staffan vs. steven

pinker, that is. staffan wins, of course! (^_^)

if you haven’t read staffan’s latest post, you really should! it’s terrific!: The Myth of the Expanding Circle or You Can’t Learn How to Be an English Vegetarian.

here’s a short excerpt:

“[Goldstien] argues that it was Enlightenment (aka the Age of Reason), beginning from late 1600s, that expanded the circle of empathy, a process driven by the thinkers of that era,

“‘…if you look at the history of moral progress, you can trace a direct pathway from reasoned arguments to changes in the way that we actually feel. Time and again, a thinker would lay out an argument as to why some practice was indefensible, irrational, inconsistent with values already held.’

“We wouldn’t like to be kept as slaves, we wouldn’t like this for our family or friends either, so why would we like it for foreigners? Reason compels us to widen our circle of empathy.

“She then proceeds to illustrate her point with some humanitarians like Bentham, Erasmus, John Locke, Mary Astell etc. Pinker concedes and they both reflect on how this reason-driven process will make our grandchildren think of us as barbarians given how much further their circle of empathy will reach. End of story.

“And yet at the beginning of the dialogue Pinker stated,

“‘My fellow psychologists have shown that we’re led by our bodies and our emotions and use our puny powers of reason merely to rationalize our gut feelings after the fact.’

“This of course refers to Jonathan Haidt and others whose research makes a good case for such post hoc rationalization being an important aspect of human nature. To illustrate this behavior he likens our emotions with an elephant and our reason with the rider. The elephant, being much stronger, walks about as he pleases while the helpless rider pretends that he is in complete control.

“Given this statement, it’s a bit disconcerting how easily Pinker ignores the obvious risk that their conclusion might also be post hoc rationalization. After all, two top notch academics agreeing that all you need is reason sounds a bit like two hippies agreeing that all you need is love. So is it post hoc? It definitely has some conspicuous flaws that suggest so.

“As Pinker himself pointed out back in 2002 in his book The Blank Slate, all behavioral traits are highly inheritable and change very little over the lifespan and, most importantly, they are unaffected by shared environment, such as schools, education – and humanitarian essays. But width of empathy must, by any reasonable definition, be a behavioral trait. But by their logic it would be a trait like no other, strongly affected by shared environment, even though all other traits, thus including very similar traits like ingroup loyalty and identification, aren’t. So either width of empathy isn’t a behavioral trait – which is crazy – or it is somehow a completely unique trait affected by shared environment. Either way Pinker and Goldstein have some serious splaining to do.”

(~_^) read the whole post @staffan’s — it’s definitely NOT to be missed!

(note: comments do not require an email. The Blank Slate.)


  1. “some humanitarians like Bentham, Erasmus, John Locke, Mary Astell etc.”: the writer who most firmly emphasised the role of sympathy was surely Adam Smith. Why is he not on the list, I wonder?

    On the big point, it’s a definite “Gotcha!”


  2. With reduced inbreeding reciprocal altruism comes more into play when dealing with non-relatives, and reciprocal altruism looks a lot like reasoned empathy: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.


  3. Stray thought: I have a bookmark folder called “arch & anth”. When I looked the other day I found that many of the bookmarks are actually to blogs about genetics. “anth”, in particular, is in danger of becoming largely redundant.


  4. @dearieme — anthropology is still a worthwhile subject, up until around 1960. But then, with a few exceptions, you could say the same thing about a lot of other academic fields in the humanities and social sciences. Only the hard sciences have generally flourished, among which genetics must be counted.


  5. Thanks,

    I actually had no idea if I had to scrap the post because I looked at the correlation when I was half-way through. The result was way more promising than I expected. I’m getting more and more confident that this theory is solid. Another approach could be looking at psychiatric conditions related to guilt, like anxiety disorders, stats on SSRI sales etc. Diagnostic criteria are subjective but I’m thinking people won’t stick with these meds in the long run unless they work.


  6. @dearieme,
    He’s not on the list because the speakers mentioned him as a contrarian to the humanitarians, pointing out the lack of empathy for outgroups. His idea of sympathy is more limited to family, friends and nation, if I’m not mistaken (which I may well be).


  7. @Staffan, that’s not my impression.

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

    That argues that they are wrong. They may, however, have had this in mind:
    “The administration of the great system of the universe … the care of the universal happiness of all rational and sensible beings, is the business of God and not of man. To man is allotted a much humbler department, but one much more suitable to the weakness of his powers, and to the narrowness of his comprehension: the care of his own happiness, of that of his family, his friends, his country…. But though we are … endowed with a very strong desire of those ends, it has been entrusted to the slow and uncertain determinations of our reason to find out the proper means of bringing them about. Nature has directed us to the greater part of these by original and immediate instincts. Hunger, thirst, the passion which unites the two sexes, and the dread of pain, prompt us to apply those means for their own sakes, and without any consideration of their tendency to those beneficent ends which the great Director of nature intended to produce by them.”

    If that was their basis I’d say they are wrong. Smith isn’t saying you won’t or shouldn’t care about foreigners (for instance); he’s saying that because of your natural limitations of intellect and knowledge you can’t do as much for them as you can for your countrymen, and you would accordingly be wiser to concentrate your energies closer to home. In other words Smith seems to be talking about the wisdom of a Division of Labour in the efforts to advance human happiness. “You help your poor and ill, and I’ll help ours” is a policy perfectly compatible with all the poor and ill being helped, with a greater chance of success than universal do-goodery.

    He may be right or wrong in that but there’s no suggestion that his sympathies stop at any borders.


  8. @Luke Lea

    “With reduced inbreeding reciprocal altruism comes more into play when dealing with non-relatives, and reciprocal altruism looks a lot like reasoned empathy: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

    Sounds spot on.


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