Steven Pinker on Moralistic Solutions


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I saw a fascinating video a few days ago. I've been researching moral relativism and came across a video on YouTube by Steven Pinker. Basically, the crux of it went like this: Steven claims that not all issues we face need solutions that are based in morality. If you aren't up to snuff on moral relativism and objective morality (realism vs anti-realism), you can check out this post. It's pretty good at explaining things.

Anyway, we as humans oftentimes turn to moral solutions when faced with a problem. An example of this might be something like, as Steven says, a doctor making a mistake which costs a patient his or her life. The reaction by the hospital or even government might include punishment of the doctor or hospital as a whole. The goal of the punishment would be to curb any of these types of mistakes in the future. If the enforcers make it too risky or expensive to make mistakes like the one the doctor made, then those things simply won't happen. Doctors will remember to be more careful and so on. It can be argued that the goals of the hospital (or government) are completely moralistic in that they are trying to save as many lives as possible and by inflicting punishment on those doctors who make mistakes, they're acting in a morally superior way.

We can't argue against the value of moralistic solutions in society. They do work and they're effectiveness has been proven time and time again. Citizens of countries all over the world are jailed because of their bad behavior, children are punished, girlfriends and boyfriends are broken up with. These are all moralistic solutions to issues people and societies face. They're fallible though. We know this all too well. And the way we know this is that while, yes, we as a species have gotten more advanced, careful, and generally better through the years, we have a tendency to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. There's always someone new who doesn't have the same knowledge as the last guy and who will repeat a mistake that someone else just learned to avoid. That's just the way it is.

In the video, Steven discusses how more improvements have come about via technological advances or advances in processes rather than moralistic approaches. If we go back to the doctor making a mistake in a hospital example again, perhaps a change in process would help more than simply punishing the doctor. Create a checklist the doctors need to adhere to or, as Steven says, create devices that will only fit together in certain ways, eliminating error altogether. Advances such as these take away the need to punish folks who make mistakes.

It's sort of like taking dangerous people out of the general population and storing them away in jail cells. Instead of leaving them out to mingle with the rest of us and to get in more trouble, eliminate all prospects of finding that trouble in the first place. This has worked for a good long time.

Thoughts? Ideas? Feelings? Please let me know down below.