Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Have We Progressed Beyond Violence?

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. 

And this:

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.


priss rules said...

The problem is the use of 'we'.

If by 'we', we mean the modern West, yes, there's more peace and harmony and etc. It might apply to some part of the modern East as well.

But it certainly doesn't apply to the Middle East and Africa. There are too many sectarian, ethnic, political, or tribal divisions in those parts.

Now, if the Modern West protects its borders, it can do pretty well.
But massive immigration will mean the arrival of the problems afflicting the Middle East and Africa into Europe, and it will be especially dangerous as European birthrates are low.

So, as Europe is Muslim-ized and Africanized, I see a very dark future.

Also, as Western culture is so soulless and decadent with porny pop culture and worship of homosexuals, I don't know where this is all going. Maybe, it will just produce dumb kids hooked to hedonism. Or maybe it will turn people into new barbarians.

THIS is what passes for American culture today:


Seen 415 million times.


Also, as there are more blacks in the West, there will be more problems of violence due to genetic factors.


Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Pinker is interesting, but he's just as much a dogmatic rationalist, with the gusto of any fundamentalist believer. And the romanticism of the Enlightenment is so boring. The idea that atheist rationalism uplifts man beyond the dogmatic superstitions of Christianity is hogwash. Human beings are primarily emotional creatures who do best when they recognize the true values of faith and reason. It's a both-and. The idea that Lenin and Mao were brought to power in a grand sweep of rationalism is not supported by the facts. Which part of the "peace, bread and land" did the proletariat receive? Did you ever see the movie "Reds"? That hardly describes the wonders of rational communists. Solzhenitsyn captured the horror of Soviet reality best, and it was primarily spiritual decay, malaise and hopelessness. And I do see your point with John Gray's fatalism, Stuart.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Also, I do see the significant rise of state power as a concern, particularly when it monopolizes the use of force and becomes preemptive through blanket surveillance. When our political class is careerist and exempt from life's realities, protected within the fantasyland of the marbled Federal City, they begin to see dollars as digits and people as statistics. The bearing of our secular, agnostic, materialist elites is one of dogmatic rationalism, as the abortion-on-demand, "death with dignity," and uber-educated proto-eugenicist interests have come to power, and become drunk on the virtuousness of blind tolerance to all beliefs... especially the ones they agree with. They are very tolerant of emotions and values, so long as they don't upset the larger agenda, content to offer government in the persona of a new Santa Claus, delivering gifts 24/7/365, regardless of whether you're naughty or nice... you're just entitled. Theirs is a sophisticated, smoke-and-mirrors, technoology-obsessed translation of Orwell's Animal Farm. It reflects a profound lack of self-awareness, conforming to a self-congratulatory, narcissistic phoniness, steeped in materialist consumer culture, and fed a constant diet of vacant, valueless imagery and slogans. It is commitment-free gluttony of pleasure... the empire of nihilism. All while remaining a vegan, gluten-free, organic, open-minded, spiritually exotic citizen of the world. All while free from value distinctions, without any trace of obedience or belonging to something greater than the almighty self. After all, what else is there? It is a bankrupt decadence that is increasingly unworthy of engagement, as conversations with such people are so self-evidently circular and bereft of critical thought. This is the description of a spiritual crisis. When people have no anchor of meaning in their lives, they will believe anything. It's quite sad. Everything is okay, there is no sin, no separation from the sacred, just buying, learning and earning more stuff. The only crazies -- the people truly worthy of contempt -- are those "bitter clingers" who make this country work. The goal is to bleed the middle class dry, centralize power and eliminate thinking of anything beyond the material. This is hope and change, and it's an honest implementation because nobody asked any questions about what kind of hope, and what sort of change. Bouhahahaha!!!

Ares Olympus said...

The idea "progressing beyond violence" is an open question to me. Maybe its too big to answer?

And whether or how enlightenment is involved is also open. I see enlightenment starts with the scientific idea that the world is understandable, and that we can objectively study how things work, and improve our lives by making the world work for us. And the industrial revolution is a consequence of that.

But the power of understanding is also the power to see you can exploit others for your benefit. You can manipulate their supersitions, and their vanity and arrogance into making deals that are in your favor, and you can dehumanize others, especially via a belief in race superiority, and believe you're actually helping to civilize others. Its hard to counter such benevolant beliefs because there's always some truth to it.

And also it is amazing the atheists have any confidence in their own moral highground at least given communism's bad record. But the excesses of capitalism works on Atheism just as well.

The humanist atheists seem to take the maternal side of nurture for sharing and caring values, and the libertarian atheists take the paternal side of promoting the rewards of autonomy and self-discipline as the source of morality.

But confess I get lost trying to believe I can explain anything. I just don't think we can consider any experiences "representative" to human nature when we're living beyond our means, and have no clear evidence any sort of technical progress is guaranteed to lead to future prosperity.

So when systems fail, that's where violence and destruction occur, and what skills do we have to reduce that violence? That's where I'm closer to the humanists than libertiarians, but maybe I'm also with the libertarians to see society structures at the community level where people are advocating for their own needs with others who can help each other.

I find Iain McGilchrist's presentations on our divided brain as helpful, the idea left-brain thinking replaces the world with a model of the world, which we can manipulate, but is incomplete and inaccurate, and yet still allows complex systems to be built up to our great benefit. But over time more and more gets left out, and then everything breaks down at once, and so the right-brain is more capable of seeing what's left out, and pulling more back into our awareness.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dFs9WO2B8uI The Divided Brain, 12 minutes of 32 minute lecture.

Dennis said...

I wonder if the more we talk about non-violence and ascribe to the idea that it is has become less frequent the harder it is for us to see the affects and appeal to others of that violence. Why would so many young people want to join groups who behead their enemies? Not withstanding the growing violence throughout the rest of the world.
We fail to see the violence perpetrated by a growing government power that creates a one size fits all idea of governance that destroys the individual and the creativity of that individual. Anyone who has dealt with the government run healthcare system can see readily how it makes decision based on costs and not the person's better interests or health. I know this from personal experience because I watched my daughter almost destroyed by it and addicted to pain killers.
The violence of a government that can divide one into pre-defined groups kills the human soul and creates a us agains't them mentality. It kills both literally and figuratively.
Sadly this leads to the very violence that brings down governments. I have often suspected that we, as a species, have been through this before. When we look at the relics of the past and think about aliens helping mankind to create these relics we may be talking about our selves in an earlier iteration.
It maybe why throughout history we see many of they same ideas, et al, being suppressed from a collective memory of what destroyed us before.
Suffice it to say that violence has to be balanced agains't violence for there to be less violence. Any action that creates an imbalance, such as Obama, Neville Chamberlin, and others of their ilk, creates larger violence which has the possibility to consume us all no matter how smart we think we are or enlightened. Peace is the rarity. One only has to look at how people treat other people when they have the power. Is there any real doubt that the Left would kill millions of people to establish their version of utopia? It is not any different that the wish for a religious theocracy. Much of it resembles a religion.

n.n said...

Yes and no. We have progressed to normalize the commission of unprecedented violence by women and sympathetic men in the privacy of a clinic. We have progressed to commit large-scale violence without warning and cause (e.g. Libya, Ukraine, Syria). We have also progressed to establish a greater set of competing interests who are capable of confronting others who choose to run amuck.

It is dissociation of risk that is the opiate of the masses and elites too. It is atheism without a moral foundation and an acknowledged faith that promotes narcissistic indulgence. It is left-wing ideology, generational liberalism, and untempered libertarianism that denigrate individual dignity, and progressive forms that debase human life, that are the cause of degenerative conditions.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

Dennis @March 18, 2015 at 5:56 AM:

The Left already endorses the killing of millions of people in the name of material reward, lifestyle convenience and the facilitation of greater pleasure. It's called abortion-on-demand. The horrible truth of what happens to an unborn human beings in an abortion procedure is sanitized as a "choice" in the name of a "right to privacy" -- a right that neither exists in text nor nuance, nor is it respected for the sake of others by those who demand it. Privacy for what??? We have a bipartisan surveillance state featuring the convenient duplicity of a penumbra right to something no human society has ever had: privacy to murder. We euthanize dogs more humanely than we murder the unborn. The Left's concept of of unborn babies is how they view all human beings along their path to power... except themselves, of course.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

n.n @March 18, 2015 at 1:34 PM:

"It is dissociation of risk that is the opiate of the masses and elites too."

Nothing truer said. When dissociate risk, we don't value anything. Or each other.

priss rules said...


This sort of thing makes me yearn for some old-fashioned violence. At least it was more fun.

n.n said...

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD:

Dissociation of risk is related to circumventing natural and social feedbacks that mitigate people's choice and opportunity to run amuck.