Steven Pinker Quotes

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Categories: A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you do do something that affects me-to get off my foot, or not to 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 of yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). 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, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it. You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other's children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other's children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we'd both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish. 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.

Steven Pinker
Many moral advances have taken the form of a shift in sensibilities that made an action seem more ridiculous than sinful, such as dueling, bullfighting, and jingoistic war. And many effective social critics, such as Swift, Johnson, Voltaire, Twain, Oscar Wilde, Bertrand Russell, Tom Lehrer, and George Carlin have been smart-ass comedians rather than thundering prophets. What in our psychology allows the joke to be mightier than the sword? Humor works by confronting an audience with an incongruity, which may be resolved by switching to another frame of reference. And in that alternative frame of reference, the butt of the joke occupies a lowly or undignified status... Humor with a political or moral agenda can stealthily challenge a relational model that is second nature to an audience by forcing them to see that it leads to consequences that the rest of their minds recognize as absurd... According to the 18th-century writer Mary Wortley Montagu, 'Satire should, like a polished razor keen / Wound with touch that's scarcely felt or seen.' But satire is seldom polished that keenly, and the butts of a joke may be all too aware of the subversive power of humor. They may react with a rage that is stoked by the intentional insult to a sacred value, the deflation of their dignity, and a realization that laughter indicates common knowledge of both. The lethal riots in 2005 provoked by the editorial cartoons in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten (for example, one showing Muhammad in heaven greeting newly arrived suicide bombers with 'Stop, we have run out of virgins!') show that when it comes to the deliberate undermining of a sacred relational model, humor is no laughing matter. (pp. 633-634)

Steven Pinker
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