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by Christopher Chantrill
January 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm
FOR YEARS IVE been saying that people are very sensitive to incoming rounds. When a mortar round, real or metaphorical, lands in your fire-base, it spreads death and destruction. But outgoing rounds are different. You fire a shot in the air, and who cares where it comes down?
Now I learn from Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that this is a highly advanced notion in social psychology, related to the Moralization Gap, self-serving biases and the myth of pure evil. We humans like to think of ourselves as good and reasonable. But when victimized, its only a skip and a jump to judge our tormentor as pure evil.
Given how we humans are wired not to worry too much about the harm we do others, its remarkable that the killing rate has declined from 500 persons per 100,000 per year in the good old days of the Noble Savage hunter-gatherers to the present rate in Europe of 1 per 100,000 or the US rate of 4.8 per 100,000. That is the amazing story that Pinker tells. Its not just homicide either. Torture, judicial penalties, infanticide, oppression of other races, oppression of women and gays, cruelty to animals: the rate is way down.
Pinker wants to credit the 18th century Republic of Letters that birthed the Humanitarian Revolution, and the Civilizing Process of Leviathan states that imposed a top-down justice to eliminate the private justice of feud and revenge. Add to that the Rights Revolutions of civil rights, womens rights, childrens rights, gay rights, and animal rights that have expanded the circle of sympathy and you get the Long Peace after World War II and the current New Peace, the continuation of the reduction of violence since World War II even into the War on Terror.
In other words, liberals did it, and maybe gentle commerce. On the way, we celebrate all the good things that liberals did, and take an appropriate swipe at the gun culture, the honor culture of the South, and the intelligence of George W. Bush.
We humans have five Inner Demons, Pinker writes, that urge us towards violence. There is predatory violence or violence for gain, there is the contest for dominance, the instinct for revenge, the learned appetite for sadism, and the collective delusion of ideology. Against the demons are the Better Angels that lead us away from violence. Here we are talking about empathy, that people are nicer to those to whom they have sympathy, about self-control, which can be developed, like a muscle. In addition there are morality and taboo, in which people hold notions about right and wrong that they very often cant explain, and reason, the cultivation of intelligence.
For Pinker, it is the cultivation of civilization and enlightenment, the encouragement of Better Angels over Inner Demons, that has made the decline of violence possible. But I wonder. When it comes to the decline of violence, I believe that Marxs productive forces are a better fit.
Humans come equipped with tools for conflict and for cooperation: demons and angels. But universal cooperation made no sense in the world of hunter-gatherers, where land was food, and a dawn raid on a neighboring village could yield the double bonus of plunder and, if the men were all killed, extra territory for food gathering and hunting. In our age things are different, not because we are better, but because innovation and new productive forces have changed the terms of trade. Today it makes no sense to attack a neighboring state and put its people to the sword. Its much better to loan them capital and ratchet them up into the global commercial system, whether they are Chinese making Christmas lights for Wal-Mart or Koreans making LCD touch screens for tablets. In todays system of global commerce, people arent fighting for scarce resources, they are competing to convert resources into great products.
All this leads us to the elephant in the room of Better Angels. If the Rights Revolution is so wonderful then why dont liberals extend it to conservative Christians, the One Percent, and millionaires and billionaires? And why does President Obama hype his equality agenda, at a mere Step 3 in Pinkers moral progression from Communal Sharing to Authority Ranking to Equality Matching to Market Pricing? Pinker reports that the Public Goods game shows that people will only contribute to the public welfare if the freeloaders are punished. Really? Then why do liberals encourage freeloading with big-government entitlements? Dead silence.
Good: lets fly into the future with Pinker On Angels Wings. If only liberals, with their divisive president, could exorcise their Inner Demons: their lust for a predatory government that takes 40 percent of the national product, their need for chest-thumping domination of the nations culture and education, and their ideology of equality.
We can but hope.
Buy his Road to the Middle Class.
[W]hen I asked a liberal longtime editor I know with a mainstream [publishing] house for a candid, shorthand version of the assumptions she and her colleagues make about conservatives, she didn't hesitate. Racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-choice fascists, she offered, smiling but meaning it.
Harry Stein, I Can't Believe I'm Sitting Next to a Republican
[T]he way to achieve a system of determining admission to the public schools on a nonracial basis,
Brown II, 349 U. S., at 300–301, is to stop assigning students on a racial basis. The way to stop
discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.
Roberts, C.J., Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District
[T]he Liberal, and still more the subspecies Radical... more than any other in these latter days seems under the impression that so long as he has a good end in view he is warranted in exercising over men all the coercion he is able[.]
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State
[To make] of each individual member of the army a soldier who, in character, capability, and knowledge, is self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility [verantwortungsfreudig] as a man and a soldier. — Gen. Hans von Seeckt
MacGregor Knox, Williamson Murray, ed., The dynamics of military revolution, 1300-2050
[The Axial Age] highlights the conception of a responsible self... [that] promise[s] man for the first time that he can understand the fundamental structure of reality and through salvation participate actively in it.
Robert N Bellah, "Religious Evolution", American Sociological Review, Vol. 29, No. 3.
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
[Every] sacrifice is an act of impurity that pays for a prior act of greater impurity... without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy.
Frederick Turner, Beauty: The Value of Values
Within Pentecostalism the injurious hierarchies of the wider world are abrogated and replaced by a single hierarchy of faith, grace, and the empowerments of the spirit... where groups gather on rafts to take them through the turbulence of the great journey from extensive rural networks to the mega-city and the nuclear family...
David Martin, On Secularization
What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph
These emerge out of long-standing moral notions of freedom, benevolence, and the affirmation of ordinary life... I have been sketching a schematic map... [of] the moral sources [of these notions]... the original theistic grounding for these standards... a naturalism of disengaged reason, which in our day takes scientistic forms, and a third family of views which finds its sources in Romantic expressivism, or in one of the modernist successor visions.
Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self
There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion
The Union publishes an exact return of the amount of its taxes; I can get copies of the budgets of the four and twenty component states; but who can tell me what the citizens spend in the administration of county and township?
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America