Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Steven Pinker's Statist Gospel

Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who has said that he never “outgrew my conversion to atheism at thirteen,” has written a theodicy – a tract intended to validate the redemptive power of the Leviathan State. In his new book The Better Angelsof Our Nature, Pinker insists that humanity has “evolved to become less violent” through the ministry of elites who employ the State to evangelize on behalf of what he calls “enlightenment humanism.” 

According to Pinker, since the emergence of the modern secular state in the 18th century there has been a dramatic decline in primitive expressions of aggressive violence. People who live in contemporary developed societies “no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery; divinely commanded genocide; lethal circuses and tournaments; punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs; decapitation for not bearing a son; disembowelment for having dated a royal; pistol duels to defend their honor … or the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself,” Pinker asserts. 

The precipitous decline in private violence, which Pinker heralds as “the most important thing that has ever happened in human history,” is a triumph of the “social contract,” an arrangement in which political government asserts a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force. By over-awing those inclined toward individual acts of violence, the State supposedly suppresses “demonic” impulses – such as greed and sadism – while emancipating the “better angels of our nature” – empathy, self-discipline, and peaceful cooperation.

"Oh Divine State, protect us from the unenlightened...."
 As is the case with most religious doctrines, Pinker’s theology of the divine State is built on a paradox – in this case the idea that the human tendency toward violence can be eradicated through the scientific application of the same by enlightened people who have supposedly transcended such primitive impulses. 

Given that Pinker is one of the leading exponents of the “box with wires” view of the human brain, there is also a rich vein of irony in Pinker’s unabashed use of the terms “demons” and “angels” in describing a conflict over competing visions of morality. 

In an interview given more than a decade ago, Pinker described human beings as “nothing more than a collection of ricocheting molecules in the head.” Like others who subscribe to that view, Pinker has yet to submit a schematic explaining how morality is produced through molecular reactions. And like theologians from other traditions, Pinker is content to leave such matters undisturbed in the unfathomable depths of mystery. This would be a perfectly acceptable arrangement – were it not for the fact that Pinker, like fundamentalists from other traditions, embraces the use of sanctified coercion as a means of purifying those less enlightened than he.

As a child, Pinker, says, he thought as a child, embracing anarchism at about the same time he converted to atheism. But as an adult, he has put away childish things: “I was a Rousseauan then; now I’m a Hobbesian.” What this means in practice is that he merely abandoned one sect of totalitarian statism for another.

Rousseau, it should be remembered, was  was the author of what he called "The Civil Religion" — a doctrine that would enable the masses, in Rousseau's phrase, to "bear with docility the yoke of the public good." 

The most important article of Rousseau's Civil Religion was the absolute divinity of the State; the gravest transgression was "intolerance," which was regarded as evil not because it injured the rights of individuals, but because it challenged the State's authority.

According to Rousseau, the ideal social arrangement would be a "form of theocracy, in which there can be no pontiff save the prince, and no priests save the magistrates.... [W]hoever dares to say, 'Outside the church is no salvation,' ought to be driven from the State, unless the State is the Church, and the prince the pontiff."

The State would make belief in its dogmas compulsory, even as it denied it was doing so: "While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the state anyone who does not believe them…..” Apostasy would be a capital offense: "If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death -- he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law."

Rousseau believed that man --until corrupted by traditional institutions -- was intrinsically good. Thomas Hobbes – not to put too fine a point on the matter – didn’t share that opinion. He did agree that the State, as the embodiment of what could be called the “general will,” should combine the civil and ecclesial functions and exercise unlimited power to regiment the lives of its subjects. The objective wouldn’t be to save people’s souls, or elevate their morals, but merely to impose order.

Pinker claims to be “eclectically, non-dogmatically libertarian” in his political outlook. Given his unbuttoned embrace of Hobbesian absolutism, that’s a bit like claiming to be an “eclectic, non-dogmatic vegan” while subsisting on a diet of steak tartare.  

Although Pinker began his academic career in a Montreal counter-cultural milieu “dominated by hippies ... and US draft dodgers,” he has endorsed the exercise in State-inflicted violence called the “War on Drugs” in terms that would earn Hobbes’s approval:  “A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will get a certain number of violent people as a by-catch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets.”  

This process involves filling the streets with State-licensed “violent people” in military attire, and granting them a plenary indulgence to loot and terrorize the public. The “by-catch” gathered by thegovernment’s trawling net includes perfectly innocent people. But it is not our place to question the inscrutable wisdom of the divine State, which causes the pain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike.

Leviathan's "by-catch": A 71-year-old victim of a wrong-door drug raid.
 There is also the matter of quo warranto: By what authority does the State assault and imprison people who peacefully ingest mind-altering substances? 

This is where Pinker’s Rousseauist background comes into play: It’s not necessary for subjects to understand the logic of the State’s decrees; they simply must have faith in its bottomless competence and unalloyed goodness – or suffer the penalty for their apostasy. 

All religious belief requires the acceptance “of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Pinker’s dogma requires that we ignore the evidence of things that are clearly visible in order to embrace his vision of something yet to materialize. The most compelling argument against Pinker’s claim that humanity has evolved beyond violence is the systematic slaughter during the 20th Century of at least 170 million people by governments claiming and enforcing a monopoly on the “legitimate” use of force

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker – to his credit – does recognize R.J. Rummel’s pioneering research into the phenomenon of "democide." Given the body count compiled through war and politicized mass murder during the 20th century, and the persistent bloodshed in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, the idea that humanity has progressed beyond violence “seems illogical and obscene,” Pinker admits. This is something else we simply have to take on faith as well, it appears. 

The rampages carried out by totalitarian states were a tragic prelude to the “Long Peace” that has prevailed since WWII, Pinker insists. We’ve reached a point at which mass violence only among those sub-populations that have resisted signing on to a “social contract that [gives] government a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence.” That heathen population, he points out, includes Americans who reside in the southern and western states, where people “retain the right to bear arms [and] believe it is their responsibility, not the government’s, to deter harm-doers.” This means that “private citizens, flush with self-serving biases, [can act] as judge, jury, and executioner….”

Of all the impious nerve! Such power can only be exercised by those duly anointed as emissaries of the divine State – beginning with the Exalted One in the Oval Office, who commands the power to imprison, torture, or execute anybody  on the face of the planet. 

In a 2007 TED lecture, Dr. Pinker urged Leviathan’s subjects to count their blessings: A mere century ago, he pointed out, some of them may have been “burned at the stake for criticizing the king, after a trial that maybe lasted ten minutes.” Today, by way of contrast, a U.S. citizen who condemns Washington’s imperial aggression can be summarily executed by way of a drone-fired missile without the benefit of a trial. The latter approach is acceptable to at least some people of Pinker’s persuasion because the State’s priestly caste possesses the mystical power to transubstantiate violence into “policy.” 

Although he followed a different vector, Steven Pinker, a proudly irreligious cultural Jew, has arrived at the same destination as the reactionary 18th Century Catholic writer Joseph de Maistre, who insisted that "all greatness, all power, all social order depends on the executioner; he is the terror of human society and tie that holds it together. Take away this incontrovertible force from the world, and at that very moment order is superseded by chaos, thrones fall, society disappears." While Dr. Pinker criticizes the death penalty, his view of social order ultimately rests on the supposed authority of State functionaries to kill those who refuse to submit to them.

The modern material and ethical progress Pinker properly celebrates are not the product of State coercion. They are the result of private, mutually beneficial action based on reciprocal respect for individual rights -- in other words, the application of the Golden Rule, which Pinker acknowledges in passing while pointedly ignoring uncomfortable questions about its provenance and most notable Exponent

To use Pinker's categories: The impulses unleashed by the State are demonic, not angelic. 

Your donations to keep Pro Libertate on-line are much-needed, and very much appreciated! God bless. 

Dum spiro, pugno!


Doc Ellis 124 said...

no need to post

Greetings Will


Thank you for writing this

Doc Ellis 124

no need to post

james said...

Great article, William. Thank you.

Pinker's delusion is all too plain to see. Or is it simply 'business' with him?

Anonymous said...

I've never been anything but an atheist, and yet I don't have any trouble perceiving the objective moral ethics of natural rights. Having studied the works of most major religious teachers (Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, etc.) I find that much of what they taught doesn't require belief in the supernatural. One finds heaven on Earth through the ultimate individual expression of forgiveness and letting go of attachment.

Hans Herman-Hoppes work in which he shows the undeniable fact of self-ownership needs to be conveyed to the state-worshiping, collectivist atheists (like those who raised me) as their views are irrational and dangerous.

Bob said...

Another well-written post, Will!

WorBlux said...

Herman-Hoppe's systemitization isn't as good or as Lysander Spooner's, Murray Rothbards, or Roberet Long's, but there are quite a few plausible systems that do not rely on a reference to revelation.

TJP said...

My apologies for the negativity, but it probably has a lot less to do with a social contract than it does with the efficiency with which men can kill each other. Personal arms were affordable and quite deadly at a distance by the end of the 18th century.

Isaac said...

The point is not the capability or efficiency with which individuals can kill each other, but that without the influence of the state they rarely do. The body count only really starts to show when states get involved. It is the state that trains people to use the latest technology against someone they've never met and couldn't possibly have a personal beef with. If you had a Barrett .50 would you set up on your roof and pick off people at the corner store? I don't think you would. But dress everyone up in uniforms and select different anthems, and the head shots begin.

Guns don't kill people, the state kills people.

JdL said...

Pinker is an idiot, but in opening your column with a statement highlighting his atheism, do you mean to imply that atheists are, as a group, less moral than theists? If so, I would challenge that assertion.

Hitler's troops wore belt buckles emblazoned "Gott mit uns" (God is with us). Other examples of the most obscene actions performed under color of religion are legion.

I don't hold your religious beliefs against you, but I'm not sure you return the favor with respect to my religious non-beliefs.

William N. Grigg said...

JdL, I find Pinker's belief in State coercion to be morally unacceptable. I've made the same objection to the Christian Right in several previous essays.

Pinker's "conversion to atheism" is his own business. His evangelism on behalf of what Tonybee calls the cult of "collective human power" is not. Anybody who promotes the supposedly redemptive use of aggressive violence strikes me as morally suspect, at best.

Retread said...

JDL- I think you get the idea that the mentioned Atheism was an attack on Atheism. you missed the point of his stating that his lifelong opinion's were formed when he was thirteen. It's the age that's important. He also changed from Rousseau to Thomas Hobbes for his concepts. In other words, he let us see wherein Pinker obtained his concepts. Then Mr. Grigg outlined the difference in government and the individual to show that Pinker was incorrect. At no time did he point out a problem with Atheism. Personally, I don't think Pinker is an Idiot, I know too many well educated Christian Socialists that think just like him. I disagree with them, but they use logic of the collective against my logic of the individual very effectively sometimes. But, I would suggest that you put aside the defense of your beliefs to see the real point of the argument. Just a short aside. The German Army soldiers wore belt buckles that said "God With Us"; however the elite SS that were the famous "Stormtroopers and Concentration Camp administrators" were required to renounce Christianity before they could join Hitler's SS.

Sans Authoritas said...

Mr. Grigg,

As a Catholic and a voluntaryist, I apologize on behalf of the Statist Catholics, who believe that the State is the fourth Person of the Trinity, and that War is the eighth sacrament.

They are a scandal.

There is nothing in Catholic doctrine that says a Catholic must, as a matter of faith or morals, believe that the coercive State should or must exist.

I concur with another Catholic thinker, J.R.R. Tolkien, as he wrote in a 1943 letter to his son, Christopher:

"My political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) -— or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate! [he was joking about that]. . . If we could get back to personal names, it would do a lot of good. Government is an abstract noun meaning the art and the process of governing and it should be an offence to write it with a capital G or so as to refer to people. If people were in the habit of referring to ‘King George’s council, Winston and his gang’, it would do a long way to clearing thought, and reducing the frightful landslide into Theyocracy. . . . The proper study of Man is anything but Man; and the most improper job of any man, even saints (who at any rate were at least unwilling to take it on), is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the Tolkien reference, SA, I'm going to point that out to my son who admires him very much. There is a friend of mine who back in the 70's did everything in his power to avoid the draft and by the skin of his teeth succeeded. Fast forward to the present and he is a Fox News junkie who routinely yells at the TV (which never goes off and rarely leaves that channel) and advocates the very things as a young man he ran away from. I've asked him time and again how his Catholic upbringing squared with his present rabid attitude towards anyone who doesn't subscribe to that mindset and to be honest I was greatly saddened by the encounter.

Sans Authoritas said...


I'm sorry you've had that experience. Losing a friend over the years is painful. Like watching someone commit suicide in slow motion. There is still hope, however.

Dorothy Day came up with another little-known quip you might like: "When you render to God the things that are God's, there is nothing left for Caesar."

Anonymous said...

"In a 2007 TED lecture, Dr. Pinker urged Leviathan’s subjects to count their blessings: A mere century ago, he pointed out, some of them may have been 'burned at the stake for criticizing the king, after a trial that maybe lasted ten minutes.'"

Really? This guy believes that in 1907, you could be burned at the stake for criticizing the king?

And there's anyone who takes his analysis of history seriously?

liberranter said...

Anon 3:29:

A fitting response to Pinker's verbal vomitus that you cite above would be something along the lines of the following:

"While it may be that 'burning at the stake' has become rather unfashionable among statist executioners in the modern era, other forms of lethal punishment for apostasy of Caesar worship are quite commonly practiced in its stead. A good example is the use of modern weaponry, heavy and light, to exterminate those who would dare assert their independence from the prevailing Caesarian orthodoxy. Light weapons were used at a place called Ruby Ridge, Idaho, about two decades ago to 'burn at the stake' the family of a man who dared criticize the state and resist its unlawful diktats. Heavier weaponry was used a year later at a little place outside of Waco, Texas, to conduct a mass burning at the stake of another band of heretics who forsook Caesar for their own beliefs. So I guess these people should 'count their blessings' that lead and napalm were used in place of mere fire and faggots."

Lily said...

Mr. Grigg,

With deep respect and admiration, I read your posts with appreciation and anticipation. I greatly look forward to your 'treatment' of the Gaddafi murder whodunit (I mean REALLY), and the future of Libya.

Finally, I miss your podcasts terribly! Please, won't you update your loyal readers on resumption of your talks!

Thanks much for your works!

My best,
P.S. I wasn't sure where to write with my comments, so I this post looked as good as it gets.

Christian Livingstone said...

Yeah, I did read a recent article by this Dr. Pinker's guy, at New Scientist, I think, in which he suggested that Humanity is so much less-violent now, due to a godlike State.

How ridiculous!

The 20th Century, in Democide, and in State-led Warfare was bloodier than the last 2000 years, of Religious or State killing, combined.

This atheist Phd is a True Believer with Blind Faith, in the State.

Peace be with you all,
Christian Livingstone

Mark Erickson said...

I've heard you several times now on AntiwarRadio, and generally like what I hear. (Although, you didn't get OWS right on the last one, and in general, you can tone down the erudition.) This post is entirely unworthy of your thoughts I've heard so far. Maybe the interviews with Scott are the outliers, but I hope you just have a blind spot that has misled you.

First, I have to ask whether you've read the book's 832 pages since October 4.

"According to Pinker, since the emergence of the modern secular state in the 18th century there has been a dramatic decline in primitive expressions of aggressive violence." This statement seems to show you didn't even watch the first five minutes of the 2007 TED talk from your first link. In it, he claims decreasing violence is a fractal phenomenon: over millennia, centuries, decades and years, violence has gone down. All he says is that there seems to be a tipping point "at the onset of the Age of Reason in the 16th Century."

Going back to the rest of your first sentence: "who has said that he never 'outgrew my conversion to atheism at thirteen,' has written a theodicy – a tract intended to validate the redemptive power of the Leviathan State." Blind spot found - two actually. I see religion as much more important for you, but also anti-statism bias is evident.

Applying religious terminology to atheists is a common, and fruitless, ploy that I wouldn't expect you to rely on. Pinker's atheism shouldn't factor into a review of his book. But it seems you can't help yourself: "As is the case with most religious doctrines, Pinker’s theology of the divine State is built on a paradox – in this case the idea that the human tendency toward violence can be eradicated through the scientific application of the same by enlightened people who have supposedly transcended such primitive impulses." (Note I quote entire sentences of your work, thankfully it's shorter so I could quickly read it).Can you point me to where Pinker says personal violence can be eradicated through state violence? Or did I misunderstand you?

Michael Shermer has relayed some of Pinker's points accurately: "Pinker’s theory is that the better angels of our nature are brought out by the civilizing process of two forces: the top-down rule of law and the bottom-up rule of morals." And he provides a long Pinker quote:

"Externally [the top down rule of law], other forces were at work: 'the centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals,' and the like."

Part II to follow.

Mark Erickson said...

A review you do link to, Peter Singer in the NYT, also refutes your simplistic take: "Those conclusions are not always what one might expect. Yes, as already noted, the state monopoly on force is important, and the spread of commerce creates incentives for cooperation and against violent conflict. The empowerment of women does, Pinker argues, exercise a pacifying influence, and the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. But he also thinks that the invention of printing, and the development of a cosmopolitan “Republic of Letters” in the 17th and 18th centuries helped to spread ideas that led to the humanitarian revolution. That was pushed further in the 19th century by popular novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and “Oliver Twist” that, by encouraging readers to put themselves in the position of someone very different from themselves, expanded the sphere of our moral concern."

Ignoring the decade-old quotes and the rant on Hobbes and Rousseau, gets us to a full sentence quote: “A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will get a certain number of violent people as a by-catch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets.” Well, that sentence is taken out of context. Luckily that section is available on Google Books. Starting at the -------, read the next two pages, ending with "The result is that the United States imprisons far more people than it should, with disproportionate harm falling on African American communities who have been stripped of large numbers of men." Doesn't sound like a Drug Warrior.

I can't go on after this: "...Pinker’s claim that humanity has evolved beyond violence..." Also, suffice to say you haven't watched or read the links I used from your piece if you think 170 million people slaughtered in the 20th century is remotely comparable to the slaughter humans have endured over the previous 200 centuries.

Mark Erickson said...

Messed up the Shermer link.