As part of our series about violence we made a critical review of Steven Pinker’s book – The Better Angels of Our Nature. For the previous post please click here.
Pinker argues that violence is biologically intrinsic, evolutionarily logical and historically habitual, so what according to him made it decline?
Pinker has a few explanations along the book. The first one is the old thesis of the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who also recognized that humans are naturally violent. Therefore the only way to avoid the natural state, which is according to Hobbes war of all against all, is by establishing an absolute sovereignty political figure he called the Leviathan.
“The Leviathan is a monarchy or other government authority that embodies the will of the people and has a monopoly on the use of force. By inflicting penalties on aggressors, the Leviathan can eliminate their incentive for aggression, in turn defusing general anxieties about preemptive attack and obviating everyone’s need to maintain a hair trigger for retaliation to prove their resolve. And because the Leviathan is a disinterested third party, it is not biased by the chauvinism that makes each side think its opponent has a heart of darkness while it is as pure as the driven snow.”
Although we totally disagree with the Rousseauistic thinkers as you can see in our former posts regarding human violence, we also disagree with the Hobbesians.
Even without getting into anarchistic criticism over the Leviathan theory (which is obviously principally and elementary essential, but it is not the place for it here) there are some significant problems with it and with Pinker’s references and inferences.
To prove his point Pinker compares the rates of homicides and deaths in warfare, between state and non-state societies.
Since in absolute numbers, obviously the death in warfare and homicides in civilized societies is much higher, pinker doesn’t look at absolute numbers but at relative numbers calculated as a proportion of the population. With this statistical trick he can argue that non-state societies are much more violent since one murder and 2 fatalities during warfare in one village of 100 people in one year, is as violent as a city of one million people with 300,000 deaths from homicide and warfare per year.
But the dubious statistical analysis is secondary to the moral one which we’ll refer to when we get to the review of the 20th century.
Another significant problem is that he doesn’t compare any other violence figures such as agriculture destruction, industrial destruction, slavery, rape and of course animal exploitation. Absolute or relative numbers, there is no statistical manipulation that can disguise these tremendous destruction and suffering levels of state societies.
Since we don’t want to scatter too much and elaborate on anarchism and political philosophy, we don’t get into the philosophical idea of sovereignty. However we do want to address an essential problem with an essential part of the theory – the idea of disinterested third party as a solution to violence.
Even before the first manifestation of the Leviathan model, it should have been obvious that since the Leviathan is a metaphor and in reality it would consist of humans, all the more so from the same community, a fair “disinterested third party” is fictitious. But even if Hobbes’ naïveté is understandable, Pinker’s isn’t. He had various manifestations of Leviathans with various applications along history, too many to honestly believe in the existence of a disinterested third party, but still this is how he schemes it:
“The logic of the Leviathan can be summed up in a triangle. In every act of violence, there are three interested parties: the aggressor, the victim, and a bystander. Each has a motive for violence: the aggressor to prey upon the victim, the victim to retaliate, the bystander to minimize collateral damage from their fight.”
Even among humans there is no such thing as a disinterest person or entity as can be seen in every single state since the first one. But since this is a critical review from animals’ perspective, our question is when the aggressor is human and the victim is an animal, who exactly is the disinterested third party? the meat eater bystander?
And how about when the war is an unilateral war of humans against nonhumans and the humans are the lawmakers, the lawyers, the judges and the punishers? Where is the logic of the Leviathan in that scenario?
No Leviathan can stop the violence of humans towards animals. On the contrary, the emergence of civilization some five thousand years ago, when sedentary farmers first coalesced into cities and states and developed the first governments, the horrible state of animals got even worse.
In conclusion, actually to some extent we agree both with Hobbes and Rousseau. Humans are naturally violent and civilization gives them plenty of opportunities to express it.
The cracks in Pinker’s pseudo-scientific research of violence start more or less from the discussion of commerce. Pinker is not the agendaless scientist he tries to convince us he is, but rather a neo- enlightened capitalist who disdains or totally ignores serious criticism on both. Here is his scientific description of the marvels of commerce:
“The economic base of the feudal system was land and the peasants who worked it.
Competition for land is zero-sum: one player’s gain is another player’s loss.
This is a recipe for a zero-sum game, and leaves predation as the only way people could add to their wealth. A positive-sum game is a scenario in which agents have choices that can improve the lots of both of them at the same time.”
In order to think that commerce is a positive-sum game and not a zero sum game, you must consider the interests of the trillions of beings who were hurt all along history as a result of commerce and commerce’s infrastructure, directly and collaterally, as zero.
Everything is always a zero sum game, as everything is always on someone else’s expense. Pinker and the others who argue for a positive-sum game, since in commerce economy “the pie can get bigger”, are simply blind to the price animals are paying. Increasing the humans’ cake is always decreasing animals’. Nothing is being produced out of nothing. It is only positive-sum game if animals’ interests are counted as nothing.
Everything has a price. Only they don’t care when others are paying it.
One short example:
“A classic positive-sum game in economic life is the trading of surpluses. If a farmer has more grain than he can eat, and a herder has more milk than he can drink, both of them come out ahead if they trade some wheat for some milk. As they say, everybody wins.”
Except of course, everyone who used to live in and of the area which humans forcefully made a grain field, and the goats, cows and all of their babies who are forcefully exploited so the herder can have more milk than he can drink.
And he continues to present terrible things as positive like the acceleration of the planet occupation and the invention of money, probably one of the greatest and most destructive fetishes ever:
“One infrastructure that allows efficient exchange is transportation, which makes it possible for producers to trade their surpluses even when they are separated by distance. Another is money, interest, and middlemen, which allow producers to exchange many kinds of surpluses with many other producers at many points in time.”
“Among larger entities such as cities and states, commerce was enhanced by oceangoing ships, new financial institutions, and a decline in mercantilist policies.”
And in relation to violence reduction:
“Positive-sum games also change the incentives for violence. If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead. You have an incentive, moreover, to anticipate what he wants, the better to supply it to him in exchange for what you want. Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy. A good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.”
Even the 18th century philosopher Adam Smith who laid his hopes on commerce in the Wealth of Nations, a book considered to be Capitalism’s bible, couldn’t be absolved for being naïve, so 21th century Pinker, definitely cannot.
Humans do not produce needed products for other people, they mostly produce unnecessary products for emotionally needed people.
The same romanticism that Pinker ascribes to many anthropologists regarding hunter-gatherers can be ascribed to his relation towards “pacifists” businessperson who allegedly prefer corporation over selfishness. Their viewpoint was still egocentric. “The other” didn’t change from an enemy to a friend, but from an enemy to a customer. The viewpoint in the gentle commerce society is not at all empathic but very instrumental. In the end of the civilization process period came the industrial revolution that sets as a very oppressive proof of how instrumental the commerce relationships really were. And soon after came a consumer society who worships commodities and money. A new ground for a new sort of violence, financial violence which we wrote about in the articles Compassion Spin and There’s Always Money For Death And Destruction.
In fact, the first products of Pinker’s factors for violence decline, commerce, the leviathan, reason and science meeting point, was colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. The Europeans had used their comparative advantage to conquer and plunder the rest of the world. And it was a vicious cycle since the plundering of non-Europeans only widened the materialistic gap between the societies.
The money built empires, and empires had colonies which were developed by the great trading companies, which entered other countries with the approval of their own governments (the “leviathans”), and became these countries’ actual governments, plundering the resources and enslaving the humans.
Commerce in the 18th century through Europe was increasingly dependent on African slavery. Adam Smith knew that very well as a student of the Scottish economy of his own days. He knew that goods were taken from Scotland to the Gold Coast in Africa and traded for Africans who were enslaved by the free traders (Pinker’s good businessperson) in the plantations of the new world. Smith chose to turn a blind eye on slavery which was well based already in the 16th century.
Pinker also turns a blind eye to the fact that the slave trade was an economic enterprise. It wasn’t kings’ or states’ initiative. It was done with their endorsement of course, but it wasn’t their idea or administration. It was the businesspersons’. They got the money for their plunder and slave trades from Bank loans and the stock market. Humans had invested their money in these enterprises buying their stocks. The transatlantic slave trade was mostly an economic enterprise. Most of the racism and cultural supremacy came later. At first the only ideology was Capitalism.
Pinker sums up the chapter about the civilization process with the following:
“Cas Wouters, inspired by conversations with Elias late in his life, suggests that we are living through a new phase in the Civilizing Process he calls third nature. If our first nature consists of the evolved motives that govern life in a state of nature, and our second nature consists of the ingrained habits of a civilized society, then our third nature consists of a conscious reflection on these habits, in which we evaluate which aspects of a culture’s norms are worth adhering to and which have outlived their usefulness. Centuries ago our ancestors may have had to squelch all signs of spontaneity and individuality in order to civilize themselves, but now that norms of nonviolence are entrenched, we can let up on particular inhibitions that may be obsolete. “
Pinker is obsessively optimist and dangerously ignorant.
Humans’ third nature is indifference. They made outstandingly oppressive products with so much embodied violence, into innocent and natural ones.
Humans have internalized violence so deeply that factory farming with its abundance of violent practices, are not viewed as violent by most humans, but as a perfectly legitimate, efficient and even natural way of producing food. The deep internalization and indifference as a third nature is especially evident in the case of milk which is consumed by grown individuals of a different species like no other species and without asking a basic question like where the hell is the calf that is supposed to drink it in the first place, and in the case of eggs which come from battery cages, yet children are taken there, to see animals and “nature”…
Along with Capitalism, Pinker’s other main stance on his agenda is reason. In the following post of the review we’ll address his relation to reason as a significant human trait. Now we’ll deal with reason as a significant cultural movement.
So the third element in the historical decline of violence is the age of reason, also called the enlightenment, a movement from the 17th and 18th centuries that emphasized humans’ ability to reason. The basic idea is of an inherent linkage between knowledge and liberty. To be a free man (they still weren’t enlightened enough to include the unreason women…) is to be free to reason. The enlightenment was tied to the scientific revolution and basically laid its hopes on knowledge and reason to depart from the ignorant lap of the church. They believed in technological and cultural progress and liberalism.
There is a lot of criticism over the enlightenment’s ideas and from several angles. Pinker chose only a few – the ones that he couldn’t ignore since they are too prominent to overlook.
He did ignore, for example, the works of the Frankfort School, especially Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as other thinkers such as Isaiah Berlin, Zigmunt Bauman, Hanna Arendt, Michel Foucault and others who acutely demonstrated the dark sides of the enlightenment. And he did a very poor job describing the ones he did address.
Ironically the age of reason which was mostly counter-religion still had some religious qualities. One of the basic elements of the enlightenment ideas is liberty but since the enlightened were sure they are reason’s patrons, they felt missionary obligated to force it on humanity, even and especially if humans reject it, since the more they reject them the more they are trapped in a false consciousness and need the “enlightened” to liberate them. So the first criticism is that the first actual implementation of the enlightenment ideas was the Reign of Terror, a very violent period that occurred after the onset of the French revolution executing its ideas.
The second actual implementation of the enlightenment ideas was soon followed by humanity’s great enlightened liberator, the conqueror emperor Napoleon who reasonably stamped out constitutional government, reinstituted slavery, glorified war, had the Pope crown him emperor, restored Catholicism as the state religion, installed three brothers and a brother-in-law on foreign thrones, and waged ruthless campaigns of territorial aggrandizement with a criminal disregard for human life.
Another criticism is that the enlightenment started the Age of Nationalism. Even Pinker had to agree with this historical eventuation and wrote:
“Nationalist sentiments soon intermixed with every other political movement. Once nation-states emerged, they became the new establishment, which the conservatives strove to conserve. As monarchs became icons of their nations, conservatism and nationalism gradually merged. Eventually the doctrine spawned the messianic, militant, romantic nationalist movements of fascism and Nazism.“
But he fails to understand the overall historical pattern which is that even humanity’s better ideas (in this case self-determination of the people) are always being taken advantage of.
And that brings us to another significant criticism against the enlightenment – justifying global plundering, mostly known as colonialism. As mentioned earlier, the enlightened were armed with a mission to spread reason, forcefully if necessary. And forceful it was.
Pinker reveals his white, western, capitalist, scholar, and of course enlightened and even borderline racist viewpoint regarding colonialism. Here is an example:
“The thickening of the civil war wedge in the 1960s had an obvious trigger: decolonization. European governments may have brutalized the natives when conquering a colony and putting down revolts, but they generally had a fairly well-functioning police, judiciary, and public-service infrastructure. And while they often had their pet ethnic groups, their main concern was controlling the colony as a whole, so they enforced law and order fairly broadly and in general did not let one group brutalize another with too much impunity. When the colonial governments departed, they took competent governance with them. “
And another one:
“One of the tragic ironies of the second half of the 20th century is that when colonies in the developing world freed themselves from European rule, they often slid back into warfare, this time intensified by modern weaponry, organized militias, and the freedom of young men to defy tribal elders. “
The last criticism Pinker refers to is the Holocaust, which he sums up with:
“The idea that the Holocaust was a product of the Enlightenment is ludicrous, if not obscene.”
And briefly argues that:
“The technological and bureaucratic trappings of the Holocaust are a sideshow in the reckoning of its human costs and are unnecessary to the perpetration of mass murder, as the bloody machetes of the Rwandan genocide remind us.“
However the essences of this particular criticism, is not only the technology’s and bureaucracy’s significant part in the 20th century horrors, particularly the Holocaust, but over the enlightenment as an essentialism philosophy. Many critics emphasized the dangers with generally stating that humans have a specific essence, in the case of the enlightenment, it is reason, which should be used as they desire in the name of progress.
However reason is merely a tool. Reason can only be a how, not a why or a where.
The enlightenment didn’t address any crucial philosophical question. It didn’t provide a destination for the progress or a reason for the reason. Therefore various ideologies could have been built around it later in history. All, including the one Pinker adores (capitalism), were and are extremely violent.
Most of the critics focus on the notorious ideologies such as imperialism, nationalism, colonialism and Nazism (as an enthusiastic capitalist Pinker also adds communism but of course it is a little bit more complicated than that). But most don’t criticize the humanism ideology itself (except Michel Foucault, and even his criticism is not that humanism is inherently anthropocentric).
Every definition has an “other”, and in the case of the enlightenment it is those who can’t reason.
It doesn’t matter that animals can reason, what matters is what they thought animals are capable of and on that basis kept them out of the moral circle.
The enlightenment movement didn’t let the facts, which started to assemble from the contemporary scientific revolution they adored so much, confuse them. Despite their resent towards the religions’ divine universe structure, not only did humans stay in the center of the universe like in the rest of the religions, in a godless world, humans and their divine reason have advanced to a godlike status. Everything is justified in their name, so along with the belief in progress, science and reason, factory farms – the most oppressive systems ever in history were developed, tormenting the lives of billions of beings.
The worst implementation of the age of reason is not social engineering or a utopian ideology. It doesn’t have charismatic leader or even a clear central leadership, not an organized doctrine or elements of hate, but rather an instrumental view of other sentient beings while inflicting any imaginable violence that science and reason can produce.
The violent compression of sentient beings into a mass production assembly line is the ugly and violent face of the enlightenment that Pinker doesn’t want us to see.
Unfortunately our world is too speciesist to point at factory farming as the greatest atrocity of the enlightenment ideas.
The strongest blow that the enlightenment ideas did receive regards to their significant role in the horrors of the first half of the 20th century. As a great henchman, Pinker is particularly eager to prove that the enlightenment project didn’t fail despite the 20th century. Therefore he devoted a substantial part of his book to claim that the 20th century doesn’t stand out of the historical decline of violence he argues for. The next part of this critical review is dedicated to the false effort to prove so.