Friday, September 23, 2016

Chet Raymo, “Angels and Devils”

“Angels and Devils”
by Chet Raymo

"I was on a panel once with Steven Pinker. I learned two things from the experience. He has more hair than I do. And he's smarter. Which is why I try to read whatever he writes. Even at my venerable age I figure I can learn something from the brainy youngsters.

So I've been waiting for his book to arrive at the library: "The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes." Meantime, "Nature" has Pinker's three-page summary of the book, which stands nicely alone as a presentation of his thesis- and as an affirmation of liberal, secular, forward-looking, Enlightenment values. I would put it up there in my list of required political readings with George McGovern's 2002 essay The Case for Liberalism: A Defense of the Future Against the Past. But this is not a political blog, so we won't go there. Still, let me point out one liberal value implicit in Pinker's essay that relates directly to science.

Pinker has obviously done an exhaustive survey of the social and psychological literature in search of data that supports (or refutes) his thesis. He is well aware that with such a complex, multivariate topic the data can only be suggestive, not definitive. Thus, in the essay we encounter again and again words like "seems," "might," "likely," and "perhaps," words that are conspicuously absent in so much of today's illiberal political discourse, but which are essential to the scientific process.

Another of Pinker's points that is relevant here: He points out that "morality," as traditionally understood, has nothing to do with the ascendancy of our better angels." "No society defines virtue solely by the avoidance of harm," writes Pinker. "Indeed," he says, "because morality furnishes people with motives for violent acts that bring no tangible benefit, it is more often the problem rather than the solution."

I think of all those times I went to confession as a kid, listing "sins" that had nothing to do with the advancement or impediment of human empathy: ate meat on Friday, broke my fast before Communion, had "impure" dreams. None of my piddling "sins" made any difference in the great scheme of things, but they are in the same category of victimless "immoralities" mentioned by Pinker-such as homosexuality, blasphemy, heresy, and desecration of sacred symbols- which have so often led to violent punishment, even judicial murder.

If divinely-decreed moral precepts are not our better angel, what is? If Steven Pinker is right about a historical decline of violence among state societies- and I believe he is- then what is the cause? He is almost certainly correct that divinely-prescribed moral codes have little to do with it. His answer: "The most important psychological contributor to the decline of violence over the long term may instead be reason: the cognitive faculties, honed by the exchange of ideas through language, that allow us to understand the world and negotiate social arrangements."

Reason allows one to make the connection between "It's bad for you to hurt me" and "It's bad for me to hurt you," says Pinker. And why an enhancement of reason? "The most likely causes are increases in the duration and quality of schooling, the spread of symbol-manipulation into work and leisure, and the trickling down of scientific and analytical reasoning into everyday life." That all sounds good to me.

I would guess that we are programmed by natural selection for altruism toward "us" and violence- especially by males- toward "them."  Originally, the "them" were those with whom we did not share a close genetic affinity. With the evolution of human culture, the separation of "us" and "them" was reinforced by language, religion, and shared histories, with a gradual widening of the circle of those we do not kill.

To be sure, Pinker says as much, and believes that reason helps us debunk the myths by which we define the "us" and demonize the "them." There is still the matter of empathy. Why in the educated developed nations do we now refrain from drawing-and-quartering murderers and chopping the hands off thieves? The popularity of slasher movies and violent video games suggests we have not altogether lost our taste for gore. How, then, to explain the growing revulsion to cruel and unusual punishment? Why our increasing reluctance to inflict pain even on laboratory animals and the creatures we harvest for food? Without the possibility of reciprocity, the Golden Rule doesn't apply.

Pinker doesn't say much about this in the "Nature" essay; maybe more in the book. Could it be an entirely cultural meme, reinforced by liberal Enlightenment values? Another example of a culturally defined "us" versus "them"?

We are superior, better, more "civilized" than them when we are not inflicting pain.”

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