By John Horgan
Fisticuffs have broken out in The Guardian between two intellectual big shots, philosopher John Gray and psychologist Steven Pinker. The fight, which features lots of rhetorical flourishes and high dudgeon, addresses a serious issue: Is humanity achieving moral progress? Or, as Gray would put it, “progress”? More specifically, are we becoming less violent? I’ve written about this question myself, so in this post I’ll try to adjudicate the dispute, indicating what each scholar gets right and wrong.
First, a bit of background on Gray. He is almost comically gloomy about humanity’s prospects. In his best-known books, Straw Dogs (2003) and Black Mass (2007), he mocks humanity’s aspirations to create a better world, arguing that our efforts to improve social conditions usually make them worse.
Philosopher John Gray asserts that the statistics with which Steven Pinker documents the decline of violence “are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for.”
Hence Gray is offended by Pinker’s 2011 book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that humanity, especially since the European Enlightenment, is becoming more “civilized” and less violent. In his March 13 Guardian essay, “Steven Pinker is wrong about violence and war,” Gray asserts that the statistics with which Pinker makes his case “are murky, leaving a vast range of casualties of violence unaccounted for.”
Gray accuses Pinker of discounting a host of modern horrors, from Nazi genocide to “the proxy war between the U.S. and Russia that is being waged in Ukraine.” Comparing Pinker’s statistical analyses to the obsidian mirrors with which Aztec soothsayers divined the future, Gray contends that Pinker’s vision of progress stems from faith rather than reason.
Gray insists that “peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilization remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism.”
Gray is like a Hobbesian who doesn’t think Leviathans, that is, strong states, makes things better. Life is always a war of all against all. No doubt because he thinks life has always sucked, Gray accepts without question one of the weakest components of Pinker’s thesis, that pre-historic humans killed each other at rates even higher than those of the most conflict-ravaged modern societies. This is what I call the deep-roots theory of war, which is contradicted by archaeological and anthropological studies.
Steven Pinker calls John Gray “howlingly, flat-earth, couldn’t-be-more-wrong wrong” for his denial of human moral progress.
In his retort, Pinker calls Gray “howlingly, flat-earth, couldn’t-be-more-wrong wrong” not only about the decline of violence but also about other positive trends. Pinker is right: Gray’s denial of human progress is absurd. As I point out in a 2012 column, “Why You Should Choose Optimism,” over the last century humanity has become much wealthier, healthier and more free, and war-related casualties have plummeted since the end of World War Two.
But Gray scores legitimate points against Pinker. Gray is right that a single nuclear detonation could shatter what Pinker and others call the “Long Peace”—the relatively low levels of international warfare since World War II. Gray is also right that Pinker tends to blame conflict on “backward” peoples and to downplay the violence of modern western powers.
As I note in a recent post, Pinker fails to acknowledge “the enormous contributions of the U.S., especially since September 11, 2001, to global violence.” Far from eliminating violent Muslim extremism, U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere have arguably exacerbated it. The U.S. spends almost as much on “defense” as all other nations combined, and it is “the dominant innovator, manufacturer and exporter of arms in the world.”
Confronting the Limitations of Both Views
My main complaint with both scholars is that their views of the future are far too deterministic. Pinker implies that all we have to do is sit back and conflict will continue to decline. Gray, who holds that free will is an illusion, thinks violence and mayhem will persist no matter what we do.
My view is that we can end war, soon, and forever, but only if we actively seek to end it. And by “war” I mean also militarism, the culture of war, the armies, arms, industries, policies, plans, propaganda, prejudices, rationalizations that make lethal group conflict not only possible but also likely.
I’ve offered ideas on how to achieve that goal, and so have many others, including members of the international coalition “World Beyond War.” Check out its new document “A Global Security System: An Alternative to War,” which offers ideas on countering terrorism, reducing armaments, reforming the United Nations and “creating a culture of peace.”
In a post last fall, “War Is Our Most Urgent Problem. Let’s Solve It,” I noted that even the most cynical fatalists want war to end. If we all join together in pursuing peace, we will surely succeed, not in some hazy, distant future but soon. Wouldn’t it be grand if instead of bickering over whether war will end, Gray and Pinker—and all leading intellectuals—started swapping ideas on how war can end? And no, this is not a joke.
Postscript: Noam Chomsky criticizes Steven Pinker’s decline-of-violence thesis in a recent conversation with physicist Lawrence Krauss. Krauss also asks Chomsky about a 1967 essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” in which Chomsky called upon intellectuals to do a better job challenging their governments’ “lies.” Chomsky’s critique of intellectuals – and particularly their failure more vigorously to question U.S. militarism – remains all too apt. The Chomsky-Krauss conversation is well worth watching in its entirely. I’ve given Krauss a hard time for overselling the power of physics to explain reality, but he was a terrific interviewer here.Φ
Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney’s, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.
Photo credits: Gray, Berggruen Institute, http://berggruen.org/councils/21st-century-council/members/john-gray; Pinker, Wikimedia Commons, Rebecca Goldstein.