Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Is Pinker Right that the Smarter People are Classical Liberals?

The argument of Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature that history shows a general trend towards declining violence has provoked a lot of discussion.  But I am surprised that there has been no discussion of the most provocative facet of his argument--his claim that we're becoming more peaceful as we become smarter, and that the smartest people are classical liberals who best understand the reasoning for minimizing violence.  Once one sees this point, one sees that Pinker's book is actually a work of political theory presenting the history of declining violence as confirmation for a Darwinian classical liberalism.

Pinker's understanding of how intelligence is linked to peace owes a lot to Peter Singer's theory of how the "escalator of reason" leads to an "expanding circle" of moral concern that eventually embraces all sentient beings.  It's not surprising, therefore, that Singer's review of Pinker's book in the New York Times Book Review endorses Pinker's argument.  But Singer fails to see that his support for the "Darwinian left" is subverted by Pinker's argument for Darwinian classical liberalism.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Pinker is not as emphatic as is James Payne (The History of Force) in linking declining violence to classical liberalism.  Even so, Pinker indicates repeatedly in his book that classical liberalism is the only moral and political theory that recognizes the links between declining violence, individual liberty, and scientific rationalism as promoting human progress.

For example, Pinker recognizes that the classical liberals see that "the world has far too much morality," because the most destructive forms of violence often arise from using violence to enforce some dominant group's conception of morality (622-23).  Adopting the moral psychology of Jonathan Haidt and Alan Fiske, Pinker sees an evolution in human history through four models of morality--communal sharing, authority ranking, equality matching, and market pricing/rational-legal.  The dramatic declines in violence over the last few centuries have depended on the move towards market pricing/rational-legal models of morality, and this is the move made by classical liberals.  Pinker writes:
"Why might a disinvestment of moral resources from community, sanctity, and authority militate against violence?  One reason is that communality can legitimize tribalism and jingoism, and authority can legitimize government repression.  But a more general reason is that retrenchment of the moral sense to smaller territories leaves fewer transgressions for which people may legitimately be punished.  There is a bedrock of morality based on autonomy and fairness on which everyone, traditional and modern, liberal and conservative, agrees.  No one objects to the use of government violence to put assailants, rapists, and murderers behind bars.  But defenders of traditional morality wish to heap many nonviolent infractions on top of this consensual layer, such as homosexuality, licentiousness, blasphemy, heresy, indecency, and desecration of sacred symbols.  For their moral disapproval to have teeth, traditionalists must get the Leviathan to punish those offenders as well.  Expunging these offenses from the law books gives the authorities fewer grounds for clubbing, cuffing, paddling, jailing, or executing people."
"The momentum of social norms in the direction of Market Pricing gives many people the willies, but it would, for better or worse, extrapolate the trend toward nonviolence.  Radical libertarians, who love the Market Pricing model, would decriminalize prostitution, drug possession, and gambling, and thereby empty the world's prisons of millions of people currently kept there by force (to say nothing of sending pimps and drug lords the way of Prohibition gangsters).  The progression toward personal freedom raises the question of whether it is morally desirable to trade a measure of socially sanctioned violence for a measure of behavior that many people deem intrinsically wrong, such as blasphemy, homosexuality, drug use, and prostitution.  But that's just the point: right or wrong, retracting the moral sense from its traditional spheres of community, authority, and purity entails a reduction of violence.  And that retraction is precisely the agenda of classical liberalism: a freedom of individuals from tribal and authoritarian force, and a tolerance of personal choices as long as they do not infringe on the autonomy and well-being of others." (636-37)
I do have one objection to this.  The way Pinker expresses his point here about the "retrenchment of the moral sense" in classical liberalism might be interpreted to suggest that classical liberals must deny the moral longings for "community, authority, and purity."  But, in fact, classical liberals allow the expression of these moral longings, as long as they are channelled into the voluntary associations of civil society without any enforcement by violent coercion.   So, for example, some believers in biblical religion might want to condemn blasphemers, heretics, and homosexuals as immoral, and classical liberals would allow them to express that condemnation within their religious groups, as long as they do not enforce that condemnation through violence.

And, indeed, over the last few centuries there has been a remarkable decline in such moralistic violence.  Blasphemy, heresy, and homosexuality were once capital crimes.  But now, in many parts of the world, most people abhor the idea of executing blasphemers, heretics, and homosexuals.  For example, in recent years, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have officially apologized and asked foregiveness for the sins of the Catholic Church in sanctioning religious violence.  There is no precedent for this in the entire history of the Church.  We see here a fundamental change in human cultural history.

How do we explain this change?  Pinker's answer is that we are becoming smarter, and a smarter world is a less violent world.  Or to be more precise, the smarter we become, the more inclined we are to a classical liberalism that teaches that violence is never justified except to prevent greater violence.

Pinker explains this as a "moral Flynn effect."  The "Flynn effect" is named after political scientist James Flynn who is famous for pointing out that average IQ scores have been increasing dramatically over the past century.  By today's standard, a typical person of 1910 would have an IQ score that would today be at the border of mental retardation!  These increases in IQ scores have come primarily in the subtests that measure abstract thinking, as in the testing of reasoning about similarities, analogies, and visual matrices.

Flynn has argued that this increase in intelligence comes from the influence of modern science, so that now more and more people have been educated to think about the world through the abstract categories and formulas of science.  Consequently, we see increases in "the ability to detach oneself from parochial knowledge of one's own little world and explore the implications of postulates in purely hypothetical worlds" (654).

Here is where Pinker sees the emergence of a moral Flynn effect: "enhanced powers of reason--specifically, the ability to set aside immediate experience, detach oneself from a parochial vantage point, and frame one's ideas in abstract, universal terms--would lead to better moral commitments, including an avoidance of violence" (656).  "The cognitive skill that is most enhanced in the Flynn Effect, abstraction from the concrete particulars of immediate experience, is precisely the skill that must be exercised to take the perspectives of others and expand the circle of moral consideration."

The importance that Pinker attaches to this point is indicated by the prominence he gave it in his short article for Nature in October, which consisted of a few excerpts from his book 

If Pinker is right about this, I suggest, then we should expect that this is the cognitive skill that one sees in the proponents of classical liberalism--those like John Locke, Adam Smith, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, and Friedrich Hayek.  I will elaborate this point in a future post.

Pinker's bold conclusion is that smarter people are more classically liberal.  "The escalator of reason predicts only that intelligence should be correlated with classical liberalism, which values the autonomy and well-being of individuals over the constraints of tribe, authority, and tradition.  Intelligence is expected to correlate with classical liberalism because classical liberalism is itself a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives that is inherent to reason itself" (662).  Moreover, Pinker explains that this kind of moral intelligence is more closely linked to classical liberalism, which promotes individual liberty in all spheres of life, than to "left-liberalism," which favors using governmental violence to restrain economic liberty.

Pinker presents various kinds of empirical evidence for this link in historical evolution between intelligence and classical liberalism.  The psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa has shown that high IQ is correlated with political liberalism, and Pinker sees some evidence here that intelligence is more strongly linked to classical liberalism than to left-liberalism.  Kanazawa found that among a sample of young American adolescents and adults, those with high IQ were more likely to identify themselves as liberal.  He also found that the high IQ people were less likely to agree with the statement that government has the responsibility to redistribute income from the rich to the poor, perhaps by raising the taxes of the rich or giving income assistance to the poor.  Pinker interprets this to mean that these high-IQ liberals were actually classical liberals or libertarians rather than left liberals.

Pinker does not tell his reader, however, that Kanazawa defines liberalism for himself as left liberalism.  Nor does Pinker tell his reader that Kanazawa's data analysis was somewhat confusing on this issue.  Although the high-IQ people did indeed tend to reject the idea of government using taxation to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, these same high-IQ people tended to agree that their federal income tax was too low, which Kanazawa interprets to mean that they were willing to be taxed to support welfare programs (Kanazawa 2010, 38, 49, 51-52).

Pinker also cites the work of Ian Deary and his colleagues who have shown that British children who showed high IQ in 1970 at age 10 were likely to show socially liberal attitudes in 1990 at age 30.  In the article reporting this research, the authors concluded:
"In this large, longitudinal study, intelligent children became, on average, broad-minded adults.  The state of mind common to the attitude scales used in this analysis is one of objective fairness to other individuals, an overturning of past prejudice that militated against fairness.  Brighter 10-year-olds are, at age 30, more likely to hold to a 'philosophy emphasising reason and individualism rather than tradition,' which is how The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines enlightenment." (5)

Deary and his colleagues also found a strong correlation between IQ and voting for the Liberal Democrats in the UK (Deary et al. 2008b).  Pinker sees this as "a suggestion that intelligence leads to classical rather than left-liberalism" (663).  This is a dubious claim, however, because many, if not most, of the Liberal Democrats are social liberals but not economic liberals, because they support the British welfare state. 

It is true, however, that many of the leaders of the British Liberal Democrats have argued for moving to a classical liberal position that combines social liberalism and economic liberalism, which would be a move back to the classical liberalism of the Liberal Party as founded in 1859, before the Liberal Party moved at the beginning of the 20th century to welfare state liberalism.  This argument for reviving classical liberalism within the Liberal Democratic Party was made by the contributors to The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism (2004), which include Nick Clegg, the current leader of the party and Deputy Prime Minister.  It is not clear, however, as to how many of those voting for the Liberal Democrats think they are voting for classical liberalism.

Pinker also cites the research of economist Bryan Caplan who has shown that brighter people tend to think like classical liberal economists.  For example, more intelligent Americans are likely to support free markets and free trade as more advantageous for the country than governmental wage and price controls and protectionism.

Finally, Pinker cites the research of psychologist Heiner Rindermann showing that a country's level of education and cognitive ability in 1960-1972 predicted its level of democracy, rule of law, and political liberty in 1991-2003.  This effect of greater intelligence brings declining violence because democratic governments that secure the rule of law and political liberty lower the level of governmental violence.


Caplan, Bryan, and Stephen Miller, "Intelligence Makes People Think Like Economists: Evidence from the General Social Survey," Intelligence 38 (2010): 636-47.  Available online.

Deary, Ian J., G. David Batty, and Catharine R. Gale, "Bright Children Become Enlightened Adults," Psychological Science 19 (2008): 1-6.  Available online.

Deary, Ian J., G. David Batty, and Catharine R. Gale, "Childhood Intelligence Predicts Voter Turnout, Voting Preferences, and Political Involvement in Adulthood: The 1970 British Cohort Study," Intelligence 36 (2008): 548-55.  Available online.

Kanazawa, Satoshi, "Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent," Social Psychology Quarterly 73 (2010): 33-53.  Available online.

Paul Marshall and David Laws, editors, The Orange Book: Reclaiming Liberalism (Profile Books, 2004).

Pinker, Steven, "Taming the Devil within Us," Nature 478 (20 Octobr 2011): 309-11.

Rindermann, Heiner, "Relevance of Education and Intelligence for the Political Development of Nations: Democracy, Rule of Law, and Political Liberty," Intelligence 36 (2008): 306-22.  Available online.


Greg R. Lawson said...

You should read David P. Goldman's recent "How Civilizations Die." It raises a provocative counterpoint to Pinker.

Essentially, secular (and classically liberal) people willingly choose to have less children. Over time, those of faith (not necessarily pagan faith) are likely to re-inherit a good chunk of the world, or there will be a demographic collapse after reaching the high water mark of around 8 billion by the middle of the next century.

If this has any predicative validity, it makes for a fascinating battle between the "intelligent" and the "masses."

I am not sure I buy the argument in its entirety and Goldman's focuses is clearly Christian and Jewish, but it is worth wrestling with.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree that this is a point worth considering.

But one might note that many people of faith have embraced the classical liberal rejection of religious violence.

Even among very conservative Jews and Christians, it's hard to find many who believe that blasphemy, heresy, and homosexuality should be capital crimes.

That shows a radical transformation in human cultural history that needs to be explained.

Empedocles said...

I wonder if you did a study in communist Russia whether you would find that communists have the highest IQ. Or if in the middle ages you would find that Catholics have the highest IQ. That is, the smartest people of any time will rise in the power structure that exists there. Since we live in a liberal order the smartest will become liberal.