Saturday, January 28, 2012

Reason vs. love, or Steven Pinker vs. Martin Luther King

To read the shorter Steven Pinker -- one of the many compressed versions of the ideas developed over 800 pages in The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined that he has published in newspapers and magazines or offered in interviews -- you might think that the driving force behind the dramatic reduction in violence over the course of human history was an expansion of empathy, the ability to enter into the feelings and sufferings of other. And so it is, to a degree. Pinker attributes the growth of empathy in large part to the development of commerce, which requires interaction, and printing, which helped expand the circle of literacy and, ultimately, the range of human experience that the literate absorb.

But fairly late in his argument, Pinker subordinates empathy to reason as a driver of the "rights revolution" -- the growing expansion of categories of people (and to a degree, now, animals) whom it becomes taboo to subject to violence of various kinds, including second class citizenship. It's reason that expands the circle:
What really has expanded is not so much a circle of empathy as a circle of rights--a commitment that other living things, no matter how distant or dissimilar, be safe from harm and exploitation. Empathy has surely been historically important in setting off epiphanies of concern for members of overlooked groups. But the epiphanies are not enough For empathy to matter, it must goad changes in policies and norms that determine how the people in those groups are treated...abstract moral argumentation is also necessary to overcome  the built-in strictures on empathy. The ultimate goal should be policies and norms that become second nature and render empathy unnecessary. Empathy, like love, is in fact not all you need (Location 13,110). 
"Empathy, like love..." But empathy is not love, not as theologians and moral philosophers -- for example, Martin Luther King -- have defined the latter. Love is bigger than empathy. In King's formulation, it encompasses something like the reason that Pinker places higher on the (social) evolutionary scale.

Pinker's reason is a cold thing. In the moral sphere, it applies the logic of the market to ascribe value to the experience and suffering of other sentient beings.  Citing the Flynn effect -- the steady rise in IQ in all populations where IQ has been tracked over time -- Pinker argues that we are getting smarter -- not in raw processing power, but in learned powers of abstraction, the ability to place objects in classes on the basis of their attributes. Drawing on psychologists who have classified various forms of moral reasoning, Pinker valorizes Alan Fiske's "market pricing" (which coexists with "communal sharing," "authority ranking" and "equality matching") as the prime driver of the ethos of democracy and the driver of rights revolutions. Pinker's adaption of Fiske's moral categories places them in an implicit hierarchy:
Reasoning can also interact with the moral sense. Each of the four relational models from which moral impulses spring comes with a particular style of reasoning. Each of these modes of reasoning may be matched with a mathematical scale, and each is implemented by a distinctive family of cognitive intuitions. Communal sharing thinks in all-or-none categories...a person is either in the hallowed group or out of it. The cognitive mindset is that of intuitive biology, with its pure essences and potential contaminants. Authority Ranking uses an ordinal scale: the linear ranking of a dominance hierarchy. Its cognitive gadget is an intuitive physics of space, force, and time: higher-ranking people are deemed bigger, stronger, higher, and first in the series. Equality Matching is measured on a scale of intervals, which allows two quantities to be compared to see which is larger but not entered into proportions. It reckons by concrete procedures such as lining things up, counting them off, or comparing them with a balance scale.Only Market Pricing (and the Rational-Legal mindset of which it is part) allows one to reason in terms of proportionality. The Rational-Legal model requires the nonintuitive tools of symbolic mathematics, such as fractions, percentages, and exponentiation. And as I have mentioned, it is far from universal, and depends on the cognition-enhancing skills of literacy and numeracy (location 14338).

Market pricing has enabled the moral advances of the past 200 years:
It's no coincidence that the world proportionality has a moral as well as a mathematical sense. Only preachers and pop singers profess that violence will someday vanish off the face of the earth. A measured degree of violence, even if only held in reserve, will always be necessary in the from of police forces and armies to deter predation or to incapacitate those who cannot be deterred. Yet there is a vast difference between the minimal violence necessary to prevent greater violence and the bolts of fury that an uncalibrated mind is likely to deliver in acts of rough justice.    A coarse sense of tit-for-tat payback, especially with the thumb of self-serving biases on the scale, produces many kinds of excess violence, including cruel and unusual punishments, savage beatings of naughty children, destructive retaliatory strikes in war, lethal reprisals for trivial insults, and brutal repression of rebellions by crappy governments in the developing world. By the same token, many moral advances have consisted not of eschewing force across the board but of applying it in carefully measured doses. Some examples include the reform of criminal punishment following Beccaria's utilitarian arguments, the measured punishments of children by enlightened parents, civil disobedience and passive resistance that stop just short of violence, the calibrated responses to provocations by modern democracies (military exercises, warning shots, surgical strikes on military installations), and the partial amnesties in postconflict conciliation. These reductions in violence required a sense of proportionality, a habit of mind that does not come naturally and must be cultivated by reason (location 14362).

Note that blithe parenthetical crediting of recent American and European use of force as instances of moral reasoning at its highest. Sometimes they are. I am not one to dispute that the western-developed values and practices of democracy, rule of law and human rights are the worst possible forms of social organization, except for all the alternatives.  Yet there is something off-putting about Pinker's chauvinism. In celebrating the decline in violence measured as a proportion of the global population subject to death in war, Pinker suggests that war has been relegated to the more backward corners of he globe.  John Gray offers a powerful rebuttal, or at least qualification, to that conclusion:
A sceptical reader might wonder whether the outbreak of peace in developed countries and endemic conflict in less fortunate lands might not be somehow connected. Was the immense violence that ravaged southeast Asia after 1945 a result of immemorial backwardness in the region? Or was a subtle and refined civilisation wrecked by world war and the aftermath of decades of neo-colonial conflict—as Norman Lewis intimated would happen in his prophetic account of his travels in the region, A Dragon Apparent (1951)? It is true that the second world war was followed by over 40 years of peace in North America and Europe—even if for the eastern half of the continent it was a peace that rested on Soviet conquest. But there was no peace between the powers that had emerged as rivals from the global conflict.

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. The Korean war, the Chinese invasion of Tibet, British counter-insurgency warfare in Malaya and Kenya, the abortive Franco-British invasion of Suez, the Angolan civil war, decades of civil war in the Congo and Guatemala, the Six Day War, the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 and of Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Iran-Iraq war and the Soviet-Afghan war—these are only some of the armed conflicts through which the great powers pursued their rivalries while avoiding direct war with each other. When the end of the Cold War removed the Soviet Union from the scene, war did not end. It continued in the first Gulf war, the Balkan wars, Chechnya, the Iraq war and in Afghanistan and Kashmir, among other conflicts. Taken together these conflicts add up to a formidable sum of violence. For Pinker they are minor, peripheral and hardly worth mentioning. The real story, for him, is the outbreak of peace in advanced societies, a shift that augurs an unprecedented transformation in human affairs.

I don't think that the rest of Gray's critique -- that some strains of "rationalist" thought fostered violence, that there is nothing in Darwin's view of species evolution to suggest that social evolution in a direction we consider progressive would result from it, and that human behavior taken as a whole is far from rational -- negates Pinker's core claims: that the proportion of people in the world subject to violence has declined dramatically, and that the delayed and partial application of Enlightenment ideals has enabled the improvement.  But both the progress and the development of those ideals has been more complex than Pinker allows, as have their wellsprings -- and their perversion.

Timothy Snyder argues that Pinker gives short shrift to the role of the state in developing the values and the modes of thought that Pinker lauds. I have complained before that Pinker's treatment of religion is one-dimensional, close to the cartoon demonizing of the New Atheists. Aside from a few grudging  hat-tips to Quakers and abolitionists, Pinker focuses almost exclusively on religion as an impediment to reason, a source of ideological rigidity that demonizes those of different beliefs and hence deactivates of empathy. There's a lot of truth to this, but there's of course another side. Religion first formulated the ideas that all are created equal, that there is something precious and unassailable at the core of each of us, that the welfare of others matters as much as that of our own -- in fact, all the values the Pinker holds most dear. 

Martin Luther King  was a prime mover of the "rights revolutions" that in Pinker's telling have been a dramatic accelerator of the decline in violence. Was King a rationalist? In some ways, perhaps. Love, as he portrayed it, was almost as cold a thing as Pinker's reason. Here's how he defined it in his speech against the Vietnam War delivered at the Ebenezer Baptist Church, April 30, 1967:
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one's tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing,unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind. And when I speak of love I'm not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: "Let us love one another, for God is love. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us."

Like Pinker, King speaks against tribalism, but from a different wellspring: not the compassion or empathy that Pinker credits but subordinates to reason, but a love more akin to rationality, as the deepest rationality -- credited as an insight essential to the world's major religions. This in a speech the highlights all the brutality in near-contemporary American society to which Pinker gives short shrift:
There is...a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed that there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the Poverty Program. There were experiments, hopes, and new beginnings. Then came the build-up in Vietnam. And I watched the program broken as if it was some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money, like some demonic, destructive suction tube. And you may not know it, my friends, but it is estimated that we spend $500,000 to kill each enemy soldier, while we spend only fifty-three dollars for each person classified as poor, and much of that fifty-three dollars goes for salaries to people that are not poor. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

Perhaps the more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hope of the poor at home. It was sending their sons, and their brothers, and their husbands to fight and die in extraordinarily high proportion relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with a cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same school room. So we watch them in brutal solidarity, burning the huts of a poor village. But we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago or Atlanta. Now, I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years--especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action; for they ask and write me, "So what about Vietnam?" They ask if our nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without first having spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government.
King offers at once the highest expression of American values that have contributed to the decline of violence worldwide and a powerful indictment of American violation of those values. Pinker never really confronts those violations -- or the possibility that the forces impelling them could overwhelm the spread of prosperity, the rule of law, and the cherishing of human life and liberty around the globe.

Before writing his sequel, perhaps Pinker should gather and watch the GOP debates of 2011-2012, end to end.

Pinker series:
The bettering angels of our nature
Better angels in the news
Religion helped develop our better angels
How our better angels' wings might be clipped
Better angels leave their kitchens in Cairo
Can humanity lead itself out to pasture?
Better dead than red, revisited
Better Angels in Super Hornets
If IQ declines in rich countries...

1 comment:

  1. With no idea where else to put this, I try the comments. In light of Mr. Sprung's appreciation of Pinker's work, he [you?] might find interesting a not exactly recent piece by Stanley Fish about how Pinker responded to arguments that religious belief was too easily dismissed by those who share his ideology. I find some of Fish's conclusions false, but the discussion is solid and interesting.