Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Will the 'better angels' keep winning?

When about half way through reading Steven Pinker’s book, ‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ (2011) I wrote something supportive of his view that Enlightenment humanism is a coherent world view. Since I have now finished reading the book I can now take a broader view of it. However, I don’t propose to attempt more that a one sentence summary of the line of argument in the book. Peter Singer’s review seems to me to provide a good summary.

Pinker argues that our ‘better angels’ are winning because violence has declined over the centuries. His book is full of evidence supporting this proposition, most of which I find persuasive. My lingering doubts centre around the spread of nuclear and biological weapons. There seems to me to be potential for crazy political leaders to destroy a higher proportion of humanity in future wars than in past wars.

Some reviewers have raised more fundamental doubts about Pinker’s view of moral progress. For example, John Gray suggests that if Darwin’s theory is right there is no rational basis for expecting any revolution in human behaviour. In my view Gray misses the point. Pinker’s view of moral progress seems to be based primarily on cultural evolution – the evolution of social norms – rather than biological evolution.

However, Pinker suggests that we should not expect our explanation of the evolution of norms opposed to violence ‘to fall out of a grand unified theory’:
‘The declines we seek to explain unfolded over vastly different scales of time and damage: the taming of chronic raiding and feuding, the reduction of vicious interpersonal violence such as cutting off of noses, the elimination of cruel practices like human sacrifice, torture-executions and flogging, the abolition of institutions such as slavery and debt-bondage, the falling out of fashion of blood sports and duelling, the eroding of political murder and despotism, the recent decline of wars, pogroms and genocides, the reduction of violence against women, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the protection of children and animals’.

The historical forces that Pinker views as leading to a reduction in violence are: the emergence of government with a monopoly on the use of force; the growth of commerce i.e. mutually beneficial exchange; growth in the power of women; an expansion in the circle of sympathy to encompass people in other communities and other countries; and what he refers to as ‘the escalator of reason’. The escalator of reason involves ascending to the vantage point of an impartial spectator (i.e. detaching oneself from a parochial viewpoint). Pinker argues:
‘A humanistic value system, which privileges human flourishing as the ultimate good, is a product of reason because it can be justified: it can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation, whereas communal and authoritarian values are parochial to a tribe or hierarchy’.

The main distinction between the expanding circle and the escalator of reason is that whereas the escalator of reason requires the vantage point of impartiality, the expanding circle requires a capacity to see things from the vantage point of other people. Pinker explains that the expansion in literacy and greater reading of fiction from the Enlightenment onwards is one of reasons for an expansion in the circle of people for whom we feel sympathy. Australian blogger, Legal Eagle, helps make this point by combining a review of Pinker’s book with a review of Suzanne Collins’ series ‘The Hunger Games’. Legal Eagle suggests: ‘If, in popular fiction, we explore with the ideas of how various utopian designs of society can go wrong, and feel sympathy for the victims, hopefully we can guard against being swayed by such visions’.

Even though Pinker argues that we should not expect our explanation for the decline in violence to fall out of a unified theory of cultural evolution, it seems to me that he is actually not far away from developing such a theory. His linking of growing skills in abstract reasoning (the so-called Flynn effect) with Adam Smith’s concept of the impartial spectator is a major contribution.  As I have argued previously, however, the extent to which we develop impartial spectators that influence our behaviour must depend on the context of social interactions that reward particular behaviours and penalize others. The prisoner’s dilemma model and the concept of moral progress as positive sum game, which Pinker uses in his final chapter, seem to me to be on the right track toward development of a unified theory of cultural evolution.

It seems to me that a theory of cultural evolution should have four central ingredients:  a vision of ethical behaviour promulgated by the major world religions; the sense of personal identity of individuals in different communities and cultures; the incentives individuals have to change the way they perceive themselves and the way others perceive them; and the incentives of groups to change the rules of the game that determine individual incentives.

The golden rule of treating others as one would like to be treated oneself qualifies as the vision of ethical behaviour. A person who perceives himself or herself as the kind of person who acts in accordance with the golden rule is likely to obtain satisfaction from acting in accordance with this ideal. The extent to which individuals perceive themselves in this way will depend on their perception of the incentives in their environment. If they perceive that people outside their family group or tribe are not to be trusted they will not risk attempting to engage with them in cooperative ventures or mutually beneficial exchange. If they perceive that the incentives in their environment favour predatory behaviour they will tend to adopt a sense of personal identity that enables them to feel comfortable with such behaviour. Since societies that adopt rules of the game which discourage predation will tend to be more successful in enabling individuals to flourish, there is an incentive to adopt similar rules of the game in other societies.

This model suggests that moral progress depends heavily on the extent to which individuals perceive that others can be trusted. This is supported by research, some reported on this blog, which has shown that the countries in which community values are most strongly supported tend to be those with relatively high levels of social trust. An implication of the importance of trust, however, is that moral progress of societies may tend to be somewhat fragile.

I keep referring to 'The Better Angels ...', particularly the 'escalator of reason'. There are references here and here.

In my view 'The Better Angels of our Nature' is one of those books that people will still be referring to in 50 years time.

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