The famous allegory of the cave is hardly the highlight of Plato's great Republic, though commentators sometimes treat the extended metaphor -- a person in a cave is temporarily blinded when he sees sunlight for the first time, and is then ridiculed when he returns to the cave and can no longer distinguish the shadows on the walls -- as if it were a capsule summary of Plato's entire philosophy. Perhaps the brilliance of the philosopher's writing has itself blinded these commentators, because the allegory of the cave is mainly an illustration of the difficulty of understanding a provocative philosophy, and hardly represents the essence of Plato's philosophy itself.
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a new book by psychologist Steven Pinker (I introduced it here last week, and it's on the cover of today's New York Times Book Review) that documents in exhausting detail how much less violent our planet is than ever before in history. The First Total War: Napoleon's Europe and the Birth of Warfare as We Know It by David A. Bell, one of my all-time favorite history books, is an illuminating look at how the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution began a new era of vicious ideological warfare in Europe that set the pattern for the genocidal horrors of the past century. War and politics, according to David A. Bell, have never before been as broadly destructive as they are today.
How can both of these books be telling the truth at the same time?
The popular psychologist Steven Pinker has written a provocative book about politics and history, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln's first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
This book proposes that we often miss a vital point when we talk about war, violence and genocide. On a broad historical level, says Pinker, mankind is doing great. Fewer people are victimized by war or violent crime than ever before. This cuts against the common idea that our civilization has declined, that the 20th century was a century of military and genocidal horror, that the 21st century is shaping up to be even worse. Pinker explains the moral significance of his contrary findings, and his approach in writing the book, in the introductory chapter:
The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times.
Not surprisingly, initial reviews of this book are expressing skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Elizabeth Kolbert considers and dismisses the book's purpose in the current New Yorker, objecting to Pinker's cold calculus. Even if statistics prove that the world gets less violent as it civilizes, Kolbert asks, what solace is this to teenage shooting victims in Norway, to the murdered millions of World War II, to inner-city African-Americans unlucky enough to live in depressed housing projects that fail to follow the happy trend? Kolbert's reaction is exactly the one Pinker predicted in his introduction (though, of course, the fact that Pinker anticipated Kolbert's criticism doesn't mean that Kolbert's criticism is invalid).
The book's inevitable critique has an emotional subtext that you won't pick up unless you begin to read the book yourself. Pinker, a Harvard professor who has also written How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, writes with the excited tone of a smart-ass at a party who enjoys offending polite society with uncomfortable truth, and the excitement in his narrative voice becomes palpable during the long passages in which he describes the high incidence of pillage, child slaughter and rape (committed, unfortunately, by the good guys) in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey and in every book of the Hebrew Bible. This is a book for pacifists, but like many pacifist books, Better Angels is designed to deliver a punch.
There once lived a giant of philosophy, a rock star of ethics, now almost completely forgotten, named Auguste Comte. Born in Montpelier in southern France amidst the tumult of the French Revolution, he made it his life's mission to integrate the Revolution's better ideas into a scientific structure, Positivism, that sought rational principles to guide our understanding of both the physical and the moral world.
His scientific writings would gain wide favor in the Darwinian era, but he challenged his readers to follow his arguments beyond science into the thorny arena of culture and politics. He is often cited as the founder of Sociology, and he invented the word "altruism" (in French, altruisme, based on the Latin root for "other"). With a deft perception that often eludes us today, Comte described altruism as a basic fact of human nature -- not an illusory by-product of selfish interests, but a primary, inviolable element of the soul.
Auguste Comte was vastly admired during the late 19th Century, not only by his peers and followers (philosopher John Stuart Mill, novelist George Eliot, theologian Richard Congreve) but also by the public at large. He was a rare intellectual celebrity of international proportions, and his fame grew even greater after his death in 1857. Basking in popularity towards the end of his life, he went so far as to found his own "religion", a scientific and philosophical "Church of Humanity" that would last for decades (one elegant church building is now a tourist attraction in Brazil). He and his followers were so sure that they had found the key to a happy and peaceful world society that they decided to invent a new calendar, the Positivist Calendar, with months and days named after great thinkers (today, according to this calendar, is the 15th of Shakespeare). The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes Auguste Comte's influence at its peak:
It difficult today to appreciate the interest Comte's thought enjoyed a century ago, for it has received almost no notice during the last five decades. Before the First World War, Comte's movement was active nearly everywhere in the world. The best known case is that of Latin America: Brazil, which owes the motto on its flag ‘Ordem e Progresso’ (Order and Progress) to Comte and Mexico are two prominent examples. The positivists, i.e., the followers of Comte, were equally active in England, the United States and India. And in the case of Turkey, its modern secular character can be traced to Comte's influence on the Young Turks.
I recently exchanged over a hundred emails with a young software executive from Oklahoma who read my book Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), found it unconvincing, and contacted me to explain exactly why.
The fact that this person is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand's ethical philosophy (and I, obviously, am not) did not make it difficult for us to communicate, and in our long conversation we came to understand each other's logical processes better. Neither of us budged our ethical positions as a result of our debate, but I think we both emerged from it a bit sharper. I was impressed by the depth and thorough consistency of my opponent's philosophical method, even when I disagreed with his conclusions, and I hope he felt the same way about mine. I learned that my friend from Oklahoma (and we are indeed now friends, on Facebook and hopefully in real life too) is undoubtedly as knowledgeable and as serious about ethical philosophy as I am.
It's good to achieve clarity in a philosophical discussion. It's better to achieve consensus, of course, but clarity is worth settling for when consensus is not in the cards. Ethicists following the debates over government and taxation in the United States of America experienced a moment of clarity this week when a video clip from a raucous Republican Party debate made the rounds. Wolf Blitzer quizzed Ron Paul about health care policy:
We think of a gift as a desired thing: a birthday present, a box of candy, a charitable endowment. But the word "gift" refers simply to the past tense of "give". A thing that is given is a gift, and we should not assume that every gift we are given is a thing we want to receive.
The word is sometimes used ironically in its negative sense. "He's got a gift for you," says a mother to a father when it's his turn to do the baby's diapers. A venereal disease is jokingly referred to as "the gift that keeps on giving."
Osama bin Laden gave the United States of America, and the entire world, a gift on September 11, 2001. It was a gift we didn't want or expect, a gift we could barely even stand to recognize. Many Americans refuse to admit that we received it, that we still own it. But we do. We're still carrying this gift around.
This is the gift of hate -- and hate is, indeed, the gift that keeps on giving. We've since handed it on to other unwilling and undeserving recipients in Afghanistan and Iraq, and now they suffer with the gift too. It's still with us today, and we see it everywhere. Look at the self-hatred so many Americans still feel, ten years after the horrifying day of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. This knot of rage, this tar baby, this glutinous mass -- it is still inside us, whether we like it or not.
Some try to deal rationally with this gift of hatred that we don't know how to get rid of. For authors like Noam Chomsky, whose 9-11 has been reissued in a new edition, we can exorcise the hatred by confessing our own national sins. Other Americans consider Noam Chomsky's brand of self-criticism an insult to America's glory and honor, but they choke on the same self-hatred in different ways. It's a new meme among some angry Americans to hate the federal government itself, to declare that the only thing the Washington D. C. bureaucracy can do is go away, even if that means no more Social Security, no consumer protection agencies or business regulations, not even a federal emergency management bureau. The federal government has been poisoned, these new extremists say, infiltrated by suspicious agents. It needs to be purged of everything in order to rediscover its Constitutional purity. There may be some logic within this angry anti-government protest movement, but I see plenty of irrational self-hatred here too, and I wonder where the manic pitch of this self-hatred originates.
It's strange to watch the news coverage of the unemployment crisis in the United States right now. The word "jobs" has become a simplistic mantra. We need to create jobs! Where are the jobs? Yet, as everyone who has a job knows, there's nothing simple about modern employment.
A good job is a wondrous thing, and can form the foundation of a meaningful and satisfied life. But many jobs turn out to be irrational at their core, and even the best jobs are riven with conflict. There's no doubt that our current 9.1% unemployment rate is a serious economic crisis. But for some people, the first day of a new job is the beginning of a different kind of crisis, and you won't find coverage of this crisis on any blog or cable news show.
As a software developer with marketable skills, I'm fortunate to have plenty of job options. I know that some people who struggle for employment think I have it easy. But I also struggle hard to balance my personal life with the requirements of my work. A typical software job means a commitment of five long days a week, with constant demands for overtime work, and only two weeks of vacation a year. Two weeks of free time a year!
Amazingly, most software developers blindly acquiesce to this unreasonable level of commitment, often for little satisfaction or appreciation in return. They take out their anger and resentment by goofing off on the job, developing negative attitudes ("this job sucks"), doing shoddy work ... and yet they'll still set their alarm clocks and trudge off to their cubicles every day. Some of them even feel guilty if they ever arrive ten minutes late, or if they only work straight hours and don't put in the overtime that's invariably expected.
I had a chance to check out Washington DC's new Martin Luther King memorial earlier this week. A big opening ceremony featuring President Barack Obama and other significant guests scheduled for this weekend has been postponed for an approaching hurricane, but the memorial is open to visitors, and I found a large and enthusiastic crowd on the day I dropped by.
I was surprised -- maybe I shouldn't have been? -- that nearly everybody besides me who came out to see the memorial was African-American. This points to a disappointing fact I've observed before: even though Martin Luther King has now been enshrined in American history as a legend, a hero and a cliche, his great universal message of activism through nonviolent resistance remains largely neglected and misunderstood in America and around the world. The King approach to solving problems feels every bit as startlingly innovative and unique today as it did in the 1960s. The miraculous fact that King's patient, compromise-based approach can actually succeed in solving "unsolvable" conflicts remains widely ignored, even though the problems we face today are as severe as the problems King faced so brilliantly and successfully in his time. Most people would rather gripe, whine and fight each other than take a risk on loving their neighbors and trying to truly understand and cope with variant points of view.
Martin Luther King never had an easy time getting his peaceful message across. It's well known today that he and his fellow activists had to endure vicious taunts and provocations by their opponents, but King also took a hard beating, often for different reasons, in the allegedly liberal mainstream media, and another hard beating from many of his fellow African-American activists. Like any leader who tries to compromise and rise above the pettiness of simple hatred, he took it from the left and the right, from black and white, from north and south. An early John Updike short story called "Marching Through Boston", published in the New Yorker in January 1966, delivers a refreshingly direct look at how Martin Luther King was seen in his own time.
I wouldn't make a very good creationist, since I believe completely in Darwin's theory of natural selection and human evolution. I know that the scientific evidence for evolution is overwhelmingly persuasive. I find most religious creation myths childish and inane, and I've been known to snicker about creationist museums in Kentucky or Miss USA Pageant candidates who find the question "should evolution be taught in school?" hilariously tough to answer.
However, I try to check myself before laughing too hard, or else I might commit my own fallacy and conclude too glibly that anyone who does not believe in Darwinism today must be mentally addled or badly miseducated. I might allow myself to feel intellectually superior to creationists, and this would be a dangerous overstep. As an elaborate scientific theory about the distant past, Darwin's great discovery will never have the same force of persuasion as any theory that can be simply proven with direct experimentation. The evidence for evolution requires explanation, assumption and interpretation; it is not directly and immediately obvious. If I forget this basic fact, I might commit the error of lumping the theory of evolution in with more urgent and alarming recent theories and reports about man-made climate change. I might conclude that conservative politicians are engaged in a "war on science", and draw a hard line: if you don't believe in both global warming and evolution, you are a liar and a fool.
I've been reading Barbara Oakley, a professor and social scientist with a unique theory about altruism. Far from being a boon to mankind, she believes, altruism is often our scourge, our instrument of self-destruction.
She cites the altruistic Chairman Mao (as we have too, in our discussions about altruism and ethics) and Adolf Hitler (who never stopped constantly reminding the German people how much he was helping them, up until the end when the entire country burned). These are both apt examples in the critique of "bad altruism". Her recent book, lengthily titled Cold-Blooded Kindness: Neuroquirks of a Codependent Killer, or Just Give Me a Shot at Loving You, Dear, and Other Reflections on Helping That Hurts offers the case study of a Utah woman named Carole Alden who liked to draw in men who needed help, devote her life to helping them ... and then kill them. Carole Alden's fatal self-victimization complex is an instructive illustration, and Barbara Oakley believes it points to a general truth about the meaning of altruism in our lives.
Well, I don't know. I admire the clarity and force of Barbara Oakley's convictions, which remind me of Ayn Rand's. But Cold-Blooded Kindness is a bumpy read, maybe because the style of writing veers between psychology textbook and Scott Turow thriller (a combination also often used by David Brooks). This breathless writing style can work if expertly handled, but it feels forced here. The idea that horrible Carole Alden (who resembles, roughly, evil nurse/fan Annie Wilkes from Stephen King's Misery) stands as a representative example of normal altruism also feels forced, and this is the more significant problem with the book.
Yes, this woman claimed to be an altruist and screwed up (or killed) every person or animal she tried to help. Yes, there are fringe cases. But the idea that we ought to avoid altruistic impulses in general because of these fringe cases takes it much too far.