Materialism and Morality: The Problem with Pinker

This paper defuses the seeming threat of naturalistic materialism to morality, using some passages from MIT cognitive scientist Stephen Pinker's How the Mind Works as a target.  Pinker, like his colleague Marvin Minsky, supposes that we must "idealize" ourselves as uncaused creatures in order to have morality.  That is, he thinks we must pretend to have free will, even though science shows we don't.*  Naturally, and naturalistically, I take issue with this and try to show that we need not compartmentalize science and ethics.  I suggest that this is not merely an academic issue, but has real world consequences for how we approach social deviance and destructive behavior (for an example, see On Addiction: The Science of Stigma). This essay originally appeared in the Humanist.

*Pinker has since changed his views about free will - see his his latest book, The Blank Slate, chapter 10 "The Fear of Determinism."  Nevertheless, Pinker's old view is still extant in others' writings (see for instance What Is Thought? by Eric Baum), and is thus important to counter.

Neural Materialism

What if it turned out that every quirk of personality, every nicety of gesture, all considered acts of generosity and all calculated schemes of revenge were traceable to one's neural organization? What if it became clear, under pressure of overwhelming evidence, that there was no more to us than this physical stuff, elaborately shaped by nature and nurture? This eventuality is nearly upon us: the final extirpation of any residual ghost in the machine. The machine, naturally evolved and culturally tuned, operates quite nicely on its own without need of some non-physical controller. The nuances of emotion and thought don't depend on insubstantial essence, but are fully explicable as aspects of a material organism whose complexity is finally yielding to its own embodied intelligence.

The full dimensions and implications of this discovery, what Francis Crick has called the "astonishing hypothesis," seem too overwhelming for most of us to assimilate. We are so used to supposing that we exist as something apart from our brains and bodies that we mightily resist conceding all to mechanism, however delicate and elaborate. Such a concession would mean, for instance, that our deepest attachment to a lover or friend consists of a certain set of neural states, which, when active, are the feelings of love and loyalty, are the disposition to nurture and protect. Should these specific bits of neurological organization change or be destroyed, our love would alter or disappear. This, at first blush, is difficult to accept. Surely love is more than neural mechanics.

Surely, we suppose, personality is more than how our brains are wired. But those who have witnessed the destruction of a relative by Alzheimer’s disease are forced to confront the reality that the person and the brain are one. As the brain deteriorates, the person fades away.

Like the eventuality of death, it is nearly impossible to apply this insight to oneself, since it doesn't, after all, feel like one is simply a system of intricately organized neural tissue. How could feelings of any sort, or thoughts, or character, consist of gray matter and gray matter alone? But the evidence is well in hand that there is an exact correlation between brain states on one side and feelings, cognition, motives, and personality on the other. While correlation does not necessitate identity, the simplest (but by no means simplistic) hypothesis is that the complex organization of the brain constitutes each and every bit of who we are as a sensing, thinking, and yet perfectly unique persons. Just how neural configurations can constitute consciousness and personality is a research agenda now underway, but the central insight, that the mind just is the brain, is hardly any longer a matter of debate among neuroscientists.

If, as seems likely, some version of this neural materialism will eventually be confirmed beyond a reasonable doubt, what should we make of it, and how might it affect us? Clearly, the impact of such a realization would be manifold, since it undercuts the normal presumption that in our deepest essence we somehow stand outside the causal continuum of biology, chemistry and physics. By challenging the human exemption from causal necessity, a naturalistic materialism suggests that we don’t exist as immaterial supervisors of our physical selves. Since we consist, as persons and agents, of a brain and a suitably connected body, we are not in a position to control the brain (or the body) from some non-material vantage point. We cannot step outside ourselves to supervise our inner workings: we are our inner workings.

Self-control, on this picture, still exists, but it’s not that an insubstantial self controls behavior, but that a person’s conduct is regulated, for the most part, by socially-approved dispositions that are physically realized in the brain. To control yourself is for such dispositions (e.g., modesty, generosity, tactfulness) to overcome more selfish impulses, not for an inner agent to intervene in guiding neural processes. Being self-controlled doesn't require an I-essence controlling the brain: the brain - the I - gets on just fine without benefit of a non-material agent running the show. Rather, it simply requires that certain culturally desirable values have been sufficiently inculcated. Recent explanations of the brain-mind, such as Stephen Pinker's book How the Mind Works (of which more below), make it plausible that our neural architecture is more than adequate to support the complexities of cognition, rationality and impulse suppression that figure in our socialization, and that are often thought to be beyond the capacities of a strictly physical being.

Moral Threats

Such an understanding of ourselves collides headlong into what many regard as the basic requirement for justifying moral judgments: the capacity to act and to shape one’s character at least partially independently of causal influences. After all, on what grounds can we hold people responsible for their actions if they are indeed simply natural processes, physical to the core and thus connected in every respect to the outside world? If self-control isn't a matter of riding herd on the brain, but just another facet of neural organization, then the fact that some people have it and others don't surely isn't a matter of what is ordinarily called free will. It's rather a matter of one's personal history and genetic makeup: most people end up with a more or less well-tuned, culturally-approved sense of right and wrong, while an unlucky few grow up in an environment or with genetic predispositions which assure that defective motives and character get embodied in the brain. What moral opprobrium can attach to such neurally instantiated defects if they are not chosen by a freely willing agent (and under materialism they never are), but instead arise out of a complex set of determining conditions? In what sense can we be praised and blamed if we are not the "first cause" of our actions or character?

There are several common responses to this dilemma, and it’s worth exploring them since they represent the main defensive strategies of those concerned that science threatens morality. But to foreshadow my conclusion, it may turn out that the assumption shared by all of them - that moral judgments are necessarily linked to our being first causes - is in need of radical revision. A thorough-going materialism, in which human beings are no more than proximate causes, may be perfectly consistent with having and defending a robust sense of right and wrong.

One obvious response to materialism, favored by those of new age or spiritualist persuasions, is simply to deny that we are entirely physical creatures, fully embedded in nature. We consist of more than mere bodies, and the non-physical part of ourselves (the soul, perhaps, or mental agent) controls the body from a standpoint that's at least partially independent of causal influences, and thus bears responsibility for action. Since the existence of a non-physical soul or mind can't be categorically disproved, only doubted on scientific methodological grounds which spiritualists don't accept anyway, they will happily assume that the felt sense of an inner, controlling "I" straightforwardly reflects reality. Unless one accepts a basically empirical approach to justifying beliefs, in which intersubjective evidence is deemed necessary to back up an existence claim, then some species of soul, spirit, or mental agent - something that merits praise or blame - can always be stipulated.

Most people, of course, are content to thus stipulate, and so don't yet see science as any threat to the traditional notion of personal responsibility. But to the extent that such individuals start to feel the reach of scientific explanation, and start to grasp our growing ability to predict and control both physiology and behavior, they might begin to question the sovereignty of the soul. At that point they may begin to join the ranks of those who, in seeing the explanatory power of materialism, recognize its implications for our moral status. After all, if the human self - the brain, plus whatever parts of the body one might consider essential to the self - is through and through a function of environment and heredity, on what basis does anyone deserve anything?

To make this clearer, consider that from a materialist standpoint there is no sense in which you could have done other than what you did in a particular situation, given your motives and personality. The brain and body are a dynamic system interacting with the environment. If all conditions, internal and external, were reset to be the same, the same behavior would result, barring various sorts of indeterminacy. Not that such a resetting is ever a possibility, of course, but the point still holds: what determines behavior is the interaction of a unique set of internal and external circumstances, not an internal, freely willing agent separate from such circumstances. This holds from the moment of birth until death, so that the behavioral trajectory of a person, including the formation of character, is best conceived of as a highly complex, multi-factor function unfolding on its own. There is no need or room for a controlling, non-physical entity which could take credit or blame for the outcome.

Many, even among the materialist persuasion, find such a picture distinctly unpalatable. Some will attack the hard determinism of such a view, pointing out that there may well be gaps in the causal chains which lead from genetics and environment to character and behavior. They cite various sorts of indeterminacy, at the quantum level perhaps, or that derived from the stochastic complexity of the brain, all of which might prevent simple determinism from holding sway. The responsible agent, they suggest, finds room where strict causality breaks down.

The difficulty here, however, is that there is no reason to give someone credit or blame for actions resulting from a random process, even if that process is inside the body. Because it was random, the person can’t claim that they deliberately originated the act, and responsibility, after all, has to do with being such an originator. The upshot, then, is that both determinism and indeterminism fail to support the traditional notion of moral responsibility, the notion that we exist as agents who choose behavior from the standpoint of a stable character and motives, but agents whose character and motives are in some important respect self-created, independent of our causal histories.

Pinker's Solution - and Problem

If free will cannot be found in causal gaps, how else might one deal with the threat of science to morality? We might pursue a rather more sophisticated strategy, the one Stephen Pinker recommends in How the Mind Works. He suggests that scientific explanation and moral judgment are, in effect, two separate realms. We can eat the cake of explanation, and still have the cake of morality if we 1) understand free will as an idealization, and 2) carefully compartmentalize science and morality in order to protect the idealization from undue pressure. First Pinker sets out his concept of free will (emphasis is mine):

Free will is an idealization of human beings that makes the ethics game playable. Euclidean geometry requires idealizations like infinite straight lines and perfect circles, and its deductions are sound and useful even though the world does not really have infinite straight lines or perfect circles. The world is close enough to the idealization that the theorems can usefully be applied. Similarly, ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused, and its conclusions can be sound and useful even though the world, as seen by science, does not really have uncaused events. As long as there is no outright coercion or gross malfunction of reasoning, the world is close enough to the idealization of free will that moral theory can meaningfully be applied to it (p. 55).

Second, Pinker must protect his idealization by isolating scientific and moral discourse from each other:

Science and morality are separate spheres of reasoning. Only by recognizing them as separate can we have them both... A human being is simultaneously a machine and a sentient free agent, depending on the purposes of the discussion... The mechanistic stance allows us to understand what makes us tick and how we fit into the physical universe. When those discussions wind down for the day, we go back to talking about each other as free and dignified human beings (p. 56).

Pinker, a good materialist whose book is devoted to rigorous explanations of behavior from the perspectives of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary psychology, obviously finds himself in a bind. If, as he and many others suppose, moral judgments require the existence of "agents whose behavior is uncaused," then science clearly threatens morality since it shows that such agents are indeed fictions. Although Pinker wishes us to, we can't formulate or defend an "idealized" conception of ourselves as uncaused creatures since nature doesn't contain even remote approximations to such creatures. So, if making moral judgments requires that we treat each other as first causes, then of course we must, as Pinker recommends we should, insulate moral discourse from science. On his view we must suspend the central insight of science as it relates to us - that our behavior is caused in each and every respect - if we are to preserve a moral realm.

The key assumption - that moral judgments require the sort of free will that derives from being uncaused - forces Pinker into an uncomfortable and ultimately untenable separation of causal explanation and morality. For it turns out we really can't abandon the notion of causality when considering ethical questions. After all, the very notion of personal responsibility hinges on the idea that the agent intentionally caused the behavior in question. And to decide whether or not an agent intentionally caused an act is to raise the equally legitimate question of what determined the agent’s intention. Although Pinker never quite makes it explicit, what the free will assumption forces on him is the highly implausible conception of an agent that causes behavior but is not fully caused by anything else.

Only by carefully restricting the scope of inquiry, for instance during a trial or court martial, can this implausibility be kept hidden. To assign responsibility as it is traditionally conceived, an agent’s history must be suppressed to maintain the illusion of being a first cause. But in an age of rapidly growing self-understanding such an omission seems supremely arbitrary and counterproductive. After all, it is only by exploring the origins of behavior that we can begin to elicit the best of what we are capable, and inhibit the worst. Pinker's recommendation that we keep the scientific and moral realms separate will block progress toward enlightened self-control since, in our moral deliberations, we must pretend that we are not biologically and socially determined creatures. This is to pretend that good and evil are somehow not a function of the natural, material realm, in effect placing them beyond the reach of our understanding or influence.

Pinker is by no means the first to take this tack in addressing the conflict of science and free will. His colleague at MIT, Marvin Minsky, came up with somewhat the same formulation in his 1986 book The Society of Mind, declaring that "No matter that the physical world provides no room for freedom of will: that concept is essential to our models of the mental realm. Too much of our psychology is based on it for us to ever give it up. We're virtually forced to maintain that belief, even though we know it's false..." But are we really forced to maintain it? Must we abandon scientific explanations when we consider questions of merit and culpability?

Reconfiguring Responsibility

The best solution to this dilemma is to drop the assumption that moral judgements require an uncaused free will. If this can be managed, then we need no longer artificially separate the worlds of science and morality, we need no longer traffic in two conceptions of ourselves that must never be allowed to appear on stage simultaneously. The scientific purpose of explanation and understanding need not conflict with the ethical purpose of clarifying and defending our values. Instead, we can have a unified conception in which the truth of materialism (if indeed we accept it as true) doesn't undercut the force of moral judgments. But just how might this work?

One way to explore this question is to examine the consequences for morality if we assume that materialism, in this case neural materialism, holds. Rather than trying to make a direct case for materialism, an undertaking far beyond the scope of this article, I simply want to show that in undercutting free will it poses no threat to our ethical capacities. (To rework a familiar expression, we don't need to be free to be good.) Once that threat is dissolved, it may become somewhat easier for those who find materialism repugnant to come to terms with the growing evidence for it.

The first thing to note about a world in which neural materialism holds is that desires, motives, preferences, likes and dislikes would all still exist, embodied as they are in the synaptic connections of our brains. We would still find ourselves possessed of the motivational equipment that makes us want certain outcomes more than others, and among these outcomes are those that fall into those categories we call good and bad, right and wrong. The killing of a child, for instance, would be no less bad or wrong in a world in which actions were the natural falling out of various circumstances rather than the result of free will. That is, we would feel just as strongly about the loss of the child, even though we would understand that the killer's actions followed from environmental and genetic conditions, not an uncaused self. What we value is valuable for the same reasons, and retains its value, whether materialism holds or not, whether we have uncaused free will or not. Therefore our sense of right and wrong, driven by our motivational dispositions, would remain intact in a world where materialism is the case. Materialism does not upset our moral compass.

If this is true, it is also true that even as strictly material beings we would tend to act on behalf of our values just as vigorously were we souls or mental agents that operated as first causes. We would work just as hard to prevent the deaths of other children, and we would be just as likely to restrain, deter, and otherwise reduce the likelihood of convicted murderers killing again. But on what grounds could we thus treat them if they couldn’t have acted other than they did in committing murder? Obviously not on grounds that they deserve, in the traditional sense, to be punished, but most definitely on grounds of social protection, deterrence and rehabilitation. So not only would our fundamental values survive in a world where materialism held true, but also some eminently justifiable responses to their violation. Materialism wouldn't lead to anarchy, moral or otherwise.

What, then, is missing in this picture? One might suppose there is something vital at stake that free will gives us that materialism cannot, given the sorts of intellectual contortions that mar Pinker’s otherwise formidable investigation of the mind. Perhaps it is that believing materialism true (and taking free will to be an illusion) would leave us feeling less outraged by violations of our values, since we would understand those violations to have been the result of chance and necessity, not an agent’s self-originated transgression. Our desire for retributive justice, focused on the individual, might diminish, since we find it unsupported by the naturalistic facts of cause and effect. If our outrage diminishes, might not this undercut our determination to deter and restrain the wrongdoer?

Or alternatively, perhaps what Pinker and others want to hold onto is the justification for the retributive impulse that free will provides which materialism clearly does not. As much as some would like to deny it, imposing punishment does afford certain (some would say primitive) satisfactions. Maybe we don’t want to be shown that our traditional story about why punishment is justified - we could have done otherwise - simply doesn’t hold up. In that case we will engage in whatever cognitive compartmentalization is necessary to protect the myth of the uncaused self which deserves to suffer for its sins. (After the brutal rape of a woman in Central Park, then-Mayor Koch of New York remarked that he didn't care about the factors leading up to the crime, he just wanted to see the perpetrators punished.) The same goes for credit, of course. If we want to take unshared credit for our triumphs, then that’s another reason for shielding the assumption of free will from science.

Taking these two possibilities in turn, it may indeed be true that a belief in materialism would lessen moral outrage directed at individuals convicted of wrongdoing. A naturalistic understanding of human behavior would shift the assignment of responsibility from a single source, the person, and distribute it to those factors participating in the shaping of that person. But would this reconfiguring of responsibility be such a bad thing? The outrage that, for instance, often drives the demand for capital punishment might be transmuted into concern for modifying those conditions which produce criminal personalities and motives in the first place. Such a change in priorities would not lessen our desire and determination to protect ourselves from killers, or to deter them by appropriate sanctions. (Obviously, the time is far off when social and family conditions will no longer produce murderers.) The diffusion of retributive rage that comes from scientific understanding is not, therefore, a reason to block that understanding by clinging to a dubious conception of free will. Indeed, the sciences - social, psychological, cognitive, and biological - are essential tools in the quest for a culture in which serious violations of our values become rare.

What about the other possibility, that by undercutting a primary justification for punishment, materialism deprives us of satisfactions that are rightfully ours? Isn’t obtaining redress - the suffering of those who have harmed us - a primary function of justice, after all? One might conceivably argue that the satisfactions of seeing someone punished, primitive though they be, are as valid as any other, but this hardly seems an ethical reason for keeping science separate from moral discourse. Indeed, the opposite point seems far more defensible: that it is better not to enjoy the suffering of others (even if they have harmed us), and therefore scientific considerations which dissuade us from indulging our retributive impulses need to be highlighted, not obscured. Punishment and its associated suffering may still be required for deterrence, but this is an unfortunate necessity, not the fulfillment of an indispensable objective of justice. What distributed, multi-factor responsibility based in materialism rules out, that responsibility based in free will permits, is an appeal to our baser natures to which we should simply say good riddance.

The Grip of Value

The conclusion, then, is that there is nothing essential to a stable moral order that materialism, accepted as true, would threaten. Our basic values remain the same, our capacity to pursue them is unaffected, and our resolve to protect, restrain, and deter when necessary is undiminished. We still have a robust sense of what constitutes right and wrong, and we have the means - and desire - to encourage the former, and discourage the latter. If materialism (neural materialism, for instance) is true, and were we to accept it, an inessential component of our current conception of justice - retribution - might lose a great deal of legitimacy. But this, according to some venerable ethical traditions, would be a good thing. We would still strive to create responsible human beings: those who act maturely and at least to some extent altruistically, taking into account others’ rights and needs. And we would still hold people responsible, in the sense of making sure that any thoughtlessly harmful or criminal acts triggered the necessary social sanctions.

All this suggests that Pinker is wrong to suppose that we must separate the scientific and moral realms, or that we need, when considering questions of responsibility, to idealize (or more accurately, fictionalize) ourselves as uncaused creatures. We need not worry that science, or a materialist world view, will supplant or otherwise threaten our capacity to judge acts right or wrong. It cannot do this for the simple reason that scientific understanding leaves the material basis for morality quite intact. Our basic, neurally-embodied desires and preferences, bequeathed us by nature and fine-tuned by culture, constitute us as moral creatures; they determine what we hold to be right and wrong. Understanding the neural embodiment of our values cannot loosen their grip upon us, and their grip ensures, among other things, our firm resolve to control and deter wrongdoers. Although wrongdoers on a materialist view are the causal product of many factors, they are still subject to restraint and deterrence since only these, for now, can keep us (relatively) safe. We don’t need to claim that someone is personally responsible for behavior, in the sense of being its first cause, to justify imposing such sanctions. On the other hand, were values and ethical behavior the product of a freely choosing self, independent of conditioning circumstances, then indeed we’d be in trouble since we would have no way to train or control such a self. Fortunately it appears that such is not the case.

The issue of what grounds responsibility, and what it ultimately consists in, is not merely an academic matter. For instance, it is widely thought that if we indulge in sociological or psychological explanations of crime, that we are in effect excusing the criminal. This led New York Governor George Pataki to declare recently that "The root causes of crime are the criminals who engage in it," and he went on to call for the enforcement of harsher penalties, including the death penalty. Such rhetoric panders to the fear that were we to admit that crime had causes outside the offender, then sanctions lose their justification. But when we understand that causal explanations don't necessarily excuse - that is, they don't require us to let wrongdoers go free - then politicians won't have to resort to know-nothingism to win re-election.

On the materialist view, the distinction between illness and evil, so often at issue in deciding criminal culpability, is a question of the proximate causes of behavior, not a matter of free will. The person who habitually, intentionally, and with malice inflicts harm to serve selfish ends is evil, not because his (corrupt) motives and character were chosen by him as an uncaused agent, but because they largely constitute him as a person. Sufficiently bad acts, intentionally committed out of long-standing motives, justifiably permit us to call someone evil. Similar behavior resulting from delusional schizophrenia is not grounds for calling someone evil precisely because it results not from character or motive, but from disease; the person is sick, not bad. In both cases we can, if we persist, trace behavior to its causes, but our responses to each must be calibrated to take into account the drastically different causal histories. In the case of evil, we deal with defects of character and motive, most likely inculcated early in life, while in the case of illness we deal with behavioral syndromes with specific physical causes. The threat of fines and imprisonment can help forestall intentional wrongdoing, and even help to form character, but they rarely deter psychotic acting out, which is why we shouldn’t send the insane to jail. The materialist view, therefore, does not obliterate the commonsense distinction between illness and evil, but instead clarifies it so that we can respond more appropriately to those who transgress, whether intentionally or not.

All this said, however, it is unlikely that we will soon reconfigure our concept of responsibility to coincide with science. First, it is vastly improbable that a broadly materialist or naturalistic conception of the self will take hold, at least in the near future. Even though the empirical evidence is overwhelming that we indeed consist of nothing over and above our bodies and brains, most adults (even the best educated) will usually find some stratagem to wriggle free of what is widely perceived as a mortal threat to our self-worth. Second, we may be too attached to the prerogative of retributive punishment to seriously question its primary justification, even if that means suspending our critical faculties in some domains. Third, even if one is convinced materialist, such as Pinker, and not especially interested in extracting one's pound of flesh, the chances are good that preconceptions about the necessity for the illusion or fiction of free will preclude the position taken here.

At first glance, to distribute causal responsibility for behavior among the circumstances which produce an individual seems to leave us with no moral recourse. But a more deliberate consideration of the issues shows that we need not burden ourselves with even the fiction of free will to have a sense of right and wrong and to justify the vigorous defense of our values. If and when we are ready to accept a materialist, naturalistic view of ourselves, no longer will morality need to seek shelter from science. Rather it will welcome scientific explanations of why we behave as we do as the best imaginable resource in creating the world we want.


Pinker's latest book, The Blank Slate, revises his views on free will, in that he no longer thinks it's a necessary fiction.  The chapter on "The Fear of Determinism" takes an explicitly deterministic stance, and usefully demonstrates the absurdity of contra-causal free will and why we shouldn't worry about being fully caused creatures.  However, Pinker remains conservative in not drawing any conclusions about how not having free will might affect our attitudes towards punishment, credit, and blame,; that is, he doesn't explore the implications of determinism for ethical theory.  This, despite the fact that in How the Mind Works he claimed that "ethical theory requires idealizations like free, sentient, rational, equivalent agents whose behavior is uncaused".  We await further progress by Pinker.

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