Thursday, December 29, 2011

Termite Morality and Pinker's Platonic Longings

Like Peter Singer, Steve Pinker struggles with his Platonic longings for a moral cosmology.

Pinker shows this in the final pages of Better Angels (694-96).  The evidence for declining violence throughout history suggests that history has some cosmic purpose.  James Payne wonders whether this indicates "a higher power at work."  Robert Wright wonders whether history is a story with a "cosmic author."  Although Pinker resists the temptation to see a divine purpose at work in history, he does see some vindication for "moral realism--that moral truths are out there somewhere for us to discover, just as we discover the truths of science and mathematics."

But like Singer, Pinker is ambivalent about whether his belief in moral truths that are "out there somewhere for us to discover" can be justified by a moral cosmology.  He writes:
Only an inflated sense of our own importance could turn our desire to escape the Pacifist's Dilemma into a grand purpose of the cosmos.  But the desire does seem to tap into contingencies of the world that are not exactly physical, and so it is different from the desires that were the mothers of other inventions such as refined sugar or central heating.  The maddening structure of a Pacifist's Dilemma is an abstract feature of reality.  So is its most comprehensive solution, the interchangeability of perspectives, which is the principle behind the Golden Rule and its equivalents that have been rediscovered in so many moral traditions.  Our cognitive processes have been struggling with these aspects of reality over the course of our history, just as they have struggled with the laws of logic and geometry.
Though our escape from destructive contests is not a cosmic purpose, it is a human purpose.  Defenders of religion have long claimed that in the absence of divine edicts, morality can never be grounded outside ourselves.  People can pursue only selfish interests, perhaps tweaked by taste or fashion, and are sentenced to lives of relativism and nihilism.  We can now appreciate why this line of argument is mistaken.  Discovering earthly ways in which human beings can flourish, including stratagems to overcome the tragedy of the inherent appeal of aggression, should be purpose enough for anyone.  It is a goal that is nobler than joining a celestial choir, melting into a cosmic spirit, or being reincarnated into a higher life-form, because the goal can be justified to any fellow thinker rather than being inculcated to arbitrary factions by charisma, tradition, or force.
So, on the one hand, the human good of reducing violence is not a cosmic purpose, but only a human purpose.  And yet, on the other hand, this goal reflects "an abstract feature of reality," and it can be "justified to any fellow thinker."  What does Pinker mean by "any fellow thinker"?  His reference to the laws of logic and geometry suggests that he means that any rational being would have to agree on the morality of reducing violence, which suggests a Kantian moral imperative of pure reason that does not depend on the natural inclinations of the human animal.  That's what I see as Pinker's Platonic longing.

Would "any fellow thinker" include a rational termite?  Edward O. Wilson has quoted the following excerpt from a commencement address by the dean of the faculty at the International Termite University (In Search of Nature, 1996, pp. 97-99):
On one thing we can surely agree!  We are the pinnacle of 3 billion years of evolution, unique by virtue of our high intelligence, employment of symbolic language, and diversity of cultures evolved over hundreds of generations.  Our species alone has sufficient self-awareness to perceive history and the meaning of personal mortality.  Having largely escaped the sovereignty of our genes, we now base social organization mostly or entirely upon culture.  Our universities disseminate knowledge from the three great branches of learning: the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the termitities.  Since our ancestors, the macrotermitine termites, achieved 10-kilogram weight and larger brains during their rapid evolution through the later Tertiary period and learned to write with pheromone script, termitistic scholarship has refined ethical philosophy.  It is now possible to express the deontological imperatives of moral behavior with precision.  These imperatives are mostly self-evident and universal.  They are the very essence of termitity.  They include the love of darkness and of the deep, saprophytic, basidiomycetic penetralia of the soil; the centrality of colony life amidst a richness of war and trade among colonies; the sanctity of the physiological caste system; the evil of personal reproduction by worker castes; the mystery of deep love for reproductive siblings, which turns to hatred the instant they mate; rejection of the evil of personal rights; the infinite aesthetic pleasures of pheromonal song; the aesthetic pleasure eating from nestmates' anuses after the shedding of the skin; the joy of cannibalism and surrender of the body for consumption when sick or injured (it is more blessed to be eaten than to eat); and much more . . .
Some termitistically inclined scientists, particularly the ethologists and sociobiologists, argue that our social organization is shaped by our genes and that our ethical precepts simply reflect the peculiarities of termite evolution.  They assert that ethical philosophy must take into account the structure of the termite brain and the evolutionary history of the species.  Socialization is genetically channelled, and some forms of it all but inevitable.
This proposal has created a major academic controversy.  Many scholars in the social sciences and termitities, refusing to believe that termite nature can be better understood by a study of fishes and baboons, have withdrawn behind the moat of philosophical dualism and reinforced the crenellated parapets of the formal refutation of the naturalistic fallacy.  They consider the mind to be beyond the reach of materialistic biological research.  A few take the extreme view that conditioning can alter termite culture and ethics in almost any direction desired.  But the biologists respond that termite behavior can never be altered so far as to resemble that of, say, human beings.  There is such a thing as a biologically based termite nature . . .
Wilson explains: "I have concocted this termitocentric fantasy to illustrate a generalization strangely difficult to explain by conventional means: that human beings possess a species-specific nature and morality, which occupy only a tiny section in the space of all possible social and moral conditions."

Contrary to what is suggested by Pinker and Singer, there are no moral truths written into the order of the cosmos that are justifiable to any thinking being.  "Human beings possess a species-specific nature and morality."  And, similarly, any nonhuman animal with cognitive capacities for moral reasoning would arrive at whatever moral imperatives were suited for its species-specific nature.  So, for example, rational termites would reject "the evil of personal rights."

In imagining how termite morality would differ from human morality, Wilson is following the lead of Darwin, who indicated in The Descent of Man that, if bees were capable of moral reasoning, they would develop a moral sense very different from that of human beings.  In her review of Darwin's book, Frances Cobbe was deeply disturbed by this thought, because it denied her belief that moral imperatives were universal and axiomatic truths of the universe that could be discovered by pure reason alone just as we discover the truths of mathematics.

Pinker and Singer often seem to be on the side of Cobbe against Darwin.  And yet they are ambivalent about this, because they recognize that an evolutionary morality must be adapted for the natural inclinations of the species, and thus it has no cosmic truth.  The human good is a discoverable truth about the human species only as long as the human species exists in its present form.  Many contemporary moral philosophers worry that such a species-specific morality that has no foundation in moral cosmology must be purely "fictional."

Some of my blog posts on the Darwin-Cobbe debate can be found here.

Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, and the Perils of Paleolibertarianism

Some polls are predicting that Ron Paul might win the Iowa caucases next week.  As a result of this, Paul is under intense media scrutiny, and the primary center of attention is some newsletters sent out under Paul's name in the 1990s, which suggest racist bigotry.

This is not a new story.  The journalistic reports--including that from the New York Times--are restating what has already been reported years ago in the libertarian media world.  In the 1990s, Paul was captivated by the influence of Murray Rothbard and Lew Rockwell, who were trying to promote a "paleolibertarian" movement that would  bring together libertarians with American Southern traditionalists tracing their roots back to John C. Calhoun and the defenders of American slavery.

American libertarians have recognized the strange and incoherent character of this movement, as indicated by this recent blog by Matt Welch and an earlier blog on

The evidence suggests that the bigoted newsletters were written by Lew Rockwell.  Ron Paul did not write them.  But because of his long friendship with Rockwell, he cannot bring himself to publicly identify Rockwell as the author and repudiate what Rockwell wrote.

Behind all of this is the strange career of Rothbard who fostered the paleolibertarian movement.  Rothbard and I had some common interests in the defense of libertarianism as rooted in a natural law/natural right/Darwinian conception of human liberty.  I met him on one occasion, and we corresponded over the years.  But he was too easily seduced by some strange positions that did not fit well with his libertarian thought.

Just as Barack Obama was forced to repudiate the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Ron Paul will be forced (I hope) to repudiate Lew Rockwell.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Darwinian Cure for Peter Singer's Platonic Longings

It is strange that so many contemporary moral philosophers show a Platonic longing for a cosmic morality of eternal moral truths.  One can see this in their response to evolutionary accounts of morality.  They either totally reject an evolutionary science of morality for failing to grasp the transcendental truth of morality.  Or they accept it as true, but then they worry that this makes morality purely fictional, because an evolutionary morality is not founded in any eternal truth about the universe.

This Platonic longing is evident in the writing of Peter Singer.  I was reminded of this in looking at the new edition, published this year, of Singer's The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress.  When this was first published in 1981, this was the first book-length response to the revival of Darwinian ethics initiated by Edward O. Wilson.  It anticipated the agonizing struggle of philosophers over the past 30 years to come to terms with the new biological and evolutionary studies of morality.

One can see the influence of this book in Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, where Singer's idea of the "expanding circle" guided by the "escalator of reason" is a fundamental theme.  But while Pinker emphasizes the role of reason in moral progress, just as Singer does, Pinker does not fully embrace Singer's Platonic/Kantian rationalism, because Pinker recognizes that pure reason by itself cannot move us to act without emotion or desire, and because he recognizes that whatever moral truths we discover are contingent truths about our evolved human nature, not eternal truths about the universe (see Better Angels, 642-50, 694-96).

The new edition of Expanding Circle has an "Afterword" in which Singer reluctantly admits that he has lost confidence in his earlier Platonism, although he still can't bring himself to give it up.

In the original book, Singer insists: "there is something in ethics which is eternal and universal, not dependent on the existence of human beings or other creatures with preferences.  The process of reasoning we have been discussing is eternal and universal.  That one's interests are one among many sets of interests, no more important than the similar interests of others, is a conclusion that, in principle, any rational being can come to see" (105-106).

But then he immediately adds some comments that show his ambivalence about this.  He notes that it was easy to believe in "moral laws which exist independently of us" when those laws were believed to have been handed down by God.  But now--for people like Singer--this religious belief is impossible.  "And the more we think about what it could mean--outside of a religious framework--for there to be eternal moral truths existing independently of living creatures, the more mysterious it becomes" (106-107).

This is "mysterious," because, as John Mackie argued, this implies some very queer metaphysical entities in the universe, something like Plato's Idea of the Good.  "How can there be something in the universe, existing entirely independently of us and of our aims, desires, and interests, which provides us with reasons for acting in certain ways?" (107).

So, in the original book, Singer left his reader wondering whether he really believed in cosmic moral truths that were "eternal and universal," or whether he regarded such a cosmic morality as too "mysterious" to be credible.

In his new "Afterword," Singer points to this part of his book as showing "how ambivalent I was about the idea of ethics being objectively true and rationally based" (198).  Now, he admits:
I no longer believe that this argument succeeds.  The judgment that "one's own interests are one among many sets of interests" can be accepted as a descriptive claim about our situation in the world, but to add that one's own interests are "no more important than the similar interests of others" is to make a normative claim.  If I deny that normative claims can be true or false, then I cannot assert that this claim is true.  It too could be treated as just one preference among others--except that now there is no basis for saying that we ought to maximize the satisfaction of preferences. . . . The denial of objective truth in ethics thus leads not, as I had tried to argue, to preference utilitarianism as a kind of metaphysically unproblematic default position, but to skepticism about the possibility of reaching any meaningful conclusions at all about what we ought to do.  The only conclusions we could reach would be subjective ones, based on our desires or preferences, and therefore not ones that others with different desires or preferences would have any reason to accept.  I was reluctant to embrace such skeptical or subjectivist views in 1981, and that reluctance has not abated over the intervening years. (199-200)
But then, after making this admission, he concludes in the last sentence of the "Afterword" with an appeal to "the existence of objective moral truths" (204).

One can see this longing for a moral cosmology of eternal and universal truths in Plato's dialogues.  But a careful reading of the dialogues also suggests that while Plato and Plato's Socrates thought such a moral cosmology might be necessary for the good morals of most people, it was not really plausible, because the universe appears to be morally indifferent.  The universe does not care for or about us.  But we care for ourselves.  And that care for ourselves as an expression of our human nature constitutes the natural ground for the human good as perfected in the moral and intellectual virtues.

Darwinian science provides an evolutionary account of life, including human life, that supports such a naturalistic ethics of human care.  The denial of moral cosmology does not drive us into nihilism, because the evolved nature of human beings as caring for themselves constitutes a natural ground for the human good, even though the human species is not eternal or invariant.

These points have been more fully elaborated in some previous posts, which can be found hereherehereherehereherehere, and here

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.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Plantinga on Theism and Science

The New York Times (December 14, 2011) has a good article on Alvin Plantinga's new book, in which he argues that the true enemy of modern science is not theistic religion but metaphysical naturalism. 

Plantinga's scholarship is a remarkable achievement in making a philosophical case for biblical religion, which goes against the grain of modern analytic philosophy's tendency to take atheism for granted.

As I have indicated in a previous post, Plantinga's argument depends on taking a theistic evolutionist position that assumes the truth of Darwinian evolutionary science, while arguing that biblical theism provides support for that science.

I have indicated why I find his argumentation unpersuasive.  But what is most interesting about his reasoning is how biblical believers need to accept evolutionary science in arguing that science and religion are compatible.

Thus, Plantinga belongs to a long tradition of theistic evolutionists that includes people like C. S. Lewis, Pope John Paul II, Francis Collins, and Michael Behe.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Empathy in Rat Choice

Science has just published an article reporting experiments showing empathy in rats.  This supports some of my previous writing on the mammalian basis for empathy as an evolutionary ground for Darwinian natural right. 

Here's the abstract for the article:
Whereas human pro-social behavior is often driven by empathic concern for another, it is unclear whether nonprimate mammals experience a similar motivational state.  To test for empathically motivated pro-social behavior in rodents, we placed a free rat in an arena with a cagemate trapped in a restrainer.  After several sessions, the free rat learned to intentionally and quickly open the restrainer and free the cagemate.  Rats did not open empty or abject-containing restrainers.  They freed cagemates even when social contract was prevented.  When liberating a cagemate was pitted against chocholate contained with a second restrainer, rats opened both restrainers and typically shared the chocolate.  Thus, rats behave pro-socially in response to a conspecific's distress, providing strong evidence for biological roots of empathically motivated helping behavior.
The authors report that the female rats were more empathic than the male rats.  They also report that the levels of empathic behavior were associated with individual differences in boldness, so that those individual rats with personal propensities to bold behavior were more inclined to empathic behavior.

The authors also argue that this shows that the rats were engaging in deliberate action to free their cagemates.

This supports the claims of Aristotle and Darwin that some nonhuman animals--and particularly mammals--are capable of intentional action in caring for individuals for whom they feel some attachment.  Moreover, as indicated by Jaak Panksepp's commentary on this article, research in "affective neuroscience" is uncovering the neural basis for social emotions, which allows us to see how the evolution of morality and politics could emerge from the evolution of the mammalian brain.  Human morality and politics are unique insofar as they show the uniqueness of the human capacities for high-level mental processing in the neocortex, and yet even this can be explained by the natural evolution of the neocortical structures of the primate brain.

Many years ago, I was interviewed for a job in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rochester.  At that time, the Department was famous for promoting "rational choice theory" in political science--explaining politics through economic models of human beings as rational maximizers of their self-interest.  I gave a job talk that was entitled "Emotional Choice Theory," in which I criticized rational choice thinking for failing to see the importance of social emotions in human behavior, which are best explained through evolutionary psychology.  As you might expect, my talk was not well received.

If I were giving that job talk today, I might be more persuasive by pointing out how research in evolutionary psychology--as, for example, in studies of empathy in mammalian psychology--has challenged rational choice theory by showing how the economic model of Homo economicus needs to be combined with a Darwinian model of Homo moralis


Inbal Ben-Ami Bartal, Jean Decety, and Peggy Mason, "Empathy and Pro-Social Behavior in Rats," Science, 334 (9 December, 2011): 1427-30.

Jaak Panksepp, "Empathy and the Laws of Affect," Science, 334 (9 December, 2011): 1358-59.

Jaak Panksepp, "The Basic Emotional Circuits of Mammalian Brains: Do Animals Have Affective Lives?" Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35 (2011): 1791-1804.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The End of Manliness?

Steven Pinker's history of declining violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature seems to be a history of declining manliness.  A pervasive theme of his book is that violence comes from men fighting over matters of honor, and therefore the historical trend towards declining violence requires a turn away from the culture of manly honor. 

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.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

John Gray's Counter-Enlightenment Attack on Steven Pinker

Perhaps the most vehement attack on Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature is John Gray's review in Prospect magazine.  Gray is just as vehement in his attack on Frank Fukuyama's Origins of Political Order in The New Republic (November 9, 2011).  Both reviews show Gray's angry scorn for liberal capitalist republicanism and his nihilistic disdain for the Enlightenment idea of moral progress.

Gray's commitment to the intellectual tradition of the counter-Enlightenment is evident in his books Straw Dogs and Black Mass, and in an interview with Laurie Taylor.  A. C. Grayling has written a good rebuttal.  (See Peter Lassman, "Pluralism and its Discontents: John Gray's Counter-Enlightenment," in John Horton and Glen Newey, eds., The Political Theory of John Gray [Routledge, 2007].)

Gray dismisses the idea of moral progress in history as showing a utopian blindness to the harsh reality of the human condition, a utopianism that can only be explained as a secularization in the Enlightenment of the Christian faith in salvational history as leading to a final age of redemptive bliss.

Grayling points to the fundamental idea that Gray ignores: "trying to make things better is not the same as believing that they can be made perfect. . . . meliorism is not perfectibilism."  Contrary to what Gray implies, Pinker never claims that human history is headed towards the perfection of perpetual peace--a world without any war or violence.  But Pinker does claim that history shows a general pattern of declining war and violence, although the pattern can be broken by random contingencies that lead to irruptions of horrific killing. 

Another way of saying this is that Gray fails to see the differences between the French Enlightenment, on the one hand, and the British and American Enlightenments, on the other.  Pinker embraces the "tragic vision" of the British and American Enlightenments, in which human progress was constrained by the imperfections of human nature, in contrast to the utopian perfectionism in some strands of the French Enlightenment that explains the excesses of the French Revolution.  Pinker writes: "An acknowledgement of human nature may have been the chief difference between the American revolutionaries and their French confreres, who had the romantic conviction that they were rendering human limitations obsolete.  In 1794, Maximilien Robespierre, architect of the Terror, wrote, 'The French people seem to have outstripped the rest of humanity by two thousand years; one might be tempted to regard them, living amongst them, as a different species'" (185-86).

A crucial part of Pinker's argument is numerous statistical analyses of historical data showing a decline in violence.  How does Gray respond to this?  He repeatedly speaks about Pinker's "impressive-looking graphs and statistics," his "not always very illuminating statistics," and his "panoply of statistics and graphs and the resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts."  That's it.  He breezily dismisses the statistics as "impressive-looking" without ever explaining what's wrong with the statistical arguments.  In fact, he never even mentions any of the details of these arguments, and thus he refuses to specify exactly what he thinks is wrong with Pinker's statistical reasoning.  We can see here the style of writing that Gray prefers--confident assertion unsupported by factual or argumentative reasoning.

Gray might respond to this by insisting that he has demonstrated Pinker's "resolute avoidance of inconvenient facts" by citing the many wars of the past 65 years that are ignored by Pinker.  Against Pinker's claim that the world has enjoyed a "Long Peace" since World War II, during which the Great Powers have not fought one another, Gray writes:
The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war--these are only some of the armed conflicts through which the great powers pursued their rivalries while avoiding direct war with each other.  When the end of the Cold War removed the Soviet Union from the scene, war did not end.  It continued in the first Gulf war, the Balkan wars, Chechnya, the Iraq war and in Afghanistan and Kashmir, among other conflicts.  Taken together these conflicts add up to a formidable sum of violence.  For Pinker they are minor, peripheral and hardly worth mentioning.
Gray's readers are left with the impression that Pinker says nothing about these 19 wars listed by Gray because for Pinker, they are "hardly worth mentioning."  But any reader who actually looks at Pinker's book will notice that not only does he mention most of these wars, he offers evidence that they conform to the pattern of declining violence.  Consider, for example, the following passage:
To be sure, the American-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century show that the country is far from reluctant to go to war.  But even they are nothing like the wars of the past.  In both conflicts the interstate war phase was quick and (by historical standards) low in battle deaths.  Most of the deaths in Iraq were caused by intercommunal violence in the anarchy that followed, and by 2008 the toll of 4,000 American deaths (compare Vietnam's 58,000) helped elect a president who within two years brought the country's combat mission to an end.  In Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force followed a set of humanitarian protocols during the height of the anti-Taliban bombing campaign in 2008 that Human Rights Watch praised for its "very good record of minimizing harm to civilians." (266)
Pinker's point is that even as the U.S. continues to fight wars, we can see the pattern of declining violence in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they show "an extraordinarily low number of civilian deaths for a major military operation" (267).  If there is a flaw in Pinker's reasoning, Gray has not identified it.

Furthermore, Gray is silent about how Pinker sets the "Long Peace" of the past 65 years at the end of a history of declining violence stretching back to the Stone Age.  It's the expansiveness of this deep historical pattern that makes Pinker's argument so powerful.  Gray does not even acknowledge this, much less refute it.

Oddly enough, Gray does acknowledge--in one sentence--that "no doubt we have become less violent in some ways."  This seems to be an admission that Pinker's argument is at least partially true.  But Gray says nothing more about this. 

Actually, I suspect that Gray has not bothered to read all of Pinker's book.  There is lots of evidence for this in Gray's review.  For example, Gray suggests that Pinker has ignored the scientific evidence showing that "human thought and perception are riddled with bias, inconsistency, and self-deception."  And yet Pinker actually stresses this point as part of his argument, because he explains that one reason why it's hard for us to see the decline in violence over human history is the "availability bias"--the illusion of calculating probabilities based on examples that are most easily recalled.  So we easily remember the dramatic atrocities of the recent past, but we are unaware of the great atrocities of the distant past, so we infer that violence is increasing rather than decreasing, and thus it has become a cliche to say that "the twentieth century was the bloodiest in history," although a statistical analysis of history denies this (189-99).  This is one of the main ideas of Pinker's book.  Gray says nothing about it.

Gray asserts that The Better Angels of Our Nature contradicts Pinker's earlier book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002).  In Blank Slate, Gray says, Pinker's "emphasis on the constancy of human nature limited the scope of future human advance."  By contrast, "the decline of violence posited in The Better Angels of Our Nature is a progressive transformation of precisely the kind his earlier book seemed to preclude."  But as I have pointed out in an earlier post, Pinker's argument in Better Angels is largely an elaboration of what he said in Chapter 17 ("Violence") of The Blank Slate.  There's no contradiction in saying that both violent conflict and peaceful cooperation are rooted in human nature, and so, while violence can never be completely eliminated, we can see moral progress towards declining violence as conditions cultivate the "better angels of our nature."

Another bizarre feature of Gray's review is that he accuses Pinker of not understanding Darwin's evolutionary science.  According to Gray, Darwin teaches us that moral progress is impossible, and thus "if Darwin's theory is even approximately right, there can be no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour."  Gray does not cite any particular passages in Darwin's writing to support this conclusion.  His only support is a vague assertion that Darwin taught that human beings are just brute animals, and therefore they can never rise above the violence of the animal world.  This ignores Darwin's insistence in the Descent of Man that the cultural evolution of reciprocal cooperation supports moral progress.  So, for instance, he declares in the last chapter: "The moral nature of man has reached its present standard, partly through the advancement of his reasoning powers and consequently of a just public opinion, but especially from his sympathies having been rendered more tender and widely diffused through the effects of habit, example, instruction, and reflection."

Gray's assertions about Darwin are as ungrounded as those about Pinker.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Is the Decline in Violence the Road to Voluntaria?

Ron Bailey has interviewed Steve Pinker in a video for Reason magazine.  One can see here that libertarians like Bailey are attracted to the argument of Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature, because they would like to see the evolutionary decline in violence as a historical trend towards a libertarian future in which societies would be organized through voluntary cooperation rather than physical force.

In fact, there are many parts of Pinker's book where he points to the moral and political philosophy of classical liberalism or libertarianism as a prime factor favoring the decline in violence (xxi, 180, 237, 284-88, 636-37, 662-63, 690-92).  As I have suggested in my previous post, the libertarian implications of Pinker's argument become even more evident when one looks at James Payne's book A History of Force and notices how much of Payne's thinking has shaped Pinker's writing. 

But while Payne is explicit--in the last chapter of his book--in indicating how the historical decline in violence provides "lessons for voluntarists," Pinker refrains from any open endorsement of libertarianism.  Payne has adopted the "voluntaryism" of Auberon Herbert, a British libertarian individualist.  Although Herbert was sometimes identified as an anarchist, he refused to accept that label, because he thought there was a proper role for government in using force defensively against aggressors who have initiated force, but he denied that government could initiate force to advance seemingly good ends.  He regarded the use or threat of physical violence as the greatest evil in human life, because it denied the liberty that was the condition for human happiness.  He accepted the purely defensive use of violence against violent aggressors--murderers, thieves, invaders, and so on--as a necessary evil dictated by human imperfection.  Herbert's thought has been summarized by Eric Mack and Gary Galles.  In recent decades, the "voluntaryist" position has been revived by Carl Watner and others.

Having adopted this libertarian voluntarism, Payne goes further in rejecting violence than does Pinker.  Like Pinker, Payne recognizes and celebrates all of the historical trends towards reducing violence.  But unlike Pinker, Payne laments that we still rely too much on coercive force.  He observes: "Judging from some of our practices, we do indeed appear to believe that force is a sound and proper basis for human institutions.  The modern welfare state with all its taxation and regulation utterly depends on it" (249).

In Payne's book on the history of force, there is a chapter on taxation as a form of legalized violence, in which government agents use force or the threat of force to compel people to give up their money.   Although this is widely accepted today, Payne looks forward to the future evolutionary decline in violence as bringing about the abolition of taxation.  By contrast, Pinker says nothing about taxation as violence.  Nor does he look forward to its elimination as part of the historical trend towards declining violence.

That we could abolish taxation sounds ridiculously utopian to many of us, because we agree with Oliver Wendell Holmes that the coercion of taxation is "the price we pay for civilization."  But Payne responds by observing that this is what people in the past thought about torturing prisoners, burning heretics, and other forms of cruelty that were thought to be absolutely necessary for maintaining social order.  Through a gradual process of evolution, we have learned that such violent practices are unnecessary and undesirable.  Similarly, Payne argues, we will eventually discover that without coercive taxation, we can fund our public projects through voluntary means such as lotteries, user fees, and philanthropic generosity.

Payne has defended his libertarian voluntarism in a series of fictional works written in the style of children's books.  In the last book in the series--Princess Narnia Visits Voluntaria--he presents the land of Voluntaria, where people organize their social order through voluntary cooperation.  

The people of Voluntaria have no conception of government, and it seems that they have no need for government, and therefore that they are living in pure anarchy.  But it turns out that they do have something that looks like government, although it's very limited.  In each community, there is a voluntary association to punish criminals--murderers, thieves, and others who initiate aggressive force.  If government is defined as an agency for using force, then this is government.  But this government uses force only negatively or reactively to restrain aggressive force.  If government is defined positively as an agency that initiates public force to solve social problems or to punish nonviolent behavior that is regarded as offensive, then Voluntaria has no government.

If the entire course of human history shows a progressive decline in violence, as Pinker and Payne argue, can we anticipate, as Payne argues, that we are on the evolutionary road to Voluntaria?   

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pinker and Payne: Does Declining Violence Mean Increasing Liberty?

That human history shows a general decline in violence has emerged in recent years as one of the greatest discoveries of social scientific research.  It has taken me many years to realize that.  And it has only slowly dawned on me that this has deep implications for political theory, because it provides dramatic support for Darwinian liberalism.

I first began to think about this when I read Michael Doyle's article "Liberalism and World Politics" in 1986 (in The American Political Science Review).  He convinced me that the empirical data of wars and violence over the last 200 years strongly supported some of Immanuel Kant's arguments for a liberal peace.  Liberal commercial republics are less inclined to go to war than other kinds of regimes, and as the cultural values of liberal commercial republicanism have spread around the world, there has been a decline in war and violence.

In 2000, Robert Wright's Nonzero persuaded me that the entire evolutionary history of life might be rightly understood as a history of expanding cooperation producing ever increasing gains through the logic of nonzero-sum games.

More recently, Azar Gat's War in Human Civilization and Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature have surveyed the research showing that this decline in violence is a trend over all of human history from the Stone Age to the present, and this seems powerfully persuasive to me.

This seems to confirm the evolutionary liberalism of the 19th century--particularly, as formulated by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin--because we seem to see here that Darwin was right in his vision of the future: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races."  According to Darwin, the most recent advance of sympathy extends it even beyond humanity to include the lower animals, so that now we can see "the most noble attribute of man" in the "disinterested love for all living creatures."

In Darwinian Natural Right (pp. 143-49), I rejected this as Darwin's "moral utopianism," while I defended Darwin's "moral realism."  Darwin's moral utopianism is clearest in the section of the Descent of Man (2004: 147-50) where he cites "our great philosopher Herbert Spencer."  In some of my blog posts, I have criticized Spencer's evolutionary utopianism.

But I now think that I was wrong, because recognizing the evolutionary trend away from violent conflict and towards peaceful cooperation arises not from a naive utopianism but from an optimistic realism that vindicates evolutionary liberalism.

This has become clear to me from reading Pinker's Better Angels along with a book that Pinker often cites--James Payne's History of Force.  What is implicit in Pinker's book becomes explicit in Payne's book--that the evolutionary history of declining violence confirms Spencerian/Darwinian liberalism, because it shows how human beings through a long history of trial-and-error learning have discovered the benefits of peaceful cooperation and the costs of violent aggression.  Moreover, this also confirms the classical liberal insight that declining violence coincides with increasing liberty.

Payne brings this out more clearly than does Pinker, because Payne is explicit in his commitment to classical liberalism or libertarianism.  If one accepts the classical liberal or libertarian definition of liberty as arising from the absence of coercive violence, then a decline in violence means an increase in liberty, as people enjoy the benefits of voluntary cooperation while minimizing the costs of violent conflict. (This conception of liberty corresponds to what Isaiah Berlin called "negative liberty.")

As Payne indicates, the classical liberal thinkers of the 19th century were the first political theorists to adopt the reduction in the use of force as their fundamental political principle.  Although previously some political theorists had condemned some uses of force, they also wanted to use force to promote what they regarded as good ends for social and political life.  The classical liberals were the first political theorists to see how the reduction in the use of force was the fundamental condition for human progress.  In particular, Payne has adopted the position of Auberon Herbert's "voluntaryism."

Payne's "voluntarism" holds that "all uses of force, even those that seem most necessary and unavoidable today, are slated for eventual displacement" (250).  Although this might seem utopian, it's realistic insofar as Payne recognizes that even as we renounce "the assertive use of force," we must accept "the reactive use of force," in using force against aggressors.  Pure pacifism or nonviolence does not work as long as there are individuals and groups who will aggressively use force for predatory purposes.  "The goal of reducing the use of force cannot be achieved by applying the principle of never using force!" (253)

This evolutionary liberalism allows us to avoid the utopianism of absolute pacifism while allowing for a continuing evolutionary trend away from violence.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

The Optimistic Realism of Pinker's Darwinian Liberalism

When I was writing Darwinian Conservatism, Steven Pinker's book The Blank Slate was a big influence on my thinking, because he showed how Darwinian science supported a tragic vision of human nature that is fundamental for traditionalist conservatism or classical liberalism.  But some readers of Pinker's new book--The Better Angels of Our Nature--might conclude that Pinker has turned against my thinking, because now he seems to argue that the cultural trends favoring peace have overcome the violent propensities of human nature, and thus he seems to have embraced the utopian vision of the Left that I rejected in Darwinian Conservatism.  From my reading of Pinker, however, I think that while he occasionally comes close in the new book to adopting a rationalist utopianism, he generally adheres to an optimistic realism that is compatible with The Blank Slate.

In Chapter 16 ("Politics") of The Blank Slate, Pinker adopts Thomas Sowell's dualistic analysis of the political spectrum that has dominated the last two centuries of political debate.  In A Conflict of Visions, Sowell sees a contrast between a Constrained Vision and an Unconstrained Vision.  Pinker prefers the terms Tragic Vision and Utopian Vision.  In the Tragic Vision, human nature is limited in virtue and knowledge, and these limits constrain what we can do in our social arrangements, so that we should respect those traditional practices that have been tested by experience although they were not rationally designed.  In the Utopian Vision, by contrast, human nature changes through changes in our social circumstances, and consequently we can experiment with rationally designed social reforms that change human nature to achieve social improvement, and thus we should not accept any limits coming from traditional institutions that are not products of rational planning.  Although there is some fuzziness in this bifurcation, those on the Right are generally on the side of the Tragic Vision, while those on the Left are generally on the side of the Utopian Vision.

In The Blank Slate, Pinker argues that the new biological sciences of human nature support the Tragic Vision of the political right and deny the Utopian Vision of the political left, because the life sciences show the moral and intellectual limitations of human nature that are recognized in the social theory of traditionalist conservatives like Michael Oakeshott and classical liberals like Friedrich Hayek (284-94).  He also suggests, however, that as some leftists embrace Darwinian science and give up their utopianism--for example, Peter Singer's "Darwinian left"--there might be new ideological alignments.  The non-Utopian left might align itself with the secular right against the religious right (299, 305).

But even as he stressed the constraints on social planning coming from evolved human nature, Pinker also argued that that evolved human nature provided the resources for social progress (159-185).  Moreover, he suggested that this natural human capacity for progress was most evident in the history of violence.  In Chapter 17 ("Violence"), he showed how the sciences of human nature refuted the belief that human violence was purely cultural and thus easily eliminated by cultural reform.  And yet he also showed how the evolutionary logic of violence could explain the situations in which violence can be controlled and reduced.
This is necessary to disentangle the knot of biological and cultural causes that make violence so puzzling.  It can help explain why people are prepared for violence but act on those inclinations only in particular circumstances; when violence is, at least in some sense, rational and when it is blatantly self-defeating; why violence is more prevalent in some times and places than in others, despite a lack of any genetic difference among the actors; and, ultimately, how we might reduce and prevent violence. (317)
He then lays out that logic of violence and its decline over history in 18 pages (318-336).  Better Angels is a very long (800 pages!) elaboration of this section of The Blank Slate.

In Better Angels, Pinker's sustained defense of Enlightenment rationalism sometimes looks like a defense of the Utopian Vision against the Realist Vision, particularly when he defends Enlightenment humanism against its critics and identifies Edmund Burke--a proponent of the tragic vision of human nature--as one of its leading critics (184-86).  But even here, he concedes that Burke's criticism of the French Revolution for its attack on the spontaneous orders of civilized traditions was justified.  Pinker praises the American Revolution as superior to the French Revolution, because the Americans worked within the "English Civilizing Process," which supported the exercise of prudence in pursuing social reforms.

Although Pinker never mentions Gertrude Himmelfarb's book The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments (2004), Pinker implicitly accepts Himmelfarb's insight that the Enlightenment took multiple forms, and that while the French Enlightenment embraced a rationalistic utopianism that was disastrous, the British and American Enlightenments embraced a prudent realism that fostered a prudent road to modern progress.

Although Enlightenment reason plays a large role in Pinker's account of the decline of violence, he recognizes that pure reason by itself cannot motivate human beings unless it is joined to the moral emotions, and thus he is on the side of British Enlightenment thinkers like Burke and Hume who were skeptical of abstract rationalism.

And although he is remarkably optimistic about the strength of the historical trends favoring the decline in violence, he is still realistic in recognizing that the complete elimination of all violence and war is impossible.  He sees that "a perfect fusion of the interests of every living human is an unattainable nirvana" (689).  "Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth.  A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the form of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred" (646).

I am not sure, however, whether Pinker would agree with me that war is one of the 20 natural desires of human beings.  I believe that human beings desire war when fear, interest, or honor move them to fight for their community against opposing communities.  I agree with Pinker that these motives for violence--fear, interest, and honor--can be moderated in ways that promote peace and reduce violence.  But I also think that the tragic structure of human social nature makes it impossible to totally eliminate these motives.

I will have to say more in some future posts.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Pinker and the Pope Condemn Religious Violence

Steven Pinker and Pope Benedict XVI seem to agree with one another in condemning religious violence.

In The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Pinker explains the Darwinian evolutionary process by which violence has declined in human history.  For Pinker, one manifestation of this evolutionary shift is that while "the Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery," most biblical believers today--Jews and Christians--reject the sanctified cruelty of the Bible.  "Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible.  They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles" (10-12).

Pinker explains this as showing the "benevolent hypocrisy" of biblical believers:
Of course most devout Christians today are thoroughly tolerant and humane people.  Even those who thunder from televised pulpits do not call for burning heretics alive or hoisting Jews on the strappado.  The question is why they don't, given that their beliefs imply that it would serve the greater good.  The answer is that people in the West today compartmentalize their religious ideology.  When they affirm their faith in houses of worship, they profess beliefs that have barely changed in two thousand years.  But when it comes to their actions, they respect modern norms of nonviolence and toleration, a benevolent hypocrisy for which we should all be grateful. (17)
A few days ago, the Pope acknowledged that violence has often been religiously motivated, while insisting that religious people should find this disturbing, and Christians should feel shame for the history of Christian violence.
As a Christian, I want to say at this point: yes, it is true, in the course of history, force has also been used in the name of the Christian faith.  We acknowledge it with great shame.  But it is utterly clear that this was an abuse of the Christian faith, one that evidently contradicts its true nature.  The God in whom we Christians believe is the Creator and Father of all, and from Him all people are brothers and sisters and form one single family.  For us the Cross of Christ is the sign of the God Who put 'suffering-with' (compassion) and 'loving-with' in place of force. . . . It is the task of all who bear responsibility for the Christian faith to purify the religion of Christians again and again from its very heart, so that it truly serves as an instrument of God's peace in the world, despite the fallibility of humans.
In other statements, the Pope has made clear that what he is condemning, in particular, are the faults of the Catholic Church in sanctioning the propagation of the faith through violence--as in the Inquisition and the Crusades.

But while Pinker sees this as the "benevolent hypocrisy" of biblical believers who reject the religious violence of the Bible, the Pope sees this as recognizing that religious violence is "an abuse of the Christian faith."

In asking forgiveness for the faults of the Church in promoting religious violence, Pope Benedict XVI continues a position that began with his predecessor--John Paul II.  This is remarkable, because as far as I know, this is the first time in the history of the Church that Popes have asked forgiveness for the sinfulness of the Church in supporting unjustified violence.

As Cardinal Ratzinger, and Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Pope has previously endorsed a remarkable statement of the International Theological Commission (ITC) in 1999 on "The Church and the Faults of the Past." 

Following the lead of Pope John Paul II, this statement explores the reasoning for the Church's confession of faults and asking forgiveness.  This is recognized as a radical move: "in the entire history of the Church, there are no precedents for requests for forgiveness by the Magisterium for past wrongs" (1.1).

This is an amazing confirmation of Pinker's argument about the power of the evolutionary historical forces in pushing for a decline in violence, including religious violence.

As the ITC statement makes clear, there are two interrelated problems.  How can the Church confess the faults of the past without denying the divine authority of the Church?  And how can the Church condemn the religious violence of the Bible without denying the divine authority of the Bible?

To the first question, the answer is that the Church is "at the same time holy and ever in need of purification" (sec. 3).  This is supported by Thomas Aquinas's claim that the Church cannot be sinless in its earthly pilgrimage, because the fullness of its holiness will be achieved only in Heaven (3.3, quoting ST, III, q. 8, a. 3, ad 2).

To the second question--about the authority of the Bible--the answer is ambiguous.  The ITC statement agrees with Pinker's comment about the Bible--particularly, the Old Testament--being "staggering in its savagery."  It is troublesome, then, that the Old Testament never shows the people of Israel asking forgiveness for their unjustified violence against their enemies.  Although we see people confessing their sins before God, we don't see them confessing their sins before the people they have injured.  Why not?
We can propose various hypotheses in response to this question.  First, there is the prevalent theocentrism of the Bible, which gives precedence to the acknowledgement, whether individual or national, of the faults committed against God.  What is more, acts of violence perpetrated by Israel against other peoples, which would seem to require a request for forgiveness from those peoples or from their descendants, are understood to be the execution of divine directives, as for example Gn 2-11and Dt 7:2 (the extermination of the Canaanites), or 1 Sm 15 and Dt 25:19 (the destruction of the Amalekites).  In such cases, the involvement of a divine command would seem to exclude any possible request for forgiveness.  The experiences of maltreatment suffered by Israel at the hands of other peoples and the animosity thus aroused could also have militated against the idea of asking pardon of these people for the evil done to them. (2.1)
If one reads this passage carefully, one can see a quiet admission that we must recognize that the Bible is mistaken when it reports God as commanding unjust violence.  The people of Israel saw no need to be forgiven for acts of violence that they "understood to be the execution of divine directives," and thus "the involvement of a divine command would seem to exclude any possible request for forgiveness."  Is this a hint that they were mistaken?  That what the Bible reports as "divine directives" for unjust violence is wrong?

Turning to the New Testament, the ITC statement emphasizes that the "frailties of Jesus' disciples" are acknowledged, especially in the gospel of Mark, and this includes Peter, whom the Church regards as the first Bishop of Rome and the source of the apostolic succession for the divine authority of the popes (2.2).

And yet, the New Testament never shows the first Christians confessing the faults of the Old Testament past.  Consequently, John Paul II's calls for admitting the guilt of the Church in religious violence "do not find an exact parallel in the Bible" (2.4).

So how do we explain this move by John Paul II, which has been continued by Benedict XVI?  One answer suggested by the ITC statement is that there has been a "paradigm change":
While before the Enlightenment there existed a sort of osmosis between Church and State, between faith and culture, morality and law, from the eighteenth century onward this relationship was modified significantly.  The result was a transition from a sacral society to a pluralist society, or, as occurred in a few cases, to a secular society.  The models of thought and action, the so-called "paradigms" of actions and evaluation, change.  Such a transition has a direct impact on moral judgments, although this influence does not justify in any way a relativistic idea of moral principles or of the nature of morality itself. (5.1)
Pinker stresses the importance of Enlightenment thought in supporting the "humanitarian revolution" (129-188) as one of the historical trends favoring a decline in violence.  This was part of a larger shift in thought towards classical liberalism, in which religious belief became a matter of individual liberty and conscience expressed in the voluntary associations of civil society but not coercively enforced by government.  Now, it seems that the Catholic Church has embraced liberalism in accepting the move from a premodern "sacral society," in which violence could be used to enforce religion, to a "pluralist society" or "secular society," based on religious toleration and nonviolence.

Rather than seeing this as a break from traditional Christianity, we might see it as a return to the position of the first Christians in the New Testament.  After all, with the possible exception of the book of Revelation, the Christians of the New Testament are never presented as using coercive violence to compel religious belief.  Believers punish heretics by expelling them from their churches, but they never try to execute them.  The execution of heretics in the Inquisition had no clear basis in the New Testament.  That's why Christians like Roger Williams could argue that a policy of absolute toleration--even for atheists--was part of the New Testament teaching of Christianity, as opposed to the theocracy of the Old Testament.

The evolutionary history of strengthening the "better angels of our nature" to promote a decline in unjustified violence can be rightly understood as a fulfillment of true Christianity.

Some related posts can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Steven Pinker and The Evolutionary Decline of Violence

I am reading Steven Pinker's new book--The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  This will be the first of a series of posts on questions raised by the book.

The cover of this book has a beautiful reproduction of Rembrandt's painting of "The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God," which is based on the famous story of Abraham's faith being tested by God's command to sacrifice his son to God (Genesis 22:10-12).  This is a vivid way to capture the argument of the book.  Isaac is bound on top of a stack of wood.  One of Abraham's hands forcefully holds down Isaac's head.  The other hand has held a knife and is thrusting towards Isaac's chest.  But the angel has grabbed his wrist so that the knife falls from his hand.  (Oddly, the book jacket reproduction is actually a mirror image of the original painting, so that Abraham is stabbing with his left hand rather than his right hand.)

The painting is a compelling depiction of the disturbing questions raised by the story.  Abraham is vigorously executing God's command to murder Isaac, which shows his faith.  But the angel's intervention suggests that God knows that this is wrong.  And yet, we wonder, if God knows it's wrong, why did he command it?  Are we being taught that there is no natural standard of right and wrong, because whatever God commands is right?  Should we infer from this that, as Kierkegaard argued, this story shows that total faith requires a "suspension of the ethical"?

From Pinker's perspective, what this really shows is the tension between the "better angels of our nature"--as Abraham Lincoln called them--that favor peaceful cooperation and the "inner demons" that move us to violent conflict.  The tension is not within God's will, but within human nature.  Unfortunately, Pinker suggests, the belief that one is executing God's will can release the inner demons of human nature and suppress the better angels.   

We can see this in Thomas Aquinas's writings.  Thomas justifies Abraham's binding of Isaac by arguing that it cannot be wrong for God to command us to kill an innocent person, because God's command can never be wrong (ST, I-II, q. 100, a. 8, ad 3; II-II, q. 64, a. 6, ad 3; q. 104, a. 4, ad 2).  And yet Thomas indicates the contradiction here between natural reason and supernatural revelation when he observes: "Abraham did not sin in being willing to slay his innocent son, because he obeyed God, although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason" (ST, II-II, q. 154, a. 2, ad 2). 

Similarly, Thomas justifies the violence of the Inquisition by insisting that any Christian who disagrees with even one article of faith as set down by the authority of the Catholic Church, residing primarily in the Pope, can be rightly "exterminated from the world by death" (ST, II-II, q. 5, a. 3; q. 11, aa. 1-2). 

The peak of Christian sadism comes when Thomas teaches that part of the blessedness of Heaven will be that the saved will be able to look down into Hell and rejoice at the eternal torment of the damned (ST, suppl., q. 94, aa. 1-3).

And yet, Thomas shows another side of his teaching when he argues that it does not belong to human law to punish all vices.  "Human law is established for the collectivity of human beings, most of whom have imperfect virtue.  And so human law does not prohibit every kind of vice, from which the virtuous abstain.  Rather, human law prohibits only the more serious kinds of vice, from which most persons can abstain, and especially those vices that inflict harm on others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be preserved.  For example, human laws prohibit murders, thefts, and the like" (ST, I-II, q. 96, a. 3).  Here Thomas points to the central principle of liberal jurisprudence--that the primary aim of law is not to force people to be perfectly virtuous but to prohibit any conduct that inflicts harm on others, and particularly violent harm.

Pinker's book is about the history of the great transformation in human life by which we have moved from the violent conflict of Thomas's medieval world to the peaceful cooperation of the modern world.  Pinker's history is a story of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces.

The first trend in the decline of violence was the Pacification Process, by which agricultural civilizations used governmental institutions and formal laws to reduce the violence of raiding and feuding endemic to the state of nature of foraging and horticultural societies.

The second trend was the Civilizing Process, by which centralized authority and commercial society in early modern Europe reduced the violence and brutality characteristic of the Middle Ages.

The third trend was the Humanitarian Revolution, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, by which the European Enlightenment reduced socially sanctioned forms of violence such as slavery and torture.

The fourth trend was the Long Peace, after World War II, the longest period in history in which the great powers have not fought wars with one another.

The fifth trend is the New Peace, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, in which all kinds of organized conflicts have declined.

Finally, the sixth trend, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, is the Rights Revolution, by which human beings have shown increasing disgust towards violence directed at persecuted groups, such as ethnic minorities, women, children, and homosexuals.

Much of Pinker's argumentation for these six trends depends on marshaling the quantitative data showing the decline in violence.  The absolute level of deaths by homicide in the modern world--as, for example, in the two world wars--can be very high, and that makes us think that the modern world is much more violent than the premodern world.  But Pinker shows that when we look at the level of homicidal violence in proportion to the human population, we can see that the per capita rate of homicide has dropped dramatically across human history.

To understand the causes of violence, we must understand the "five inner demons" of human nature.

To understand the psychology of violence, Pinker argues, we must understand the complex interaction between many environmental, social, and neurobiological factors.

The first inner demon is instrumental violence, or violence employed as a practical means to any end.

The second inner demon is dominance, or violence employed to gain power or glory in contests over prestige.

The third inner demon is revenge, or violence employed by a moralistic desire for retributive punishment.

The fourth inner demon is sadism, or violence employed because of one's pleasure in the suffering of others.

The fifth inner demon is ideology, or violence employed as a means to achieve some utopian vision of human perfection grounded in a shared utopian belief system.

These five inner demons are countered by four better angels.

The first better angel is empathy, or a sympathetic concern for the pains and pleasures of others.

The second better angel is self-control, or the habituated ability to inhibit our impulses based on our anticipation of the bad consequences of impulsive behavior.

The third better angel is the moral sense, or the social norms governing conduct that can sometimes reduce violence, but which can also increase violence towards those outside of one's group.

The fourth better angel is reason, or the capacity of deliberate judgment by which we see ourselves as others see us, by which we expand our moral concern to ever wider circles of humanity, and by which we can plan how to use the other better angels of our nature to improve our social life.

The success of these better angels in promoting peaceful cooperation and reducing violent conflict depends on five historical forces.

The first historical force is the Leviathan, or the legal and governmental institutions that mediate conflict in ways that reduce the disorder that comes from the selfish impulses that incline us to exploitation and vengeance.

The second historical force is commerce, or the exchange of goods and ideas over ever longer distances and ever larger groups of people, so that we see people as valuable trading partners, and consequently we are less inclined to attack them.

The third historical force is feminization, or the process by which the increasing status and influence of women has promoted feminine caregiving as a check on male violence.

The fourth historical force is cosmopolitanism, or the globalization of human culture by which an increasing number of people expand their circle of sympathetic concern.

The fifth historical force is the escalator of reason, or the growing application of human rationality to recognizing how violence becomes self-defeating and how peaceful cooperation with an ever expanding circle of trading partners becomes beneficial for all.

There is much here that deserves comment.  But my first thought is that Pinker's book confirms and deepens much of what I have written about deep history, coevolutionary history, and Darwinian liberalism.

When Thomas Huxley in 1860 proclaimed that Darwin's Origin of Species would become a powerful weapon for liberalism, he anticipated how evolutionary science would eventually explain the emergence of modern liberal social thought as the culmination of the deep evolutionary history of humanity.  Pinker's book can now be added to a collection of recent books--including Douglass North, John J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast, Violence and Social Orders (2009), and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist (2010)--that survey the recent research on human evolution as a history of liberalism.

Every human society throughout history has faced the problem of violence.  No society can solve this problem by eliminating violence completely, because the tendency to violence is too deeply rooted in human nature and the human condition.  But violence can be contained and managed, and the different kinds of social order can be distinguished by how they do that and by how well they do it.  The modern liberal society can be recognized as the best society because it contains and manages violence more successfully than any other social order.

North, Wallis, and Weingast distinguish three broad kinds of social order: the foraging order of hunter-gatherers, the agrarian order of states based on agricultural production, and the open access societies that have arisen only in the last few centuries.  In the foraging order, social norms are enforced by vengeance and vigilante justice, so that violence is checked by retaliation.  But in the absence of impartial judges and formal law, foraging societies tend to fall into a violent state of nature caught in cycles of feuding and raiding. 

Hobbes and Locke saw the need for pacifying this conflict through formal laws and government that came with the establishment of agricultural communities and the invention of writing.  But Locke also saw the tendency to despotic violence in agrarian states and thus the need for limited government and the protection of liberty.

The open access order of liberal capitalist republics constrains and manages conflict through free competition and cooperation.  An open polity provides free access to political organizations.  An open economy provides free access to economic organizations.  And an open society provides free access to ideas and culture.

As liberal capitalist republicanism has spread around the world and as the liberal regimes are bound together in global networks of open political, economic, and cultural exchange, violence has been reduced to the lowest levels of human history.

The liberal success in constraining and managing violence promotes the political good of liberty, the economic good of prosperity, and the cultural goods of moral and intellectual excellence.

Some posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.