Human Exceptionalism

Kass v. Pinker at the Intellectual OK Corral

This exchange between Leon Kass and Stephen Pinker in Commentary is superb, and I must say, Kass wins the exchange hands down. (Full disclosure: I am an enthusiastic Kassophile. I consider him to be, perhaps, our most wise and profound public intellectual.)

The exchange was sparked by an article Kass wrote previously about scientism and its threat to meaning and morality. (Here’s the link.) Pinker takes polemic exception to almost all of what Kass had to say, and receives from Kass at least as good as he gives.

Both letters are quite long and so I can only reproduce a highly abridged version of them here, focusing on one narrow point of disagreement. Let’s start with Pinker:

Mr. Kass believes he is doing the world a service by arguing that modern biology–and the larger enterprise of science and secular reason of which it is a part–poses a grave threat to meaning and morality. One may question whether the sowing of such fear is wise. Progress in our understanding ourselves as part of the natural world is intellectually exhilarating, conducive to human flourishing, and probably unstoppable. Rather than insisting that morality is a fragile Judeo-Christian antiquity that must be sheltered from the blossoming of knowledge, one could show, as philosophers have done for millennia, that it has a robust foundation that is of a piece with that knowledge. Morality is rooted in the interchangeability of perspectives: the fact that an intelligent social agent, in dealing with other such agents, has no grounds for privileging his interests over theirs. Growing from an innate kernel of empathy, morality has been expanded by a cosmopolitan awareness that encourages people to imagine themselves in the shoes of people unlike themselves. No small part of this awareness is the modern biological sensibility that we are a single species, made of the same stuff arranged in the same way, and therefore with fundamentally similar feelings and interests.

To which points Kass responds:

Mr. Pinker is a careless reader and an even more careless thinker. I never said that modern biology poses a grave threat to meaning and morality. I said that scientism posed such a threat. I never said that progress in understanding human nature was not conducive to human flourishing or was anything but exhilarating, though I did say that scientism’s faith in science’s unqualified goodness was a moral prejudice that science itself cannot provide or confirm.

Indeed, nowhere is the silliness of Mr. Pinker’s thinking more evident than in what he says about morality. How comforting to learn that morality is rooted in the fact that, thanks to our ability to see other persons’ perspectives, no intelligent social agent has any grounds for privileging his own interests over theirs. How wonderful to learn that this cosmopolitan moral truth is supported by the discovery that we all share human DNA. Do the descendants of Darwin know nothing of competition and the survival of the fittest? Does their naturalistic morality really teach that it is immoral to “privilege” feeding my own children first? Or does not morality begin, rather, with the need to control nature, precisely in opposition to the excesses of naturally given self-love and love of one’s own and (starting with toilet training) the unruliness of natural desires that embarrass rational self-command? Even leaving aside greed, cruelty, and natural lust, what about amour-propre–that natural form of comparative self-love found only among human animals and, famously, among scientists–that insists on recognition from and superiority to one’s fellows?

These are among the most important issues we face engaged by two of the most prominent and capable protagonists in the struggle. For those interested in these matters, it is worth the time to read Kass’s original article, all of Pinker’s reply and Kass’s rejoinder–as well as the other published letters-to-the-editor and Kass’s replies.