Friday, April 13, 2012

Steven Pinker: "Wow, How Awesome We Liberal Intellectuals Are!"

Okay, maybe that's not a direct quote.

There aren't many 700-page books I enjoy from beginning to end. Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature was one. Pinker's sweep is impressive, his ability to angle in on the same issue in many ways, his knack for extracting central points from a morass of scholarship, his engagingly accessible but rigorous prose. He is a gifted scholar; his mind scintillates.

But the book also has a comfortable, self-congratulatory tone that leaves me uneasy. By "self-congratulatory" I don't mean that Pinker congratulates himself personally, but rather that he congratulates us -- us Western, highly educated, cosmopolitan liberals, with our broad, sober, rational sense of the world, with our far-reaching sympathies, with our ability to take the long view and to keep human vice in check.

One manifestation of this self-congratulation is how impressed Pinker seems to be that it has been almost seventy years since Europeans and North Americans have killed each other in war by the tens of millions. He calls this "the Long Peace", and he concludes Chapter 5 with the thought that "perhaps, at last, we're learning" to avoid war (p. 294). Credit for the Long Peace, in Pinker's view, goes to liberalism, democracy, "gentle commerce", rising levels of education, and the increasingly open exchange of ideas. The same forces for good also get credit for the "Rights Revolutions": minority rights, women's rights, gay rights, children's rights, and animal rights. The printing press, books, iPhones, university education, hooray! I love all those things too. But it makes me nervous to find myself praising my era above all other eras, my political system above all other political systems, and my types of contribution to society (books, education, technology, communication) as the foundation of all this excellent progress. I wish I could detect any hint of self-suspicious nervousness in Pinker.

Pinker concludes his chapter on the "Better Angels" -- on the sources of all our new peace and rights -- in praise of reason as the best and most dependable source of our progress. He argues that in the past hundred years our ability to think abstractly has risen enormously due to formal schooling, as revealed by massive improvements in people's performance on IQ tests (the Flynn Effect). And this increase in abstract reasoning capacity has, in turn, resulted in immense moral improvement. Men can now imagine much better what it's like to be a woman; white people can imagine what it's like to be black; adults can imagine what it's like to be children. Also, we can reason much better from abstract principles such as "all people are created equal" without being blinded by parochial bunk about the special destiny of our nation, etc. Pinker writes:

The other half of the sanity check is to ask whether our recent ancestors can really be considered to be morally retarded. The answer, I am prepared to argue, is yes. Though they were surely decent people with perfectly functioning brains, the collective moral sophistication of the culture in which they lived was as primitive by modern standards as their mineral spas and patent medicines are by the medical standards of today. Many of their beliefs can be considered not just monstrous but, in a very real sense, stupid. They would not stand up to intellectual scrutiny as being consistent with other values they claimed to hold, and they persisted only because the narrower intellectual spotlight of the day was not routinely shone on them (p. 658).
Parody: Come to Harvard, study with us, and become a moral genius!

Pinker describes empirical evidence for seven connections between abstract reasoning and moral virtue:

(1.) People with higher IQs commit fewer crimes.
(2.) People with higher IQs are more likely to cooperate in "Prisoner's Dilemma" experiments.
(3.) People with higher IQs are more likely to be liberals.
(4.) People with higher IQs are more likely to support economic policies, like free trade, that (Pinker argues) tend to lead to peace between nations.
(5.) Countries whose populace had higher IQs in the 1960s were found in one study to be more likely to have prosperity and democracy in the 1990s.
(6.) Another study found countries with better educated populations to be less likely to enter civil war.
(7.) Another study found that politicians who speak in more nuanced, complex manner are less likely to lead their countries into war.

All these connections are interesting, but I don't see a compelling case here for the power of formal schooling and intellectual thought about moral issues to transform moral morons into better angels. Although Pinker sometimes notes that the studies in question control for confounding factors like income, it is hard to control for all potential confounds, and there are certainly some confounds that leap to mind. Higher IQ, for example, in our society, seems to relate to greater opportunity to advance one's interests other than by criminal means. People with more schooling might also react differently to the situation of being brought into a laboratory and given a Prisoner's Dilemma game; for example, they might be inclined to game the situation at a higher level by cooperating mainly as a means of communicating their cooperative nature to the experimenter. (As a Prisoner's Dilemma subject in a Stanford experiment in the 1980s, I seem to remember choosing to cooperate for exactly this reason.) Etc.

My own research on the moral behavior of ethics professors might be interpreted as evidence against Pinker's thesis. If we're really interested in the effect of intellectual moral reflection on real-world moral behavior, the comparison of ethics professors versus non-ethicist philosophers and other professors is potentially revealing because ethicists and other groups of professors will be similar, overall, in amount of formal schooling and in overall ability at abstract thought. But plausibly, ethics professors will have, on average, devoted considerably more abstract reasoning to moral issues like charitable donation, vegetarianism, and the nature of interpersonal virtue, than non-ethicists will have. And I have consistently found that ethicists behave on average no morally better in such matters than do comparison groups of other professors.

Pinker seems to recognize the potential threat to his thesis from the not-especially-admirable behavior of intellectuals. Unfortunately, he offers no detailed response, saying only:
It's also important to note that [Pinker's hypothesis] is about the influence of rationality -- the level of abstract reasoning in society -- and not about the influence of intellectuals. Intellectuals, in the words of the writer Eric Hoffer, "cannot operate at room temperature." They are excited by daring opinions, clever theories, sweeping ideologies, and utopian visions of the kind that caused so much trouble during the 20th century. The kind of reason that expands moral sensibilities comes not from grand intellectual "systems" but from the exercise of logic, clarity, objectivity, and proportionality. These habits of mind are distributed unevenly across the population at any time, but the Flynn Effect lifts all boats, and so we might expect to see a tide of mini- and micro-enlightenments across elites and ordinary citizens alike.
I find it hard to see the merit in this response. It seems to be simultaneously a kind of self-flattery -- it's the kind of abstract moral and political reasoning that we intellectuals are so good at that generates moral enlightenment -- and a self-flattering moral excuse -- but don't expect us intellectuals to achieve much personal moral progress from our reasoning! We're too hot; we can't operate at room temperature! Take our intellectualist morals, please, our U.S. higher education, our professorial sense of right and wrong; treasure the moral improvements that flow from the formal schooling we provide; but don't expect us to exemplify the moral standards we impart to you.

No, no, it's not that bad. But I do wish that Pinker had worried more that it might be that bad.


D said...

You can see that morals that we don't care much about-- blasphemy, disrespecting parents, etc... --are not the kind of thing we keep statistics on, precisely because we don't care about them. I personally feel that murder rates are more important than blasphemy rates, but I don't think the 10 commandments, for example, agree with me.

Neil said...

There seems something a little contradictory about Pinker's excuse. We intellectuals aren't especially good at reflection because we're too highly excitable. Well, if that's true how does he know it's true, and not a product of excitability? It had better be the case that excitability is not too much of a distorting factor, else we can't discover that excitability is a distorting factor.

But it's not Pinker - whose work is bad history, and that's it major problem - that I want to accuse of being a little contradictory, its you. You write:

As a Prisoner's Dilemma subject in a Stanford experiment in the 1980s, I remember choosing to cooperate for exactly this reason.

Surely you're not entitled to say that. Rather, you seem to remember that you took yourself to cooperate for that reason. Actually, one needn't be Eric Schwitzgebel to be suspicious of the claim. There is plenty of evidence that this is just not the kind of thing we have much insight into in our own case, ES-style scepticism aside.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Neil: Fair enough!

D: Yes, I have the same worry. But like you (I think), my heart's not in it. Murder and women's rights and slavery just seem too important. So I'm not sure what to do with that worry.

scott bakker said...

YOU intellectuals... Tsk-tsk...

I'm reading Haidt's new book at the moment, and it seems to offer a more critical view, one that characterize liberal values in terms of BLINDNESS to the more 'complete' moral palette enjoyed by conservatives. So given a palette of 6 values, Harm, Fairness, Liberty, Sanctity, Authority, Loyalty, liberals apparently primarily identify with the first three, whereas conservatives identify with all 6.

The simplicity of the scheme suggests a fair amount of (inevitable) interpretative shoehorning, but it does have the virtue of transporting the debate to far different ground.

I've actually been pondering and writing about the chasm between intellectual and popular values for a long time (you could say my whole career is premised on it) and I've long since come to the conclusion that much the moral rhetoric you find in academic circles - the humanities in particular - is little more than ingroup boosterism. As I always like to say when I give talks at universities, just because your representations purport to explain the representations of the masses, doesn't mean you don't use them in the same bloody way: to seek ingroup advantage via outgroup derogation.

Kurt Boughan said...

Pinker's book, on your account, sounds like pretty typical elite Boomer self-congratulation and complacency. It'll sell like crazy in Greenwich, Marin, inside the DC beltway, and in similar enclaves of extreme power and privilege. I'll pass.

Anonymous said...

Excellent review. Fair, helpfully critical, and you actually read the book unlike many critics!