Pinker, Foucault and Progress

Panopticon (1)

As readers may know, a little while back I wrote a piece on Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature a book that tries to make the case that violence has been on a steady decline throughout the modern era. Regardless of tragedies such as the horrendous school shooting at Newtown, Pinker wants to us know that things are not as bad as they might seem, that in the aggregate we live in the least violent society to have ever existed in human history, and that we should be thankful for that.

Pinker’s book is copiously researched and argued, but it leaves one with a host of questions. It is not merely that tragic incidents of violence that we see all around us seem to fly in the face of his argument, it is that his viewpoint, at least for me, always seems to be missing something, to have skipped over some important element that would challenge its premise or undermine its argument, a criticism that Pinker has by some sleight of hand skillfully managed to keep hidden from us.

I think an example of this can be seen in Pinker’s treatment of the decline of torture and fall in the rates of violent crime. Both of these developments, at least in Western countries, are undeniable. The question is how are these declines to be explained.  What puzzled me is that Pinker nowhere even mentions the work of the late philosopher, Michel Foucault,  a man who whatever the flaws and oversimplifications of his arguments, thought long  and hard about the questions of both torture and crime. In fact, Foucault is the scholar whose work is most associated with these questions.  It is a very strange oversight, for Pinker does not bring up Foucault even briefly to dismiss his views.

It seems, I am not the only person who asked this question for on his website addressing frequently asked questions Pinker gives the following explanation for ignoring Foucault:

Questioner: You obviously must discuss Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the book that explains the decline of judicial torture in Europe.

Pinker: Actually, I don’t. Despite being a guru in the modern humanities, Foucault is not the only scholar to have noticed that European states eliminated gruesome punishments, and his theory in particular strikes me as eccentric, tendentious, and poorly argued. See J. G. Merquior “Charting carceral society” in his book Foucault (UC Press, 1985), for a lucid deconstruction.

I wanted to see what this “lucid deconstruction” of Foucault by  Merquior (Pinker is nothing if not clever- Foucault is a patron saint to literary deconstructionist), so I checked it out.

Here is how Merquior introduces Foucault’s Discipline and Punish:

 Foucault once called it ‘my first book’ and not without reason: for it is a serious contender for first place among his books as far as language and structure, style of organization and ordering of parts go. It is not a bit less engrossing than Madness and Civilization, nor less original than the order of things.  Once again Foucault unearths the most unexpected of primary sources; once again his reinterpretation of the historical record is as bold as it is thought provoking.” ( Foucault p. 86)

This is the guy Pinker asks us to turn to for a rebuttal of Foucault?

Merquior does have some very valid arguments to make against Foucault, more on that towards the end, but first the views that Pinker does not discuss- Foucault’s view of the rise of the prison.

The theory that Foucault lays out in his Discipline and Punish which provides a philosophical history of the modern prison is essentially this: The prison emerged in the late 18th and 19th centuries not as a humanitarian project of Enlightenment philosophes, but as a disciplinary apparatus of society in conjunction with other disciplinary institutions- the insane asylum, the workhouse, the factory, the reformatory, the school, and branches of knowledge- psychology, criminology, that had as their end what might be called the domestication of human beings. It might be hard for us to believe but the prison is a very modern institution- not much older than the 19th century. The idea that you should detain people convicted of a crime for long periods perhaps with the hope of “rehabilitating” them just hadn’t crossed anyone’s mind before then. Instead, punishment was almost immediate, whether execution, physical punishment or fines. With the birth of the prison,  gone was the emotive wildness of the prior era- the criminal wracked by sin and tortured for his transgression against his divine creator and human sovereign. In its place rose up the patient, “humane” transformation of the “abnormal”, “deviant” individual into a law and norm abiding member of society.

For Foucault, the culmination of all this, in a philosophical sense, is the Panopticon prison designed by Jeremy Bentham (pictured above). It is a structure that would give prison officials a 24/7 omniscient gaze into the activities of the individual prisoner and at the same time leaves the prisoner completely isolated and atomized. In the panopticon Foucault sees the metaphor for our own homogenizing conformist and totalizing society.

What Foucault succeeded in doing in Discipline and Punish was putting the horrific judicial torture of the pre-Enlightenment era and post-Enlightenment policy of mass imprisonment side-by-side. In doing this he goads us to ask whether the system we have to today is indeed as humane, as enlightened, compared to what came before as we are prone to believe.

This is exactly what Pinker responding to a question on imprisonment does not allow us to do:

Questioner:What about the American imprisonment craze?

Pinker: As unjust as many current American imprisonment practices are, they cannot be compared to the lethal sadism of criminal punishment in earlier centuries

Okay, true enough, but for me, this answer misses the point of the question. The underlying assumption behind the question seems to be “yes, violence might have declined, but isn’t locking up millions of people - six million to be exact – a number larger than those of Stalin’s gulag archipelago, 60 % of whom are there for nonviolent offenses, a form of violence?” Or perhaps “might the decline in violence be the result of mass imprisonment?” Admitting either would force Pinker to accept that the moral progress he details is perhaps not as unequivocal as he wants us to believe.

Here, I think, is where Pinker’s attachment to the Enlightenment idea of progress leads clearly to complacency. Pinker loves graphs, so here’s a graph:

U.S._incarceration_rates_1925_onwards

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_incarceration_rate

It seems frankly obtuse to not connect the decline in crime with the sheer number of people now being locked up. It is tragic, but the connection between rising rates of imprisonment and declining crime rates can be seen even in Pinker’s vaunted Western Europe where the rate of imprisonment rose- though to nothing like the obscene rate it rose in the United States- and the crime rate fell in tandem.

Yet, unless the scale of imprisonment is put in context we are likely to see imprisonment of nonviolent offenders as less than morally problematic, and merely as an unfortunate consequence of the need to protect ourselves from violent crime by throwing the net of criminal justice as wide as it can be thrown, something Pinker seems to do when he states:

A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will net a certain number of violent people as a by-catch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets. (BA 122)

The strange thing here is that the uniquely American practice of locking up every law breaker without distinguishing between the risks posed by the accused is not only clearly disproportional and unjust it has makes no apparent effect on the actual rate of violent crime. The US incarcerates a whopping 743 persons per 100,00 whereas Great Britain lock up 154 per the same amount  and the US still has an intentional homicide rate 4 times higher than in the UK.

By seeing modern history almost exclusively through the lens of moral progress, Pinker blinds himself to the question of whether or not our own age is engaged in practices that a more progressive future will regard with horror.

The question of imprisonment and its relationship to the decline of crime is not the only place where Pinker in his Better Angels of Our Nature dismisses a messy, often harsh, reality in the name of a simplified Enlightenment notion of progress. This can be seen in Pinker’s notions regarding contemporary slavery and war.

In a strange way, Pinker’s insistence that we recognize the reality of moral and social progress might short-circuit our capacity for progress in the future. You can see this in his treatment of “human trafficking” a modern day euphemism for slavery. As always, Pinker wants to let us know that current figures are exaggerated, as always, he reminds us that what we have here is no comparison to the far crueler reality of slavery found in the past. But this viewpoint comes at the cost of continuity. Anti-slavery advocates such as those of the organization Free the Slaves assume a moral continuity between themselves and the earlier abolition movements- and well they should. But Pinker’s rhetoric is less “we have almost reached the summit” than one of undermining the moral worth of their struggle with his damned proportionality- that things are better than ever now because “proportional to world population” not as many people are murdered, die in war, or are enslaved.

Numbers off or not- anywhere even in the ballpark of 25 million slaves today- the high estimate- still constitute an enormous amount of human suffering- such as innumerable rapes, beatings, and forced labor (no doubt Pinker would try to put a number on them)- suffering Pinker does not explore.

What holds for slavery in Better Angels holds for war as well. He is at pains to point out the casualty figures of the most savage conflict of the last generation- a conflict most westerners have probably not even heard about- The Great War of Africa- are grossly exaggerated, that the war only killed 1.5 million- not the 5 million human beings often reported.

Pinker’s right about one thing- wars between the world’s most powerful states have, at least for the moment disappeared.Wars between the great powers have always been the greatest killers in history, and we haven’t had any of those since 1945, and the question is- why? Pinker will not allow the obvious answer to his question, namely, that the post 1945 era is the age of nuclear weapons, that for the first time in history, war between great powers meant inevitable suicide. His evidence against the “nuclear peace” is that more nations have abandoned nuclear weapons programs than have developed such weapons. The fact is perhaps surprising but nonetheless accurate. It becomes a little less surprising, and a little less encouraging in Pinker’s sense, when you actually look at the list of countries who have abandoned them and why. Three of them: Belarus, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine are former Soviet republics and were under enormous Russian and US pressure- not to mention financial incentives- to give up their weapons after the fall of the Soviet Union. Two of them- South Africa and Libya- were attempting to escape the condition of being international pariahs. Another two- Iraq and Syria had their nuclear programs derailed by foreign powers. Three of them: Argentina, Brazil, and Algeria faced no external existential threat that would justify the expense and isolation that would come as a consequence of  their development of nuclear weapons and five others: Egypt, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Germany were woven tightly into the US security umbrella.

Countries that face a perceived existential threat from a nuclear power or conventionally advanced power (and Argentina never faced an existential threat from Great Britain, that is Britain never threatened to conquer the county during the Falklands War) would appear to have a pretty large incentive to develop nuclear weapons insofar as they do not possess strong security guarantees from one of the great powers.

Pinker believes that Kant’s democratic peace theory (that democracies tied together by links of trade and international organization do not fight one another) helps explain the decline of war, but that does not explain why the US and Soviet Union did not go to war or India and Pakistan, or Taiwan and China, or South and North Korea. He pins his hopes on the normative change against nuclear weapons found in a Global Zero a movement that includes an eclectic  group of foreign policy figures including realists such as Henry Kissinger that hopes to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

While I find the goal of a nuclear weapons free world laudable, the problem I see in this is that weaker powers lacking advanced conventional weapons could very well understand this movement as a way for the big powers to preserve the rationality of war. In fact, the worse thing imaginable would be for great power war to regain its plausibility. If the recent success of Israel’s  “Iron Dome” is any indication we may end up there even without the world abandoning its nuclear weapons. Great powers, such as the US and China, may be more likely to engage in brinkmanship if they start to think they could survive a nuclear exchange. Recent confrontations between China and its neighbors and East Asia’s quite disturbing military buildup do not portend well for 21st century pacifism.

Global Zero might with tragic irony prove more dangerous that the current quite messy regime if it is not followed in parallel with an effort to solve the world’s outstanding disputes and to build a post- US- as- sole- superpower security architecture-not to mention efforts to limit conventional weapons which while we were sleeping have become just as deadly as nuclear weapons as well. Where everyone feels safe there is no need for everyone to be armed to the teeth.  

Pinker recoils from messy explanations or morally ambiguous reality because he is wedded to the idea that the decline in violence was driven by a change in norms- a change that he thinks began with the Enlightenment. In his eyes, we are indeed morally superior to our predecessors in that we have a more inclusive and humane moral sense. Pinker turns to the ethical philosopher- Peter Singer- and his idea of the “escalator of reason” for a philosophical explanation of this normative change. Singer thinks that overtime human generations reason their way to inclusiveness and humanity by expanding our “circle of empathy”. Once only one’s close kin sat in the circle of concern, then fellow members of one’s state or faith, now perhaps all of humanity or, as Singer himself is most famous for in his Animal Liberation, the circle can be extended to non-human species.


Singer, however, is an odd duck to peg yourself to as a kind of philosophical backdrop for modern moral progress. A reader of Better Angels who did not know about Singer would be left unaware of just how controversial Singer’s views are. If memory serves me correctly, this fact that his views are something less than mainstream is tucked away in a footnote at the back of Pinker’s book.

Here is Singer from his  Writings on an Ethical Life:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. (189)

I should be clear here that Singer is not talking about abortion, but infanticide, indeed he sees both practices as acceptable and morally equivalent:

That a fetus is known to be disabled is a widely accepted grounds for abortion. Yet in discussing abortion, we saw that birth does not mark a morally significant dividing line.  I can not see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be “replaced” before birth, but newborn infants may not be” (191)

If this is the escalator of reason I want to get off.

Much as with the case with Foucault, Pinker doesn’t spend even a page or two engaging with these ideas. With 802 pages to its name a few more pages would seem a small price to pay, but again they are ignored, perhaps largely because they detract from Pinker’s Enlightenment notions of moral progress. Even briefly grappling with these ideas, for me at least, seems to lead to all sorts of interesting and often quite disturbing possibilities that are outside the simplistic dichotomies of progress and anti-progress set up but Pinker and Foucault.

Our society has certainly made progress morally over past ages in its abolition of torture and slavery, in it’s extension of rights to the formerly oppressed , its inclusion of women in political, economic and intellectual life, its freedom of speech and thought,
not to mention the vast increases in our standards of living,  and yet…

May be our society has not so much progressed morally in the sense of empathy as it has become squeamish about violence, and physical coercion (real violence that is- media and video games seem to reveal an obsessive bloodlust).  What we have done is managed to effectively conceal violence, and wherever possible to have adopted social and psychological methods of manipulation and control- including surveillance- in place of, to use military speak, “kinetic” methods. Our factory farms kill and confine more animals than have ever suffered such a fate- only we never see it. (Perhaps that is part of the explanation for why our urbanizing world has become so squeamish about violence, the fact that so few of us are engaged in the violence against animals found in agricultural life). We do not physically torture but confine and conceal far more persons than were ever caught in the cruel but paltry nets of pre-modern states. Chattel slavery and its savagery are a thing of the past, but what we have now are millions of invisible slaves, kidnapped, locked in houses, people who are our very neighbors suffering the cruel tyranny of one human being over another.


Our wars are fought in regions deemed too dangerous to be covered by mainstream media and our images of them sanitized for prime-time viewing.  Our bloated and growing militaries represent bottled up potential energy that could level whole civilizations, indeed destroy the human species and the earth, should circumstances ever sweep us up and call it to burst forth. Yet, even our soldiers are averse to killing, so we are building machines capable of murdering more effectively and without conscience to replace them.

We do not expose our newborns on the rocks because they are girls or are disabled, but select against them in the womb so that 100 million girls have “gone missing” and whole categories of human beings are disappearing from the world, and some, such as the geneticist Julian Savulescu argue it is our “moral duty” to perform this “redesign” of the human species.

This returns me to the critic Merquior. Merquior makes the valid critique of Foucault that he is a sloppy historian, that he wants history to neatly fit his theory, which history can never do. Above all Merquior sees the flaws in Foucault’s argument stemming from his a prior position that the Enlightenment was less a humanitarian than a proto-totalitarian movement. This makes it impossible for Foucault to see the movement against torture and the creation of the modern prison system as anything more that an expression of a Nietzschean “will to power”.

But Merquior asks:

Why should the historian choose between the angelic image of a demo-liberal bourgeois order, unstained by class domination, and the hellish picture of ubiquitous coercion? Is not the actual historical record a mixed one, showing real libertarian and equalizing trends besides several configurations of class power and coercive cultural traits?  (98)  

Pinker might have done better had he employed Merquior’s critique of Foucault to himself, for, by seeing in modern developments the hand of progress from savagery to civilization, Pinker ends up blinding himself to the more complex historical picture as much as Foucault who saw in modern trends little but the move towards social totalitarianism. Indeed, Pinker could save his Better Angels by adding just one chapter as an afterward. The chapter would look at not where we have come from, but where we are and the struggles still left to us. It would provide a human face to the modern day suffering of those in our progressive age who are still enslaved and who continue to be killed and maimed by war. Those murdered and raped and those suffering behind bars for crimes that have harmed no one but themselves and those who love them. It would be a face Pinker had taken from them by turning them into numbers. It would seek to locate and avoid the many cliffs that might just plunge us downward, and say to all of us “we have just a little ways to go, but for the sake of our own enlightened legacy, we must have the forward thinking and endurance to climb onward, and above all, not to fall.”

* An earlier version of this post was published on December 30, 2011

A Utopian Reading of Pinker’s Better Angels Of Our Nature

Thomas More created the first modern version of an ideal society, giving his work the name that would stick for all such imaginings ever since, Utopia, in the year 1516.
More was an Englishman, and it might be good to gaze for a moment at the conditions for England in that year in order to gain some perspective on the changes that have since taken place.The life expectancy of an individual living in England near the year 1516 was around 38 years. That was, if you could make it to your tenth birthday. For, three out of ten children died before even reaching that age. Indeed, merely surviving up until that point depended on whether your parents had chosen to keep you alive rather than kill you shortly after birth. For, despite the prohibitions of the Church, many infants (we have no idea how many) died at the hands of their own parents who were unable to care for their newborns from either the condition of the newborn herself or the abject poverty of the infant’s family.

Famines had, thankfully, become somewhat less common in the England of the 1500s
than in prior centuries, but the lives of the island’s poorer farmers had not become any easier. The Enclosure movement, which turned England’s subsistence farms into pasture for sheep tossed many of the peasantry out into the world to fend, if they could, for themselves.  Thomas More himself, coming at the issue from a Christian-Humanist perspective, thought enclosure was a humanitarian disaster that drove displaced English peasants into a life of crime driven not by the evils of human nature but by hunger and extreme poverty. An issue he explores in Utopia.

The “criminals” who were caught did not have an easy time of it, and the definition of criminal, in today’s legal jargon, was an “overbroad” term. Persons could be executed not merely for murder, or even rape, robbery, and theft,  but for infractions such as “sodomy, gossiping, stealing cabbages, picking up sticks on the Sabbath, talking back to parents, and criticizing the royal garden”. During the reign of Henry VIII, the portund king who ruled in the time of Thomas More, there were “more than ten executions in London per week”. (Pinker BA 149)

Executions and punishment were not quick affairs either. Here is the punishment for a thief:

Rogues and vagabonds are often stocked and whipped; scolds are ducked upon cucking-stools (a kind of one-person see-saw) in the water. Such felons as stand mute, and speak not at their arraignment, (that is confess) are pressed to death by huge weights laid upon a board, that lieth over their breast, and a sharp stone under their backs
That’s the light stuff, I will spare you the horror show.Disease was an ever present danger as well. The Plague is only the most infamous of the diseases in the early 1500s that prematurely killed countless numbers of people,  which included;  influenza, dysentery, cholera, small pox, and a mysterious disease with the innocuous name of “English Sweat” that started with the chills and killed a person within a day.

Many of these diseases found their vector in the almost non-existent sanitary conditions of the time. Many simply threw their waste, including human waste, out onto the street.

As a further indicator of the general lack of sanitation and personal hygiene,Thomas More’s great friend, Erasmus, wrote one of the first books on manners that commended people urinating in public to face a wall rather than piss into public sight, refrain from licking their food dishes, or wiping their snotty noses onto tablecloths.

The 1500s and 1600s would witness cultural pandemics as well. Witch mania in which would leave up to 80,000 women in Europe dead, a large number by burning. If this was on the one hand a reflection of how horribly off course European religious ideas were moving, it is also gives us a glimpse into just how vulnerable lower-class women, lacking the protections of being the “property” of well-born males, were to the madness of clergy and crowd.

Witch burning, and public executions would pale, however, before the surge of violence of the European Wars of Religion which were just stirring as Thomas More penned his Utopia, the bloody conflict between the Catholic Church and the new Protestant groups that were sprouting up all over Europe. We would not see casualty rates like this again until the Second World War with perhaps over 5 million killed. The culmination of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in England with the English Civil War (1642-1651) would kill a larger proportion of British citizens than World War I. (Pinker BA 142). These wars had a nationalistic or “nation-building” aspect as well, the prelude to the English Civil War was The Bishop’s War (1639-1640) a conflict that forcefully wed Scotland to England.

Thomas More himself would be caught up in the fanaticism of the European Religious Wars in many way abandoning the Christian-humanism that had informed his Utopia, for what some might call an extremist defense of Catholicism. For this, he paid with his life after having resisted the move by Henry VIII to declare himself head of the Church in England.  More was fortunately not killed in the typical way persons accused of treason were treated ,which would have been to be hung till near death, his body taken down and fastened to horses, to be pulled at until he was ripped into pieces. Rather, the executioner merely cut off his head.

If we had a time machine and brought Thomas More to England in the year 2012- almost 500 years after he wrote Utopia what would he see?

The life expectancy for an English male is now a little more than double what it was in 1516- 78 years (for women it is 82). A disturbing number, 36, infants are killed by their parents in England each year around, but we have every reason to suspect that this is not even near the number of infanticides per day in 1516.  The last peacetime famine in England proper was 1634. The last devastating pandemic was in 1918. The last act of capital punishment was in 1969. The last “witch” executed in 1684.
Today, according to British standards, the minimum provision of sanitary appliances for a private dwelling is: “One toilet for up to four people, two toilets for five people or more, a washbasin in or adjacent to every toilet, one bath or shower for up to four
people, one kitchen sink.”

The distinction in English attitudes to religion between the days of Thomas More and today can be seen in a great blog by a young ex-fundamentalist Christian, Jonny Scaramanga, called Leaving Fundamentalism which points out many of the absurdities of fundamentalism. In 1516, Jonny wouldn’t have lasted a day.

Of course, within the lifetime of people still living we did have The Second World War, which proportionally killed as many Europeans as the Wars of Religion, but we have seen nothing like it since. The very idea that Great Britain would fight another such conflict, especially against other European powers, within our lifetime, those of our children, or even the generation after them, seems, in a way it never has been before, ludicrous. Indeed, even in terms of nationalism we certainly live in a different age. Scotland looks likely to soon hold a referendum on independence from Great Britain, and absolutely no one thinks a verdict in favor of the Scotts going their own way will lead to civil war.

In other words, our time traveling Thomas More, were he to set foot in the England of today, would very likely think he had stepped into Utopia.

The side of this argument that takes note of the remarkable decline of violence in the modern era from the near end of judicial torture, of religious persecution, of slavery, of infanticide, of wife and children beating, of the use of the coercive power of the state to enforce moral norms (homosexuality, adultery), of the gratuitous abuse of animals, of genocide and politicide practiced by the big advanced powers, and the seeming disappearance of the willingness of those powers to go to war with one another is something meticulously laid out by Steven Pinker in his The Better Angels of Our Nature.  In part Pinker credits, or characterizes, this decline of violence to an expansion of human beings’ “circle of empathy”, an idea he borrows from the philosopher Peter Singer. Over time we have come to extend the kind of compassion human beings are naturally geared for, largely towards members of of own family or tribe, to other human beings, and even other animals.

Elsewhere I will offer an alternative reading of Pinker’s argument that sees these developments much less brightly than he does. For now, I will merely accept them as fact and turn my attention to Pinker’s attitude towards what I have called elsewhere “the utopian tradition”. For Pinker sees in utopia a major source of past violence, and as a consequence misses the very real and positive role the utopian imagination played in getting us to the conditions of today he so praises.

In setting out to identify both the reason the first half of the 20th century was so violent, and why, the world since has been so much less so, Pinker identifies a culprit in the rise and fall in the idea of utopia.

Why does the idea of utopia lead to violence?

“In utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite”.  The scale of such a promise leads to an abandonment of any limit on the price to be paid for utopia , especially in terms of the lives of others. Pinker: “How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.” (BA 328)

Another way in which Pinker thinks utopia inspires violence because those who oppose such an infinite good can only be motivated by its opposite- absolute evil. Pinker: “They are the only things standing in the way of a plan that could lead to infinite goodness. You do the math.”

In the mind of Pinker, utopian ideas also lead to genocide because they need to force people into a strictly laid plan:

“In utopia, everything is there for a reason. What about the people? Well groups of people are diverse. Some of them stubbornly, perhaps essentially, cling to values that are out of place in a perfect world…. “If you are designing a perfect society on a clean sheet of paper, why not write these eyesores out of the plan from the start”. (BA 329)

Pinker loves citations, and seemingly every paragraph in his 802 page Better Angels  has at least one. Except, that is, for these paragraphs, so I am not sure where Pinker is getting his version of the utopian mindset he finds so dangerous. Instead he turns to the a work by Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur. Seemingly on the basis of that work, Pinker claims of utopian ideologies: “Time and again, they hark back to a vanished agrarian paradise, which they seek to restore to a healthful substitute for the prevailing urban decadence”. He contrasts these utopian purists to the “intellectual bazaar of cosmopolitan cities” from which grew the implicitly non-utopian, healthy and rational ideas of the Enlightenment. (BA 329).

This theory of the agrarian-utopians vs the cosmopolitan-rationalists seems to make a lot of sense, nevertheless it is wrong. If any revolution was the Enlightenment’s revolution it was the American, and many of America’s Enlightenment heavy weights spoke against the “vices” of the city and the “virtue” of the countryside. Jefferson is best known for this, but an Enlightenment thinker Pinker appears to admire even more- James Madison- was an agro-phile as well. Here’s Madison:

“Tis not the country that peoples either the Bridewells or the Bedlams. These mansions of wretchedness are tenanted from the distresses and vices of overgrown cities” (If Men were Angels p. 90).

Pinker is certainly right in asserting that a certain group of utopian ideologies: French Revolutionaries, Soviet Communists, Maoists in China and elsewhere, and Islamic Jihadists are a group with an incalculable amount of blood on their hands. He uses a  quote from the most blood-soaked of the French Revolutionaries as evidence that the crimes of utopians arise from their denial of human nature.

Robespierre: “The French people seem to have outstripped the rest of humanity by two thousand years; one might be tempted to regard them, living amongst them, as a different species”. (BA 186)

Yet, what is revealing to me about this quote is not its supposed denial of human nature as its clear indication that underneath Robespierre’s utopian ideology lay an idea of universal history. That is, he thought himself and his fellow revolutionaries were the people of the future, that this was ultimately where history was taking the human race, the French had just gotten there first.

And, when you look at it that way you see that all of Pinker’s bloodsoaked utopian ideologies were determinist theories of history in one way or another French Revolutionaries, yes, but also Nazis with their theory of history as a Darwinian struggle, and Soviet Communists, and Maoists with their ideas of history as a class war, and Jihadists along with Christian millennialist both of whom see history moving us towards a divine showdown.

But wait a second, isn’t Pinker’s own theory a determinist theory of history? Not if one takes his hedging at face value, but Kant’s theory which serves as a foundation of Pinker’s ideas certainly was one. Yet, neither Kant’s nor Pinker’s theories really build a positive role for violence in the movement of history. Certainly this must be the main thing: ideas that give rise to extreme violence tend to be theories of history that look at violence as somehow deeply embedded in the unfolding of history. Though, even here we need to be historically careful, for the American Civil War which resulted in abolition was itself infused with a millenarian based violence, so there is more to the story than meets the eye.

Pinker’s belief that utopian ideas are primarily a source of ideologically based violence blinds him to the way in which the idea of utopia helped move his humanitarian revolutions along. The list below is not meant to be comprehensive, and though each of these works or communities have deep flaws, when viewed from a modern perspective they no doubt helped moves things step-by-step forward to the place we are today:

Plato, The Republic: Often today viewed as a source of totalitarianism (more on that in a minute) A large part of The Republic is devoted to limiting the horrors of war- including the horrors of genocide, rape, and enslavement. The book also made the case for the political equality of women.

Thomas More, Utopia (1516): Religious tolerance: rather than heretics being killed even atheists are tolerated and encouraged to talk out their ideas. Violence: In More’s Utopia slavery is legal, but one should remember how why these slaves exists- that Utopia tries to avoid killing its enemies in war, and no longer executes common criminals. More’s use of his Utopia to criticize the inhumanity of the Enclosure movement was discussed above.

Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (1627): Imagined a society in which the general welfare of all would be raised by the application of the nascent scientific method.

Gabriel Plattes, A Description of the Famous Kingdom of Marciana (1641): Public health: “for they have an house or College of Experience where they deliver out yearly such medicines as they find out by experience and all such as shall be able to demonstrate any experiment for the health or wealth of men are honourably rewarded at the publick charge by which their skill in husbandy physick and surgery is most excellent”.

Margaret Cavendish, A Blazing World (1666): Womens’ rights, animal rights, and perhaps the first person to argue against the use of animals in scientific testing.

The Commowealth of Pennsylvania (1681): Religious Tolerance: In the 1700s no American colony so captured the European longing for utopia and paradise than my home state of Pennsylvania of which Voltaire said: ” So, William Penn might be said to have brought back the Golden Age which never existed save in Pennsylvania.”

Mary Astell,  A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694): Women’s rights, famous for her quote: “If all men are born free, how is it that all women are born slaves?”

David Hume, Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth (1742): The classical liberal’s utopian: separation of powers, extension of the franchise to all of the propertied, decentralization, separation of church and state.

Sarah Scott,  A Description of Millenium Hall and the Country Adjacent (1762): Women’s rights, universal education, and liberal economic equality.

Immanuel Kant, On Perpetual Peace (1802): Another classical liberal’s utopian: How the expansion of representative democracy, trade, and international law might result in the disappearance of war from human history.

Anonymous: Equality: a history of Lithconia (1802): Retirement, old age pensions.

Robert Owen’s Community at New Harmony (1824): In the midst of the horrendous working conditions of the early industrial revolution, Owen established experimental communities that tried to improve the general conditions of workers.

Northampton Association’s Abolitionist Utopia (1842): In 1842, a group of radical abolitionists and social reformers established the Northampton Association of Education and Industry, a utopian community in western Massachusetts organized around a collectively owned and operated silk mill. Members sought to challenge the prevailing social attitudes of their day by creating a society in which “the rights of all are equal without distinction of sex, color or condition, sect or religion.”

John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy 3rd Edition (1852): Usually considered among the classical liberals, Mill postulates here an end to the logic of endless economic growth instead giving way to concentration of human beings moral and intellectual growth.

Jean-Baptiste Andre-Godin’s Phalanstery for Workers Families (1871): Another utopian experiment in ways to alleviate the miserable conditions of industrial workers.

H.G. Wells, A Modern Utopia (1905): Equal rights for women. Animal rights.

Aldous Huxley, Island (1962): Sexual liberation. Decriminalization of drug use.

The Civil Rights Movement 1960s: The Civil Rights Movement grew directly out three utopian claims. The first an Enlightenment claim of human equality, the second a Christian-millennialist claim of an age of universal brotherhood “I have a dream”,
and lastly the utopian aspirations of non-violence found in Ghandi.

1960’s Communes, Anti-War, and the birth of the Internet: The commune movement of the 1960s may seem in retrospect silly, and much of it was, but it did have some positive effects: it was part of the larger anti-war movement that put a premium on non-violence “all you need is love”, and many of its members went on to create what they thought would be the next liberating technology- the Internet.

Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia: The Notebooks and Reports of William Weston (1975): Biodiversity: An increased status for natural animals, plants, and ecosystems.

So, if the utopian tradition played such an obvious role in the expansion of Pinker’s (and Singer’s) circle of empathy, indeed, if it played such an obvious role in the other utopian trends seen in modern life, how does Pinker miss it? My guess, is that his views have been biased by the work of two influential authors on the subject of utopia, the historian, Karl Popper, and Pinker himself.

Karl Popper was just the most prominent of scholars after the Second World War who in trying to understand what went wrong laid their finger on utopia. In his, Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper especially indicted Plato, Hegel, and Marx as three figures who had lead the world down a dangerous path to believing that utopian projects could be brought into reality, and that this had resulted in the great bloodshed of the 20th century.

Popper was reasonably reacting against what is called “The Authoritarian High Tide of Modernism”, which included among other things the belief by intellectuals that society could be re-engineered in whatever way they deemed. Popper wanted policy makers to adopt instead the viewpoint of “piecemeal social engineering” rather than think society’s problems might be fixed all at one go. Nothing wrong with that. The problem is more one of association. By bringing Plato, who had merely imagined an alternative society to his own, and by reading him out of his historical context with the eyes of a modern liberal whose society had morally and intellectually evolved by leaps and bounds over the world in the times of Plato- Popper seemed to indict the utopian tradition in its entirety.

Popper’s association of the attempt to redesign society whole cloth with inevitable violence is blind to the reality of what almost all real world utopias were- small scale experiments that grew out of the political, economic, and social problems of their day that while they almost universally would ultimately fail- killed no one, insofar as one makes exceptions for those few cases where the “utopia” in question was in reality a religious or New Age cult.

Just how far this downgrading of utopia has gone is reflected in the conservative writer, Mark Levin’s recent best selling book, Ameritopia, where Levin uses Popper’s mis-association of utopia with mass murder, to indict accomplishments in Western societies that utopian movements were often in the forefront of, such as old age pensions (Social Security), and government funded health care.

Still, if Popper was one of the influences that lead Pinker to his misreading of utopia there is also the influence of Pinker upon himself. Better Angels of Our Nature should be read in conjunction with his earlier book The Blank Slate to best understand where Pinker is coming from.

In The Blank Slate Pinker was responding to two phenomena in American academia in the 1990’s, the first was political correctness, and the second was the resistance to, or even the unwillingness to engage with, the rising fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology by many members of the academy.

I was a college student in the 1990s, so I know what Pinker means by political correctness. There was a general sense that any willingness to engage with conservative ideas or traditional morality somehow tainted one in the eyes of professors as a closet fascists, racists, misogynist, or homophobe. I think the reason for this is that many participants in the revolutionary 1960’s, unable to really change American society through the government, found themselves in the academy, something that encouraged groupthink, and given the resurgence of conservatism in the larger American society at the time led to a sense of siege that left made academics particularly prickly whenever such ideas found were expressed by students. Both the retirement of this generation of professors, and the obvious traction their ideas now have in the larger society seem likely to end this state of affairs.

But the primary thing Pinker is out to defend in his Blank Slate is the attitude towards the resurgence of the  human sciences of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology a
resurgence that began with the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology the New Synthesis in 1975. Academics, most notably the late Stephen Jay Gould were particularly concerned with any attempts to explain human nature in terms of evolution, both because it appeared to justify an oppressive status quo and because of the association of these ideas with both past US racism, and the genocidal nature of the Nazi regime, an argument Gould and others made in their 1975 essay, Against Sociobiology.  

This overreaction to Wilson is understandable given the historical context- it was, after all, only 30 years since the defeat of the Nazis, and less than that from the victories of both the Civil and the Woman’s’ Rights Movement. Again, time seems to have ironed out these differences and sociobiology and evolutionary psychology have joined the rank of mundane social sciences- though in some sense the dystopian anxieties of Gould and others regarding these fields might ultimately prove to have some basis.

Pinker, in some ways correctly, associates utopia with the idea of the human mind and character as a blank slate, and sets out in his work of the same title to disprove that view of human nature. Pinker divides the intellectual world into two camps- those with what he calls a “Tragic Vision” which is conservative and sees human nature as largely unchangeable and those with a “Utopian Vision” who see human nature as a “blank slate” upon which what humans are can be redefined. He himself thinks that science backs up the Tragic Vision, and therefore sides with it, writing:

“My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life.” (BS 294)
The problem here is on the one hand the seeming incongruence with the argument Pinker lays out in his Better Angels, that human society had progressed away from violence and discrimination in the modern era;  far too short for any evolutionary changes to human beings to have truly taken place, and in seeming contradiction to every existent human society that had come before. Indeed, what Pinker sees as the false science based on the idea of the mind as a blank slate may have been wrong, but, nevertheless, was an an assumption behind many of the factors Pinker credits with leading to our current era of non-violence including universal education, non-coercive methods of child rearing, equal rights for women etc.The “new human sciences” might tell us what human nature is, but they can’t really define what human societies can or should be like. Much of the utopian tradition might be seen as both speculative and small scale experiments to explore how far the gap between what human beings are, and what they wish to be, can be extended outward. And in part we have that tradition to thank in breaking the bonds of the Tragic Vision of human nature and society and leading us to the much better society we have today, that Pinker has drawn our attention to.

Still, if Pinker’s Better Angels can be read from this utopian standpoint it be approached from a dystopian viewpoint as well. My subject next time….

 

 

Kant’s Utopian Daydream

I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.
I know what you’re thinking, but Pinker should not be dismissed as just another Dr. Pangloss preaching that we live “in the best of all possible worlds”. The sheer volume of statistics, and studies ,and stories, Pinker brings together make a strong case that the world has become progressively less violent, though it is a case that does indeed have some holes. It will be best then to deal with his argument in digestible pieces rather than all in one gulp, something I will try to do in a series of installments.

But not in this post, for Pinker has managed to get me sidetracked by drawing my attention to the writings of Immanuel Kant, a philosophical giant who never left his native city of Koenigsberg, but whose imagination stretched out to embrace not just deep questions on the nature of thought and ethics, which I knew, but the history and fate of the species, and indeed the state and future of intelligence in the universe, something I did not.

I can vividly remember, many moons ago now, attending a philosophy class as an undergraduate with the professor trying to explain Kant’s noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance) with the vague feeling coming over me that my head was about to explode. Those ideas from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his famous guide to ethical behavior, the categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” were basically all I remembered of old Meister Kant.

Pinker’s fascinating argument, however, made me want to take a second look. Better Angels of our Nature, talks extensively about Kant’s essay On Perpetual Peace, but I became more interested in an essay of Kant’s Pinker mentions, but discusses much less,an essay entitled: Idea of a Universal History from A Cosmopolitical Point of View. (Except for Nietzsche, German philosophers are never easy on the ears.) Kant sets his sights pretty high in this essay where he explores whether, in the seemingly senseless tumult of human history, some pattern or purpose can be seen.

Like in his other works, Kant sets his argument in a series of propositions.  These propositions essentially give us his idea of progress, an 18th century idea that the human species had entered a new and brighter phase of history, an “enlightenment” after the cave- black barbarism of the “dark ages. “

What I found so interesting about Kant’s idea of progress in this essay was the way he seems to be groping towards ideas about human potential, the evolution of mind, the trajectory of human history, and even the possibilities of intelligence in the universe beyond the earth that we can, two centuries later, see much more clearly. These were ideas that could only be put into what we would recognize as a modern context by the theory of evolution, something that would have to wait 64 years into until Darwin published his Origin of Species.

Kant speculates that any creature will move towards the full manifestation of its potential, and that the full potential of all creatures are destined to be reached at least  over the long arc of time.  For human beings, this potential is definitively historical in that every generation builds on the accomplishments of the one before, so that the possibility space of human potential expands with each new person born into the world. (First and Second Propositions) .

These ideas are remarkably similar to Kevin Kelly’s idea of the relationship between human beings and the expanding possibilities opened up by technology found in his book What Technology Wants. For example, Kelly thinks that only a certain level of technological development in musical instruments could have allowed a genius like Mozart to achieve his full potential.  In Kelly’s religiously inspired view, God desires for there to exist the maximum number of perspectives and intelligences, who in turn realize their potential, and therefore constitute a reflection of God’s own divine intelligence.

They also echo the explorations of two fellow bloggers whose work I really love both of whom, from quite different perspectives, attempt to understand the evolution of human consciousness and spirituality in light of the findings of modern science and what it has told us about our place in the universe. These bloggers are John Hyland who writes the blog, John’s Consciousnessand James Cross who writes at Broad Speculations.   Check them out.

To return to Kant, in The Third and Fourth Propositions Kant reflects on how humankind had uniquely been granted almost nothing by nature except raw intelligence, and therefore, had to develop all of its capacities from their own powers of reason.  As mentioned earlier, Kant has no knowledge of the theory of evolution, though what he’s talking about in modern parlance is something we would probably call cultural evolution. And much like evolution in the biological sense, he sees innovation caused by both environmental pressures against which human beings have no natural protection, and competition for scarce resources, especially between human beings themselves. Kant deliciously calls this natural competition human beings’ “unsocial sociability”.  Humans have both a deep need to be social and the need to be separate and provide for themselves. They naturally compete with one another, and if they did not humankind would have found themselves stuck in a kind of effortless paradise reminiscent of the Eloi of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine or the Greek poet, Hesiod’s, Golden Age.  Kant writes:

Without those qualities of an unsocial kind out of which this Antagonism arises which viewed by themselves are certainly not amiable but which everyone must necessarily find in the movements of his own selfish propensities men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony contentment and mutual love but in that case all their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ. As gentle as the sheep they tended such men would hardly have won for their existence a higher worth than belonged to their domesticated cattle they would not have filled up with their rational nature the void remaining in the Creation in respect of its final End.

Like other social contract theorists Kant thinks humankind’s natural antagonism leads to the creation of a coercive state which eventually gives way to mutually recognized law. The reason for the creation of a coercive state is that man as an animal needs a “master”, but this need for a master can not ultimately be fulfilled by other human beings because these “masters” are other animals as well. The answer is for human beings to place themselves under the rule of Law. For, to be ruled by Law is at one and the same time to be ruled by both an product of human intelligence and something that does not share in their animal nature.

As was the case for Hobbes, states, in Kant’s scheme, exist in a condition analogous to individuals before a the state has come into being. That is, in a condition of extreme and often violent competition. The solution Kant sees to this would be an international institution under which the world’s of representative democracies would voluntarily place themselves under in effect constraining their sovereignty with the limits of international law. An issue he more fully explores in On Perpetual Peace.

Here Kant gets interesting for he is indeed serious when he uses the phrase “cosmopolitical” in the title to his essay. The scope of his speculation expands beyond the earth and humankind to other worlds and different intelligent species. In a fascinating footnote he writes of alien worlds:

The part that has to be played by man is therefore a very artificial one. We do not know how it may be with the inhabitants of other planets or what are the conditions of their nature but if we execute well the commission of Nature we may certainly flatter ourselves to the extent of claiming a not insignificant rank among our neighbours in the universe. It may perhaps be the case that in those other planets every individual completely attains his destination in this life .With us it is otherwise only the species can hope for this.

I find this quote interesting for several reasons. For one, it seems we, or our children, will likely be the very first generation in human history to discover life elsewhere in the Milky Way. And not just bacteria, but fully developed biospheres like our own earth. People often wonder how this will affect humanity’s idea of itself, and it is a helpful reminder that for a long stretch of time after Galileo discovered “other-worlds” orbiting Jupiter, many people actually accepted, and expected , other fully developed sister-earths to exist and eventually be found. It wasn’t until telescopes were improved and long after probes sent out into space that we realized our own solar system was largely dead, and our living planet unique. In fact, the Church’s struggle with Galileo may have been much more about this implication of other earths being out than it was about any contradiction with scripture. If anyone knows of any books looking at Galileo from this angle, please share.

Kant also seems to be suggesting that human beings are collective in their intelligence in a way other species need not be, though I have no idea how to understand this without adopting the position that Kant was somehow blinded by his lack of knowledge regarding evolution- unable as I am to imagine any form of true intelligence that was truly fully formed to begin with and not the product of prior events or social in nature. Unless, that is, if he is thinking about the kinds of imagined intelligence found in immortals.

In his ninth and final proposition Kant seems to sum the whole thing up:

Much more than all this is attained by the idea of Human History viewed as founded upon the assumption of a universal plan in Nature. For this idea gives us a new ground of hope as it opens up to us a consoling view of the future in which the human species is represented in the far distance as having at last worked itself up to a condition in which all the germs implanted in it by Nature may be fully developed and its destination here on earth fulfilled.

In other words, Kant dreams that we will someday arrive in utopia, our potential fulfilled, our worst characteristics reformed.

There are intimations here not just of Kevin Kelly, and my fellow bloggers, but of Hegel, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Condorcet, and Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Wright, and Ray Kurzweil, and now, as I started this post, with Steven Pinker.

But here is where I have a bone to pick with Pinker who uses Kant as a launching point for his own progressive view of human history. For, the assumption found throughout Better Angels of Our Nature is that he (Pinker) and the and other prophet of progress who share his liberalism do real history, have a handle on reality, and are free from dangerous assumptions, while those “other guys”, the prophets of progress that he deems il-liberal, such as Marx or the French Revolutionaries, among others do “utopia”,  imagine a world which never was and can never be, and by even attempting to make it so show themselves to be lunatic, dangerous. But there is something not quite right about this view of ,and so, it is will be to this selective anti-utopianism on the part of Pinker that I will turn next time…