Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Final exam

When I started teaching at Stonehill nearly half-a-century ago, there was a history professor who gave true/false final exams with questions like "The main cause of the French Revolution was such-and-such." Fortunately, his tenure was short. If history teaches us anything, it is that history is complicated.

So, I'm reading previews of Steven Pinker's new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, that will be out in October. Apparently, Pinker compiles data from the research literature to show that humans -- in the developed world, at least -- are becoming less violent. Even the gross butcheries of the 20th century do not negate the overall trend, he claims.

Well, we'll wait to see if the data is convincing, but I don’t doubt it for a minute. Compare the widespread indignation over the recent execution in Georgia with the almost daily public hangings and quarterings of just a few centuries ago.

Nor is the thesis new. When I was an undergraduate I remember Margaret Mead telling us that the progress of civilization is the ever-widening circle of those whom we do not kill.

If our better angels are indeed in the ascendancy, what's the reason? According to previews of his book, Pinker cites Enlightenment values -- reason, literacy, secularism, internationalism, science.

The trend towards non-violence is either real or not; that's a matter of data. The cause of the trend is more speculative. I would like to believe that Pinker is correct. I've often offered the same interpretation here: globalism, science and secularism vs. tribalism, tradition and dogmatic religion.

But maybe the deeper cause is self-interest after all. Maybe the "better angels of our nature" are motivated by avarice and a desire for what money can buy. Maybe the primary analysis should be economic.

Maybe it was a matter of figuring out -- or learning by trial and error -- that reason, literacy, secularism, internationalism and science are conditions conducive to the building of personal wealth, not just for the few, but for the many. Maybe the Enlightenment is all about standard of living.

Maybe we widen the circle of those whom we do not kill so we will have broader markets for our goods and services.

True? Or false?