Our Better Angels: Altruistic or Apathetic?

Reflections on The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker

There can be little doubt that the increased use of reason has, throughout history and particularly over the past few centuries, dramatically decreased violence around the globe. Yet this decrease in violence has gone hand in glove with an equally precipitous drop in birth rates. Albert Camus famously noted that, “What are called reasons for living are also excellent reasons for dying.” Losing the will to fight is the same as losing the will to live. Might our hard-won peace be less a sign of altruism than of an encroaching apathy born of reason’s relentless assault on all we once held dear?

Full disclosure, I have been a huge fan of Steven Pinker’s since the early 1990s when I came across his first general-audience offering, The Language Instinct, in a local book store. I have eagerly awaited each of his books, from How the Mind Works to The Blank Slate, to The Stuff of Thought, and his latest, The Better Angels of our Nature, which was no exception. All of his earlier works left me feeling fuller, more aware, and confident that I had a better grasp of the world around me. But Angels had an altogether different effect, leaving me profoundly unsettled, with a queasy feeling that something critical was missing from the equation. It was rather like listening to a proud Roman, extolling the virtues of his grand civilization with respect to everything from art and culture to engineering and statecraft, but right as the Visigoths were crashing through the walls. “No doubt everything you say is true, Sir, impeccably researched and beyond reproach, BUT…”

Pinker’s controversial thesis — one I believe he proves beyond any doubt — is that reason has, in phases, dramatically reduced violence of all kinds (bad manners, torture, interstate war), such that today we live at the safest point in human history. Here is a thumbnail of his main argument. First, the Leviathan, introduced at the time of the agricultural revolution, vested the authority to wield force in a single, sovereign government, thereby short-circuiting the incessant raids, clan wars, and blood feuds that had plagued our species since time immemorial.

Next, the rise of gentle commerce transformed the once-reviled enemy across the border from a target of conquest or genocide into a paying customer and crucial link in the supply chain. Marketing and contract negotiations began to supplant war.

Finally, the gradual adoption of Enlightenment Humanism has witnessed the ongoing demise, through cold, hard reason, of all the primary causes of violence: religion and superstition, ideology, honor, nationalism, sexism, and racism. Reason systematically undermines the superficial rationales for all such nonsense, and it has proven to be a very potent disinfectant. Pinker supports these observations with an avalanche of evidence, and it is difficult to imagine anyone with pretensions to intellectual seriousness making a committed effort to refute him. Things have, indeed, been getting more peaceful and, particularly over the last phase of this process, reason gets most of the credit. The debate is essentially over. Now is the time to decide what to make of this curious discovery.

My concern — the source of my queasiness — isn’t so much with Angels itself, but with the 800-pound gorilla sitting right next to it: the severely declining birth rates in all advanced, Westernized democracies, the very same places that have enjoyed the most dramatic decreases in violence. I cannot help thinking that Angels needs a sequel. Homicide may be passé, but demographic suicide is all the rage. And many influential thinkers from the past would tell us that we should not be at all surprised. As early as the turn of the nineteenth century, Soren Kierkegaard described the soul-crushing effects of reason, taken to its logical extreme, and his observations came toward the end of a long history of skepticism over reason:

Socrates: I know that I know nothing. Referred to as both Socratic Wisdom and Socratic Ignorance, this could just as accurately be called Socratic Nihilism. Even worse, this grim conclusion was the culmination of a life-long search. Is it any wonder that the founder of Western Civilization and the first great champion of reason was only too happy to drink his hemlock?

Descartes: I think, therefore I am. Incredibly, 400 years after Descartes wrote it down, this measly little phrase, only five short words, remains the only true statement reason will permit us to make. And many philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche) aren’t even convinced of this.

Bishop Berkeley: To be is to be perceived. Having been painted into the tiniest of corners by Descartes’ miserable revelation, reality is reduced to nothing but the contents of our minds. In effect, we now all live in the Matrix.

Kierkegaard: God is the Absurd. God can’t be reason (logos), because reason has been an abject failure. Instead, God must be the Absurd, a cruel prankster Who floats the prospect of truth only to pull the rug out from under us whenever we try to use reason, supposedly our divine light, to find salvation. Still, says Kierkegaard, we should embrace this pitiful human condition as a gift.

Nietzsche: Truth is the will to power. Reason is not merely hopeless but pathetic and weak. In the vacuum left behind by our misguided love affair with reason, we should make up a new set of values and base them on something invigorating and manly for a change. (Just don’t tell the Nazis! Oops.)

Camus: There is but one truly important philosophical question, and that is suicide. The futile search for any meaning or truth whatsoever, even of Nietzsche’s make-believe sort, is not only silly, it will push you right off the ledge. But don’t let it get you down; you can still enjoy the show. After all, Don Juan had a blast and he didn’t believe in anything. If it feels good, do it.

Derrida: The epoch of the logos thus debases writing considered as mediation of mediation and as a fall into the exteriority of meaning. Huh? By the late twentieth century, the only authentic means left to express our utter contempt for reason was to dissolve into gibberish and strive for absolute incoherence.

The paradox of reason is that, while it is second to none at getting us there, it has nothing at all to say about where we ought to go. Worse, it undermines any attempt, rational or otherwise, to articulate a transcendent purpose or truth that might provide such a goal. It masquerades as our salvation even as it destroys every hope of achieving it. Pinker likens reason to an escalator; once you get on, it is not obvious where, or if, you should ever get off. In light of our declining birth rates, as well as the dismal assessments leveled by the thinkers listed above, it is also not obvious which direction, up or down, that escalator is taking us.

One great value of Angels is how convincingly it demonstrates the overwhelming influence of reason on our civilization. It is difficult to believe that the high-brow philosophizing of history’s luminaries so thoroughly filtered out to the hoi polloi, but clearly it has and in a very big way. The West’s demographic suicide is not restricted to the ivory tower. Pinker makes this point even stronger with his discussion of the Flynn Effect, one of the most astonishing facts I have ever encountered. Incredibly, man’s average IQ has been increasing by about three points every decade, ever since testing began back in the late nineteenth century. By now, the cumulative increase is a seemingly impossible 30-plus points, two full standard deviations. This fact is strange because it is well known that IQ is largely (~60%) heritable. And yet evolution has not had time over just the last century to cause such a dramatic change, suggesting a cultural explanation. Pinker offers the interesting hypothesis that our culture has become increasingly abstract, and that our minds have adapted accordingly. It is an intriguing possibility, but more research is desperately needed, particularly if the twenty-first century is destined to be the century of the genius. But whatever the cause, an average Joe of today would have been considered brilliant a century ago, and this trend shows no signs of abating. We are not merely riding the escalator of reason, we’re running up the cursed thing as fast as we can. Any tendencies, good or bad, related to reason will only accelerate in the coming decades.

In his Myth of Sisyphus, Camus said, “What are called reasons for living are also excellent reasons for dying.” He meant by this that man, when he feels passionately about the meaning and purpose of his life, is willing, even eager, to go to war over it. Likewise, when man loses interest because life appears meaningless, he also becomes less belligerent. Our ethical spheres, as Pinker explains, have grown, nourished by reason, to encompass all of humanity. Unfortunately, those spheres may have been inflated, not by altruism, but apathy. Ask yourself this: If we no longer want to convert the natives to Christianity at the point of a gun, is it because we have recently developed great respect for their beliefs? Or is it because we lack any convictions of our own and couldn’t care less what they believe? The beliefs of other peoples are no longer reviled as heretical, blasphemous, or threatening; at worst they’re tiresome and at best they’re quaint. Having lost the ability to hold beliefs of our own, the beliefs of others don’t matter to us anymore. Indeed, strong beliefs of any kind, whether held by our countrymen or foreigners, strike us as strange or even vulgar. “Your belief, whatever it is, can’t possibly stand up to reason,” we now know all too well, “so please stop yelling about it and leave us in peace.”

The point here is to acknowledge that our faculty for reason is a very sharp, but double-edged sword. If Pinker’s conclusions are sound, we appear to have reached a tipping point. We are right at the threshold of vanquishing violence. But if the philosophers and demographers are to be believed, we are also at the point of losing our will to live. As grim as this sounds, if all the nations on Earth had made, by this point in history, the same amount of progress down the same rational path as the West, I would not be terribly concerned about the future. The tyranny of reason is bleak in many respects, but at least it’s peaceful. Even Camus thought there was a certain stoic nobility in accepting the judgment of reason and living your life “without appeal” (to truth, meaning, or purpose). And maybe that’s the best we can hope for. Unfortunately, the West is conducting this questionable experiment unilaterally, while surrounded by cultures that might not fully appreciate the literary nuance and theoretical sophistication of existential despair. As we sink deeper into our apathy, they will be only too happy to hasten our self-destruction. If we don’t discover, fairly soon, some compelling justification for at least defending ourselves and our culture, there won’t be anyone left in the West to document how this experiment with reason turns out.

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