Moral Progress: Does it Exist? If so, What Causes It?
5:30 to 8:30pm, Thursday February 26 at the Harvard Faculty Club, The Cambridge Roundtable on Science & Religion features Harvard Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker for a faculty-seminar dinner-discussion addressing Moral Progress.
Cognitive neuroscience suggests that morality is driven not just by the limbic circuits underlying emotion but also by parts of the prefrontal cortex that underlie abstract thought. And the historical record shows that many humane advances were initiated in the realm of ideas. Philosophers prepared careful briefs against slavery, despotism, torture, religious persecution, cruelty to animals, harshness to children, violence against women and frivolous wars. These arguments were disseminated in pamphlets and bestsellers and debated in salons and pubs, and then in conventions and legislatures that implemented reforms.
Advocates of reason and its gifts, such as science, technology and secular democracy, should no longer feel that they must be on the defensive. The association between the best and the worst of the twentieth century was always crude, and it is time to re-examine it in the light of statistically literate history. Almost seven decades after the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, we now see that they were not a new normal or harbingers of worse to come, but a local high from which the world would bumpily descend. The ideologies behind them were atavisms that ended up in the dustbin of history, and the ideal of universal human rights, which would have seemed saccharine or incoherent to our ancestors, has become the moral commonplace of our age.
From: Taming the Devil Within Us, by Steven Pinker, Nature October 20, 2011
Steven Pinker is an experimental psychologist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind, and human nature. Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, his research on visual cognition and the psychology of language has won prizes from the National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Institution of Great Britain, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, and the American Psychological Association. He has also received eight honorary doctorates, several teaching awards at MIT and Harvard, and numerous prizes for his books The Language Instinct, How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Better Angels of Our Nature. He is Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, and often writes for The New York Times, Time, and The New Republic. He has been named Humanist of the Year, Prospect magazine’s “The World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers,” and Time magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
The Roundtable is by invitation only. If you have questions or comments, please reach Roundtable Coordinator Dave Thom at his MIT office at 617-258-7333 in W11-004 and at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Cambridge Roundtable on Science & Religion is co-chaired by:
- Owen Gingerich, Astronomy and History of Science (Emeritus), Harvard University
- Robert Randolph, Chaplain to the Institute and Dean, MIT
- Roundtable Coordinator: David Thom, Associate Chaplain, MIT