Do you believe in human progress?
Or do you believe in the inevitability of human violence?
Steven Pinker famously believes that we humans have made significant advances. We have, his numbers tell him, reduced violence. Thus, there are fewer deaths by violence today than there were in previous time periods.
Pinker gives the credit to the Enlightenment.
Souls illuminated by the light of Reason saw the futility of violence and have chosen to overcome it.
Since the unexampled violence of the twentieth century occurred well after the Enlightenment, Pinker has a problem explaining away the body count of Naziism and Communism. And we might add the body count of the Spanish flu, a pandemic that occurred after World War I and that killed millions, non-violently.
For Pinker these paroxysms of violence signaled a counter-Enlightenment, an atavistic reaction to the pending arrival of a new civilized world where violence would be relegated to the forgotten past.
Writing in the Guardian philosopher John Gray takes Pinker to task:
… links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.
Disputing Pinker’s pie-in-the-sky optimism, Gray derides his reliance on statistics and offers as counter-evidence, not merely the horrors of the twentieth century, but the seemingly permanent conflicts that have infected the current century.
One must note that Gray has drama on his side. The images of the Holocaust and of the brutality that has infected the Middle East are far more vivid than statistics about traffic accidents.
To my knowledge, Gray does not mention another salient point. Pinker’s analysis rests on a moral judgment. To his mind violence is bad; it is very bad; thus enlightened souls willingly forgo it.
If violence serves a purpose, if warfare serves another purpose beyond pure destruction, his argument becomes far less persuasive. If men go to war in order to build character and to demonstrate the ultimate courage, one suspects that we have not seen the last of it.
Surely, Pinker does not wish to eliminate the free market and the clash of civilizations. They are not violent actions, but they are, as William James said, the moral equivalent of war.
For his part Pinker attributes the decline of violence to the more powerful state, though it is unclear to me why the State is necessarily a force for peace in the world. After all, states compete with other states. We have no reason to believe that competition will always remain peaceful.
To make his argument Pinker would have to claim that the modern State is the embodiment of Enlightenment ideals, thus, that we are, through the agency of the State becoming more peaceful. This feels like liberal, even socialist fluff.
Gray explains Pinker’s idea:
This “civilising process” – a term Pinker borrows from the sociologist Norbert Elias – has come about largely as a result of the increasing power of the state, which in the most advanced countries has secured a near-monopoly of force. Other causes of the decline in violence include the invention of printing, the empowerment of women, enhanced powers of reasoning and expanding capacities for empathy in modern populations, and the growing influence of Enlightenment ideals.
Gray counters that many Enlightenment thinkers were less than optimistic and benevolent.
Pinker writes: “There was a common denominator of counter-Enlightenment utopianism behind the ideologies of nazism and communism.” You would never know, from reading Pinker, that Nazi “scientific racism” was based in theories whose intellectual pedigree goes back to Enlightenment thinkers such as the prominent Victorian psychologist and eugenicist Francis Galton. Such links between Enlightenment thinking and 20th-century barbarism are, for Pinker, merely aberrations, distortions of a pristine teaching that is innocent of any crime: the atrocities that have been carried out in its name come from misinterpreting the true gospel, or its corruption by alien influences. The childish simplicity of this way of thinking is reminiscent of Christians who ask how a religion of love could possibly be involved in the Inquisition. In each case it is pointless to argue the point, since what is at stake is an article of faith.
Calling Pinker’s theory faith-based must count as the ultimate insult. Since Pinker is a notable proponent of atheism, he must believe that the advance of Enlightenment ideals coincides with the reduced influence of religious superstition.
And yet, aren’t Communist governments based on reason? Aren’t they the enemy of religious superstition? Aren’t they the most conspicuous example of the effort to enact a purely atheistic culture? If so, how did they, idealistic to the core, become such effective killing machines?
As for the track record of atheist governments, Gray remarks:
Soviet agricultural collectivisation incurred millions of foreseeable deaths, mainly as a result of starvation, with deportation to uninhabitable regions, life-threatening conditions in the Gulag and military-style operations against recalcitrant villages also playing an important role. Peacetime deaths due to internal repression under the Mao regime have been estimated to be around 70 million.
For an atheist this is more than an embarrassment. It's an argument against his faith.
Pinker’s atheism notwithstanding, the European Enlightenments—there were more than one—occurred within a Judeo-Christian civilization and embodied values that dated to the Bible.
By Gray’s lights, Pinker belongs to a Western idealist tradition that believes in a greater historical narrative in which humankind proceeds naturally toward a Golden Age of peace and prosperity.
This places Pinker in league with Francis Fukuyama:
Pronounced in the summer of 1989 when liberal democracy seemed to be triumphant, Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of “the end of history” – the disappearance of large-scale violent conflict between rival political systems – was a version of the same message.
Gray suggests that Pinker is cherry-picking his facts, and thus ignoring recent history.
In his words:
As some critics, notably John Arquilla, have pointed out, it’s a mistake to focus too heavily on declining fatalities on the battlefield. If these deaths have been falling, one reason is the balance of terror: nuclear weapons have so far prevented industrial-style warfare between great powers.
While it is true that war has changed, it has not become less destructive. Rather than a contest between well-organised states that can at some point negotiate peace, it is now more often a many-sided conflict in fractured or collapsed states that no one has the power to end. The protagonists are armed irregulars, some of them killing and being killed for the sake of an idea or faith, others from fear or a desire for revenge and yet others from the world’s swelling armies of mercenaries, who fight for profit. For all of them, attacks on civilian populations have become normal.
More intriguingly, Gray points out that it has often happened that a single event changed the course of history. To counteract Pinker’s historical determinism, Gray notes the importance of contingent events:
If the socialist revolutionary Fanya Kaplan had succeeded in assassinating Lenin in August 1918, violence would still have raged on in Russia. But the Soviet state might not have survived and could not have been used by Stalin for slaughter on a huge scale. If a resolute war leader had not unexpectedly come to power in Britain in May 1940, and the country had been defeated or (worse) made peace with Germany as much of the British elite wanted at the time, Europe would likely have remained under Nazi rule for generations to come – time in which plans of racial purification and genocide could have been more fully implemented.
Gray’s argument is persuasive. And yet, he tends toward fatalism, toward a tragic view of human existence which feels every bit as determined as Pinker’s.
If Pinker tends toward dramatic comedy, Gray tends more toward dramatic tragedy.
Surely, Pinker was influenced by the cognitivist ideas of Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman, according to which we do better to balance the positive with the negative than to focus exclusively on the good or the bad in life.
One suspects that Pinker has taken the argument too far, but an optimistic attitude is not necessarily going to do you ill… as long as you do not invoke it to ignore risk… or to excuse the catastrophes produced by atheist cultures.
And the Enlightenment was hardly monolithic. Hume and Kant do not think the same way and do not view problems through the same philosophical lens.
Western idealism, the kind that derives from Plato, Augustine and Descartes differs radically from the empirical tradition that was founded by Aristotle and that entered the Christian West through the efforts of Maimonides, Aquinas and Albertus Magnus. Empiricism was carried forth by David Hume, Wittgenstein and Co.
And then there is this: the free exchange of ideas was surely an important and influential practice, but the free market in goods and services was arguably more important in improving the quality of human life.
Life in today’s China is vastly superior to that of Mao’s China, but the improvement has more to do with free enterprise than to liberal democracy.
One is somewhat surprised to see that neither Pinker nor Gray seem inclined to emphasize the transformative importance of the Industrial Revolution.
Along with free market capitalism this Revolution improved the everyday lives of millions, if not billions of people. It did not necessarily eliminate violence, but it seems to have made it less likely. Prosperous nations are not inclined to go to war, one imagines, but still, prosperous nations also need military force to protect wealth, commerce and industry, to maintain access to raw materials and to keep markets open.
Since some nations are more prosperous than others and since some civilizations provide for their people better than others, there will always be a need to protect what one has.