Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Frankly, My Biggest Objection is the Religious Imagry

(Originally posted by Pat in 1/2012)

A review of The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Once in awhile, a book gets written that is truly a great book—not in the sense that it is an enjoyable read, or an example of good style, but truly great in the sense that it will join the annals of history as the sort of book that changed the future of human society. A few rare books—Philosophkae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, The Wealth of Nations, On the Origin of Species—manage to achieve the status of turning points in human civilization.
The Better Angels of Our Nature documents these turning points, and in doing so, I think it will be remembered as one itself. Alone in the social sciences it stands as a landmark opus, the first time I think we've ever seen a comprehensive, empirically-validated theory of human social organization. A hundred years from now, people will look back and say, “It was in 2011 that people finally began to realize how much better the world has gotten, and with renewed hope made the final push into world peace and prosperity.”

For nothing could be more astounding than just how much better the world has gotten. Did people really used to burn cats alive for entertainment? Was public hanging really considered a family affair? Were children really sacrificed on altars to the gods? Pinker documents the answer: Yes—and it wasn't all that long ago.
I'm sure that much of what we do today—capital punishment, factory farming, aerial bombardment, sweatshop labor—will draw similar appalled disbelief from future generations. But this is not reason to despair; it is reason to celebrate, for our grandchildren will be morally better than we are, just as we are morally better than our grandparents.
There is a current in intellectual circles today, whether it calls itself anarchism, primitivism, relativism, or whatever, that is absolutely convinced modernity was a mistake. Technology has only brought us more powerful ways to kill each other, they will say; by dismantling religious values secular rationalism has left us empty, devoid of meaning. (Professor Hoffmann, if you remember him, is certainly of this flavor.) Sometimes they will say that modernity has made us morally worse—pointing to the Holocaust, or 9/11, or the Columbine shootings, as an example of what modern life is like. Other times they will contradict themselves by saying that morality is just a matter of opinion, there is no “better” or “worse” and all is vanity.
These people are wrong. Objectively, demonstrably wrong. They are Creationists, and Pinker is our Darwin. The world is better than it used to be—morally better—and it is secular humanism that has made it so.
Infanticide is no longer routine. Rape is no longer considered a normal, acceptable spoil of war. Torturing animals we recognize as a symptom of psychopathy; it used to be called “good clean fun”. We have a word now, “genocide”, which makes us recoil in horror; it is a word we coined recently for what used to be military standard operating procedure.
Even the atom bomb, which still haunts the world's nightmares, has not actually killed very many people. Far more died in any given carpet bombing, or in any few years of Mongol raids, than have yet been killed by nuclear weapons. We did not need these awful weapons to murder each other en masse, and now that we have them—just in time, perhaps—human beings have figured out how not to murder each other nearly so often as they used to.
Perhaps we needed a few egregious outliers like World War II to show us the error of our ways. But Pinker is skeptical of this idea, and so am I. We had already seen plenty of violence before—more spread out, perhaps, conducted in smaller portions at a time—and indeed we had already seen violence that killed a far larger proportion of the human population than the World Wars could lay claim to. If absolute numbers are all you care about, we may as well all die now; that way there will not be any humans to be murdered.
In truth, I think the technology that saved humanity was not the atom bomb, not the machine gun, not mustard gas or high explosive. Improving the destructive power of weapons has no track record in making the world safer. Rather, it was far humbler inventions, like the telegraph, the radio, the television; the airplane, the cargo container. It was not the capacity to destroy, but the capacity to communicate (and specifically, to trade) that made the modern peace possible.
The publishing process is too slow for Pinker to have included material on the Arab Spring, but I think he would agree with me that the fanatic Twitter-praisers are not so wrong. The impact of the Internet and social media could be somewhat exaggerated in these particular cases; but the general pressure that communication has on politics is so powerful that it is hard to overestimate. Why was Vietnam such a hated war when Korea was so praised? I do not think it is an exaggeration to answer with a single word: Television. When you actually see, with your own eyes, the burning villages and screaming children, you can no longer convince yourself that war is glorious and honorable, that dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. It's not that the burning villages weren't there before—they were, and have been for all of human history—but no one saw them, and that has made all the difference.
After praising it so much, I would like to point out a few places where I think Better Angels could stand to be improved; even Homer nods.
First, as mentioned in the title of this post, there is the rampant religious imagery, “angels” and “devils” and the like. It's clear that Pinker means these as metaphors, and as metaphors go they aren't bad; but still it always grates me when secular thinkers try to co-opt religious imagery instead of clearly expressing the awesome natural phenomena themselves. No, there are not angels and devils on our shoulders, but something far more wondrous (and terrifying): Pieces of our minds themselves—literally, pieces of our minds, as in measurable chunks of brain-stuff that can be pointed out on a diagram—work at cross-purposes, constantly engaged in conflict, a tug-of-war between the selfish and altruistic sides of human nature. As Pinker himself so carefully points out, most violence is not conducted by mad psychopaths bent on random destruction; it is conducted by ordinary people with ordinary minds, caught up in ideology or trapped by circumstance, ordinary people who find ways to persuade themselves that what they are doing is right. Most of the truly horrible injustices have been committed in the name of justice itself.
Second, there is Pinker's libertarianism, which occasionally creeps into his analysis and distorts it somewhat. Pinker's own brand of libertarianism is relatively moderate and reasonable (he's certainly no Ron Paul, though a fair comparison could be made to Penn Jillette), but still it seems to lead him to strange arguments, as when he blames the failure of Medieval commerce on the Christian taboo against usury and the consequent overregulation of banking—instead of the far more obvious reasons, like the lack of sanitation, transportation, communication, health care, and large-scale governance. Frankly, I think we could do with a bit more taboo on usury these days (not that I'm suggesting we should burn moneylenders at the stake); the mortgage-backed derivatives crisis was clearly not caused by an excess of oversight, nor is there any compelling economic reason that Visa needs to charge a 24% APR. (There are behavioral economic reasons why they can get away with it, but that's something else entirely.)
This also creeps in when he describes modern conservatives as “more liberal than past liberals”; this is certainly true in social issues—Gingrich is hounded for making vaguely-racist remarks that would have seemed like radical liberalism even 50 years ago, and Santorum appears to be just now figuring out that he can no longer get away with saying gay people should go to prison (which actually used to be something that was done, as recently as Alan Turing). But on economic issues, the opposite is the case, at least for the last half-century or so; Obama's economic policy is more conservative than Reagan's, and the economics that Ron Paul would implement has not been tried in a wealthy nation since the 19th century. For a libertarian, this may look like progress on both accounts; but for a liberal like myself, it feels more like we've advanced on one front only to be routed at another. In the long run, this trend will probably correct itself; but in the short run a lot of people may suffer before it does.
These errors are minor, however; overall Better Angels is a must-read. It will reshape everything you thought you knew about history, war, and violence—and it will give you much-needed hope for making the world a better place.

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