Pinker the Prophet

October 25, 2011 Topics: EthicsHistoryPsychologyPeacekeeping

Pinker the Prophet

Mini Teaser: For those who think we live in an age of unrestrained violence, think again. At least according to one Harvard psychologist, mankind has learned to rein in its inner demons. But is Pinker’s civilization-as-progress thesis too good to be true?

by Author(s): Robert Jervis

An awareness that massive war could still break out today similarly inhibits our sense of progress. Without a true rival state to the United States, the specter of world-destroying conflict has disappeared, but even optimists agree that there is at least some chance of a Sino-American war, and the danger of a nuclear exchange between other hostile pairs, most obviously India and Pakistan—but also Israel and a nuclear-armed Iran—cannot be dismissed. These perils remind us that progress always comes with costs: no splitting of the atom, no nuclear holocaust. And this makes us resist Pinker’s analysis.

Most broadly, we see less progress than we should because we are prone to what can be called the conservation of fears. If through effort or good fortune the problem we worry most about disappears, all the others move up a notch. Terrorist incidents were frequent during the Cold War, and although they did not kill as many people as did 9/11, they were a significant concern for citizens and policy makers. But no one suggested that this was a menace of sufficient magnitude to merit making it the pivot of American foreign policy, let alone the center of societal concerns. We are now so worried about terrorism because our security environment is otherwise so benign. The fact that we no longer have to live under the shadow of instantaneous destruction has much less impact on our psyches and sense of how dangerous our world is than logic would suggest.

PINKER WANTS to do more than document the decline of violence; he wants to explain it. And that explanation comes in two forms: a “Civilizing Process” that reduced violence, especially within states, and a “Humanitarian Revolution” that extended rights not only to different races, but also to women and children. (The two processes have some overlap, and growing humanitarianism probably would have been impossible without the earlier evolution away from barbarism and toward gentility, but they nevertheless remain distinct.)

Civility, for Pinker, was promoted to a great extent by the rise of the state in early modern Europe. It is a Hobbesian notion that statistics from nonstate societies confirm: without law supported by sufficient power, both self-defense and self-aggrandizement produce a violent world. The data are quite clear that the development of a state structure is associated with a sharp decline in homicides. Here and elsewhere, Pinker is quick to note that correlation does not necessarily mean causation, but both logic and chronology indicate a significant role for state power in quelling violence.

Still, as Aesop noted in his fable of King Log and King Stork (one of the few sources that Pinker does not cite), a strong government can kill, and a decline in homicide can be more than compensated for by an increase in state-sponsored killing. Pinker acknowledges this, but I do not think fully takes on board the central problem of government that has preoccupied so many thinkers, that underpinned the American Constitution and that remains a vital concern today: How do we devise it so that the government is strong enough to maintain order and guarantee rights without being so strong and independent as to be a menace to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

The second major civilizing impulse is the development of commerce. A fundamental intellectual breakthrough was the understanding that economic activities were not zero-sum and that uncoerced trade was mutually beneficial. Trade also provided potential income streams for states and flourished when ruling parties could provide internal order. Thus while Columbia scholar Charles Tilly was correct to say that “war made the state, and the state made war,” one too could say this about commerce.

To these well-known elements Pinker adds the insights of the historical sociologist Norbert Elias who showed how the development of royal courts led to forms of civilization that we now take for granted—table manners (including not brandishing knives that all too easily could be used to stab food, as well as one’s neighbor), not spitting, along with defecating and copulating only in private. Much of the evolution of etiquette and manners made social interactions more predictable and reinforced self-control and the need to delay gratifications, practices that made sense when being hot-blooded was likely to reduce rather than increase wealth, standing and security.

How convincing is this? The obvious objection is that it amounts to explaining history with history; that it describes more than it enlightens. Pinker acknowledges that these mechanisms are all deeply intertwined and that proof is impossible. In dealing with such large and complex phenomena, plausibility may be all that we can hope for, and Pinker’s argument and evidence do meet this test. And his willingness to include anomalies in his explanation is admirable. But it is his desire to do so that also provides grounds for skepticism. Pinker argues that the uptick in domestic violence in the West, and especially in the United States in the late 1960s and 1970s, can be explained by a temporary “decivilizing process.” The increase in homicides and crime was caused, he argues, by a decrease in respect for authority, a rise in self-indulgence, a scorn for self-discipline and other “bourgeois values,” and a renunciation of the belief that societies are held together by a willingness to respect others. The fact that those of us who participated—even marginally—in these activities remember the condescending diatribes of our elders along these same lines does not mean that Pinker is incorrect. But his case would be stronger if he could show that the marchers and protesters and anti–Vietnam War brigades were the ones responsible for the increased violence. It is also hard to rule out the possibility that both the social turmoil and the rise in crime were brought about by third factors, most obviously the dislocation and diversion of resources caused by the war and the heightened sense on the part of many young and educated people that Western social institutions had failed to live up to the Enlightenment values on which they were founded. Indeed, the 1960s and ’70s witnessed a great expansion of rights and the reinvigoration of social inquiry that Pinker sees as an engine of progress. And while Pinker attributes the subsequent decline in crime to a return to the earlier norms, the drastic increase in the incarceration rate (which many consider to be uncivilized) may have had something to do with it.

WHAT PINKER calls the “Humanitarian Revolution” involved a recasting of normal and appropriate human behavior. Part of our historical and biological heritage, we now see torture, slavery, and sanctioned violence against women, children and others who were powerless in society, and often against those who held different political and religious beliefs, as repugnant. The world became not only safer but also more humane.

The cause, Pinker tells us, was the growth of literacy, writing and publishing. “Reading is a technology for perspective-taking. When someone else’s thoughts are in your head, you are observing the world from that person’s vantage point,” which leads to at least a degree of empathy. Furthermore, exposure to a wider range of people, thoughts and events “is the first step toward asking whether [current practices] could be done in some other way.” Fiction as well as nonfiction can serve this purpose, and the mid- and late-eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of novels. With the Enlightenment, more and more ideas were exchanged through letters and discussions in increasingly cosmopolitan cities. Such exchanges are crucial, according to Pinker, and lest I be accused of caricaturing his claim for how they lead to progress, let me give an extended quotation:

When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases . . . we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely.

The later and parallel rights revolutions over the past thirty years (greater rights for racial minorities, gays, women, children and even animals) were similarly rooted in “technologies that made ideas and people increasingly mobile. . . . [and led to] a debunking of ignorance and superstition. . . . [and] an increase in invitations to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike oneself.”

It is the free flow of ideas, unrestrained by dogmas, that is doing the work for Pinker. Nevertheless, much as this idea is appealing to academics and intellectuals, skepticism is in order. We have come to see slavery as a violation of our values and sense of what it means to be human, but one does not have to be a Marxist to doubt that this was the inevitable consequence of free inquiry (it certainly was not in the United States). Pinker displays a great faith—although he would dislike that word—in the ability of social science (he does not like current trends in the humanities) to lead us toward not only a better understanding of the human condition but also the betterment of it. I love reading and doing social science, but think we should be wary about overclaiming. Empathy, for Pinker’s account, may lead naturally (but not inevitably) to at least a degree of do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you behavior. But Pinker realizes that one can see the world through someone else’s eyes and still want to harm him, and also appreciates that research on the effects and, even more, the causes of empathy and sympathy are necessarily limited because of the difficulty in constructing appropriate experiments, without which it is hard to move beyond correlation. Since kindergarten, most Americans have been taught to be empathetic, and human-subjects boards would likely object to manipulations that would try to make them less so. And even good knowledge can be put to bad ends. It is not necessarily true that all good things go together; more knowledge might lead us in directions that Pinker and I would deplore. For example, we could learn that capital punishment does indeed deter murder or that genetic endowments help explain why there are so few women in the ranks of top mathematicians. Pinker does realize that knowledge is not the same as enlightenment—no country was more educated than Nazi Germany—but does not consider whether an open society might democratically decide to close off certain avenues of thought.

Pullquote: The fact—if it is accepted as a fact—that violence has declined so much in so many forms changes the way we understand our era and the sweep of human history.Image: Essay Types: Book Review