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.

1 comment:

Rob S said...

You wonder whether Pinker would agree that war is one of the 20 natural human desires central to your thesis on Darwinian Conservatism.

In his Edge interview and elsewhere, people have pressed him on whether he thinks the current reign of peace will continue. He seems consistently hesitant to affirm any kind of guarantee against future violence, even future spikes in violence such as World War II. I think he would agree with your last sentence here, "that the tragic structure of human social nature makes it impossible to totally eliminate these motives."

Those motives might be mitigated by all of the "better angels" gaining momentum socially through history, but I think Pinker argues that they still linger in our evolved psychological nature.