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.