Monday, October 31, 2011

Angels and devils -- Part 1

I was on a panel once with Steven Pinker. I learned two things from the experience. He has more hair than I do. And he's smarter.

Which is why I try to read whatever he writes. Even at my venerable age I figure I can learn something from the brainy youngsters.

So I've been waiting for his new book to arrive at the library: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. In the meantime, last week's Nature (Ocober 20) has Pinker's three-page summary of the book, which stands nicely alone as a presentation of his thesis -- and as an affirmation of liberal, secular, forward-looking, Enlightenment values. I would put it up there in my list of required political readings with George McGovern's 2002 essay The Case for Liberalism: A Defense of the Future Against the Past..

But this is not a political blog, so we won't go there. Still, let me point out one liberal value implicit in Pinker's essay that relates directly to science.

Pinker has obviously done an exhaustive survey of the social and psychological literature in search of data that supports (or refutes) his thesis. He is well aware that with such a complex, multivariate topic the data can only be suggestive, not definitive. Thus, in the essay we encounter again and again words like "seems," "might," "likely," and "perhaps," words that are conspicuously absent in so much of today's illiberal political discourse, but which are essential to the scientific process.

Another of Pinker's points that is relevant here: He points out that "morality," as traditionally understood, has nothing to do with the ascendancy of our better angels." "No society defines virtue solely by the avoidance of harm," writes Pinker. "Indeed," he says, "because morality furnishes people with motives for violent acts that bring no tangible benefit, it is more often the problem rather than the solution."

I think of all those times I went to confession as a kid, listing "sins" that had nothing to do with the advancement or impediment of human empathy: ate meat on Friday, broke my fast before Communion, had "impure" dreams. None of my piddling "sins" made any difference in the great scheme of things, but they are in the same category of victimless "immoralities" mentioned by Pinker -- such as homosexuality, blasphemy, heresy, and desecration of sacred symbols -- which have so often led to violent punishment, even judicial murder.

If divinely-decreed moral precepts are not our better angel, what is? More tomorrow.