In the past, wars were fought as contests of honor. But now we know that Falstaff was right about honor--it's only a word, or a social construction, as we would say today (247). War is not glorious and exciting. It is stupid and cruel. We need to puncture the swollen egos of men who fight over who's most important. After all, it's only the silly games of little boys. If we get rid of that macho striving for honor and glory, then we can see that moral progress is measured, as Pinker declares on the last page of his book, by our success in allowing "a greater and greater proportion of humanity to live in peace and die of natural causes" (696).
But can we be satisfied by a world of peace without honor, a world of feminine values without masculine virtues, a world of bourgeois comfort without manly courage? In Pinker's long book, he raises this question in one paragraph, only to quickly dismiss it. He is speaking about the historical trend towards a feminized culture favoring peace over violence.
Feminization need not consist of women literally wielding more power in decisions on whether to go to war. It can also consist in a society moving away from a culture of manly honor, with its approval of violent retaliation for insults, toughening of boys through physical punishment, and veneration of martial glory (chapter 8). This has been the trend in the democracies of Europe and the developed world and in the bluer states of America (chapters 3 and 7). Several conservative scholars have ruefully suggested to me that the modern West has been diminished by the loss of virtues like bravery and valor and the ascendancy of materialism, frivolity, decadence, and effeminacy. Now, I have been assuming that violence is always a bad thing except when it prevents greater violence, but these men are correct that this is a value judgment, and that no logical argument inherently favors peace over honor and glory. But I would think that the potential victims of all this manliness deserve a say in this discussion, and they may not agree that their lives and limbs are a price worth paying for the glorification of masculine virtues. (686-87)Although Pinker does not identify these "conservative scholars" who worry about the decline of manly spiritedness as a flattening of the human soul, I suspect that Harvey Mansfield--one of Pinker's colleagues at Harvard--must be one of these people. After all, he's the one who's written the book Manliness, in which he worries that the sort of liberal humanism defended by Pinker fails to satisfy the human need for manly self-assertion.
A few years ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on Mansfield's case for manliness in the modern world as an expression of a counter-Enlightenment tradition evident in the work of Straussians like Mansfield. Mansfield is correct, I think, in seeing that the biology of Plato and Aristotle recognises the complementarity of male and female virtues in human biological nature, while also recognising that manliness can be either bad or good, so that we need a virtuous mean between too little and too much masculinity. But I also think that Mansfield is wrong in failing to see how a Darwinian biology supports this ancient insight. If Mansfield were to embrace a Darwinian understanding of the sexual complementarity of evolved human nature, he would not be seduced by the "manly nihilism" of Friedrich Nietzsche and Teddy Roosevelt, which leads him to argue for "one-man rule" by the American President serving a policy of "imperial ambition."
Pinker fails to elaborate a Darwinian response to this Mansfieldian manliness. But there are some hints in his writing as to how the evolutionary psychology of human nature recognises the comprehensive complementarity of male and female virtues, which can promote a decline in violence without a decline in true manliness.
Pinker observes that the greatest human suffering from violence has been caused by the narcissistic personality of tyrants, who show the grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy characteristic of people inflated by unearned self-esteem (519-21). But Pinker fails to point out that such narcissism is different from what traditionally has been recognised as "greatness of soul"--the magnanimity of those men who have earned their self-esteem and who are contemptuous of those who derive sadistic pleasure from the suffering of innocent people.
Pinker describes a new martial arts program of the United States Marine Corps, which teaches "a new code of honor, the Ethical Marine Warrior." The chant for this new code is "The Ethical Warrior is a protector of life. Whose life? Self and others. Which others? All others." A former Marine captain who helped to implement this program wrote to Pinker: "When I first joined the Marines in the 1970s it was 'Kill, kill, kill.' The probability that there would have been an honor code that trained marines to be 'protectors of all others--including the enemy, if possible' would have been 0 percent" (264-66).
Pinker doesn't reflect on the deeper implications of this--that the liberal humanism of declining violence might be best promoted, not by denigrating manly honor, but by "a new code of honor" in which men can take pride in their courageous self-discipline in defending human life. After all, if Pinker is right in declaring that "violence is always a bad thing except when it prevents greater violence," doesn't that require manly courage from those trained to use violence to prevent greater violence?
Pinker devotes a lot of attention to the argument that the atrocious killing of World War II was caused ultimately by the maniacal narcissism of one man--Adolf Hitler. But he gives no attention to the fact that England's refusal to surrender to Hitler's assault depended crucially on the glorious resoluteness of one man--Winston Churchill. Although there are some dubious facets to Churchill's character and policies, one can see him as manifesting a manly magnanimity that is compatible with, and even necessary for, modern liberalism.
Some of my blog posts on Mansfield can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
You should also see Mansfield's manly interview with Stephen Colbert.
Martha Nussbaum has written a manly attack on Mansfield.