Where Angels Fear to Tread

Steven Pinker's 'The Better Angels of Our Nature'

by Steven Aoun

19 April 2012


A Jewel in the Crown? Or Costume Jewelery?

Sociologist Charles Tily would probably turn in his grave if he knew that Pinker was measuring the history of violence (and our moral progress) in relative terms. As he observed ten years ago:

“More collective violence was visited on the world (in absolute terms, and probably per capita as well) in the twentieth century than in any century of the previous ten thousand years… earlier wars deployed nothing comparable to the death-dealing armaments and state-backed exterminations of civilians characteristic of twentieth-century conflicts. Between 1900 and 1999, the world produced about 250 new wars, international or civil, in which battle deaths averaged at least 1,000 per year. That means two or three big new wars per year. Those wars produced about a million deaths per year. Altogether, then, about 100 million people died in the twentieth century as a direct result of action by organized military units backed by one government or another. A comparable number of civilians likely died of war-induced disease and other indirect effects.”

And during what Pinker calls the ‘long peace’:

“Since World War II, we have witnessed increased deployment of violence not by officially constituted national armed forces but by paramilitary forces, guerrilleros, death squads, secret police, and other irregulars, and increased direction of state-sponsored and state-seeking violence against civilians, especially whole categories of the population stigmatized for their religious, ethnic, and/or political identities. These trends greatly exceed population growth and the multiplication of independent states; they constitute an enormous increase per capita and per state.” (“Violence, Terror and Politics as Usual”, Summer 2002).

There is also the related problem of quantifying acts of violence and assigning them relative values. If we compare and rank qualitatively distinct atrocities — say the Holocaust and Rwanda massacres — do we really get a measure of their respective magnitudes? The problem of measuring acts of violence — of trying to determine their moral import or historical significance — is not just that bodies have piled up or can be counted and plotted across points in time. It’s that we also need to try to qualify the violence with respect to their circumstances and distinctiveness. Ask yourself this: does it really make sense to conceive genocide — or indeed,  a single murder — in terms of a body count? To what extent is it valuable to compare eight hundred thousand people being hunted down and hacked to death to millions of people being rounded up and gassed? Each is inconceivable in their own right and needs to be contextualized and questioned accordingly.

Indeed, one of the consequences of Pinker’s metric of progress is that it inadvertently allows us to conceive the question of genocide in relative terms. Specifically, which instance of mass murder do you think was more (or less) civilized (relatively speaking)? Is it worst to be killed by a crazed mob wielding machetes or to die via conveyor belt and filing system?

Perhaps we should also be questioning whether it is even civilized to measure violence in relative terms. Specifically, what kind of meaning does a statistical value offer people actually living and dying in more violent parts of the world? If ‘we’ now live in a world where more people are less likely to get caught up in violence, what relevance does this statistic have for those people actually living and dying in (say) Iraq, South Africa or Mexico?

Part of his rhetorical stance is that historical myopia distorts our view of whether humankind is really more violent, and the resulting ratio is meant to reassure us that humanity generally lives and die in a less violent world. Pinker’s own view of violence, however, encourages us to be myopic in a different way: such relative truths can only have relative meaning or value.

The sleight of hand, then, extends to the way he juxtaposes qualitatively distinct historical events in order to contextualize the relations between them. Witness the way he compares The Mongol Conquests and World War II. According to his own ranking (No 2 and No 9 respectively), such outbreaks of violence can be compared and evaluated because of similarly horrific death tolls. The only problem is that the point of comparison is illusory: comparing culturally distinct periods is not very enlightening. The Mongol Conquests spanned many more generations and continents, and arose within its own historical context. The violence that occurred during the Second World War, on the other hand, was relatively brief and dense and is only intelligible within its own context. The question, then, is to what extent is it even rational to compare them in the first place.

Another questionable bit of inflation is Pinker’s willingness to use unverifiable body counts to rank history’s atrocities. The An Shan Rebellion remains infamous in the annals of history: while the estimated deaths range between 13 and 36 million, he goes with the largest figure and his population scale adjusts the figures accordingly (429 million people in contemporary terms). Historical scholarship, however, is not so quick to get out its abacus and (moral) compass.

Indeed, anyone attempting to investigate this violent period in Chinese history immediately becomes aware that the circumstances themselves make the violence difficult to quantify. Specifically, the suspected death toll is based on a significant variance between two censuses over a single decade — AD 753 (52,880,488) and AD 764 (16,900,000) respectively. Consequently,  the question is what is being really measured in the disparate body counts: a population nearly wiped out by political instability or a destabilized society unable to keep track of its own populace.

The point, of course, is not that Pinker is being unreasonable when including the An Shan Rebellion amongst our species darkest periods. We’re more highlighting the strategic role it plays within his reasoning. Since he invariably focuses on a history of Western civilization, however, its strategic value becomes increasingly questionable. Assigning it a near mythical status (No 1 with a bullet!) doesn’t enlighten anyone about our respective places in history.

Pinker’s use of reason effectively creates a self-serving mythology — like it’s possible to understand and control the complex forces of history with equations and storytelling. And in case you have difficulty following him while he’s “chasing his tale”, so to speak, he even has pictures (graphs, tables) to move the burial plots forward. He’s thereby able to plot a narrative arc that supposedly corresponds to our species moral progress. There’s no denying that Pinker’s storytelling casts its own spell — he is able to pull evolutionary psychology out of the resulting tale. The story is the sequel to the one he told in the The Blank Slate , and it goes a little something like this.

The tale of humankind is about the triumph of the better angels of our nature (empathy, self control, moral sense and reason) over our worst inner demons (predation, dominance, revenge, sadism and ideology). While humans are neither innately good or bad, our biological makeup remains a measure of our true character: we all have a “fixed human nature” (p.xxv) that can “steer” (p.573) us one way rather than another. Indeed, the direction in which our “psychological faculties” have moved us is the direct result of how our biological features have “been increasingly engaged” (p.573) over time.

To cut a long story short, humans already “come equipped” with conflicting (or competing) “motives”, and it is this biological equipment “that can orient them away from violence and towards cooperation and altruism” (xxv). The important thing to stress is what Pinker means by motives here — they’re natural capacities, and the mechanism by which humans direct their actions throughout history. The question, then, is the “changes in historical circumstances that engage a fixed human nature in different ways” (ibid). Pinker purports to be able to reverse engineer humankind by redirecting it back towards the “civilizing process” (p.59).

While he identifies a number of historical processes, some are clearly more integral than others. Following Norbert Elias, Pinker urges that a “culture of honor —the readiness to take revenge — gave way to a culture of dignity — a readiness to control one’s emotions” (p.72). Rational self control ensured that people could “moralize their emotions” (p.73) until feelings of (say) guilt or shame “became second nature” (p.72). And this ability to control ourselves found expression in two major developments: the rise of governments with a monopoly on legitimate uses of violence, and the spread of gentle commerce, or monetary exchanges that put a premium on the value of living trading partners. Subsequent triggers include growing literacy and more literate people being able to move up the escalator of reason — literacy is said to cultivate a greater awareness of the psychological reality (or moral worth) of other people while higher intelligence ensures that it’s possible to steer rational people in the right direction (towards making moral estimates of their respective outcomes).

Now, while this is obviously a superficially plausible tale, it’s faced with equally obvious difficulties. For starters, it presupposes the very things at issue — namely why a culture of dignity should have been thought more dignified (valuable, civilized) than a culture of honor, and how the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate violence took effect (was itself monopolized and enforced). Pinker wants a value judgement about certain values to do nature’s work for him. He tries to steer nature in the direction of ‘civilization’ by the way certain capacities are cultivated by their environment.

But where do such capacities receive their directions (their cultural status) in the first place? A related difficulty concerns the direction of fit between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’. While biology might ‘steer’ humans towards certain value systems, it fails to enlighten us about how such ‘capacities’ receive their directives and/or which way they should be directed, i.e, how we should rationally determine (evaluate and cultivate) our own capacities.

To cite Pinker’s own steering as motivator metaphor. Each time you get into a car, you’ll note that it comes with standard equipment (features such as an engine, steering wheel, accelerator, brakes and headlights, etc). Given these features, you should be good to go anywhere you like. It remains an open question, however, why you might be motivated to steer in one direction rather than another (you could either go to the gym or to a fast food restaurant ).

It’s not the car that’s driving you — it’s you that’s driving the car. To acknowledge this fact is not to subscribe to Pinker’s dreaded ghost in the machine. It also agrees that the person in the driver seat is not a blank slate — there are a number of reasons why you might be motivated to work out or eat junk food (other driving/environmental factors such as hunger,  social status or socializing). So the direction you go — and the reason/s your directed there — can’t be explained by a relatively straightforward biological explanation. There is still the question of determining (evaluating) our reasons for acting and steering ourselves accordingly.

Pinker’s attempt to map out the domain of reason merely highlights how territorial it can be. He’s able to mark his territory in two ways. He uses reason to provide a quantitative view of history, and attempts to demystify developments by mapping out qualitatively distinct events. This map of history supposedly provides a true measure of our species moral progress. The instrument of reason therefore becomes a self fulfilling prophesy: it can successfully create a world in its own image by placing the emphasis on instrumental values. Humankind has learnt to adapt to potential threats through more valuable (useful, mutually beneficial) measures.Perhaps that’s why Pinker can approach history as a foregone conclusion: moral progress ‘follows’ in both a historical and rational sense (it ends up being the same difference). Since violence has (relatively) declined, we are supposedly more rational (peaceful, humane, co-operative, etc).

One of the book’s outstanding mysteries, however, is why it fails to critically engage the surrounding intellectual environment (such as left leaning “critical theorists and postmodernists”, p. 642.). Actually, it’s not a real mystery at all. Pinker typically makes a demon move in order to appear on the side of the angels (to now quote biologist H. Allen Orr slightly out of context).

“It is, after all, easier to ridicule (potential) critics by portraying them as (unreasonable) than by engaging their actual arguments. It’s easier to win a debate if the audience can’t hear what the other side says.” (H. Allen Orr, “Darwinian Storytelling”, 23 February, 2003).

Now is not the place to examine the many species of such arguments — they are much more sophisticated and varied than Pinker indicates. Nonetheless, Better Angels of Our Nature inadvertently brings to mind what critical theorists call the dialectic of enlightenment . Indeed, it comes across as an unintended parody of the contradictory process outlined in Adorno and Horkheimer’s seminal text (see here for a pdf of chapter 1) . Although their critique is not without its own contradictions , Pinker’s reasoning nonetheless highlights the way ‘myth’ and ‘enlightenment’ remain two sides of the same coin. And as critical theorist Jurgen Habermas might observe, the book invariably documents the way reason has been colonized by the steering media of money and power, reinforcing the dialectic of enlightenment. The dialectic is the way enlightenment (our supposed better angels) simultaneously produces its own shadow (unleashes demons and a corresponding mythology). Specifically, where the civilizing process is also a decivilising process.

One way to illustrate this internal contradiction is by emphasizing something that Pinker tries to downplay: the role nuclear weapons play in the ‘long peace’ (post World War II environment ). Pinker’s account of reason makes every attempt to interpret away the fact that we continue to live in a M.A.D. world. Specifically, the long peace has come at an incredibly high price: the possibility of mutually assured destruction. He’ll persuasively talk about the taboo surrounding such weapons, and assumes that a nuclear age is unlikely to resort to using them during conflict situations. His calculus nonetheless fails to take seriously the ways the moral equation has trans/formed the international environment. The question is not whether they should be used, but who has a ‘legitimate’ monopoly on the threat of potentially devastating violence.

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