, we are aware that they are not exactly genuine. Purchasing honor, love, or loyalty is more like a quid pro quo rental agreement. I provide you with certain financial incentives and you signal a certain amount of honor, love, or loyalty back toward me. Like modern college football coaches, as soon as a better financial opportunity comes along, all the rhetoric around such values is out the window and all those values are instantly transferred to someone else. Humans don’t cooperate on large scales and build massive societies and institutions simply because someone payed a lot of people to do so. Something more intangible to human existence is necessary.

Markets and money don’t seem to be able to reach those intangibles. Money fosters cooperation and trust between people, but doesn’t necessarily get people to connect and relate to one an other or feel any sense of mutual respect and geniality between one another. My grocery store example demonstrates this. The store trusts that my plastic card will transfer sufficient digital numbers to the store in exchange for the steak that I am taking with me. But I don’t have any real loyalty or good will toward the store and it’s employees. Harari continues, “for although money builds universal trust between strangers, this trust is invested not in humans, communities, or sacred values, but in the money itself and in the impersonal systems that back it. We do not trust the stranger, or the next-door neighbor, we trust the coin they hold. If they run out of coins, we run out of trust.”

Money can break down barriers between groups of people. It can facility trade, cultural sharing, knowledge spread, and tolerance. But it isn’t enough for humans to be a globally peaceful and cooperative species. Money is off limits in some domains, as there are certain things that lie outside the realm of markets. Money doesn’t build meaningful relationships between people in a way that forms long lasting and deep trust and engagement between people. It seems to have been necessary for human global dominance, but insufficient to explain exactly how we have arrived at the modern world we inhabit today.

Money is the Root of all Large Scale Social Cooperation

Money is the Root of all Large Scale Social Cooperation

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “for thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance.” Calling money evil is shortsighted. Even saying the pursuit of money is evil is shortsighted. The reality is that humans evolved in small tribal groups where mates were not evenly distributed. Social status and power were important factors in who was able to mate and pass their genes along to the next generation. For ancient hunter-gatherer tribes this often meant that the most physically dominant, the most well connected socially, or those who rose to the highest social status by other means became the person to pass their genes along. The key was accumulating social status and demonstrating status so that everyone knew about it. We can do that today with money, but we can also accumulate wealth, power, and prestige and signal those things through means other than money. Harari calls this out in his book and suggests that money has actually had much more important values throughout the human experience than just serving as the root of all evil as men try to compete for status and power.

Harari continues, “money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation.” Money enables human trust and cooperation at a grand scale. As Joseph Henrich explains in The WEIRDest People in the World, human tribes broke away from family, clan, and guild centric groups in part through trust that money could build across groups. There was of course much more to the story, but currencies enabled cooperation, trust, and coordination among humans at a large scale, something that other institutions had difficulty accomplishing.

Today people complain about companies and corporations pandering to certain groups or messaging and marketing their goods and services in ways that reinforce what is often called identity politics. The reality is that businesses need to be profitable to survive, and that means they need to convince people to purchase their products and services or shop in their stores. Money and currencies can flow between people of differing demographics and ideologies, allowing for cooperation where none would exist before. Messaging and signaling to people that they should spend their money in a certain way is not an evil, but is a demonstration of tolerance and acceptance. Rather than an evil, money and currency pushes a more accepting stance, even if that means that companies are slow to denounce clearly objectionable people and beliefs and slow to push for needed reforms and innovations. I think it is fair to argue that has more of a moderating effect, limiting the extreme and irrational rejection of some groups in an attempt to sell to the general middle or in a willingness to lose the fringes to remain more in the middle of opinions and beliefs generally. In the end, money, as corporations demonstrate, builds more trust and cooperation among people with different identities and ideologies than would otherwise exist.

Ultimately, money is the root of all large scale cooperation, but not necessarily the root of all evil. It is a neutral tool that has encouraged less discriminatory and biased stances at the same time that is has been a means for signaling dominance and status. Without money we likely couldn’t exist as a global species that interacts and cooperates peacefully a majority of the time.

There is no Escape from Imagined Orders

There is No Escape from Imagined Orders

In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that humans are forever trapped in imagined orders. Whether it is the American Dollar, human rights, or nations, we are trapped within agreed upon institutions for organizing our lives. The reason we are stuck with the imagined orders we have created is because they are what enable billions of humans to cooperate and interact without dissolving into lawless violence. What exists in a single person’s head is combined with what exists in the minds of others to form real institutions, practices, and patterns that shape our interactions and understandings of the world. Our imagined orders are social constructs, and they cannot be eliminated – they can only be replaced.
 
 
“In order to change an existing imagined order,” writes Harari, “we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.” Harari’s quote is not completely accurate. We can dismantle an imagined order without replacing it through lawless chaos, but it is unlikely that a state of lawless chaos will remain for long. In order to get many humans to cooperate together, especially to commit violence and destruction which is likely not in their own best interest, you often need some sort of imagined order to serve as the motivating impetus for the violence and destruction. You might get a sufficient number of people to riot and burn the system down without really knowing what will replace it, but eventually, a new imagined order will take over. More common, however, is the situation Harari explains, that one imagined order is slowly replaced by another.
 
 
“There is no way out of the imagined order,” writes Harari. Escaping one imagined order simply leads to a new imagined order. The divine right of kings was dismantled and replaced by ideas of human rights, which encouraged and supported the development of representative democracies. Imagined orders exist together and can build upon one another, but they cannot be escaped altogether. One way or another, for humans to live and cooperate together, we need large-scale imagined orders which prescribe and  proscribe certain behaviors, responses, and relationships across the billions of people living on earth.
Imagined Orders

Imagined Orders

Humans evolved from small social tribes that ranged from roughly a dozen individuals to tribes upward of 3 or 4 dozen individuals. From that very basic starting place as a species, social groups and tribes grew to be possibly as large as 250 individuals until eventually humans began to cultivate crops, live in a single place, and form larger communities. Much of our modern psychology as humans seems to still be connected back to these early days when humans lived in small tribes or small communities. This historical time stamp in our psychology creates a lot of challenges for living in large technologically advanced societies.
 
 
Our societies today are held together by what Yuval Noah Harari calls imagined orders in his book Sapiens. Imagined orders are ideas, concepts, and constructs that we as a society agree to. They anchor the institutions we build, the interactions we have as individuals and groups, and how we organize our social world. Without them, we would be in chaos and wouldn’t be able to cooperate on a global scale, or even a national, regional, or local scale. Indeed, I think Harari would argue, we couldn’t live together in social groups of any size if we could not coalesce around imagined orders.
 
 
Some primates are able to live in relatively large social groups with some level of complex political and social interactions, but physical force and violence often play a role in how order is maintained. Consequently, that is a limiting factor for how large a social group or tribe can become. Our early human ancestors solved this problem by inventing imagined orders. Early religions and social practices allowed groups and tribes to adopt customs and beliefs that everyone could (more or less) agree to. This set the foundation for human institutions to order life without resulting to violence (at least not all the time). As far as we have come in terms of technology and our knowledge about ourselves and our universe, we still rely on imagined orders to keep our society in order without resulting to violence and genocide.
 
 
When writing about imagined orders and using the concept of human rights as an example, Harari writes, “we believe in a particular order not because it is objectively true, but because believing in it enables us to cooperate effectively and forge a better society.” Whether the order we believe in is the Divine Right of Kings, human rights, capitalism, or whatever you want to call the economic and political system of modern China, there is no objective truth and reality at the heart of the system. There are ideas and concepts that are intuitive, that are agreeable to some extent of the population over a certain range of circumstances, and that help people live and cooperate within a society. Without imagined orders we wouldn’t be able to trust strangers, wouldn’t be able to coordinate actions, and wouldn’t be able to exist in complex societies. Imagined orders help us construct a world where we can live together in a mostly peaceful and cooperative manner. We can change what we believe and why over time, but we need to have some agreed upon and (mostly) accepted imagined order around which we can organize ourselves and our societies.
Political Myths

Political Myths

Throughout the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari argues that modern humans are able to cooperate and live in large societies because we share common myths. There are certain institutions which we have developed based on little more than myths that smooth our interactions with others, allow us to follow basic norms, and create a shared understanding of the world. This allows us to buy food from people we have never met, to bestow authority on others, and to coordinate movements over vast distances. But at the heart of our system is myth.
 
 
Harari demonstrates this through the political thought of the United States, specifically looking at the founding texts of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. Harari compares the founding principals of the United States to the principals of Hammurabi, an early human political leader thousands of years before the United States existed. Demonstrating political myths and their roles in unifying people and creating institutions within society, Harari writes:
 
 
“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principals exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”
 
 
Ideas of divine leadership, equality among all humans, human rights, or reciprocal punishment, are little more than myth. To be clear, these ideas are incredibly useful political myths, and when everyone agrees and accepts these myths a society can function well. But nevertheless, each of these ideas can be demonstrated to be an inadequate way of understanding the universe given various situations. They are not inherently and objectively accurate and correct ways to understand humans and the world we occupy, but they can be incredibly useful ways of organizing ourselves for cooperation and peaceful living within large societies. Harari continues, “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into superiors and commoners is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.”
 
 
Within the United States we have superiors and commoners, but we call them by different names. Business owners, managers, and landlords all fit into a category of superiors with authority over other people. We have specifically written down the ways in which they can and cannot exercise that authority, but they clearly exist within a hierarchy. We strive for a level of political equality among all people, where the law applies equally regardless of ones authority or status as a superior, but we all know that we don’t manage this process perfectly. We believe we are all equal and that one person is not more valuable or inherently better than another, but we can demonstrate that not all people are equal. For example, I don’t have a learning disability and I excelled in school, while others have dyslexia and struggled in school. I was born to a solidly middle class family which offered me a safe and enjoyable childhood, while others grew up in poverty stricken homes and others still grew up in incredibly luxurious homes that provided a great deal of opportunities for future economic success. Clearly there is no real equality either biologically or socially within our society.
 
 
What I am not trying to do with this post, and what I don’t believe Harari is trying to do in his book, is to argue that myths are bad. Instead, I am trying to demonstrate that many of the things we believe and hold as obviously or intuitively accurate, is little more than happenstance. Some ways of living and being are excellent for the current time and place, while others have been excellent in the past or will be more advantageous in the future. It is important that we recognize how much of our lives is driven by myth, so that we can adapt and be flexible where needed in how we understand and approach the world. It is easier to believe that our myths reflect an inherent reality about the universe so that we don’t have to question our beliefs, but that would be incorrect and could lead us to make essentially tyrannical decisions that belie the actual reality of the universe. We can use myths to cooperate and function in a society, but those same myths can be abused when believed too strongly or in the wrong scenarios.
Mass Cooperation Instincts

Mass Cooperation Instincts

The last few years in the United States have been a difficult time in terms of political disagreement. President Trump was an incredibly polarizing figure who clearly lied, made up a lot what he said, and was simply not a good president. Nevertheless, he had a huge number of supporters who liked his persona, liked that he praised their social groups, and supported him so strongly that they tried to prevent the government from certifying the election that Trump lost by rioting through the nation’s capital. The former President and those who supported him in such a fanatical manner represent a problem with human cooperation and evolution. Whether we like it or not, and whether we want to admit it or not, we still have tribal instincts that drive much of our behavior.
 
 
“The problem at the root of such calamities,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens, “is that humans evolved for millions of years in small bands of a few dozen individuals. The handful of millennia separating the Agricultural Revolution from the appearance of cities, kingdoms, and empires was not enough time to allow an instinct for mass cooperation to evolve.”
 
 
In the book, Harari explains that humans have been evolving for a few million years separate from apes and other close cousins. Homo Sapiens specifically, has only existed as a distinct species of human for a couple hundred thousand years. That is an incredibly long time on the scale of a human lifetime, but in terms of evolution, it is a very short time. For the couple hundred thousand years of the existence of homo sapiens, only about 70,000 years has passed since the very beginning of the Agricultural Revolution – perhaps about one third of the full time that homo sapiens has existed. Humans went from a relatively insignificant species that lived in small tribal bands to the most dominant force on the planet in less than 100,000 years. And as I stated, this is a long time in the life of a single human, but a blip in evolutionary time.
 
 
Such a fast ascent was made possible by our incredible brains and unsurpassed adaptability. But our quick ascent has not been perfect. We have not fully evolved in a way that helps us support the world we have built and the lives we now lead. As our recent political experience demonstrates, our minds still seem to be evolved to fit within small tribal bands, not within global populaces. It is easy to be altruistic among a small group of friends and to provide aid and assistance to those you personally know or to those individuals in front of you who need life saving help. It is harder to be supportive of people you differ from culturally and it is hard to find the will to aid people across the globe who are slowly dying from preventable causes. Cooperating at large scales is difficult, and it doesn’t fit the millions of years of human evolution that came before the Agricultural Revolution. Our brains allowed for a quick ascent to dense cities and eventually metropolitan statistical areas comprised of millions of people, but that change was faster than evolution. The challenge we face today is to cooperate together and find ways of living in a world we did not evolve to fit. The challenge is to develop an instinct for mass cooperation, even if it is not biologically natural for us right now.
Evolution Beyond the Genome

Evolution Beyond the Genome

I recently wrote about a quote from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens in which Harari argued that humans jumped up the food chain so quickly that we never psychologically adapted to becoming the most dominant species on the planet. An important aspect of this assertion is how humans were able to make the jump up the food chain. Evolution is a slow process, typically driven by genetic and epigenetic changes to the genome that take a long time to prove useful for survival and spread throughout a population. So how did humans evolve so quickly?
The answer, according to Harari, is that homo sapiens didn’t wait around for genetic changes. The species evolved outside of our genes, with the help of our brains. Sapiens began to cooperate in large numbers, and that changed how sapiens related to the rest of the planet. “the way people cooperate can be altered by changing the myths – by telling different stories.” The Cognitive Revolution and the increasing power of the human brain allowed ancient humans to first change relationships and interactions among themselves, which then changed how they existed in the world more broadly.
I think this can be seen in the way humans have organized themselves politically. A certain amount can be achieved and done when living in small tribes dominated by a single patriarch. More can be done within an autocracy, where a single powerful ruler has managed to bring all the small patriarchal tribes under unified control. And humanity has demonstrated that even more can be achieved through representative democracies. Changing myths allows for changing political organizations and structures, which changes the way people interact with each other and the world.
Harari continues, “Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate.” Our myths unlocked new potentials and created an evolution beyond the genome for our species. We didn’t have to wait for small genetic changes. We created social systems and structures for coordination and cooperation based on myths, and those changes supercharged our evolution and competition among other species of the planet.
Dual Realities - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens - Joe Abittan

Dual Realities

A little while back I had a post about personal responsibility where I ultimately suggested that we live in a sort of dual reality. On the one hand, I suggested that we believe that we are personally responsible for our own outcomes, and that we work hard to put ourselves in positions to succeed. But on the other hand, I suggested that when we view other people and where they are in life we reduce the role of personal responsibility and see people as victims of circumstance. For viewing other people, I suggested we weigh outside factors more than internal factors, the opposite of how I encourage us to think about our own lives. This dual reality that I suggested felt strange, but I argued that it should work because it is something we do all the time in life.
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari suggests that viewing dual realities is central to our humanity. In fact, Harari would argue that being able to perceive dual (sometimes conflicting realities) helped drive our evolution to become modern Homo sapiens. He writes, “ever since the Cognitive Revolutions, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations.” We are adept at seeing the objective reality, layering on narratives and myths, and then inhabiting a new reality that is shaped by both the objectivity underlying our narrative and the mystical nature of the narratives we create. The objective reality is incredibly complicated and our powerful brains are not enough to make sense of that objective reality independently. They need narratives and stories that can help simplify and bring order to the chaos of objective reality.
The question, as Harari ends up reaching – and as I hopelessly found out with my initial blog post on personal responsibility – is how to get people to all adopt the same myths in order to cooperate and bring about the best possible outcomes. “Much of history,” writes Harari, “revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies?” My blog post, which ended with a lukewarm suggestion of viewing personal responsibility differently based on whether you were viewing yourself or others, is certainly not going to influence millions of people to adopt a narrative that makes sense from one perspective but simultaneously requires a contradictory perspective. Yet nevertheless, humans throughout history have been able to get people to believe such stories.
In the history of human myths, deities have been all knowing and all powerful, yet humans still have free will and can make unpredictable choices that leave deities baffled and angered. In some myths, humans can influence the weather and climate, change the course of rivers and streams, but gods and spirits are the ones responsible for the productivity of such natural resources. And corporations can exist, dependent upon and comprised of individuals and material objects, yet those individuals are exempt from liability when things go wrong and the individuals don’t actually seem to own any of the material goods of the company. These contradictions exist and can make our brains hurt if we focus on them too much, but we accept them and move on despite the apparent fictions and contradictions. How this happens is beyond the scope of a single blog post, and really a bigger question that what Harari fully answers and explains in Sapiens.