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

No comments: