Shayne Wissler
Imagine a world where we figured out the right direction to push, and then we pushed in that right direction…

The Gross Negligence of Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”

July 22 2014

Some of the worst atrocities hide in plain sight, concealed by the myths that blind men to the truth. This is easily understood by reflecting on history – humanity in general now views human sacrifice, burning at the stake, slavery, genocide, and so on, as the atrocities they are, whereas in earlier times, much of humanity thought these things were not only acceptable but were requirements of “civilized” life. In our times as in times past, most people think that however things happen to be, happens to be how they should be. This is because the same thing that causes society to be the way it is, is the very standard used to evaluate society. Such is the function of belief systems, and where these systems are rooted in myths, barbarism surely follows.

Since the natural tendency is to view one’s own society through rose-colored glasses, to only perceive barbarism in societies or ages other than one’s own, and since this tendency leads to generation after generation of atrocities hidden in plain sight, a wise student of history and current events will have an instant aversion to the premise of Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of our Nature. Is such an aversion justified?

I have not read it, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read the book in order to analyze the basic premise. Pinker has based a number of lectures on his book, such as this TED talk and an extended lecture. He’s a great communicator and has made his general points quite clear.

(In other words, consider this a critique of these lectures, and of the book only to the extent that he’s accurately conveyed its contents in these lectures. Keep in mind that I’m not offering an overall critique here, but only a critique of one of his key assumptions[1]. An in-depth assessment of his entire book would require far more than this article.)

The fallacy Pinker generally wallows in is special pleading, where an arguer holds certain ideas as an unquestioned absolute, which he supports by all other arguments and at all costs, as opposed to being sincere and following the evidence wherever it leads.

His bias is common among institutionally anointed scholars. A very famous example was Thomas Aquinas, who brilliantly stitched together a complex tapestry of intellectually dishonest arguments, that put on the appearance of being philosophical and sincere, but really were only aimed at buttressing the dogmas of the Catholic Church. In this respect Pinker is a modern-day Aquinas, except that 1) he is not as good at philosophy as Aquinas, who does a far better job at fairly representing counter-arguments to his own theses; 2) Pinker pimps a secular tyranny instead of a religious tyranny. Both men, however, are merely puppets of the institutions that support them, at least regarding the overall function of the works in question.

In other words:

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

— Upton Sinclair

A corollary is: It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when the prevailing culture viciously opposes it. In this respect Pinker is a shrewd businessman, giving people they want, not what they need.

Pinker purveys a number of dogmas[2], I’ll address the worst one here, namely, that the rise of intractably powerful governments has caused reductions in violence. And while Pinker does not really define violence, it is clear that what he functionally means is that society has become more civil, because governments have become more powerful[3].

There is a level on which I might agree with Pinker. In theory, if you have governments that are authentically dedicated to the principle that they exist in order to secure individual rights, then all things being equal, the more power they have, the less violence you’ll get. But we didn’t need his tome to figure that one out. What he’s written his tome for is to fabricate the myth that power not aimed at securing individual rights, i.e., government power per se, reduces violence. This is the tacit problem Pinker is really trying to solve: vindicating government power and authority per se, regardless of how vicious and amoral it may be in any particular case. But solving that problem is like trying to square a circle: power per se leads only to an amplified version of what it is you aim to do with that power. If you aim for violence, you get that. If you aim for less apparent violence (i.e. a more sinister, insidious form of it), you get that.

To more precisely define as far as I will go in support of Pinker’s thesis: To the extent that a government defends individual rights, giving it more power to do so will yield social benefits; to the extent that it attacks individual rights, giving it more power will lead to social mayhem. This distinction is critical to his subject, therefore Pinker’s failure to very clearly identify it constitutes gross negligence. If he had not ignored this crucial distinction, he could have precisely identified what sorts of government activities lead to a more civilized society versus what sorts do not; instead, in the intellectual equivalent of a drunken stupor, he only sees the hazy outline of the decrease in the most superficially obvious forms of violence which happen to be grossly coincident with increases in government power, leading to his tacit sanction of what should be roundly condemned in a work such as his.

In response to my critique of Pinker, a very well-educated woman who is fond of Pinker’s book said something to me along these lines: “Well that’s not what Pinker means by ‘violence’; he means the kind you can objectively quantify.” I then asked her whether she would regard as violent in the “quantifiable” sense, a society that punished those who expressed unpopular opinions with being burned at the stake, if it turned out that everyone simply shut their mouths and obeyed; i.e., a society where no one was actually ever burned at the stake, but where there was a credible threat looming over everyone’s heads, radically altering everyone’s thoughts and actions in a “not objectively quantifiable” way. She didn’t answer me. (Angry silence is a good sign that you’ve discovered a shameful dogma.) My next question would have been whether we should be using definitions that undermine our understanding of what it means to live in an actually civilized society.

As it turns out, Pinker has already semi-addressed questions such as the above, in his Frequently Asked Questions:

How do you define “violence”?

I don’t. I use the term in its standard sense, more or less the one you’d find in a dictionary (such as The American Heritage Dictionary Fifth Edition: “Behavior or treatment in which physical force is exerted for the purpose of causing damage or injury.”) In particular, I focus on violence against sentient beings: homicide, assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping, whether committed by individuals, groups, or institutions. Violence by institutions naturally includes war, genocide, corporal and capital punishment, and deliberate famines.

What about metaphorical violence, like verbal aggression?

No, physical violence is a big enough topic for one book (as the length of Better Angels makes clear). Just as a book on cancer needn’t have a chapter on metaphorical cancer, a coherent book on violence can’t lump together genocide with catty remarks as if they were a single phenomenon.

Isn’t economic inequality a form of violence?

No; the fact that Bill Gates has a bigger house than I do may be deplorable, but to lump it together with rape and genocide is to confuse moralization with understanding. Ditto for underpaying workers, undermining cultural traditions, polluting the ecosystem, and other practices that moralists want to stigmatize by metaphorically extending the term violence to them. It’s not that these aren’t bad things, but you can’t write a coherent book on the topic of “bad things.”

First of all, observe how he writes an 800+ page tome, but that is beneath him to come up with any better definition for his most central concept than “more or less what dictionary X says.” This speaks for itself.

But let me consider his offering. I get the distinct idea that what he means by violence is brute physical destruction: he specifies assault, not criminal threats; robbery, not burglary. In other words, so long as the victim is not being bludgeoned, he will tend to not call a crime against him “violence.” But ultimately his definition is sloppy and self-contradictory, and therefore impossible to interpret precisely, as it first claims violence is “for the purpose of causing damage or injury”, but then includes robbery and kidnapping, actions taken for the purpose of wealth or control. So we can only sort of know what he means.

When pressed, it is easy to imagine that if someone is holding a gun to your head and demanding your obedience, Pinker will admit that this is violence, even if there is no brute physical destruction. When this person (who, in this hypothetical scenario, you know for certain has a gun and means to use it) knocks on your door and tells you he will come into your home and shoot you if you do not obey, I imagine Pinker might admit that this too is violence. When this person calls you on the phone, telling you he will hunt you down and shoot you if you do not obey, I imagine Pinker might admit that this is violence. But apparently, when this person is carrying the orders of a group of men who have passed a bad law having precisely the same effects as the preceding – your ultimately being imprisoned (aka kidnapped) or shot for non-compliance with, say, bad laws that confer economic privilege to an elite class – then Pinker hallucinates this all as being merely “moralization” or “metaphorical violence.”

But we need not speculate about what Pinker would actually say in response, because he’s already been asked the kind of questions implied in the foregoing:

Questioner (paraphrasing): Is it true that things have really gotten better, or is it just that those with power have just gotten better at finding apparently less violent but more pernicious ways of concealing their violations of human rights?

[Correct answer: Yes to the latter. Given a very powerful government, you can readily exploit people without resorting to crudely obvious violence, through legislation. Since the population will probably not be able to successfully resist, they will therefore tend to peacefully obey what are, literally speaking, violent threats (i.e. extortion). This is particularly true given a mass of complex legislation that divides and conquers the population, for when the target of a single legislative bill is a minority, the rest of the population will tend to ignore it, even when the sum of all these bills targets most of the population.]

Pinker’s answer (edited for concision): I think if there are injustices manifested economically rather than by violence, that itself is a good thing – cheating someone in a deal is better than killing them. Worldwide, people on average are more affluent than they used to be, and it’s countries that are most open to trade that are most affluent. So on average, trade couldn’t be so exploitative that countries end up worse off, since they end up better off. But even if they do end up worse off, it’s better to be exploited than to be annihilated.

I sincerely hope that future generations will readily discern his frank obtuseness for what it is.

First of all, it is grossly misleading to speak in terms of economic exploitation versus killing; economic exploitation is another form of killing, for two reasons: 1) Your life is nothing more nor less than the very finite set of actions you take[4], and if someone redirects your actions to their ends rather than your ends (and this is what economic exploitation does), then to that extent, they have stolen your life. In effect, they have killed actions you would have taken if you were free, but couldn’t because you were manipulated. 2) Economic exploitation leads not only to suffering but literally leads to early death. It would take a volume to cover the myriad ways in which this happens, but to touch on just a few:

  1. Poverty leads to less healthy lifestyles which leads to medical problems and early death.
  2. Being exploited leads to depression which leads to bad health habits or even to suicide.
  3. A society that is economically exploited is less creative and vibrant than it would otherwise be, leading to more sluggish medical research, leading to more expensive and lower quality medical treatments than would otherwise exist.
  4. Economic exploitation always comes with corollary legislation, and those who do not obey end up in prison or killed by police officers (see: The War on Drugs or for-profit prisons.)

Elaborating on the above would take many articles. (This would be an appropriate penance for Pinker – an intellectual so richly supported by society should be committed to solving its most important problems, not to encouraging everyone to passively gloat about the status quo.)

Second, his response encourages apathy. If you want things to improve, you focus on the problems, measured by reference to how things can be and ought to be, and find ways to solve them. If you want things to stay the same or get worse, you say “There may or may not be problems, but look at how much better things are now than before. At least you’re not being annihilated. Now shut up and stop your complaining.” Even worse than this attitude is when, in the aforementioned lecture, Pinker attacks idealists per se as being a source of violence, rather than attacking only those who, like him, have ideals that lead to violence (his idealism leads him to support systematic violence exerted by an irresistible tyranny).

Another problem is that the discussion he himself is framing isn’t about murdering every last person on the planet vs. economically exploiting every last person on the planet, it’s about living in a society where the risk of physical violence is lower, in exchange for having a government with ever greater powers. It is true that some people would prefer safety to liberty, but this personal preference on his own cowardly part, it is certainly not universal:

“If ye love wealth better than liberty, the tranquility of servitude better than the animating contest of freedom, go home from us in peace. We ask not your counsels or your arms. Crouch down and lick the hands which feed you. May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.”

— Samuel Adams

But we do not have to choose between security and safety; we can have both, if our governments are animated with a true spirit of securing individual rights. However, if the alternative is risky liberty or safe tyranny, who but an abject coward would pick the latter as if it were the obviously correct choice? A wise and continent man would weigh his own preference in accordance to his particular circumstance.

Finally, he is tacitly giving virtually all the credit for every improvement in society to government, blithely ignoring the possibility that the technologies and affluence we enjoy might have less to do with increasing government power than with all the hard work that individual scientists, engineers, and businessmen have undertaken in spite of government power. It is equivalent to ignoring everything Galileo did to advance science, and then giving all the credit to The Catholic Church, whereas in reality, they not only distracted Galileo from other achievements but put him under house arrest for life.

Pinker is not alone in his delusions. He is only taking part in a mass hallucination: that someone employing violence while “just following orders” given to them “legally” by “democratically elected representatives”, somehow magically dissolves into some ineffable thing, or is inverted, such that the victim of violence is somehow construed as the perpetrator, even if the law is wrong and regardless of how heinously wrong it is, or would normally be considered criminal violence if carried out by anyone else.

It is fascinating to investigate those entranced by this mass hallucination, to discern just how far their hallucination goes. If a law is passed saying you can’t smoke pot, would they consider it “violence” to send a SWAT team to bust down your door for possession of it? What if this law causes those who didn’t even smoke pot to have their doors busted down “by mistake”? And precisely how is the degenerate barbarism embodied in events like this or this captured by Pinker’s statistics? If a law is passed saying that your freedom of speech is being taken away, and you will be burned at the stake if you disobey, would this count as “violence”? How about if we repealed the right of women to vote, made it illegal for them to work outside the home, and punished them with death if they spoke out about it? Would this be “violence”?

Good luck getting these delusional people to actually engage in this sort of questioning to the end, usually they’ll come up with an excuse for ending the conversation before you can actually get your curiosity satisfied.

It is obvious that minimizing violence is important to society, and not merely crudely obvious manifestations of violence, but all violence regardless of how insidious – i.e. all violations of your individual rights. Even if we accept the notion that the crudely quantifiable violence that even Pinker notices has decreased, his perspective on it does not differentiate between whether this decrease is due to there being less attacks on your individual rights, or whether we just have a much more docile, brainwashed, compliant population, one that doesn’t resist or even object to their rights being violated. His view is tantamount to not calling it “rape” when the woman doesn’t fight back, even while a knife is being held to her throat. It’s tantamount to being opposed to violence – but only if it leaves marks on your body. It’s tacit approval of credible threats of violence – the non-quantifiable marks left on your life and on your soul.

Pinker’s thesis is obnoxiously scientistic and amoral. What the decrease in crudely quantifiable violence coincident with the constantly increasing powers of Leviathan really means is that its victims are not suicidal: no one in their right mind is going to physically resist a strong and oppressive government.

Pinker is, in effect, an apologist for violence that leaves no marks, and especially that which is carried out under the color of law. He is an apologist for government criminality, a High Priest of Leviathan, putting on an intellectual magic show which distracts people from the heinous atrocities caused by an ever-growing body of absolutely vicious laws. It’s about bread and circuses for intellectuals – his function is to give otherwise intelligent people a convenient excuse: to work and play and ignore politics, without the nagging sense of guilt that maybe they should do a little something to help keep the wheels from coming off this culture.

  1. In spite of having given this qualification, I have already received the predictable trolling about not having read his book. But if you are going to attack me for not having read his book and want me to take you seriously, you need to 1) explain why it’s not fair to criticize lectures; 2) give at least a general indication of why my analysis here is flawed.

  2. The following is intended as a very incomplete identification of related problems: 1) He encourages gloating about how good we allegedly have things compared to our ancestors. Instead of gloating, we should direct our energy and attention to ending modern violence against its countless victims. 2) He assumes that reductions in “violence” are per se good; while this sounds good it is a superficial standard at best, since in the long term, “violence” can easily be stopped by ending the human race (this might require violence, but keep in mind that he uses statistics to define violence, which implies that some violence is good if it reduces overall violence.) 3) His anti-philosophical statistical methodology begs the question: it assumes (without justification) a certain standard of “the good”, then derives statistics based on this assumption, then pretends to have made an argument that the statistical results prove something.

  3. Pinker, a self-described Hobbesian, takes this concept so far that he assumes that the most rapacious government is at least a little better than no government. I submit that Pinker suffers from a severe lack of imagination of just how bad governments can in principle be, particularly in the age of nuclear bombs, chemical warfare, and biological weapons.

  4. I expand on this concept in REASON and LIBERTY.

  5. You can find many detailed critical reviews of his book, for example, this and this and this.