Pinker: “The Moral Sense has done more harm than good”
A quick reflection on the Steven Pinker event that just finished.
He looked great. Sharp pinstripe suit, impressive mane of curly silver hair, and a poppy, as if his message that the world has become more peaceful wasn’t enough.
I was glad to see he struggled ever so slightly with his power point slides, which tempered the ambient envy in the room.
Highlights for me were being reminded of the great Voltaire quote: ”Those who can be made to believe absurdities can be made to commit atrocities.”
I also enjoyed the idea that “violence is now a problem to be solved, not a conquest to be won.”
And I liked the reference to Kant’s essay on Perpetual peace, where he argued that three things would reduce violence: trade, democracy and international community.
Perhaps the best point was his claim – in response to a question about morality not being the cause of reduced violence – that the moral sense has done more harm than good. He backed this by saying that most homicides are justified on moral grounds, and that most aggressors think of their cause as morally justified.
I asked a question, which amounted to: If you define violence as human on human activity, then the argument flows beautifully and your data seems to back it. But if you give a broader definition of violence, including forms of ‘structural violence‘ in social and economic systems, violence against other species in the form of factory farming and violence against nature in the form of environmental degradation, it is not so clear that we have become less violent.
His answer was basically that these things are not really violence as such, and he slightly ridiculed the environmental point by comparing killing somebody to polluting a stream, which is rather different from entire islands disappearing and their population being displaced, or Darfur being the first of many climate change wars.
Had Matthew not asked for questions to be brief, I would have linked my question back to Kant. If you reframe violence not as direct human on human contact, but on the way our exploitative instincts manifest in the economy, towards other species and towards the planet, is it not the case that democracy, trade and international community may be responsible for the increase in violence, of a form that threatens our way of life? This idea of the world as a ‘resource to be used’ rather than something to stand in reciprocal relation toresonates with McGilchrist’s argument about the increasing dominance of a left hemisphere perspective on the world.
But then I listen to myself, and wonder if I am one of those people Pinker was talking about when he said that, for social critics, good news is bad news.
Maybe I am, but if the decline of violence is to be a measure of the success of modernity, as Pinker wants, then surely we need to give it its broadest possible definition?
Is it even possible that our violent impulses are being projected away from each other, and towards impersonal systems and structures that cannot retaliate?