Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence and Flourishing of Humanity

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

But what is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.
--The Federalist, No. 51, James Madison

This is easily one of the best books of 2011, and I suppose it must already be earmarked as a Pulitzer finalist. It’s about violence, but so much more than that since it strikes at the very core of human nature, the human condition, government, economics, and moral philosophy. Stephen Pinker starts with a simple premise—proving the decline of violence in modern times. This apparently is so controversial to some that he meticulously plots the decline of violence with great historical and statistical detail—this is the descriptive ‘what’ that Dr. Pinker illustrates in the first 2/3rds of the book. The writing is absorbing even if it rings a mildly irreverent tone that betrays a subtle anti-religious bias (especially vis-à-vis politico-religious violence of the Roman Catholic and Old Testament societies—he was a roommate of Harold Bloom after all and is a dedicated humanist) that includes some humorous satire and contemporary references to lighten the mood of such a grim topic. Indeed, his graphic descriptions of torture, rape, suffering and grotesque sadism is enough for even the most macabre minds. Stephen Pinker is a true evolutionary scientist who is adroit in the heuristic of categorization and you can find lists, and lists of lists to aid in understanding the narrative he describes.
For example, the declining trend of violence is broken down into these historical themes:
1) The Pacification Process—our evolution from hunter/gatherers into political, agrarian societies.
2) The Civilizing Process—included the consolidation of feudal economies into larger kingdoms and empires with central authority, trade and economic specialization.
3) The Humanitarian Revolution—17th and 18th century that marked the that included the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment
4) The Long Peace—a result of a Kantian trifecta of 1) Democracy, 2) Trade and 3) International organizations
5) The New Peace—arising out of a U.S. led post-cold war globalized world
6) The Rights Revolutions—exhibited a more finely filtered intolerance of violence on smaller scales that included violence against minorities, women, children, and animals.

Within these historical themes we see five major historical forces that helped snuff out violence:
1) The Leviathan—this includes a Hobbesian social contract which grants to the state a full monopoly on the use of violence from within
2) Gentle Commerce—closely connected to #4 this force increases economic incentives for cooperation
3) Feminization—results in a decline of authoritarian/patriarchal based societies and the empowerment of women as intellectual equals who tend to be more risk-averse and less violent
4) The Expanding Circle—from a mixture of globalization, commerce, and increased access to information this purportedly increases sympathy and helped usher in the Rights revolution that even extended to animals
5) The Escalator of Reason—leading to higher levels of intelligence and emotional empathy in conjunction with more sophisticated foundation for managing moralized concerns in favor of the flourishing of all humanity

The second part of the book is what really interested me and seeks to elaborate the psychological factors that dictate our behavior depending on their interplay with our environment and circumstance. Here the statistical reasoning is a little more squishy and correlational residuals are not quite as well characterized—perhaps leading to creeping confirmational bias. Put aside these minor critiques of this part of the book, the ability to marshal data from such varied fields of study as anthropology, economics (including game theory), social psychology, and cognitive neuroscience into a coherent and powerful explanation of the decline of violence.

Factors that influence violence are broken down into two categories of human nature: Demons that incite to violence and Angels that slaken the thirst for blood. The demons include the primal urge to dominance, revenge, sadism including the banality of evil, and ideologically driven moralized violence. On the other side of the ledger are qualities such as empathy (or more importantly sympathy, Dr. Pinker distinguishes the two), self-control, our moral sense, and reason. Here, the meat of the book can be found in the chapters on the moral sense. Stephen Pinker adapts from the ethics, moral foundations, and relational models of moral reasoning of other people like Shweder, Haidt, and Fiske. First, to understand the psychology of moral reasoning (as opposed to objective moral truth itself), we are to understand that moralized beliefs are more than just the avoidance of something distasteful, but is a ‘distinctive mode of thinking about an action’. Thus, moralized beliefs are universalized (should apply to everybody), actionable, and punishable. These beliefs spring from relationships since, in Pinker’s view, evolution acted upon the population and there is no such thing as a philosophically independent human being. Moralized norms generally include relationships, a context (at home, in the street, at church, at work, at the beach, etc.), and are centered around a resource (information or knowledge, food, money, land, sex, labor, etc.). These relationships upon which socioeconomic moral reasoning is based are divided into 4 categories:
1) Communal Sharing—the most basic tribal foundation for moral reasoning emphasizing in-group loyalty, also includes sacred or pure values that are shared within a group and reinforced through rituals and periodic but specific contextual references.
2) Authority Ranking—e.g., military, paternalistic, totalitarian/fascist, divine right etc.
3) Equality Matching—gifts, tit-for-tat, first relational moralized norm to recognize individual autonomy, fairness, and reciprocal altruism
4) Market Pricing/Rational-legal—much more complex relational model of morality that incorporates universal ethical principles, a high level of individual rights, rule-of-law, social contract orientation, and requires a high level of literacy and numeracy along with a grasp of information technology and access to data on price, costs, benefits, risks, alternatives, etc.

As an explanation of the basis of moralized norms this seems quite well-developed and accurate. As I read through this chapter, the current debate over the allocation of scarce health care resources came to mind as a good illustration of this relational model of moral reasoning. The argument is usually centered on the diametric poles of the relational models between communal sharing of universalized health care to rational-legal/market pricing model. Here again we see that moralized norms require more than facile affirmation of one or the other relational models since the specific contexts and resources are important. Which relational model should be employed in the state of emergency, or when the resource is a human organ in which a dead individual does not benefit, or when the allocation of the resource in the community is considered a sacred good such as the right to life-sustaining medicine.

Personally, I see a need for a hybrid system that protects sacred values of life, and the protection of the vulnerable (e.g., the elderly and children) with market-pricing and equality matching for preventative or non-emergent care should the patient choose--respecting the autonomy of the patient to make the most rational choice given the risks, costs, benefits, and alternatives. The difficulty with market-based health care, just like the difficulty of running a democracy that this market-based/equality matching system is only functional for the government of a citizenry that is based on the moral foundation of reciprocal altruism and rational-legal system of checks and balances. Like a functioning democracy, a market-based health care system requires high literacy and numeracy rates as well as the dissemination of pricing/cost information (something that the AMA has consistently blocked by restricting access to ICT coding for purposes of pricing across hospitals, specialties and regions). This leads to corruption in which supposed medical principles (e.g., doctors and hospitals who have a fiduciary and moral duty to remain financially disinterested in patient decisions) have the ability to obfuscate their own cost and market prices. With these established cartels, it's not difficult to enrich oneself by choking off a few grains of sand at strategic locations in the billions-dollar health care economy. In this model, there is no difference between the orthopedic surgeon recommending back surgery (that evidence from the Dartmouth ATLAS study shows actually does more harm than good), and the Goldman Sachs executives who traded in collateralized debt obligations, which they 1) controled the price through financial cartels, and 2) were at the same time shorting (had proprietary knowledge that they were bad investments and thus were insuring at low cost against loss of these supposed AAA-rated investments).

Some favor total universalization of health care based on moral norms, but I simply think this ancient hunter-gatherer communal-based economy is insufficient for the maximization of public good by actually rationing health care resources away from those who by definition need it most (e.g., through price controls and misallocation of scarce resources). Just because other industrialized nations have atavistic central rationing of health care as a vestigial throw-back to the devastation of the post-WWII days when virtually every single resource was rationed (e.g., labor, currency, food, shelter, etc.) is not sufficient rationale for a complex and advance economy like the U.S. to regress to the communal-sharing model of health care delivery.

Finally, Stephen Pinker is an evolutionary psychologist and a progressive and here his confirmation bias shines through quite strongly in my view. Much has been made of the Flynn effect that made the claim that IQs are actually increasing as people today are evolving on an organic and biological level to be more intelligent than those who came before us just a few decades ago. I and not quite persuaded by the data just yet. Furthermore, there is an assumption that modern western elites who exert social control are currently and likely to continue in the progressive beneficial model; this may be a bit too optimistic. The utility of some form of the Hobbesian social contract for the government monopoly of violence and justice is pretty clearly established by Dr. Pinker, however, caution is warranted in today’s modern age when an fewer and fewer of our ‘best-and-brightest’ sociopolitical/cultural prophets can do increasingly greater damage. This is a view that Pinker seems to acknowledge, but dismiss this line of thinking by citing historical data that the introduction of nuclear weapons or other WMD are uncorrelated residuals in the decline of violence. However historical data do not necessarily determine future relationships between the concentration of greater technical power into the increasingly fewer hands of elite social engineers and the decline of violence.

With the exception of those minor critiques, however, I am sure this book will contribute greatly to our cultural understanding of the psychology of violence, and by extention, peace. The ideas found here will no doubt be debated everywhere from college bowl sessions up to the halls of congress. This can only be a good thing since the overriding theme of the book is a very well-qualified optimism for the flourishing of humanity.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Walter Issacson's Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First the disclaimer: I own an iPhone, but have never really been too drawn into the Apple phenomenon. I appreciate art, but I also appreciate learning how things work and tinkering—something that is impossible with Apple products. My interest in Steve Jobs is as a cultural and business innovator. I am interested in his success and creativity. I wanted to see what type of personality could influence culture in so many beneficial ways.

I picked this book up after reading Eric Metaxas’s Bonhoeffer, so it was interesting to contrast the two personalities—as Plutarch’s Lives. Both sought to change contemporary culture, and both dedicated their lives to a certain core principles that would pave the path of their lives. Both possessed a high level of emotional intelligence that allowed them to influence people in remarkable ways; for Bonhoeffer it was his ability to evade detection as a principle conspirator against the Nazi power regime even though he was in full view at the center of influential German society, and for Jobs it was his uncanny ability to elicit greatness in people around him to invent, innovate and produce. The difference was in their core principles: Jobs believed in creating aesthetically and technically great products based on simplicity, hope, and wonder, whereas Bonhoeffer dedicated his life to complete submission to God’s will through revelation and action. Jobs’s focus was immediate and temporal that seemed to treat other individuals around himself as a means to achieve his ideal of producing great products—while Bonhoeffer’s ethics extended past his own existence and art and was swallowed up in God’s will. Thus, Bonhoeffer viewed other people as ends in themselves. It is true that at times Bonhoeffer would employ deception to fool his adversaries in the Nazi regime; however deception and even assassination were tools that were to be used only in the honoring and defending of life; which in his case included the lives of millions of Jews.

Steve Jobs was a law unto himself often ignoring vulgarities like license plates, speeding tickets, or cost overruns. He was prickly, demanding, and self-centered in the way he commandeered other’s talents and efforts. For example, Jobs went through dozens of nurses before settling on one whom he could accept to take care of him. Bonhoeffer was introspective and a friend to nearly every man except those who he worked to thwart in their murderous ambition. In his days imprisoned at Tegal military prison where he became such good friends with the guards and inmates that he was able to move about freely within the prison ministering to the guards and other inmates.
In the final moments of each of these great men’s lives, Jobs worked tirelessly to leave a progressing legacy in the form of his company. He was skeptical of ultimate existence outside of his mortal life, but refused to shut the door on the possibility. This is one reason why Steve Jobs refused to have power buttons on any of his products. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand was resolute and calm in his last he is reported to have said just before his execution “This is the end, but for me the beginning of life”.

Steve Jobs changed the world, and underlying his highly developed sense of art and technology was a shadow of ethics that emphasized innocence, simplicity, hope, creativity, and progress. This is seen in the way he participated in the creation of the most beautiful children’s movies and his ban of pornographic or explicitly violent apps on his devices. Bonhoeffer, on the other hand probably didn’t do much to change the arc of history; including the implacable Nazi evil that was unleashed in the 1930s and 40s. Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that it is ethics of people like Bonhoeffer who, while living their ordinary lives and sacrificing with dignity and decency who are the true heroes that make our world flourish. Steve Jobs was a phenomenon who was very gifted, but who also benefited from the love of a hard-working parents and a stable home that provided the fertile ground for his creativity.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bonhoeffer: Book review

Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, SpyBonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I must say that I have put off writing a review of this wonderful man’s biography feeling myself inadequate to put words to the nobility, goodness, and grand heroism of his life. However, not putting thoughts to paper would not do the man’s life justice.

Bonhoeffer’s razor-sharp intellect complemented an unalloyed moral integrity that combined in a man who rose to the top ranks of the few noble Germans who pushed back against the Nazi leviathan. His constant efforts to influence and resist the evil that surrounded him sprang from a rigorously cultivated personal moral script that is so lacking in today’s post-modern state of confusion (e.g., the top-down/bottom up dearth of moral certitude in the case of the Penn state sex abuse scandal rife from the student body to the University President). The central tenant of that moral script written by hours of study, meditation, and selfless service of others was the same that we have seen from others on the road of discipleship: Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, and yes I would include Joseph Smith. That tenant is summed up in the acceptance of suffering in total mortal defeat in submission to Christ in hope of transcending this brutish, nasty world of sin. Bonhoeffer spoke of the need for costly grace and eschewing the ethical laziness offered in popular sermons as a false hope thinly disguised in the tawdry garb of cheap grace.

Some ne’er-do-well critics of the Latter-day Saint religious expression is that their theology of duty and service is nothing more than a babelian attempt to ‘buy salvation’. Bonhoeffer seems to reject such facile reasoning with his strenuous Christian struggle for costly grace.

Another pearl I gleamed from Bonhoeffer was his insistence in a living revelatory faith that compelled him to action. Bonhoeffer seemed to accept God’s will unreservedly by deep personal experience and not just through theological training. And this revelatory faith propelled him to understand his fellow man (both good and evil) and act accordingly. It was the surprising paralysis and capitulation of the German Church to the evil of Nazism that brought Bonhoeffer to this revelatory moment where he saw his personal calling of God to bring life to the church even though it be through the shedding of his own blood in martyrdom.

Bonhoeffer’s life was ended in the final hours of the Third Reich by the evil men whom he so forcefully resisted. It is a testament to his legacy that he fully accepted the consequences of his righteous action, and that he was so effective that those he opposed spent the precious few last moments of their ill-gotten power to destroy him.

View all my reviews

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Historical writing is a difficult endeavor since it requires rigorous detail integration as well as a special kind of fact-based imagination and faith to bring the full rich, subtle texture of the people, places, and events into full bloom. Laura Hillenbrand's high-fidelity use of language to put the reader in the times could be as good as the David McCullough's, except she has this great power to evoke and connect personally; that served as a conduit between Louis Zamperini and me. She is able to bring specific moments in the life of this remarkable person into sharp poignancy as she recounts his experiences in intimate detail. For example, there's a beautiful passage where the Louis and another castaway were past starvation towards the latter-end of a 47 day journey at sea in a rubber raft where the winds calm and ocean turns to glass. It was in that moment that Louis was filled with such sublime joy and peace as he looked over the ocean and sky even though he had lost almost half his weight and was on the precipice of death. That moment resurfaced later in the tent of a Billy Graham revival as Louis was struggling with hatred and revenge, alcoholism and imminent divorce. This one moment of sublime peace was the miracle that leavened his soul to spring up into a miracle of forgiveness and redemption from the evil visited upon him by nature and by the evil intentions of his prison guards.

There are other harbingers and signals that give added meaning to the events in the book like the train whistle that Louis heard in the prison camp that reminded him of his childhood running away from home in a train, or the scars that accumulated on his body that told the story of his life that would reappear later in the book, or the role of running in Louis's life.

This is a book about physical, emotional, and spiritual endurance that pushed one man to his absolute limits, and ultimately about the real miraculous power of Christ's redeeming atonement to assuage the physical and spiritual evil/dischord that is part of the Human Condition.

View all my reviews
Alexander HamiltonAlexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had this book on my 'to-read' list for a couple of years now. Initially, I was drawn to learn more about this man who was the illegitimate son of a bankrupt farmer living in the culturally rancid West Indies where more slaves were imported than the entire 13 American Colonies combined. To think about what Alexander Hamilton overcame to become the man he was is quite inspirational. He was an autodidact of the classical type who worked with indefatigable passion and expediency. He was courageous on the battlefield, and became the singular friend and confidant of General Washington in the revolution and during the 8 years of Washington’s presidency. In his time of service as the Secretary of Treasury he single-handedly designed and erected the largest branch of the federal government at the time which would, within a generation, place the United States on an economic footing that would rival that of the major world powers and eventually help propel the United States to become the manufacturer and bank of the world. Hamilton was also instrumental, with the help of Madison, in the establishment of our federalist system of government that endured the crucible of the War between the States and has since proven to be one of the most stable, free, and prosperous forms of government of a virtuous people ever created.

It was a bit painful reading about Hamilton’s affair with the unscrupulous Maria Reynolds, but it is also instructive to see how men of such talent and capacity fall from grace—as a caution to others. In the end, Hamilton was undone by a political foe who killed him in cold blood during a duel after Hamilton refused the first shot. It was an amazing life and a personality that was precisely situated to in a key role to midwife the creation of the greatest nation in history, and the last best hope of Man.

View all my reviews

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This first-in-the-series gateway into Robert Jordan's massive imaginary world was interesting with some good characters (that at times may seem a little one-dimentional--especially the female characters). All in all it was very articulate and vividly described. The action sequences seemed a little punctuated and not quite as good as his static descriptions. All in all, I enjoy entering into fiction and exercising my imagination, and this was an plesant way to accomplish that.

A word about Jordan's mythology:

This is a coming-of-age mixed with messianic/demigod-like myth tale. The one problem I have with it being a Christian is that it borrows from Hindu and eastern concepts (e.g., the 'Wheel' of time) as well as greek mythology where gods are no more than extremly powerful men who simply treat non-gods as chess peices for their own leisurly pleasure. This compared to Tolkien's creation myth of the father, Eru Iluvatar, and the singing of the first song that is, although perhaps not explicitly Christian, distinctly drawn from fundamental truths that comprise Christian theology of the creation and fall.

On the other hand, Jordan's Rand al'Thor seems to derive from a mixture savior/demigod theme that perhaps is about as satisfying a mythology for me in comparison as a faded picture of the golden valley is to a stroll through it's trails. If you are going to introduce a supernatural force, then this yin/yang kind of equilibrium just will never do for me. I need a more absolute footing from which my imagination might wonder and hope. I can tell Robert Jordan placed a great deal of thought into the concepts of the Wheel of Time in crafting his savior-tale, but will there be some absolute resolution and a permenant golden valley or gray haven's? What of the conflict of good vs. evil. In Tolkien or even Rowling's Potter we never doubt the supremacy of good over evil. Jordan's themes are circular and cyclical. Like the Hindu swastika or the proverbial snake eating it's tail it turns in on itself and answers the question with an inanimate object that signifies everything and nothing. Will this change--time will tell; or as they say: "The wheel turns as the wheel wills."

View all my reviews

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Where Have all the Good Men Gone?

In response to the Wall Street Journal Article of the same title.

Where have all the Good Men Gone? They go on LDS missions to places like Montana or Nicaragua and then return home as Men to quickly marry and establish strong families while working themselves steadily and solidly into the middle-class. Sadly, all that are left once the liberated career woman discovers that Men do exists are pornographied committment-allergic guys trained by their baby-busting parents to value self-gratification higher than duty and honor. 

This is not surprising when you consider that these liberated women and post-pubescent, pre-adult guys adopt the themes of such ‘important’ films as Pleasantville, American Beauty, and Revolutionary Road that have sprung from their boomer parents, who enjoyed the greatest expansion of liberty and prosperity in history, to well in them the disdain for 'bourgeois' middle-class values that supposedly stifle the spirit while they imbibe the liquor of self-gratification that will never satisfy the thirst. They are as fish without water (to say nothing of bicycles); living asphyxiated lives disconnected from humanity and themselves. 

To further this tragedy, those liberated women who come to understand this important quality of Manhood are often poorly equipped by society with the tools to attract such Men; making fools of themselves by dumbing down while sexing up in a pathetic and un-Womanly ways. Society's answer to such women is a pill and a pamphlet when grace and goodness are the requisite qualities.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review: The Meaning of it All by Richard Feynman

The Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-ScientistThe Meaning Of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist by Richard P. Feynman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this short book about truth, science, religion, values, ethics, and the way of one who seeks out the truth in all nooks wherever it may be found. I have enjoyed Dr. Feynman's wit and irrepressible enthusiasm for understanding the world around himself--including people and society. He presents himself as a non-dogmatic agnostic with clear sympathies (he quotes atheists as well as Catholic Cardinals with whom he agrees on values), but emphasizes the importance of remaining open to surprise and new revelations that may change previously held paradigms. His is an enthusiasm for what really is, and for searching for ever finer sieves with which to filter his understanding and knowledge in order to catch the elusive truths of existence.

Some key points that I sympathized from this book is his emphasis that facts do not and can never produce values. In other words, Science and technical knowledge can never provide humanity with values or duties that are rightly the realm of religion, and metaphysics. This is important since the grand vision of many post-modern progressives is that an elite few in high position can drive society using scientific methods towards human flourishing.

All in all a very good read.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Tolkien in the Land of Heroes

Tolkien in the Land of Heroes : Discovering the Human SpiritTolkien in the Land of Heroes : Discovering the Human Spirit by Anne C. Petty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has been sitting on my nightstand for a couple of months and was a quite enjoyable read for me. It was the subject matter and the critical analysis of the themes and rivulets of thought that comprise Tolkien's literary legendarium that was most interesting to me. The author presents her analysis of the core themes of the fall of humanity, despair, hope, and heroism in the face of unqualified optimism that extends from his legendarium into our modern world. It is also a useful cliff-notes for Tolkien's extensive extra-LOTRs writings found in the Silmarillian that comprise the Creation of the world in the singing of the first song and the discord that some of children of Ilúvatar (Father of All) introduced at the first singing of the song, and how that discord introduced the fall into every strain and tendril of the Music of Life. The author then expounds her impressions and analysis of how the themes of good and evil, hope and despair technology and pristine nature, etc., run throughout Tolkien's grand works, how they may have been interpreted in the days of the two great world wars, and how modern (or post-modern) society has treated these themes in reaction to the longevity of Tolkien's legendarium.

I don't usually read books on literary analysis, but this one was quite good (although some might find the PhD-dissertation style employed by the author a little dry) and was quite inspiring--introducing some new thoughts about the Fall of man, Creation, Hope, and the Human Condition that I hadn't considered before in reading Tolkien's and Lewis's works. I would classify this as one book that rose above escapist leisure and enriched my imagination and understanding, and for that I would say it was worthwhile.

View all my reviews