Sunday, October 09, 2011

Better Angels yield new angles

I am very much looking forward to reading Steven Pinker's  The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, after reading a precis by Pinker and a review by Peter Singer. As a collector of evidence that human life and human beings are getting better, I am receptive to the copious evidence that Pinker has gathered to demonstrate that violence has diminished dramatically over the course of human history -- in the family, in the state, between states, and, perhaps now finally, within states.

Pinker's demonstration that human beings have gradually taught themselves to be more in control of their violent instincts, more amenable to reason, and more empathic seems to me to sync up nicely with Robert Wright's theory that God has evolved with human society--that as society grows more humane, so do concepts of God (this too I'm familiar with through the writer's shorter representations of his recent book, The Evolution of God).

Personally, though, I would prefer not to drag the God of Ages along on our pilgrim's progress.  Notwithstanding frequent relapses such as the two world wars of the twentieth century, it looks to me as though Pinker shows moral advances in human history to be as verifiable as technological advance. For that reason, I am impatient with the concept of scripture, the investiture of any inherited text or law with authority that can't be superseded , after due process, by a text or law embodying the best wisdom of those living now. Less legalistically: if a thinker is groping toward new moral or ethical insight, why shackle that insight to an interpretation of God's law as embodied in ancient texts? Can we not acknowledge by now that gods are silent, except perhaps through our own intuition, and that that intuition is continually improving?
In that vein, I was stirred recently by a recent appeal by Will Wilkinson to a novel source of moral authority (novel to me, that is). Regarding Pinker's demonstration that " modernity brought about a stunning shift in norms, including attitudes toward capital punishment," Wilkinson writes:
...we can say this is evidence of moral progress, that we have actually become better. I prefer the latter interpretation for basically the same reasons most of us see the abolition of slavery and the trend toward greater equality between races and sexes as progress and not mere morally indifferent change. We can talk about the nature of moral progress later. It's tricky. For now, I want you to entertain the possibility that convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong counts as evidence that it is wrong. This would suggest that those American states yet to abolish the death penalty are cases of arrested development. Looking at these trends, it seems overwhelmingly probable that we will look back on the death penalty as a shameful bit of lingering of savagery. And we won't be wrong. If our smarter, more angelic future selves wouldn't concede, even just for the sake of argument, that capital punishment is okay, why concede it now?
To judge what's right by assessing what future generations will judge right...perhaps that's not so terribly useful in practical terms, since I'm liable to think that those future paragons will agree with what I think now. And yet, it's a rather arresting reversal of the more common mental trick of asking oneself what the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob (or of any others long dead) would approve of.  And I do think it could work as a way of imagining oneself beyond one's current prejudices.  I've always thought that I have a right to eat meat (free range, at least), since we seem to have been wired to need it and want it and get it.  But keeping in mind that historical continuum of people coming to reject torture, and slavery, and capital punishment, not to say genocide when one's people has the whip hand of an enemy, it's not hard to imagine future generations revolted by our carnivorism. I shall have to chew it over.

More abstractly, for an agnostic receptive to mystery, the idea of vesting authority in a more enlightened future humanity has something like a numinous buzz to it.  I suspect that the question of God's existence is framed wrong, that consciousness is both more diffuse and more unified than we imagine. Perhaps as our moral acuity develops, we'll achieve new kinds of unity with...others.

Update: xpost post thought last night: the implicit triumphalism here needs an offset, asin the caveats with which Singer closes his review:
Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue. Faced with suggestions that the present relatively peaceful period is going to be blown apart by a “clash of civilizations” with Islam, by nuclear terrorism, by war with Iran or wars resulting from climate change, he gives reasons for thinking that we have a good chance of avoiding such conflicts, but no more than a good chance. If he had been able to see, before his book went to press, a study published in Nature as recently as August of this year, he might have been less sanguine about maintaining peace despite widespread climate change. Solomon Hsiang and colleagues at Columbia University used data from the past half-century to show that in tropical regions, the risk of a new civil conflict doubles during El Niño years (when temperatures are hotter than usual and there is less rainfall). If that finding is correct, then a warming world could mean the end of the relatively peaceful era in which we are now living. 
It's a reflex for virtually anyone who notes the upward trends to also note the risks and possibility of anything from a new paroxysm like World War I to a new dark age to the destruction of humanity and large swaths of other life on this planet.  And that reflex itself is hard-wired, really a religious one: to placate the gods, to ward off nemesis. 

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