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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Do you think the thesis that Robert Kaplan develops in his Warrior Politics or in his article "The Coming Anarchy" poses a problem for optimistic realism? The thesis is roughly the notion that with the rise in the world's population and the greater scarcity of resources that results from this trend existing tensions between people of various ethnic and political backgrounds will be aggravated and thus eventually lead to an increase in violent conflict. Kaplan, of course, is simply rehearsing Malthusian realism. Do you think there is something inherently flawed in Malthusian reasoning? Does he neglect culture?

Be that as it may, let me further develop my original question, can the culture of optimistic realism only go so far before the limits of nature, wherever those might be, are reached? And if this is the case, what does this say about the political judgment of one who seems to be overly committed to the optimistic realist position? Is their outlook incomplete, especially in forgetting about the ecosystem in which evolution, both cultural and natural, take place?