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.

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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.

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