In his comments to yesterday's post, Kenny writes:
I love what you're doing with this. I love the careful analysis of the basis of the moral instinct which I exploited, but did not examine at all, in my essay.
But where I feel like you are headed, or at least where my brain heads once I start down this path, is to the ultimate question: why, in fact, is it a bad thing to boil babies? If Pinker is right--if "Boiling babies is bad" is just a convenient shorthand for "Humans have a hard-coded instinctive aversion to boiling babies"--then, as Bergman's knight says, life is an outrageous horror. Nothing really matters at all. Pinker can't even say to me "You should face the truth," because any sentence that contains the word "should" is fundamentally meaningless in his world.
Believe me, I understand dangers of nihilism when asking these questions. These posts have taken me a very long time to write, because I keep alternating between the excitement of knowing I'm asking the right question, and the stark depression of realizing I don't like the answers I'm finding.
Pinker devoted an entire book – The Blank Slate – to showing the awful mistakes that come from rejecting a truth when it threatens to overturn your world view. Pinker was just trying to state what he thought was obvious: that there is such a thing as human nature, and that certain things about our nature are built-in, hard-wired capacities of our organism. But lots of forces lined up against him – progressive liberal academia as well as right-wing fundamentalists – because they couldn't comprehend how there could be human nature and still preserve the things they held most dear: moral responsibility, free will, self-determination, or an immortal soul. The result is that otherwise rational beings twist themselves into knots trying to sustain their world-view, trapped in self-contradictions and sometimes spinning out disastrous policies as a result.
We've all seen this sort of conceptual evolution in others, and even in ourselves. In this week's Independent I saw an interview with Bart Ehrman, author of Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted. Ehrman was an evangelical, fundamentalist Christian who wanted to learn as much as possible about the scriptures, and who found himself inexorably dragged into questioning his faith as he learned of historical critiques of the Bible. It's relatively easy for someone like me or Kenny to look a fundamentalist in the eye and say: "Look, I know you think that everything hinges on the Bible being absolutely true. It feels like if the Bible is taken away, everything is going to crumble and you'll be left in total darkness in a meaningless universe. But I'm telling you, it's not like that. You will not become a bad person by doubting. You might even become a better person. It takes some getting used to, living in the doubt. But eventually you'll realize that dealing with the doubt is better than caging yourself in a lie. And you might even find the real truth, the thing you were hoping to find in the scriptures to begin with."
We are no better, though. When the evolutionary biologists come along, telling us that our morals are evolved mechanisms for reciprocal altruism, we plug our ears and say, "LALALALALA -- I'm not listening! I know you're probably right, but if I start believing that, I will live in a meaningless universe, and I don't want to live in a meaningless universe." And Pinker say, "Look, I know it feels that way right now, but . . ."
I'm not saying anything Kenny doesn't already know. Kenny wrote that essay on poverty because he believes in trying to face the truth, even if it's a truth he can't handle. He put his moral conviction out for all to see, in spite of the fact that he couldn't live by it himself, because he trusts that facing the truth will ultimately lead to the best possible outcome. I agree with him . . . which is why I'm going to keep going down this rabbit hole.