The Better Angels of Our Nature – Part 5


Counter to the Inner Demons chapter, the topic of the former post, Pinker’s next one is called Better Angels, and in it he lists and details the traits that caused the allegedly violence decline. These are – empathy, self-control, moral sense and reason, and each has fundamental problems.


We’ve mentioned how empathy can even intensify violence, in factory farms for example. And even Pinker thinks that empathy can counteract violence reduction:
“Empathy, in the morally relevant sense of sympathetic concern, is not an automatic reflex of our mirror neurons [the so-called empathy neurons—that allow human beings and other species to feel and experience another’s situation as if it were one’s own]. It can be turned on and off and even inverted into counterempathy, namely feeling good when someone else feels bad and vice versa.”

“The problem with building a better world through empathy, in the sense of contagion, mimicry, vicarious emotion, or mirror neurons, is that it cannot be counted on to trigger the kind of empathy we want, namely sympathetic concern for others’ well-being. Sympathy is endogenous, an effect rather than a cause of how people relate to one another. Depending on how beholders conceive of a relationship, their response to another person’s pain may be empathic, neutral, or even counterempathic.”

And regarding the mirror neurons: “they are mostly found in regions of the brain that, according to neuroimaging studies, have little to do with empathy in the sense of sympathetic concern. Many cognitive neuroscientists suspect that mirror neurons may have a role in mentally representing the concept of an action, though even that is disputed. Most reject the extravagant claims that they can explain uniquely human abilities, and today virtually no one equates their activity with the emotion of sympathy.”

“The overall picture that has emerged from the study of the compassionate brain is that there is no empathy center with empathy neurons, but complex patterns of activation and modulation that depend on perceivers’ interpretation of the straits of another person and the nature of their relationship with the person.“

And since Pinker’s definition of violence in this book is very narrow, he doesn’t mention several of the more complex forms of violence. Some of which are directly connected to empty, mainly the various ways in which humans exploit and manipulate each other, which are based on their ability to anticipate other humans’ emotional and behavioral reactions. Our consumerist society is one of the most apparent evidences to the common exploitive use of the ability for empathy From the advertisement industry through stores’ manipulative shelves arrangements, colors and odours, to the global homogenous political game with falsity promises for personal and social security, the stilted hugs and baby kissing on one hand and the various fear tactics on the other. Wherever we look, social, familial, romantic or professional frame, there is a negative use of the ability to read others’ minds.


The psychology field tests of the former chapter (Inner Demons) show that under the slightest interference or disturbance, when people go an inch out of their comfort zone, or are given an order by an authority, or are given authority themselves, even the little positive portion of empathy is lost.

But Pinker is aware of how limited empathy is:
“empathy is not a reflex that makes us sympathetic to everyone we lay eyes upon. It can be switched on and off, or thrown into reverse, by our construal of the relationship we have with a person. Its head is turned by cuteness, good looks, kinship, friendship, similarity, and communal solidarity. Though empathy can be spread outward by taking other people’s perspectives, the increments are small, Batson [one of the empathy researchers Pinker relies on], warns, and they may be ephemeral. To hope that the human empathy gradient can be flattened so much that strangers would mean as much to us as family and friends is utopian in the worst 20th-century sense, requiring an unattainable and dubiously desirable quashing of human nature.”

Meaning, there will always be injustice inside the human race to some extent. Humans are wired to care for their own little group and use the rest (humans and all the more so animals) for their benefit, and so even if the animal rights struggle, absolutely contrary to expectations, succeeds, speciesism is here to stay. It is too profoundly ingrained into humans, deeply rooted in their brains.

And finally a point which is very relevant to empathy and actually to Pinker’s entire book –
Humans nowadays would probably find it hard watching violence that was routine in the Middle Ages and etc., as Pinker argues, however it doesn’t necessarily mean that violence had declined. It can mean that only the standard of sensitivity to violence had declined while the actual level of violence didn’t. It can mean that the violence was removed from most of humans’ sight, but it still happens.
Animals, and violence towards animals, were removed from humans’ visual range and it simultaneously led to two main effects; the standard of what is considered violent had decreased, and the actual violence had increased. Nowadays a common human is deterred by only seeing violent things done to an animal that not so long ago common humans would do to animals themselves. That means that there is something emphatic in humans, but the fact that they know that violence is inflicted on their behalf, only far from their eyes, also means there is something very apathetic in humans.

The fact that humans don’t need much to withhold their empathy and justify levels of violence that are no less than the atrocities Pinker describe in his first chapter, the fact that they can so easily permit so much violence by calling something natural or that they have no other way to get the nutrients (that they know nothing about and only think about when they encounter vegans), or say that that’s what humans have done since ancient history or whatever crap they usually spit, means that humans are empathic enough to feel the need to come up with excuses, but apathetic enough for these excuses to be incredibly foolish and lacking any causal relation, logic or facts. And most importantly humans are apathetic enough to continue participating in these horrors. They knowingly keep consuming products which are of the exact same violence they are allegedly against. They are empathetic enough to say it is terrible when they see or hear about the violence involved with the making process of certain products, and apathetic enough to buy them a minute later.

Moral Sense

Pinker’s next better angel trait is humans’ moral sense. But actually, though counter intuitive, it is an even bigger source of violence.
Even Pinker can’t deny that moral sense has been the ground and reason for violence all along history:
The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit. The torture of heretics and conversos, the burning of witches, the imprisonment of homosexuals, and the honor killing of unchaste sisters and daughters are just a few examples.

About the immoral tribalism aspect of morality:
“Communal Sharing has sympathy and warmth built into it—but only for members of the in-group. Fiske’s collaborator Nick Haslam has argued that Communal Sharing can lead to a second kind of dehumanization: not the mechanistic dehumanization of an asocial relationship, but an animalistic dehumanization that denies to outsiders the traits that are commonly perceived as uniquely human, such as reason, individuality, self-control, morality, and culture. Rather than being treated with callousness or indifference, such outsiders are treated with disgust or contempt. So Communal Sharing, for all its cuddly connotations, supports the mindset behind genocidal ideologies based on tribe, race, ethnicity, and religion.”

Another blow at moral sense coherency and validity:
“The psychologist Jonathan Haidt has underscored the ineffability of moral norms in a phenomenon he calls moral dumbfounding. Often people have an instant intuition that an action is immoral, and then struggle, often unsuccessfully, to come up with reasons why it is immoral. When Haidt asked participants, for example, whether it would be all right for a brother and sister to have voluntary protected sex, for a person to clean a toilet with a discarded American flag, for a family to eat a pet dog that had been killed by a car, for a man to buy a dead chicken and have sex with it, or for a person to break a deathbed vow to visit the grave of his mother, they said no in each case. But when asked for justifications, they floundered ineffectually before giving up and saying, “I don’t know, I can’t explain it, I just know it’s wrong.”

And more fundamental and inherent problems with moral sense:
“Another design feature of the moral sense is that many moral convictions operate as norms and taboos rather than as principles the believer can articulate and defend. In the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s famous six-stage progression of moral development, from a child’s avoidance of punishment to a philosopher’s universal principles, the middle two stages (which many people never get out of) consist of conforming to norms to be a good boy or girl, and maintaining conventions to preserve social stability. When reasoning through the moral dilemma that Kohlberg made famous, in which Heinz must break into a drugstore to steal an overpriced drug that will save his dying wife, people in these stages can muster no better justification for their answers than that Heinz shouldn’t steal the drug because stealing is bad and illegal and he is not a criminal, or that Heinz should steal the drug because that’s what a good husband does. Fewer people can articulate a principled justification, such as that human life is a cardinal value that trumps social norms, social stability, or obedience to the law.“

These examples prove how arbitrary, incoherent, irrational, inconsecutive, norm based and biased morality is for most humans. So no point waiting for humans to articulate a principled justification, such as that every sentient being is morally valuable just as they are, and the only moral criterion is the ability to experience, not the species origin.

Self-Control and Reason

Pinker’s next better angles are self-control and reason which goes hand in hand:
Recall that the two traits are statistically correlated in individuals and that their physiological substrates overlap in the brain. It is reason—a deduction of the long-term consequences of an action—that gives the self reasons to control the self.”
But as you’ll see they are not really better angles but additional demons.

The immediate and natural linking of self-control and reason is fundamentally false. It is relevant only between more or less equal agents, obviously only between humans and only to some extent. Actually all along history humans have used reason to justify controlling others, not themselves.

The famous Marshmallow Experiment (basically kids are given a choice between one marshmallow now and two marshmallows later), which was conducted by the psychologist Walter Mischel, as part of his myopic discounting study, holds a key role in Pinker’s psychological explanation for reason and self-control share in violence decline. Pinker argues that modern humans’ ability to pass the test are far better than humans in the past because the civilization process changed society from a culture of honor “in which men were respected for lashing out against insults, became a culture of dignity, in which men were respected for controlling their impulses.”

The improvement in myopic discounting is not the ability to reject instant gratification but to postpone them. Switching the Marshmallow with an animal and the laboratory conditions to reality, means instead of chasing and killing animals when they observe them, humans caught them and patiently waited for them to grow so they can have more meat and then kill and eat them. Same as with the Marshmallow Experiment, where the more reasonable humans wait 15 minutes and get two pieces instead of having one instantly, the more reasonable humans wait a few months and get more meat. The even more reasonable humans would wait a few years and meanwhile get milk, wool, leather, labor and meat from the animal’s babies.

Pinker sums his better angles section with what is according to him the most important element in violence decline – reason – quoting from probably one of the most important thinkers of the Enlightenment and the most important representative of his book’s hidden ideological agenda, Adam Smith:
Adam Smith, friend of Hume and fellow luminary of the Scottish Enlightenment, first made this argument in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, using a poignant example that resonates today. Smith asked us to imagine our reaction to reading about a dreadful calamity befalling a large number of strangers, such as a hundred million Chinese perishing in an earthquake. If we’re honest, we will admit that our reaction would run more or less as follows. We would feel bad for a while, pitying the victims and perhaps reflecting on the fragility of life. Perhaps today we would write a check or click on a Web site to aid the survivors. And then we would get back to work, have dinner, and go to bed as if nothing had happened. But if an accident befell us personally, even if it were trivial in comparison, such as losing a little finger, we would be immensely more upset, and would not be able to put the misfortune out of our minds.

This all sounds terribly cynical, but Smith continues. Consider a different scenario. This time you are presented with a choice: you can lose your little finger, or a hundred million Chinese will be killed. Would you sacrifice a hundred million people to save your little finger? Smith predicts, and I agree, that almost no one would select this monstrous option. But why not, Smith asks, given that our empathy for strangers is so much less compelling than our distress at a personal misfortune? He resolves the paradox by comparing our better angels:

It is not the soft power of humanity, it is not that feeble spark of benevolence which Nature has lighted up in the human heart, that is thus capable of counteracting the strongest impulses of self-love. It is a stronger power, a more forcible motive, which exerts itself upon such occasions. It is reason, principle, conscience, the inhabitant of the breast, the man within, the great judge and arbiter of our conduct. It is he who, whenever we are about to act so as to affect the happiness of others, calls to us, with a voice capable of astonishing the most presumptuous of our passions, that we are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; and that when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration. It is from him only that we learn the real littleness of ourselves, and of whatever relates to ourselves, and the natural misrepresentations of self-love can be corrected only by the eye of this impartial spectator. It is he who shows us the propriety of generosity and the deformity of injustice; the propriety of resigning the greatest interests of our own, for the yet greater interests of others, and the deformity of doing the smallest injury to another, in order to obtain the greatest benefit to ourselves.

It is very ironic and cynical that Pinker ends the chapter with this quote by Adam Smith whose capitalistic ideology is the reason why millions of Chinese people are enslaved in various bondages labor. Maybe most humans would agree to give up their little finger in smith’s imaginary scenario, however only a tiny fraction is giving up cheap commodities in real life.

And as always when it comes to animals it is much worse.

When humans see on the news hundreds of thousands of chickens buried alive because of an avian flu suspicion, some say it is a waste, some say that they shouldn’t pack chickens like this, some may say i can’t believe we‘re eating that shit! And some really pity the chickens. But if to be honest everyone would get back to work, have dinner, and go to bed as if nothing had happened. The difference is that no one would eat Chinese people for that dinner but many would eat chickens (and of course another difference is that the Chinese in Smith’s story are victims of a natural disaster and the chickens are victims of humans’ care for their own health and were put in that situation by humans in the first place). So Smith’s and Pinker’s redeem of reason is very narrow, inequitable, partial, human chauvinist and reasonable only if you consider the ones you want to and not everyone that must be considered.

Reason introduced the world with burning fossil fuel, fracking, ocean dumping, WMD’s, monoculture, DDT, arsenic, dioxin, dams, concrete, plastic and etc. Reason is a tool. The “free” market asks: what is the most profitable way to produce and sell a product, any product. It doesn’t ask why or for what use, but how much are you willing to pay. Humanity is able to produce products that nobody really needs in tremendous efficiency. But what is so reasonable about this totally hollow efficiency? If the only problem was that it is senseless, a closed system, a magical circle, so be it, but with humans’ advanced reason, science and “gentle commerce”, very soon the whole world became an occupied territory.

Pinker’s traits, especially reason, are responsible for the cruelest enterprise in history. This exact sort of thinking, this neo-enlightened thinking, invented factory farming, cruel systems of enormous scale with no precedent or comparison. Factory farming is the most outstanding representative of the super anthropocentric thinking – that humans can solve any problem with reason. Factory farming is the ultimate embodiment of the domination conception of humans.
What is more characteristic of the neo-enlightenment viewpoint than genetically invading other species for ”yield improvement”, than artificial inseminations, food control, water control, light control, motion control, social structure control, and all from birth to murder?


The Software Slump

Even if the better angels were truly better and angelic, since they are social, political and economic traits rather than biological, neurological and evolutional as the inner demons are, they are much less stable, influential and significant than the demons are. And that is while, as you can see, they are not better nor angelic, but rather more causes of violence and suffering.

In the book’s parts about the brain, Pinker allegories it to a computer.

Obviously it is very simplistic analogy but if to go with it, the better angels are mostly the software, and softwares have two central problems. One is that even when they are good they are temporal (and unfortunately temporariness is the smaller problem, the big one is that they are currently exploitive, violent and cruel). The second problem is that the programmers will always be humans and humans will always be tribalist, dominant, greedy and with an endless potential for violence and exploitation. It is in the hardware. It is not accidental that Pinker refers to the demons as inner. Even if the software someday gets better, it would always sit on this horrible hardware.

And even if the software someday somehow overpowers its hardware and violence would truly decline, why wait another second? And for whom? And on whose expanse? How many have to suffer for this insane social engineering global experiment that Pinker is consciously encouraging in his book, and you are unconsciously encouraging by focusing on the software instead of the hardware?

The only way reason, science, intelligence, enlightenment, technological advance and rationality can truly cause a decline in violence is by engineering self-annihilation.

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