Thursday, June 21, 2012

Angels and devils

I've taken note here before of Steven Pinker's newest book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that human violence has historically declined, and purports to give the reasons why.

Many reviewers have taken issue with Pinker's optimistic view of things. Generally they quote the 60 million deaths during World War II, and other 20th-century mass atrocities, and ask, "How can anyone say things are getting better?"

Of course, Pinker is not talking absolute numbers, but percentages. An average person has a better chance of dying a natural death today than at any time in the past, he contends, even taking into account the killing fields of Cambodia and the ovens of Auschwitz. How consoled you are by this point of view surely depends on when and where you live. In the mid-20th century, it was better to have been a Quaker in Kansas than a Jew in Warsaw.

Other reviewers take issue with Pinker's explanation of why the relative level of violence has diminished, as for example when he writes: "Modern sensitivities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of consciousness, particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. The change is part of the turning away from religion and custom and toward science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination."

Well, yes, one can see how that might ruffle some feathers.

I must say, however, that I am sympathetic to Pinker's thesis. I have often argued here –- without Pinker's supporting scholarship -– that the present is a better time to live than at any time in the past, at least in those places most influenced by Enlightenment values, the Holocaust and Hiroshima notwithstanding.

Consider this tiny observation, which I just came across, from the diary of someone visiting the races at Derby, in England, in the early years of the last century, at which one of the chief entertainments was "tossing a pin at a live Negro. He sticks his head through a hole and for a penny anyone who wishes can throw a ball at his skull; who hits the target gets a prize."

This is a far cry from Stalin's Gulags or King Leopold's Congo, but the fact that on reading it I cringe in pained embarrassment suggests to me that the better angel of my nature has tipped the other fellow from my left shoulder. And this from a boy who grew up in the rabidly racist and solidly Christian southern USA of the 1940s. I credit the Enlightenment values implicit in "science and secular philosophy."

But is that angel on my right shoulder secure in its ascendency? Is the trajectory of history –- both human and personal -– inevitably toward compassion and inclusiveness? More tomorrow.