In an interview for Big Think, Steven Pinker makes this claim about morality: “Not all problems need to have a moralist solution.” https://youtu.be/ASL4cwU_3tc

And then he gives concrete examples of how very moral outcomes (saving lives) are obtained by non-moralistic solutions such as improving medical devices in order to prevent deadly mistakes during medical interventions, or developing more efficient agricultural methods.

Maybe these solutions to problems are not moralistic in the sense that they don’t use moralistic coercition (what somebody did is judged bad so he/her should be punished on that moral ground), yet the idea Pinker proposes is still an idea which has to see, maybe indirectly, with morality (what is good and bad), therefore is still belongs to ethical philosophy in particular and philosophy in general.

My question: to which trend of ethical philosophy (utilitarianism?) corresponds the idea expressed by Pinker here, and to which philosophy more generally, if any (naturalism?, humanism?)?

I would also like to know to what kind of philosophy he is opposing to here.

  • 2
    I'll be interested to see the answers. To me, morals seem like the solution to an XY Problem. We should, as you say, just solve the actual issues and move on.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 27, 2023 at 0:31
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    Adam Smith comes to mind: "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest". In the same way, in Pinker's example the farmers do not improve farming methods out of the kindness of their heart, but to yield more grain that they will sell. Still it has the benefit to solve a few children from malnutrition. (Unfortunately it also mean that if they can benefit from reducing their yield to increase demand and raise prices, they probably will)
    – armand
    Feb 27, 2023 at 11:15
  • @armand good point
    – Starckman
    Feb 27, 2023 at 12:07
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    @armand Althought they might seem similar, they're not the same. See for example the definition of direct consequentialism: "whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act itself (as opposed to the consequences of the agent’s motive, of a rule or practice that covers other acts of the same kind, and so on)". The main difference is the acceptance (consequentialist) or denial (particularist) that the future outcome predictions can be granted a general moral status.
    – user64708
    Mar 1, 2023 at 9:25
  • Pinker, bless his soul, makes explict what is implicit. Mind you, no one is to blame if that's what pops into yer mind. Mar 1, 2023 at 13:28

1 Answer 1


I would say he is talking about Consequentialism, which is indeed a descendant of classic utilitarianism:

Consequentialism [..] is simply the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This [..] theory embodies the basic intuition that what is best or right is whatever makes the world best in the future

Specifically, I would tag him under direct consequentialism: "whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act itself (as opposed to the consequences of the agent’s motive, of a rule or practice that covers other acts of the same kind, and so on)". When he said "non-moralistic solutions" I'd say he meant "non-normativelly moral solutions", because he doesn't care about the moral normativity of the solution itself, but that of the outcome: improving medical devices can be devoid of any normative moral status, despite resulting in a normative moral good (saving lives).

He is opposing to deontological ethics, which instead focus on the choices/solutions themselves:

deontology is one of those kinds of normative theories regarding which choices are morally required, forbidden, or permitted. [..] within the domain of moral theories that assess our choices, deontologists stand in opposition to consequentialists.

Finally, both deontology and consequentialism are part of moral generalism because both believe that general, universal moral principles can be established normatively (either on the acts themselves or their consequences). Moral generalism is in turn in opposition to moral particularism, where normative, general moral principles are not believed to exist under any circumstances. As pointed out in the comments, Adam Smith is a good example of the latter.

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    And one consequence that needs to be considered is that people generally feel bad when they do certain things. So feelings have to be part of the outcomes considered. It doesn't mean that we have to explain our needs in terms of moral "rain gods". Psychology is adequate.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 27, 2023 at 11:43
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    Yes, so what he means by “non-moralistic” would then be “non-deontological”, and the solutions he proposes are moralistic
    – Starckman
    Feb 27, 2023 at 14:18
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – user64708
    Feb 27, 2023 at 15:01

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