The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Steven Pinker's forthright and uncomplicated endorsement of the idea of moral progress is not new, but it is still refreshingly unfashionable.

"The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined," by Steven Pinker, Viking, 832 pages, $24

There is much that is admirable in Steven Pinker's new and massive book, "The Better Angels of our Nature." First, the boldness of its central claim - that our situation is better than ever in the world today because violence has decreased - cannot fail to irritate the conservative and postmodern apostles of doom. Such a forthright and uncomplicated endorsement of the idea of moral progress is not new, but it is still refreshingly unfashionable.


Second, this book takes us on a breathtaking grand tour of many social and natural sciences: Moral philosophy, history, statistics, sociology, anthropology, neuroscience, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology and game theory - all are "mobilized" with great ease by the author to prove that our chances of dying due to a violent assault by a stranger or neighbor have declined considerably due to significant transformations in our patterns of thinking and feeling.

Third, this book is straightforwardly humanist and promotes everybody's rights: Animal rights, gay rights, women's rights, as well as anti-racist and pacifist movements - all are extolled as signs of a culture that increasingly enlarges the circle of beings whose suffering it cares about. Fourth, although this is never made explicit, this book is a commendable attempt to correct the intellectual trajectory of its author, as it addresses one of the major objections raised against Pinker's previous works: namely, that we are born with genetic and linguistic "programs" that constitute what can be called pre-social human nature, which in turn make it difficult to acknowledge the role that culture plays in human progress.

Finally, this heavy scholarly book, replete with references and statistics, is consistently entertaining - even in its most appalling descriptions of the various instruments with which the human body has been tortured throughout history.

And yet, for all this, the book fails spectacularly when it comes to displaying what I call, for lack of a better word, intellectual depth. In fact, few works illustrate as poignantly as this the sometimes-irreconcilable differences between good research and profound thought. Despite its formidable methodological arsenal and sheer scholarliness, "The Better Angels of Our Nature" never convincingly answers the question that has haunted us since Nietzsche: Why has our Western civilization become so sensitive to the suffering of others? In light of the history of the Shoah, the news delivered by Pinker's book is startling: From the 18th century, members of Western civilization have become morally and cognitively superior to their predecessors, because they became much better at not killing, maiming or torturing each other. State-sponsored torture, wife beating, war, street violence, genocide, duels and honor killings, racist violence, murder, infanticide, crimes against homosexuals, animal killings for fun, blood sports - all of these have either disappeared, diminished or become prohibited in the last two centuries.

Pinker, the Harvard psychologist and highly successful author of many books including "The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language," traces the history of the many ways in which (mostly ) men in the biblical era, ancient Greece, early Christendom and Rome, medieval times, early-contemporary Europe and the United States, acted like ferocious and sadistic wolves toward each other.

This state of affairs started changing with the rise of a Leviathan, the modern state, and with what socialist Norbert Elias has called the "civilizing process" - a greater capacity to control impulse. Elias sought to explain the changes in decorum and sensibility in Europe from the 16th century onward - for example, the fact that table manners became more codified. Pinker cites Elias freely but makes connections Elias never made: between self-control and reason (Elias only linked self-control to rationality, a form of forward thinking to defend one's interest ), between self-control and the Enlightenment (for Elias this was a social process initiated by elites in their race to attain power in princely courts ), and between self-control and morality (Elias remains agnostic on this question, viewing self-control as a strategic response to changes in political structures, most notably the rise of the state ).

Pinker further argues that the 17th- and 18th-century promoters of the Enlightenment considered physical pain and suffering, violence and superstition to be signs of barbarity, and thus took a giant step toward moral progress in increasingly banishing from everyday life many routine forms of violence. So strong is Pinker's faith in the linear narrative of progress that the murderous 20th century, according to him, evidenced a decrease, not an increase, in violence. This is because Pinker is a scientist, who counts on numbers to deliver the truth: When we calculate the numbers of people killed relative to the world population, the 55 million or so people killed during World War II is in fact proportionately less than the 40 million the Mongols killed in the 13th century, when the world population was one-seventh of that during the era of the world war. The 55-million figure only seems higher than the 40 million because Western consciousness now views the mass killing during the world war with horror and disgust, whereas it would have been met with indifference in the past.

In this linear narrative of progress, religion plays no role: Indeed, for Pinker, it has been essentially a source of abuse and violence. Furthermore, because he ignores the many rationalist strands that made up the history of Judaism and Christianity and that actually led to a connection between, for example, Pietism and the Enlightenment - Pinker can comfortably claim reason to be thoroughly "secular."

Remember, though, that the author is an evolutionist psychologist. Thus, if violence is both universal yet not necessary (like other human drives ), then it must in turn point to a certain flexibility of the mind and of our nature. Here Pinker significantly revises his prior positions with regard to the role of culture and history in human behavior. In fact, he shows himself to be a radical culturalist: The humanitarian revolution that emerged from the 17th and 18th centuries' Republic of Letters had the power to reduce violence, he suggests, because it debunked ignorance and superstition, and provided people with inner weapons against poisonous beliefs. Furthermore, the spread of novel reading in Europe and America helped people develop the capacity to adopt the viewpoints of people unlike themselves, because abstract thought is said to make us not only smarter, but more reasonable. Pinker often offers us a mono-causal, linear and mechanical explanation for what seems to be one of the most puzzling phenomena in world history and thus disregards many objections that have been and could be cited to his narrative, as follows:

1. As the political-philosopher John Gray has argued in a review of the book, violence has been exported from the West to the rest. "In much the same way that rich societies exported their pollution to developing countries, the societies of the highly developed world exported their conflicts. They were at war with one another the entire time ... not only in Indo-China but in other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America." Indeed, Pinker's book is guilty not only of a strong European bias, but of a form of myopia with regard to the ways in which The Long Peace (the European peace accord forged after World War II ) is only one element of a complex international order, in which war is still prevalent.

2. Then comes the sticky business of self-control. Michael Haneke's 2009 film "The White Ribbon" is a powerful critique of the kind of self-control promoted by Calvinists and Lutherians. As the movie illustrates, such self-control underlays a collective cultural personality that was rigid, repressive, anxious to safeguard purity but which committed violence - violence against women, servants and children in the penumbra of privacy. While it doesn't offer scientific evidence per se, the movie resonates with a question which, beginning with Freud, reverberated through the 20th century with regard to the oppressiveness of the psychic equipment needed for the self-control of desires and appetites. Psychologically and morally, self-control is a more complex phenomenon than the ability to defer eating one marshmallow now in favor of two marshmallows in 15 minutes - an experiment Pinker is very fond of quoting.

3. Perhaps because Pinker is himself a scientist, he thinks that science bestows special moral qualities upon certain people. We read, for example, that smarter people think like economists and are more peaceful than others - ergo, one is led to think that economists are more peaceful than other people. And this in turn seems to bolster the 18th-century thesis of "doux commerce": The idea that commerce would soften and refine human interactions. This is the kind of frequent leap that Pinker makes, which casts a serious shadow on the seriousness of his argument. Furthermore, to claim that self-control, empathy and abstract scientific thought are responsible for the decline in violence is to forget that modern democracies generate and integrate many disparate elements within a whole cultural personality. To claim that smarter people (by which he means individuals with high IQs ) are less violent is nothing but a vacuous description, rather than an explanation of the fact that indeed some groups of people are both better educated and less prone to violence - both factors being explained by the fact that safe, wealthy and democratic environments tend to encourage precisely those kinds of people.

4. When Pinker posits a straightforward relationship between reading novels, empathy and the decline of violence, he not only makes a very crude causal claim that basically lacks an empirical basis, but he also ignores the far more significant and long-standing role of the Church in the pacification of Europe. By focusing only on the Inquisitorial activities of the Church, Pinker conveniently forgets that Christianity was the most powerful normative framework against violence, due to its relentless promotion of the ethic of love, peace and brotherliness. Nietzsche understood this more than a century ago.

In summary, this is a dazzling but deeply flawed book, at the end of which I found myself wondering about optimism and its limits - itself a very 18th-century question. Pinker's fanatic endorsement of the Enlightenment smacks of crude scientism and lacks the intellectual complexity of the "Enlighteners" themselves or of its modern heirs (Jurgen Habermas, Axel Honneth or Susan Neiman. ) Nor is this the Enlightenment that justified colonialism or the violence of the Terror. Rather, his is the caricatured Enlightenment of Pangloss, the character in Voltaire's parody "Candide." Pangloss witnesses a long series of horrors, and yet is confident that he is living in "the best of all possible worlds."

Perhaps our time is better than others, but we still do not need to subscribe to the Panglossian view that this is so because we are traveling in a fast and irresistible train of moral human progress pushed by the locomotive of reason. This is not only because we must be wary of smugness, but also because of the fear of bad science. Science is more than an a posteriori justification of everything we are, as described by narratives of irresistible progress.

That the most educated, literate, poetry-loving and music-loving nation in the world receded almost effortlessly into barbarity surely indicates that the virtues of self-control, novel-reading and abstract thinking are very thin indeed in the face of forces whose nature remain, alas, largely undeciphered in this book.

Prof. Eva Illouz is a member of the Center for the Study of Rationality and holds the Rose Isaacs Chair in Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.