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From Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights / Wikimedia commons
Steven Pinker has written a book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, about violence and progress. It is, moreover, an extended defense of modernity. At the very beginning he asks, “How, in particular, are we to make sense of modernity—the erosion of family, tribe, tradition, and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason, and science?” Pinker responds that modernity has produced a less violent world. It’s a great answer. Who in their right mind could object to less killing in the world, less cruelty? And if you accept that modernity has created a less violent world, then aren’t you obliged to look favorably upon it? Aren’t you obliged to see history as a work of progress?
Pinker’s first task is to convince us, through exhaustive historical data, that there is less violence in the world today than there was in the past. He knows people don’t want to believe this. He knows that everyone thinks about the world wars of the twentieth century, the genocides in Armenia and Rwanda, the Holocaust. So he sets out to convince. As could be expected from Dr. Pinker, the facts are numerous, well organized, and well argued. I cannot find any holes in the basic argument. The data look sound. We are forced to accept the basic fact that the world is less violent than ever. There are fewer wars, wars kill fewer people, and everyday violence (murder, assault, rape, etc.) is down as well.
Pinker next sets out to connect this story of declining violence and cruelty with the achievements of Enlightenment humanism. For Pinker humanism concerns itself with “the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied.” Human flourishing, according to Pinker, must be defined by the maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain. Any other definition of human flourishing would rely on values not generated by reason. Further, a society of pleasure-maximizing and pain-minimizing tends to favor democracy and free markets. It is in liberal democracies, after all, that pleasure maximizers have the best chance to pursue their pleasures freely and with mutual respect for one another’s rights. Pinker endorses the idea that the relative peacefulness human beings have been enjoying over the last couple hundred years could be called the Capitalist Peace. “A world that is less invigorated by honor, glory, and ideology and more tempted by the pleasures of bourgeois life,” Pinker puts it, “is a world in which fewer people are killed.”
The degree to which Pinker is willing to celebrate the joys of bourgeois life is refreshingly honest. He is fully aware that such celebration looks uncouth to many. “A loathing of modernity,” he writes,
is one of the great constants of contemporary social criticism. Whether the nostalgia is for small-town intimacy, ecological sustainability, communitarian solidarity, family values, religious faith, primitive communism, or harmony with the rhythms of nature, everyone longs to turn back the clock. What has technology given us, they say, but alienation, despoliation, social pathology, the loss of meaning, and a consumer culture that is destroying the planet to give us McMansions, SUVs, and reality television?
But that’s not the way it really is, Pinker explains. In fact, “unsentimental history and statistical literacy” can take our blinders off and show us that even the negative aspects of modernity are a huge improvement over the ways we used to live. This applies not only to brute matters such as the decline of violence and the greater access to material goods, but also to the finer things as well, such as beauty, knowledge and truth. We are, in short, experiencing progress in almost every way imaginable.
Halfway through reading Pinker’s book, I felt as though I was being beaten up: either I accept modernity in its entirety or I am, in essence, nostalgic for a world of immense cruelty and violence. For all his talk of scientific objectivity in his analysis, Pinker is guilty of irrational whimsy. The story of declining violence could just as easily be told, after all, without the additional claims about progress in all things. But that isn’t enough for Pinker—he wants to see an historical trajectory here, leading from worse to better. Maybe Pinker isn’t the ultra-rationalist he claims to be after all. He has a will to believe that modern liberal capitalist society is the thing that finally fulfills us as human beings. The story about declining violence makes the claim, he thinks, almost irresistible.
I resist it. Though I’m willing to concede that one of the benefits of modernity is its taming of human cruelty, that taming comes at a tremendous cost. Modernity attempts to turn us all into pleasure maximizers but, in fact, human flourishing cannot be reduced to utilitarian calculus. I think, for instance, of love, genuine love. Such a thing is not made more or less available by free markets or even by political democracy or the relative decline in global violence. Modernity has nothing at all to do with whether or not there is love in the world. And if you accept this fact about love, then many of Pinker’s assumptions about what is good for human beings and how we are to get it begin to look more dubious as well. It is possible to feel ambivalent about the supposed goods of contemporary consumer society without necessarily being a reactionary who lusts for the olden days of violence and cruelty. I’m impressed by the relative lack of violence yet I am depressed by a world in which I’m reduced to being a pleasure maximizer. It is a genuine dilemma, and Pinker’s bullying—while well intentioned—only serves to make the dilemma feel more acute for me.
Thanks very much for your note. I am certainly happy to see that you accept the basic thesis of Steven Pinker’s book as sound, namely that violence and cruelty in all their forms have steadily and massively declined in human societies ever since hunter-gatherer times up until now. As you have noted, Pinker adduces a prodigious amount of historical data and sophisticated statistical analyses to make this main point. Neither one of us is an historian of violence or a statistician, so we must leave the poking of any holes in this evidence to those who are experts in these fields (and trust me, many will try). But given that Pinker has successfully deployed statistical data extensively in his previous work without having been subsequently confuted, I think we are correct for the moment to accept his basic conclusions about the decline of violence even without the ability to subject it to rigorous scrutiny ourselves.
Call me crazy but it seems to me that a decline in global violence has much to do with love.
My first point of disagreement with you comes when you imply that Pinker is committed to a strictly utilitarian assessment of what is good, and therefore of what constitutes human progress:
Human flourishing, according to Pinker, must be defined by the maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain. Any other definition of human flourishing would rely on values not generated by reason.
Pinker nowhere commits himself to any such rather obviously naive and overly constrained moral view that you attempt here to impose on him. In fact he explicitly criticizes utilitarian thinking several times, such as when he says, “Utopian ideologies invite genocide for two reasons. One is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus.” (p. 328) He is not such a philosophical neophyte that he would rely on an ethical theory that is famously and regularly ripped apart in introductory freshman classes by his Harvard colleague Michael Sandel. Pinker is not interested in jumping into the middle of moral debates in philosophy and only appeals to our common sense that, other things being equal, less violence is a good thing. This is quite unproblematic for me.
You next assign Pinker a role as an unquestioning cheerleader for capitalism, and again, this is a misleading description made possible by stripping away the context of what he actually says. After presenting the evidence for the centuries-long decline of homicide rates in Europe, for instance, Pinker presents two main explanations to account for it. The first cites the consolidation of many small political units into larger entities ruled by powerful monarchs. This prevented the constant battles and feuds between knights and warlords in which peasants were mercilessly exterminated as a way of weakening one’s rivals. The second explanation is the move in the late Middle Ages away from an economy based almost solely on the ownership of land as a source of wealth—which resulted in frequent and violent attempts by rulers to grab each others’ land since there is a limited amount of it—to one based on more positive-sum games (to echo Pinker’s use of game-theoretic language) based on the trade of surpluses. This development lessened the incentives for violence in the rather obvious way that one’s trading partners are worth more to one alive than dead. An expanding class of craftsmen and divisions of labor, and their technological innovations (horseshoes, wheeled carts, windmills, watermills), combined with the infrastructural improvements (roads, bridges, a currency for trade recognized over large areas) made possible by the central governments of large national territories resulted in a dramatic increase in trade, which in turn resulted in the decline of temptations to violence. On your way of interpreting things, you might as well read these points as Pinker endorsing monarchy and outlawing agriculture.
Similarly, after discussing the dramatic decline in the number and severity of interstate wars in the last two-thirds of a century—a period he calls the Long Peace—Pinker examines possible explanations and rejects some, such as the deterrent posed by nuclear weapons. He then appeals to sophisticated statistical research by political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal and others that has isolated a few significant correlations. First, democratic countries are significantly less likely to go to war than autocracies. Second, the dependence of a country on international trade correlates inversely with its likelihood of going to war. And third, membership in intergovernmental organizations also reduces a country’s probability of going to war. This is all, of course, spelled out in some detail by Pinker, and one can take issue with its accuracy or the causal role of the correlated factors, but it should hardly be considered flag-waving propaganda for capitalism.
Now we come to the end of your critique where you say:
I am willing to concede that one of the benefits of modernity is its taming of human cruelty. But that taming comes at a tremendous cost.
And what is that “tremendous cost”?
I think, for instance, of love, genuine love. Such a thing is not made more or less available by free markets or even by political democracy or the relative decline in global violence. Modernity has nothing at all to do with whether or not there is love in the world.
If I did not know that it was you who had written this, I would have been tempted to dismiss it as some sort of tender-minded, hokey bunkum. As it is, I do not intend to insult you by saying that, only to emphasize how it has been impossible for me to interpret your whole last paragraph charitably, despite trying hard to imagine what you might possibly have meant. Call me crazy but it seems to me that a decline in global violence has much to do with love if it means that the object of one’s love is a hundred times less likely to be murdered than in centuries past, not to mention one’s own much-reduced likelihood of getting killed! I look forward to your response.
You are correct—and characteristically observant—to note that being alive is a prerequisite for being in love. For that reason, I suppose Pinker’s story of the historical decline in violence is good news for lovers everywhere. No doubt we are also blessed by the decline in torture in that we’re able to spend all those man-hours away from the rack in the pursuit of sonnet writing and the composition of soulful études to our loved ones.
Of course, I knew that bringing up this whole love angle was going to come back to haunt me, so I might as well face the music. But let me back up and restate a more general objection first.
Pinker never seems to acknowledge that the decrease in violence and the development of modern forms of exploitation are related.
What I would really like to do is drive a wedge between Pinker’s story about declining violence and his story about progress. There are many ways in which modernity has improved material life. But I’m not sure that the forms of exploitation that have replaced the outright violence of former times make for as triumphant a story as Pinker tells. For instance, the Special Economic Zones that exist in China, India, and throughout many countries of what used to be called the Third World, employ hundreds of millions of workers in unpleasant conditions and at dismal levels of pay. The existence of such zones should make us worry about whether the material goods we enjoy are worth the cost. Pinker does not allow himself any such worries and this makes me suspicious that he is overly invested in the claim that we have achieved moral progress. Pinker never seems to acknowledge that the decrease in violence and the development of modern forms of exploitation are related. The reduction in one kind of harm (wars, torture, physical cruelty) is dependent on the increase in another (large portions of the world’s population work extremely hard for the material benefit of a relatively lucky few). I suppose you can call this progress. But why would you want to? Why not simply call it what it is: deeply ambiguous, morally treacherous, real-world messiness.
I brought up the existence of love in order to make this same point from a different angle. You are right to clarify that Pinker does not accept the schoolboy version of Utilitarianism. Still, I think he does accept a more nuanced version of the doctrine and he does so because of his strong commitments to the same brand of Enlightenment rationalism that he thinks is responsible for the last two centuries of human progress. But for all our advances in the scientific study of man, I don’t think we know enough about what makes us happy, about what produces a meaningful life, to make such bold proclamations about human flourishing as Pinker’s. Factual claims about a decrease in violence are one thing. Value-laden claims about overall human progress are quite another. Pinker’s concept of human flourishing leaves out many of the things that people actually care about, replacing them with factors that can more easily be weighed and measured with his rather crude tools of quantitative analysis. In sum, there are mysteries at the core of the human heart. That is why I speak about love.
Those who are reluctant to acknowledge progress in human affairs, whether in the comforts available to us, or in our health and well-being, and especially in our morals, tend to have one or both of the following types of worries: first, there are those (usually in rich countries) who are terribly concerned about the meaninglessness and alienation of modern life, the loss of solidarity and community within small groups of people that follows giving up tribal existence for the lonely anonymity of urban life. The resulting existential angst betrays an amnesia about the harsh realities of the past alongside a naive nostalgia. Those of us who grew up in the third world and are only a generation removed from grinding poverty, disease, malnutrition, and backbreaking labor even for children, can perhaps be excused for being less than fully impressed by such effete concerns. (My two oldest siblings died in infancy in British India of diseases that were not able to kill me when I was born in Pakistan a couple of decades later, thanks to the availability of much better medical care by that time. I can hardly be faulted for being somewhat grateful for this and for my lack of preteristic longing.)
You seem to fall into the second camp: those who feel that the ills of the modern world—and I completely agree that there are many and they are great (who wouldn’t agree?)—are a necessary price that we have paid for the progress that we have made. In other words, the very developments that have resulted in what we see as progress (no longer burning witches at the stake, a worldwide ban on the institution of slavery, not treating women as chattel but as equals) have come through changes in society (in our methods of governance, in the rules of untrammeled trade, in technological and scientific advances) that have unleashed a whole different set of horrors upon humanity.
This brings us to the essence of our disagreement: unlike you, I do not consider the iniquities of modernity (such as the morally repulsive differences in wealth between countries as well as the increasingly shocking and disturbing inequalities within many of them, especially the United States) to be necessary byproducts of the kinds of changes that have resulted in the decline of violence. Pinker would surely agree that we need to address these challenges and better regulate some of the forces (like trade) that have benefited us.
I also think that at this point the burden is on you to show that the decrease in violence that he has documented is not just contingently but necessarily and structurally linked to what you have called “modern forms of exploitation,” because if they are only contingently linked, then we ought to be working to reduce the exploitation without rolling back the progress. As Pinker says:
The forces of modernity—reason, science, humanism, individual rights—have not, of course, pushed steadily in one direction; nor will they ever bring about a utopia or end the frictions and hurts that come with being human. (p. 694)
Progress is not the zero-sum game you make it out to be. Or maybe you and others find it imprudent to admit, much less celebrate, any hard-won progress lest we become apathetic in the face of much-needed further progress. I don’t.
Your worship at the altar of mystery just appears to be an emotional grudge against science.
As for your extolling of the mysteries at the core of the human heart and your asking, “What is love?” I can only instinctively respond with “Baby, don’t hurt me!”
As you know, I grew up on the mean streets of Laurel Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. This was in the days, mind you, when the closest Trader Joe’s was a grueling drive to Culver City. Nevertheless, you probably have me beat when it comes to street credibility. And I can’t disagree with any of the objections you bring up.
But I want to ask why we are forced to choose whether we are “for” or “against” modernity in such a stark way. Pinker certainly seems to think it is a meaningful choice. He asks in the beginning of the book, “What could be more fundamental to our sense of meaning and purpose than a conception of whether the strivings of the human race over long stretches of time have left us better off or worse?” I confess that I find that question unanswerable as Pinker poses it. I find myself responding to your last letter in the same way. The alienation and meaningless of modern life in developed countries is a real worry. At the same time, those worries can seem absurd in the face of the “grinding poverty, disease, malnutrition, and back-breaking labor,” as you put it, of the less-developed world. It is true both that modernity contains terrors and that what it replaced was terrible. The fact that these two truths do not resolve nicely into a clear-cut position on modernity strikes me as a consequence of the way the world actually is, not as a failure on our part to come up with the right judgment about whether we are better or worse off.
Indeed, surveying the human condition I’m tempted to say, “What a chimera then is man! What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of the universe.” Pinker seems to agree with me, since he opens the book with these lines from Pascal’s Penseés. I was pleased to see those lines when I began to read. Over the years, the Penseés have come more and more to reflect my own view of the human predicament. I suspect, though, that Pinker has not read Pascal very carefully, has not even meditated seriously on the quote that he makes the epigraph of his book. If he had, he surely would have noticed that Pascal, blessed only with the powers of his own observation and none of the tools of contemporary neuroscience, was able to tell us deep truths about the ambiguity of human existence. In the face of Pinker’s rather dubious claim that our tools of rational inquiry have finally given us leverage out of the tragic bind of human life, Pascal would have replied, “Be aware then, proud men, what a paradox you are to yourselves! Humble yourself, powerless reason!” I fear that Pinker has written a book that is ripe for the humbling.
It is becoming increasingly clear to me that what you have been expressing throughout our correspondence is an antipathy to the shedding of scientific light on sacred subjects that you wish to keep occulted in a warm steam of sentimental confusion. This is a retrogression even from the retrograde Romantic Keatsian complaint that Newton “had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours,” because at least Keats wasn’t contesting that Newton was right in his reduction. You continually celebrate mystery and denigrate modern psychological understanding of human behavior by saying things like this:
But for all our advances in the scientific study of man, I don’t think we know enough about what makes us happy, about what produces a meaningful life, to make such bold proclamations about human flourishing as Pinker’s. . . . There are mysteries at the core of the human heart.
I suppose you can call this progress. But why would you want to? Why not simply call it what it is: deeply ambiguous, morally treacherous, real-world messiness.
Or this approving citation of Pascal:
Be aware then, proud men, what a paradox you are to yourselves! Humble yourself, powerless reason!
Your dogged resistance to Pinker’s efforts to show how psychologists have been working to illuminate the “mysteries at the core of the human heart” seems to betray a wistful longing for those mysteries to remain mysterious as ever, and for the world to be forever “messy” and morally unfathomable and perhaps kept more majestic in your mind precisely by virtue of this unintelligibility. In the end your worship at the altar of mystery just appears to be an emotional grudge against science.
One of my favorite parts of the book is Pinker’s recounting of social-psychological experiments that have uncovered surprising aspects of our minds, such as the phenomena known as false compliance and false enforcement, where a group of people enforce (even by punishment) a norm even though most of them individually are against it. That you refuse to be moved by, or even find engaging, such elegant and ingenious empirical studies as well as the more abstract game-theoretic models that Pinker presents, which go a long way in plausibly explaining the decline in violence that he documents in the first six chapters, is frankly quite surprising to me.
It is, however, no surprise at all that I have enjoyed this exchange with you immensely. Thank you.
Morgan Meis has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the New School for Social Research. He writes a regular feature for VQR and has written for Harper’s Magazine and The Believer.
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