In the Humanities and Social Sciences category
The Frontiers of Knowledge Award goes to Steven Pinker and Peter Singer for innovative academic contributions in the domains of rationality and moral progress that have achieved a widespread impact in the public sphere
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences is shared by Steven Pinker (Harvard University) and Peter Singer (Princeton University) in recognition of their innovative academic contributions in the spheres of rationality and the moral domain, respectively, which have entered the mainstream of public debate.
9 March, 2023
“Steven Pinker” – the committee says – “has combined outstanding achievements in evolutionary cognitive psychology with highly insightful analyses of the conditions of human progress. He depicts such progress from an optimistic perspective grounded in reason, science and humanism.”
Committee chair Carmen Iglesias, Professor of History of Political Thought and Systems at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Director of the Royal Academy of History and numbered member of the Royal Spanish Academy remarked of the awardees: “They are two thinkers united by their depth, brilliance, and ideas on the use of rationality for the advancement of moral progress that they have elucidated in their books and relayed to society at large.”
José Manuel Sánchez Ron, Emeritus Professor of History of Science at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, numbered member of the Royal Spanish Academy and secretary of the committee deciding the award, described the laureates as “two distinguished thinkers who add to their contributions in the academic realm the fact of seeking out ways for the betterment of society: In Singer’s case, focusing on the ethical consideration of animals, whom he sees as beings with whom we humans have much in common, and in Pinker’s case, through his practice of combining disciplines from psychology to evolutionary thought, again with humanity’s advancement uppermost in his mind.”
For Pinker’s nominator José Muñiz, Professor of Psychometry and Rector at Nebrija University, “his great success has been to take a step beyond his robust academic work and more technical publications on language and bring his analysis to bear on more transcendental and cross-cutting issues which he addresses in landmark publications on rationality and the Enlightenment, explaining them in plain terms that make them accessible to a wide public.”
“The awardee,” he adds, “has his base in evolutionary psychology, which studies how what it is to be human has changed over time according to the demands of evolution, and rationality has not always been part of that story. But Pinker has explained very well that it is precisely rationality that has made us progress as a species, seeking the solution to challenges in scientific knowledge.”
“Rationality grounded in scientific knowledge is, in his view, our most powerful means to pursue the truth, avoiding the traps of cognitive miserliness and unconscious bias described by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor (winners of the Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Social Sciences in 2020). Pinker is a perfect fit for this award because he is a humanist who can bring together science and culture, and indeed warned in a recent article: ‘Dear Humanists, Science is not your enemy’.”
Peter Singer is referred to in the citation as “one of today’s most influential moral philosophers.” His work, says the committee, “has marked a turning point by extending the scope of ethics, providing a basis for their application to the animal domain. This signal contribution has had major consequences for international animal welfare legislation as well as for moral progress.”
For his nominator Juan Valdés Villanueva, Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science at the University of Oviedo, “Singer marks a before and after in the moral consideration of animals. When I met him decades back he seemed like someone on the fringes, but there is now no disputing his enormous impact in providing a theoretical foundation for movements in defense of animal rights and the legislation enacted in various countries to ensure their protection.”
Steven Pinker: from news to data, the power of rationality
Most people, Steven Pinker points out, construct their view of reality from the news stories that the media bombard them with on a daily basis – generally a succession of crimes, wars and other disasters. Yet the Professor of Psychology at Harvard University has devoted much of his work to showing how this distorts our perception of the world and of our capacities as human beings.
“The news is systematically misleading,” he says, “because it is a non-random sample of the worst things that happen anywhere on Earth on a given day. It feeds into our availability bias, namely, whatever is easily available to our mind we think is common or prevalent. So as we read about terrorist attacks and famine and wars, we think they are increasing. But if you switch your view of the world from news to data, you discover that the state of things is a lot better than you thought.”
In contrast to the doom-laden vision that, he says, predominates not just in the media but also in many academic circles, Pinker has long defended – and documented – the power of rationality as the primary driver of society’s material and moral progress. “The good things,” he explains, “tend to build up gradually, like the fact that every day another 137,000 people escape from extreme poverty. And there are also things that don’t happen, like regions of the world that have not had a war, that are missed by the news but are visible with data.”
Human nature, a unique biological inheritance compatible with progress
Pinker began his career in experimental cognitive psychology, studying how children acquire language, humanity’s most distinctive faculty. Inspired in part by Noam Chomsky, 2019 Frontiers of Knowledge laureate in the Humanities, he argued in his 1994 book The Language Instinct that “this human ability is a product of natural selection, a Darwinian adaptation for communication and sociality.”
Some time later, concerned about the tendency in humanities and social science research to deny the existence of human nature, seeing the mind as an empty vessel to be filled by society and culture, Pinker argued in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) that we are in fact born with a biological programming that at least partly conditions our behavior, predisposing us to act in determined ways. Without denying or skating over the dark side of human nature, he chose to stress that we have unusual biological abilities, starting with language and rationality, that are particularly conducive to progress, along with our ample capacity for empathy not just with family but also with unrelated individuals.
“People mistakenly think that if we were blank slates, there would be more hope for human improvement, for it would mean we do not inherit aggressive, ugly or selfish motives from evolution. People could be programmed to be cooperative or peaceful. I argue against that equation, saying that human nature is complex but has other capacities that are compatible with progress.”
Pinker admits that we have “some ugly motives that have been programmed in by natural selection: dominance and revenge, the capacity to be callous toward others, the capacity for sadism.” But we also have “a capacity for rationality,” he affirms, even though “nature gave us only the rudiments or seeds” which we must learn to cultivate. In his view, what drives progress is the development of ideals, values and institutions that “enhance our reasoning” and give us the capacity to “inhibit or repress some of our darker instincts.”
A plea in defense of Enlightenment ideals, values and institutions
In his last three books – all of them internationally acclaimed – Pinker makes a powerful plea in favor of rationality as the motor force of progress, documenting the advances made over past centuries in all major indicators of human wellbeing.
For the awardee psychologist, “we have always had capacities toward empathy, peace and cooperation, as well as violence, exploitation and cruelty.” However, the ideals, values and institutions of the Enlightenment, defined by Pinker as “the application of reason to human betterment, by means of scientifically validated knowledge,” have lent wings to “the better angels of our nature,” a quote from Abraham Lincoln that gave title to the 2017 book where he documents the significant decline in wars, assassinations and deaths from other forms of violence through world history.
When Pinker talks about the “enlightened institutions” that bring out the best in human nature he is referring to democratic governments with separation of powers, the rule of law, the universities, hospitals, research organizations and scientific societies that generate and disseminate validated knowledge, a free press that can denounce misuses of power, and international political institutions like the UN or European Union that promote worldwide cooperation. “These are the institutions that make us smarter collectively than any of us is individually, but also set out the incentives for cooperation, with each of us making a small sacrifice in our own freedom to achieve greater benefits for all.”
Progress, a “real and measurable” good
One year after the success of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker published Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (2018), in which he extended his analysis of the decline of violence to all other main indicators of global welfare: from lower child mortality and longer lifespan to the reduction of deaths from starvation, natural disasters or occupational accidents, the decline in extreme poverty, improvement in literacy, the growing number of countries with democratic governments, etc.
“Although I’m often called an optimist, in truth human progress is not just an aspiration. It’s not just a matter of seeing the glass as half full. Not that a researcher’s temperament would ever be a sound reason to believe what they say. What I have tried to show is that progress is something real and measurable that is clearly evidenced by the main historical trends regarding the human condition,” Pinker explains. “But progress is not a force of nature, it is something that came about thanks to the core ideals of the Enlightenment, with their focus on using knowledge to improve human wellbeing through science.”
Finally, in his latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why it Matters (2021), Pinker sets out “the major tools of rationality that we are not born with but that we have to learn and cultivate.” These include tools like logic and probability theory, which “every educated person should understand but no book had explained all together for the general reader.”
Rationality, he says, matters not only because “it helps us make better decisions in our personal lives,” but because “it drives moral progress at the societal level,” as we can see from such milestones as the abolition of slavery or advances in the rights of women and homosexuals. One conclusion Pinker shares unreservedly with co-laureate Peter Singer: “I believe my work fits with his idea of the ‘expanding circle’, which for me was a major inspiration. The data I present in my books shows that our concern for others has expanded to all humanity, and I fully agree that we should continue extending it to all sentient beings.”
Pinker admits that we now face formidable global challenges, like climate change and the geopolitical tensions unlocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but insists that they give no cause to doubt progress, but rather to go on confidently applying the ideals, values and institutions of the Enlightenment. “Is progress inevitable? Of course not. Progress does not mean that everything becomes better for everyone everywhere all the time. That would be a miracle, and progress is not a miracle but problem-solving. Problems are inevitable and solutions create new problems which have to be solved in their turn. The unsolved problems facing the world today are gargantuan, but we must see them as problems to be solved, not apocalypses in waiting. When we apply knowledge to improve the human condition, sometimes we can succeed. If we remember what works and we try not to repeat our mistakes, progress can happen.”
From “speciesism” to “expanding the circle of ethics”
For Peter Singer, “the boundary of our species is not itself a morally crucial distinction,” since the other animals with whom we share the planet are also capable of feeling pleasure and pain. “The fact that they are not members of the species Homo sapiens does not make their pain less important, ethically, than the pain of a member of our species. Pain is pain, and it’s equally bad whichever being suffers it.” This is the core idea behind his book Animal Liberation (1975), which rocked the foundations of ethics almost fifty years ago by expanding the scope of moral consideration to encompass other species. The book’s impact, moreover, was not confined to the academic milieu of applied ethics, it also provided a conceptual grounding for animal welfare movements worldwide.
Applying the utilitarian principles of Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, which proclaim that the goal of ethics should invariably be to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, Singer argued that if animals are sentient beings, with the ability to feel pleasure and suffer pain, there can be no legitimate reason for excluding them from our moral consideration.
Bentham himself, in a pioneering text of 1789, asked whether animals might one day “acquire rights,” and concluded that the deciding criterion was not “Can they reason?” or “Can they talk?” but “Can they suffer?” Following the same line of thought, Singer defined the exclusion of other sentient species from our moral consideration as “speciesism”; no less arbitrary a form of discrimination than racism or sexism, which relegate people for reason of their skin color or gender.
Singer recalls that, during his childhood and teenage years, “I did not grow up as an animal lover. We did not have pets around the house.” It was only when, aged 24, he met a fellow student who had become a vegetarian – “something very unusual in the Europe of the 1970s” – that he began thinking about the moral status of animals. He was studying for a doctorate at Oxford at the time, and shortly afterwards decided to give up meat. “I am an example of the power of reasoning to change the way a person thinks. It was my ability to reason and think, more than my emotional impulses, that led me to make the treatment of animals one of the major ethical issues that I have worked on.”
The suffering of other sentient beings
“My question,” he relates, “was essentially as follows. If we reject racism and sexism, and believe that all humans have some sort of basic rights, or a moral status that means we can’t just use them for our own purposes: Why do we draw the line at the boundary of our species? What is so special or magical in ethical terms about being a member of the species Homo sapiens?”
Elaborating on Bentham’s ideas, Singer proposed that rationality or the use of language are insufficient reasons for excluding animals from our moral consideration, since in fact not all human beings can reason or speak (be it due to age during infancy or some infirmity or accident), and that does not place them beyond the boundary of our ethical concern. “The key,” he concludes, “is suffering. We are morally responsible for how we act toward beings who suffer, particularly if we inflict suffering on them that is greater than the benefits for us, which is very often the case.”
Applying this logic in his book Animal Liberation, he argued that the suffering of animals, for example in factory farms, recreational activities like circuses and popular festivities, and experiments insufficiently justified by the benefits of drug development for serious diseases, was ethically unacceptable.
Six years after Animal Liberation, Singer developed his ideas in a new book titled The Expanding Circle, in which he asserted that widening the circle of beings to whom we extend moral consideration exemplifies the power of reason as a motor of humanity’s moral progress, by extending our feelings of empathy “first from the tribe to the nation, then to the race or ethnic group, then to all human beings, and, finally, to non-human animals.”
Contrary to those who may believe that “evolution leads to the selection of individuals who think only of their own interests, and those of their kin, because genes for such traits would be more likely to spread,” the use of reason, he says, “enables us to see that others, previously outside the bounds of our moral view, are like us in relevant respects. Excluding them from the sphere of beings to whom we owe moral consideration can then seem arbitrary, or just plain wrong.”
A philosophical foundation for animal welfare movements and laws
Animal Liberation, translated into over 30 languages, has now been shaking the world’s conscience for five decades and, as the Frontiers committee notes, “has had major consequences for international animal welfare legislation as well as for moral progress.” Singer himself remarks that many of the practices described in the book’s first edition, like keeping hens in wire cages so small that they cannot spread their wings, or confining calves or pigs in such narrow stalls that they cannot turn round or walk more than a step, have since been banned throughout the European Union and in other countries, as well as in some U.S. states including California.
There has also been progress, the awardee points out, regarding the use of animals for scientific experimentation: “There is more control and the European Union has again been a leader, such that testing cosmetics on animals has been outlawed across its member states.”
But although much has been achieved, Singer considers that “there is still a very long way to go” to improve animal welfare. The biggest challenge he sees is to do something about the commercial raising and killing of animals for food, because that is by far the largest area of human abuse of animals. “If we just consider vertebrate animals on land,” he says, “we’re talking about something like 70 to 80 billion animals produced each year. And if we include fish as well, that would add another 120 billion to the total tally.”
He remains hopeful that technology will help by enabling animal products to be developed using cell cultures, so meat can be produced with no suffering involved and with the added bonus of mitigating climate change. “The greenhouse gas emissions of the meat industry are very significant, and if we can replace that meat with plant based foods, or with cellular meat, we will dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and give ourselves more time to avoid that tipping point where the climate of the entire planet is irreparably damaged for centuries to come.”
Steven Pinker and Peter Singer were nominated by Melissa Lane, Class of 1943 Professor of Politics and Director of the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University (United States); José Muñiz Fernández, Rector of Nebrija University (Spain); and Luis M. Valdés Villanueva, Honorary Professor Emeritus in the Philosophy Department at the University of Oviedo (Spain).
Laureate bio notes
Steven Pinker (Montreal, Canada, 1954), with dual Canadian-U.S. citizenship, earned a BA in Psychology from McGill University (1976) and a PhD in the same subject from Harvard University (1979). After two decades of teaching and research at Harvard, Stanford and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in 2003 he returned to Harvard, where he is currently Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology. He has authored twelve books, many of them award-winning, of which the most recent is Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters (2021), while the earlier Language, Cognition, and Human Nature (2013) presents a selection of his scholarly articles. A former Chair of the Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary, his editorial service also includes a time as Executive Associate Editor of Cognition: International Journal of Cognitive Science. Pinker serves on the Global Welfare Panel of the London School of Economics and the Barcelona School of Economics and has received honorary doctorates from nine universities in five countries. In 2021, the website Academic Influence ranked him the second most influential psychologist in the world in the decade 2010-2020.
Peter Singer (Melbourne, Australia, 1946) obtained a BPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford (1971) with a thesis titled “Democracy and Disobedience,” later translated into Spanish. After teaching at the universities of Oxford, New York and La Trobe (Australia), in 1977 he was appointed Professor of Philosophy at Monash University, likewise in Australia, where he also served as Director of the Centre for Human Bioethics and Co-Director of the Institute for Ethics and Public Policy. Today he is the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University (which he joined in 1999), combining his position there with that of Laureate Professor in the University of Melbourne School of Historical and Philosophical Studies between 2013 and 2019. Since 1974 – the year of Animal Liberation, his second book – he has published over 50 titles as author, co-author, editor or co-editor, translated into 25 languages. Singer is founder of the organizations Animals Australia and The Life You Can Save, was foundation president of the International Association of Bioethics, and has served on the editorial boards of journals including Ethics, International Journal for the Study of Animal Problems and Bioethics.
Humanities committee and evaluation support panel
The committee in this category was chaired by Carmen Iglesias, Professor of History of Political Thought and Systems at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Director of the Royal Academy of History and numbered member of the Royal Spanish Academy. The secretary was José Manuel Sánchez Ron, Emeritus Professor of History of Science at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid and numbered member of the Royal Spanish Academy. Remaining members were Ignacio Bosque, Honorary Professor of Spanish at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and a member of the Royal Spanish Academy; Isabel Burdiel, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Valencia (Spain); Violeta Demonte, Emerita Professor of Spanish at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (Spain); and José María Fernández Cardo, Emeritus Professor of French at the University of Oviedo (Spain).
The evaluation support panel charged with nominee pre-assessment was coordinated by Luis Calvo, a Scientific Researcher at the Mila i Fontanals Institution (IMF, CSIC) and formed by: Jon Arrizabalaga Valbuena, Research Professor at the Mila i Fontanals Institution (IMF, CSIC); Araceli González Vázquez, Tenured Researcher at the Mila i Fontanals Institution (IMF, CSIC); Esther Hernández, Scientific Researcher at the Institute of Language, Literature and Anthropology (ILLA, CSIC); and Consuelo Naranjo Orovio, Research Professor at the Institute of History (IH-CCHS, CSIC).
About the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards
The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, funded with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in physics and chemistry, mathematics, biology and biomedicine, technology, environmental sciences (climate change, ecology and conservation biology), economics, social sciences, the humanities and music, privileging those that significantly enlarge the stock of knowledge in a discipline, open up new fields, or build bridges between disciplinary areas. The goal of the awards, established in 2008, is to celebrate and promote the value of knowledge as a public good without frontiers, the best instrument to take on the great global challenges of our time and expand the worldviews of individuals for the benefit of all humanity. Their eight categories address the knowledge map of the 21st century.
The BBVA Foundation has been aided in the evaluation of nominees for the Frontiers Award in Humanities and Social Sciences by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the country’s premier public research organization. CSIC has a preferential role in the appointment of members to the evaluation support panels made up of leading experts in the corresponding knowledge area, who are charged with undertaking an initial assessment of the candidates proposed by numerous institutions across the world, and drawing up a reasoned shortlist for the consideration of the award committees. CSIC is also responsible for designating each committee’s chair and participates in the selection of remaining members, thus helping to ensure objectivity in the recognition of scientific excellence.