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

So dogma, the antithesis of open inquiry, is Pinker’s bête noire, embodied above all in religion, which he associates with intolerance and superstition. There is no doubt that religion has often contributed to evil, and as a nonbeliever myself I have trouble empathizing with those who think they can understand the will of God. But we should give the Devil his due: many antiwar and human-rights movements have deep religious roots, and much of the energy behind campaigns that Pinker and I applaud comes from people who feel a higher calling to help their fellow human beings. (Pinker’s one paragraph addressing this only scratches the surface of the question.)

Pinker is on firmer ground on other crucial points related to knowledge. The first is that the reduction of violence and the expansion of humane treatment of people has been spurred by the conscious decision to design incentives and institutions to these ends. The growth of commerce and state power may have lowered homicide rates, but only as an unintended by-product; with the Enlightenment, people began to consciously develop arrangements to reduce violence and protect not only their rights but those of at least some others as well. Here intelligent design works. The circle of empathy can be deliberately increased by measures like liberal education, and the framers of the American Constitution were not alone in seeing that they had to—and could—build institutions that would limit their own power. This is of signal importance.

At its core, this is about self-awareness—an understanding of human nature that can allow us to rein in our inner demons and give our better angels the upper hand. Self-control, so central to the humanizing trends Pinker documents, can be strengthened. If empathy is developed partly through novels, parents can urge their children to read them and school curricula can be developed appropriately. Perspective-taking can be encouraged by foreign travel. Although we should not expect too much from these efforts (indeed they may produce contempt and hostility) and Pinker does not advocate extreme social engineering, he does say that societies function best when they are built on the realization that we are all prone to violence and abuse.

Pinker also points to the role of understanding in overcoming the particularly pernicious psychological bias that he calls the “Moralization Gap.” Individuals and collectivities usually want to think well of themselves. This trait eases our way through a difficult life but causes great problems when conflict arises because we are quick to blame others. Pinker’s coverage of the research on the role of this bias in intergroup and international conflict is a bit thin (something I notice because I have contributed to it), but the basic point is clear and important. Although sometimes those we interact with are indeed responsible for the problem, the immediate assumption that this is the case, and the social and psychological inhibitions against seeing how we may be offending others and infringing upon their legitimate interests, is a major cause of escalating conflict. Students of international politics know that efforts to gain mutual security can be foiled by the failure of the state to realize that others may see it as a threat, and therefore to interpret their undesired moves as evidence that they are unreasonable and aggressive. Throughout the Cold War, Soviet leaders could not see that their behavior played a large role in their encirclement by enemies; Mikhail Gorbachev’s intellectual breakthrough was to grasp this. Self-knowledge is important and difficult here (religious teachings about our all being sinners can help), but it can also be dangerous. Be too quick to believe that the Other is behaving badly because of what you have done and the lead-up to WWII happens all over again.

SOME ARE likely to see all this as the Whig theory of history decked out in social-science clothes. There is something to this, but Pinker is aware enough to argue that his “is a kind of Whig history that is supported by the facts.” Although he sees deep forces as responsible for much of our progress, he also acknowledges the role of contingency. He might have done more to discuss how these two fit together; could plausible historical counterfactuals have brought us to a very different outcome: Even with the Enlightenment, might full-blown racism have continued in the United States had Gandhi’s campaign of nonviolence not succeeded and World War II not been fought partly in the name of racial equality?

It is the attempt to link so many different types of declines in violence to one another that gives pause. Some links clearly are present. Early struggles to broaden the circle of those who were believed to have inalienable rights led eventually to the civil rights movement, just as it, in turn, contributed to the movements for women’s equality and gay rights. But there are problems in applying progress in one area to progress in another. Humanitarian advances do not necessarily lead to more peaceful and understanding relations among states. Nor does more self-control in one individual lead to more self-control across groups of individuals. To his credit, Pinker realizes this is a problem, but his attempts to overcome it through social psychology are less than entirely successful. Pinker explains the decline of homicide and the decline of slavery quite differently, and the decline in war, coming later than the other markers of progress, may be even more distinct. Indeed, the two chapters on this subject do not build upon his previous arguments nor do they provide a foundation for later ones. I do not wish to argue that international politics is entirely a world apart, but wars continued to rage while other kinds of violence declined. Perhaps what changed the incentives for peace and war must be found elsewhere. Similarly, the connection between the decline in intra and interstate wars is loose. International tensions often feed internal violence as outside countries support disputing factions. And civil wars can transmit violence to the international level. I agree with Pinker that some of these trends are of a piece with the decline of domestic violence, especially in the smaller role of honor and the general view that violence is at best a necessary evil rather than a valued mode of conduct. But it is quite possible to imagine a world in which wars coexist with some measure of domestic peace and humane behavior.

For Pinker, much of what was believed in the more violent eras “can be considered not just monstrous, but in a very real sense, stupid,” and

As humans have honed the institutions of knowledge and reason, and purged superstitions and inconsistencies from their systems of belief, certain conclusions were bound to follow, just as when one masters the laws of arithmetic certain sums and products are bound to follow.

Only in societies cut off from the free flow of ideas can enormous moral errors continue to flourish. He realizes that this view seems self-congratulatory but does not seem to see that it holds true only if one accepts contemporary values. His claim that previous beliefs “would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values [the people in earlier eras] claimed to hold, and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them” strains credulity. It implies that if we were transported to those times we could argue our new contemporaries out of their benighted beliefs and practices (assuming we were not killed first). Pinker summarizes the correlations between reasoning and education on the one hand and nonviolence, cooperation and endorsement of individual rights on the other, but methodological constraints mean that only a few of these studies can make claims for causation, and even those cannot escape the possibility that the results simply show that smarter people are more likely to be socialized into prevailing Enlightenment views. One has to wonder whether those who believed in Fascism in the 1930s or endorsed the burning of witches in the seventeenth century were less able to reason consistently and abstractly than we are.

I am not sure he would appreciate the association, but Pinker’s argument echoes the motto engraved in the CIA’s lobby: “And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” These claims place too much of a burden on reasoning. After he moves on from the Civilizing Process, Pinker largely leaves material factors behind. Power and interests, costs and benefits play little role. This, I think, is clearly wrong for the decline of war and questionable throughout. He also downplays the ways in which violence can result from reasoning, just as threats and, when necessary, the use of force is deployed to establish and maintain open societies. When these are engaged in war, they are also capable of killing large numbers of enemy civilians, as the United States and the UK did in the bombings of Germany and Japan when they calculated, correctly most historians now believe, that this would help bring victory. Torture also had a return engagement in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Pinker could see progress in the fact that it was quite limited and was justified not only by the pressing circumstances but also by the claim that it was not torture (and that the United States had the legal opinions to prove this). I agree, and would not argue that we are headed back to the Dark Ages. But this sorry episode, which I think will be repeated if there is another major attack on America, does show that people can reason themselves into cruelty.

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