Steven Pinker on "dangerous" ideas



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The Harvard psychologist lays his out his case for asking what he describes as “dangerous” ideas in a piece that originated with Edge and came to our attention through the Chicago Sun-Times. Some of Pinker’s “dangerous” questions that might be of interest here:

-Is morality just a product of the evolution of our brains, with no inherent reality?

-Would it be consistent with our moral principles to give parents the option of euthanizing newborns with birth defects that would consign them to a life of pain and disability?

-Would unwanted children be better off if there were a market in adoption rights, with babies going to the highest bidder?

-Would lives be saved if we instituted a free market in organs for transplantation?

-Should people have the right to clone themselves, or enhance the genetic traits of their children?

So, according to Pinker, what makes an idea “dangerous?”

One factor is an imaginable train of events in which acceptance of the idea could lead to an outcome recognized as harmful. In religious societies, the fear is that if people ever stopped believing in the literal truth of the Bible they would also stop believing in the authority of its moral commandments. That is, if today people dismiss the part about God creating the Earth in six days, tomorrow they’ll dismiss the part about “Thou shalt not kill.” In progressive circles, the fear is that if people ever were to acknowledge any differences between races, sexes or individuals, they would feel justified in discrimination or oppression. Other dangerous ideas set off fears that people will neglect or abuse their children, become indifferent to the environment, devalue human life, accept violence and prematurely resign themselves to social problems that could be solved with sufficient commitment and optimism.

All these outcomes, needless to say, would be deplorable. But none of them actually follows from the supposedly dangerous idea. Even if it turns out, for instance, that groups of people are different in their averages, the overlap is certainly so great that it would be irrational and unfair to discriminate against individuals on that basis. Likewise, even if it turns out that parents don’t have the power to shape their children’s personalities, it would be wrong on grounds of simple human decency to abuse or neglect one’s children. And if currently popular ideas about how to improve the environment are shown to be ineffective, it only highlights the need to know what would be effective.

Pinker goes on to argue that we’re better off as a society when we face these questions head-on.

Does he have a point? Or are there some ideas or questions that should be off-limits?

-Greg Dahlmann

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