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.

Friday, October 07, 2011

The X-Men and Darwinian Natural Right

In the current issue of Salvo Magazine, Cameron Wybrow has an article arguing that the story of the X-men--as portrayed in Marvel comics and in films--exposes the weaknesses in my evolutionary conception of ethics. 

In the debate between Charles Xavier and Magneto over whether or not the mutants should rule over the normal humans as natural slaves, Wybrow claims, Magneto's assertion of mutant superiority and dominance over the humans conforms to the "pure logic of Darwinism."  If evolution is all about "survival of the fittest," where the stronger species exterminates or rules over the weaker, then Xavier's policy of protecting the humans (Homo sapiens) from attack by the mutants (Homo superior) is incoherent because it assumes a "secularized Christianity" that is not supported by Darwinian science.

That the strong should protect the weak is a "Christian sentiment" rooted in the Christian belief that we have ethical obligations based upon an intelligently designed cosmic teleology.  "If human beings are to have natural ends, and natural obligations," Wybrow claims, "then any 'evolutionary' process that may have occurred must have been end-directed, producing human beings not as a transient phenomenon but as a goal; and such human beings will have a genuine essence in the classical sense, from which ethical and political obligations can be derived."

Since I reject such a cosmic teleology in arguing for a naturalistic ethics rooted in evolved human nature, Wybrow explains, I contradict myself by appealing to moral sentiments that cannot be sustained without a cosmic teleology directed to human beings as the intelligently designed goal of the cosmos.

In his reply to this article, Michael Mills makes two good points.  First, Magneto is wrong in separating mutants and humans as distinct species: "the mutants are simply remarkable outliers of the species Homo sapiens."  I agree.  In fact, the very term "X-men" indicates this:  the mutants are human beings with some "X-tra" powers.  Moreover, throughout the X-men stories, we see that the mutants have most if not all of the twenty natural desires that I have identified as distinctive to human beings.

Mills's second point is that this common human nature includes a shared need for cooperation and care for others.  Despite their special powers, the mutants are dependent on one another and on the ordinary human beings in their pursuit of a happy flourishing life.

Furthermore, I would point out that Magneto must argue that he is leading a just war of self-defense against the aggressive threat of the normal humans.  Xavier's position depends on the truth of his claim that the ordinary humans will not try to oppress the mutants, and therefore that peaceful cooperation is best for both mutants and ordinary humans.

In the X-men comics, there is a "Days of Future Past" storyline in which the ordinary humans set out to persecute the mutants just as the Nazis did the Jews.  If something like that were to come true, then Xavier would have to join Magneto in fighting against the humans, just as it would have been justified for the Jews to fight against the Nazis.  This would express their natural desires for self-preservation and for justice as reciprocity.  Would Wybrow disagree?  Would he say that the mutants are morally obligated by a cosmic teleology aimed at human beings to passively submit to oppression?

If Homo sapiens is the goal or end of the whole cosmic process, as Wybrow suggests, does that imply that Christian human beings would be justified in exterminating the mutants as deviations from nature's end?  If so, then the human acceptance of this Christian cosmic teleology would justify Magneto's claim that the mutants are in a fight to the death with the normal humans.

Wybrow might respond by insisting that Christianity teaches universal peace and love.  But this ignores the bloody violence of the Old Testament and the apocalyptic vision of the New Testament, in which the few chosen people of God triumph in battle, and all others are condemned to eternal punishment.  These Biblical themes run through much of the violence of the X-men stories.  (Consider, for example, the parallels with Moses and the Book of Revelation in the character of Apocalypse and the alternative reality of the "Age of Apocalypse.")

As I have indicated in a previous post, the sort of argument that Wybrow makes against Darwinism was originally made by Friedrich Nietzsche, and my response to Nietzsche could also apply here.  In another post, I respond to the common idea that Darwinism means "might makes right."

Various responses to Wybrow's points about cosmic teleology, the eternity of species as essences, and the concern for the "ought" can be found here, here, and here.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

The Human Biology of Property

In Chapter 4 of Darwinian Conservatism, I have argued that a Darwinian view of human nature sustains the traditionalist conservative and classical liberal commitment to private property as a natural propensity that is diversely expressed in custom and law.  The particular rules for property rights are determined by customary traditions and formal laws that vary across history and across societies, but that variation is constrained by the natural desire for property.  We need to understand the complexity of property across three levels--natural property, customary property, and formal property.

In my chapter, I illustrated this with the historical case of mining law in California.  Once gold was discovered in northern California in 1848, hundreds of thousands of people went there to search for gold, and they showed their natural instinct for property by claiming land for mining by taking possession of it, although they were only squatters on land officially owned by the federal government.  To settle disputes over mining claims, the miners developed customary rules that they enforced among themselves by social tradition.  Then, finally, in 1866, the United States Congress passed a federal mining law that formally legalized these local customs of the miners. 

Thus, the property claims of the miners moved through three levels--natural possession, customary rules, and formal laws.  This manifests the general structure of Darwinian social order as the joint product of natural desires, cultural practices, and deliberate judgments.

In recent years, a growing number of law professors have become interested in the evolutionary analysis of law, and one prime area of research has been the evolutionary analysis of property law.  As surveyed in some articles by Jeffrey Stake and James Krier, this research largely confirms my Darwinian account of property.

This research also provides a scientific confirmation for the evolutionary explanation of property laid out originally by John Locke (in his Two Treaties of Government) and William Blackstone (in his Commentaries on the Laws of England).  First, among ancient foraging bands, hunting territory was owned communally by the band--excluding other bands--and personal property (such as weapons, tools, and clothing) was owned individually.  These original claims to property were based on possession and occupancy, so that the first person to take and hold possession of something was presumed to own it.  This was enforced by customary agreement.  But, then, when agriculture was developed, the growing scarcity and thus value of land, made it necessary to settle property disputes through the formal institutions of government, and the invention of writing facilitated this.  Finally, with the expansion of commerce and trade, property rights became ever more subject to rules of sale, grant, or conveyance.

Locke saw property rights as rooted ultimately in self-ownership--the natural sense that one owns one's body--and in the extension of oneself into external objects by the labor of taking possession of them.  A Darwinian biological psychology explains this as rooted in the human brain and body as evolved by natural selection for survival and reproduction.

The articles by Stake and Krier are especially valuable because of the way they explain the evolutionary basis for property in John Maynard Smith's study of how the "bourgeois" strategy develops among animals to settle disputes over territory and resources.  If we imagine two animals competing for access to a particular breeding territory, and if they have an equal opportunity of arriving first and possessing it or arriving later and being an intruder, we might imagine two possible strategies: the Hawk who fights until one animal is injured and retreats, and the Dove who bluffs but never fights.  Under certain conditions, the best strategy is a "bourgeois" strategy that mixes the other two: "if owner, play Hawk; if intruder, play Dove."  In fact, many animals do seem to play this strategy, so that the possessor of a territory tends to have an advantage over an intruder, and consequently there is a kind of instinctive rule of property that favors possessors over intruders.

The primacy of possession runs through much of our property law, and this could be because it is rooted in the evolved structure of our brains so that it feels right to us.  Krier concludes: "Possession, as any property lawyer knows, remains the cornerstone of most contemporary property systems--nine points of the law, the root of title, and the origin of property" (159).

Krier, James E.,  "Evolutionary Theory and the Origin of Property Rights," Cornell Law Review 95 (2009): 139-160.

Stake, Jeffrey Evans, "The Property 'Instinct,'" Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B, 359 (2004): 1763-1774.