Moralities of Everyday Life

Paul Bloom, Feb 02, 2014
Commentary by Stephen Downes

I'm looking at the Moralities of Everyday Life course being offered by Paul Bloom of Yale (it's a bit too strong to say I'm taking it). Mostly the course is readings and videos with some quizzes (there are 'office hours' but that's really a ridiculous concept for a course with 60,000 people). Anyhow, it links to an essay from Steven Pinker called The Moral Instinct. Now I find the idea that we have innate moral principles ridiculous, but there's room for a moral sentiment (as described by, say, Hume, and suggested, say, by the mirror neuron). But Pinker sets up the argument this way:

  • The first hallmark of moralization is that the rules it invokes are felt to be universal.
  • The other hallmark is that people feel that those who commit immoral acts deserve to be punished.

Really? If these are the hallmarks of morality, then it seems to me it would follow that there are no moral principles, because no rules are universal, and the idea of punishment is an artifice not having anything to do with instinct. But no matter; this is all a distraction.

Pinker cites five "candidates for a periodic table of the moral sense not only because they are ubiquitous but also because they appear to have deep evolutionary roots" from Haidt - "harm, fairness, community (or group loyalty), authority and purity." Look how he argues for them: "consider how much money someone would have to pay us to do hypothetical acts like the following: Stick a pin into your palm... Stick a pin into the palm of a child you don’t know." And four others, one for each supposed instinct.

Now note this: the argument is putatively about the innateness of morality, and what principles are innate. But what has been asserted and accepted without substantiation so subtly you might not have noticed: first, that some people (the ones with the right instincts) are better than others, and second, that money is the determinant of value. Which is what we would expect of Yale. If there's a danger to MOOCs, this is it: the propagation of myths (especially about human nature and values) against a population unprepared to respond to then. Most critics question the qualifications of the learners; I question the intentions of the teachers.

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