January 13, 2008

The Moral Instinct

An interesting article in NYT today on the Moral Instinct by Steven Pinker, whose many erudite books continue to remain on my to-read list! In fact, I saw at the book store today that he has a new book in 2007 - The Stuff of Thought. So, that makes it 5 books by Pinker that I need to read some day!*

Anyways, in today's NYT article, Pinker asks: Who's the most admirable person? Mother Teresa, Bill Gates, or Norman Borlaug.

Norman who, you ask? That was my reaction too! Norman Borlaug is the most admirable, says Pinker...for he is the "father of the “Green Revolution” that used agricultural science to reduce world hunger, (and) has been credited with saving a billion lives, more than anyone else in history."

But, as Pinker explains, we are..

... turned by an aura of sanctity, distracting us from a more objective reckoning of the actions that make people suffer or flourish. It seems we may all be vulnerable to moral illusions the ethical equivalent of the bending lines that trick the eye on cereal boxes and in psychology textbooks.

And so it is Teresa and then maybe Gates (not the Microsoft CEO Gates, who people hate but the philanthropic Gates, who through his foundation is working towards "bringing innovations in health and learning to the global community") who come to mind as good people who have done or are doing a lot for mankind whereas...

...Borlaug, now 93, is an agronomist who has spent his life in labs and nonprofits, seldom walking onto the media stage, and hence into our consciousness, at all.

Borlaug is one of five people in history to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. Shameful that I had never even heard his name before today!

Anyways, go read the article in its entirety. Fascinating stuff.

* Update: Realized I had mentioned his latest book in an earlier post...but this was when he was still writing it and the book was not published. However, worth repeating here is the link I had then provided to a talk by Pinker at the TED conference in 2005, in which he previewed his soon to be released book. The book looks at language, and the way it expresses the workings of our minds. He questions the very nature of our thoughts -- the way we use words, how we learn, and how we relate to others.

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