It’s fitting that I read Hans Morgenthau’s “Scientific Man vs Great Power Politics” beforehand, because Steve Pinker’s “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” is almost its diametric opposite. Pinker even references Morgenthau as one of those people in the past whose wrongness we can reflect on (“The world is moving ineluctably woards a third world war – a strategic nuclear war. I do not believe that anything can be done to prevent it”). A great many of the same exact liberal idealists that Morgenthau decried are now held as prophets before (at worst) their time. While Morgenthau did have a sort of Gods-of-the-Copybook-Headings credibility to him, his case relied a lot on assertion and just can’t match the mass of material Pinker brings to oppose him. I ultimately have to assent that something has been going on, even if I can’t be sure that Pinker’s explanation is correct. This isn’t to say they disagree on everything, Pinker has a great quote from Robert Lansing on his boss (Woodrow Wilson, whose liberal internationalism stilll gets some credit).
Causality is always hard to determine, which Pinker acknowledges. He does his best presenting what psychology experiments have been performed, neuroscience and evolutionary biology learned and game theory logic understood, together with data showing what trends occurred at what time. But as Jared Diamond pointed out, soft sciences are hard. Descriptively, this work is a tour de force. I’d read (and reviewed here) a number of somewhat related authors like Azar Gat, Lawrence Keeley, Mark Kleiman, James Q. Wilson, Richard Herrnstein, Randall Collins, Richard Wrangham, Greg Clark, Henry Harpending & Greg Cochran. Pinker has consumed them and much more, and where his presentation overlaps with my previous knowledge it seems to gel. It’s a big subject and Pinker gives it its due, across time and societies (even species), in different manifestations and from different angles.
So what is his theory? He acknowledges its not simple and that there are multiple components, and that the existing decline is a contingent matter rather than something guaranteed to continue. The basic summary is that we have in us the capacity for violence but also other capacities that works against violence in certain situations. “Hobbessian anarchy” is a situation that calls forth violence, while the “Leviathan” state and modernity diminish it. Being hotheaded and aggressive can be useful in intimidating others, but its less necessary if others aren’t a threat, and dangerous given a well-functioning police force. Pinker cites Norbert Elias and his “The Civilizing Process”. Elias began by examining not violent, but digusting behavior. The middle ages contained a lot of it, but over time people became conscious of it and people like Erasmus wrote manuals for servants, telling them not to urinate on the floor. Pinker sums up the message as “act less like a peasant” in order to fit in at court. Over time much once-accepted (even valorized) behavior comes to seem odd, vulgar, obscene, taboo and even unthinkable. As people actually become less disgusting (and violent), life becomes longer and less cheap (though value-of-life must take a supporting role, since Pinker doesn’t see the order of events as supporting a primary causal role). We find it more useful to engage in positive-sum interactions like trade rather than engaging in a risky fight. We even come to empathize more as being a well-read cosmopolitan is a more common aspiration than being a stone-cold killer. I don’t know if I fully buy into his causal theory, but it seems there is something to explain and his explanation is the best I’ve heard so far.
The component of his explanation that most poorly sat with me was when he suggested that just as we learn structure of DNA is part of the nature of reality, we also learn that things like torture, slavery & genocide are wrong. “With enough scrutiny [...] these practices cannot be justified indefinitiely. [... A] community of thinkers [...] will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings.” This sounds like moral realism, but Pinker later notes the philosophical difficulty of that and fails to fully embrace it (at least explicitly in this book). Near the end of the book on the feminization of society and decline of masculine “virtues” he admits that those who regard that as a bad thing are not obviously wrong, that “no logical argument inherently favors peace over honor and glory”. Yet he insists that what has been gained should be acknowledged and respected. He puts forward the “prisoner’s dilemma” as the closest thing to a part of “the nature of reality, with its logical relationships and empirical facts” explaining a “direction of history” which moral realists might explain in more grandiose terms.
A particular issue is peculiar to me and is part of what made me uneasy. The reading material which Pinker argues helped to increase empathy is fictional novels, and it is precisely because I agree that it may affect our thinking that I deliberately stopped reading fiction. Fiction just isn’t true, and how can letting your mind be affected by it make you more likely to have beliefs in accordance with reality? An argument to the contrary might rely on the noble lie, and surprisingly Pinker pays some respect to that idea. “Just world bias” may lead people to behave better for fear they will get what they deserve. In previous books (most notably “The Blank Slate”) Pinker applied devastating mockery to many politically correct notions, showing how the data contradicted them and it was silly to believe them in the first place. In this book Pinker has a theory of political correctness itself, as the sacralized taboos of a civilizing process against the return of the hated past. But of course Pinker must continue to point out in this book the falsity of such beliefs, even if it may be best that the masses are cowed and we all pay lip service. Here I must stand with Max Stirner: I do not believe and will not serve the religion of the time. I may even agree that it is preferrable for others to be docile and in present circumstances I will watch my step (and even effortlessly abide by norms I have already firmly internalized) but for my own benefit the truth is useful and I intend to make it my servant.
I’ve gotten the big points out of the way, so the rest will consist of complaints/quibbles and assorted observations. I’ve praised Pinker’s presentation of the argument, but I still think he strains in places. There is a common narrative of the American revolution (misnamed, in my opinion) being good while the French one was bad (even presaging Fascism), and Pinker is no different. But he’s not an American exceptionalist, but a champion of enlightenment rationalism engaged in a work of Whig history (even as he gives Burke his due). So he tries to explain it away by saying the American was the True Scotsman while the Frenchman was not. He argues that we “stuck more closely to the Enlightenment script”, which is undercut by his admission that the French revolutionaries banned slavery early and often (it was reintroduced and then banned again). He argues “Many of the French philosophes from whom the revolutionaries drew their inspiration were intellectual lightweights and did not represent the stream of reasoning that connected Hobbes, Descarted, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, and Kant”. He does not name any specifically there, but Rousseau is mentioned (and none others I can think of that would fit the bill). My civics teachers also taught the Locke-good Rousseau-bad line and as an arrogrant American righty I’m inclined to agree, but I can’t grant the claim to Pinker that easily. Actually reading some analysis of Rousseau’s thought in Bertrand de Jouvenel’s “On Power”, he didn’t sound that bad relatively speaking. One point where I will agree with Bryan Caplan regarding philosophy is that the most respected philosophers (and of course the disrespected ones) all made terrible arguments. It’s what philosophy produces, after all. It is comforting to take the Isaiah Berlin line about the bad counter-enlightenment (and Pinker lumps Marx in there to explain away his terrible influence), but I am inclined to think he was wrong about Hegel and much else (even if Tetlock has found he was right about “foxes” vs “hedgehogs”, and yes that is a hint of things to come). Or maybe it’s Popper responsible for the common view, I’ve read neither. I’d say its harder to disentangle the good from the bad in enlightenment thought and that the mentors of the French and Americans weren’t as different as we might assume. Marx differed from the enlightenment thinkers before him, but the same could be said of those described as “liberals” today (not that I’m equating them with Marx). And even avowedly irrationalistic romantics like the fascists are heirs of the enlightenment as well. That’s not a claim that the enlightenment was not on net an improvement, just an acknowledgment of the “scum on the wave of the future”.
I should note that Burke is not alone in his counter-revolutionary stance failing to implicate him as counter-enlightenment. The Congress of Vienna is often regarded as reactionary, but Pinker tries to claim it for the enlightenment. Metternich did refer to himself as a socialist, but the old “Red Tories” tended to be opponents of classical liberalism rather than proponents as Pinker suggests (aptly, in Burke’s case).
One point Pinker makes in favor of the American over French revolution is that we have Montesquieu’s separation of powers. I’m inclined to support it and would be outraged (in fact, often complain about Our Enemy the Presidency, or the courts, encroaching on Congress’ prerogatives) at any undermining of it. But some of that is surely American parochialism and status-quo bias. After all, the U.K has had Parliamentary supremacy for quite some time and seems to fare alright. Comparative political scholars regard the American presidential system as weird (though Latin America also tends to have strong presidents), since most democracies run on the parliamentary model. Even Pinker’s native Canada has a parliament nominally subservient to the Queen, and he tends to regard Canada & western Europe as being on the bleeding edge of the civilizing process compared to America (while giving the red-states their due as more civilized than non-western nations). Speaking of which, I should mention that Pinker doesn’t hold out the pro-choice side as obviously correct and lets the large numbers of fetuses aborted count as a possible mark against his story (which includes a decline in infanticide). But he tries to salvage things by saying there are understandable humanistic values in tension and that today we combine regulated legality with revulsion toward the act itself. The high rate of incarceration in America is also held as a blackmark even as he crows over the drop in crime rate following the “Great Sixties Freakout” (for which I find his argument from decivilizing youth/hippie/rock culture rather weak). I forget how or if he reconciles that, and since it’s getting late and I have to return the book shortly, I’m not going to look it up again.
One area where Pinker seems mistakenly pessimistic is his discussion of the civilizing influence of females and his fear over the effects of gendered abortion creating violent “bare branches”. I have already discussed how wrong he (and Whiskey) are to cite China (although Novaseeker’s site is gone now), which actually has a low homicide rate. At my prodding Robin Hanson looked into the evidence on the effect of the male/female ratio and said it was mixed.
Finally, since I’ve been doing too much complaining, I should end with a countering thumbs-up. I’ve gotten tired of people yammering on about “mirror neurons” as if they tell us so much about high-level concepts people ignorant of neuroscience are more interested in. It seems Pinker is as well, and holds up some grandiose claims for ridicule while pointing out the lack of actual findings to support them. I laughed at “A wee problem for the mirror-neuron theory is that the animals in which the neurons were discovered, rhesus macaques, are a nastly little species with no discernible trace of empathy (or imitation, to say nothing of language).”