Better or Worse?

Last week, my Philosophy of Religion class was reading Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Book X to be specific, in which a pair of characters are talking about how full of misery and suffering the world is. After about half an hour of working through the dialogue together, one student raised her hand and asked, “Were things, like, really horrible back then? I mean, how miserable was the life then for them to go on listing all these terrible things?”

About half the class jumped up in appreciation of her point, while the other half just about leaped out of their chairs to make the point that the world is incredibly horrible NOW, full of intense suffering from which we are privileged enough to be sheltered. I asked them how many of them thought that things were better now (I left it intentionally vague) compared to the middle late 1700s. A smattering of hands went up. I asked how many of them thought that things were much worse now compared to back then. The majority raised their hands.

I thought of this article that I’d read the day before and posted a link on Blackboard to it for them to read. You should, too:

Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

Don’t believe it? Read the rest.




7 thoughts on “Better or Worse?

  1. Ha, great story! I’ve had similar experiences while teaching this dialogue.

  2. Hi, PhiloDave. (See the note following this post.)

    I’ll do my best to be concise. Typically, I’ll play the role of devil’s advocate. (No, I’m not a Marxist, either.)

    “Violence Vanquished” is guilty of begging the question.

    It proposes two mechanisms for the decline of violence, neither of which is particularly new or, indeed, a mechanism at all. The first is the rise of the nation-state, and the second – “the angels of our better nature” – is a metaphor masquerading as a description of a natural/social process. Moreover, the definition of “violence” is narrowly limited to “killing.” Many among the living would claim that “violence” takes many forms other than mere death. Finally, the article races breathlessly across the centuries, leaping over time and space only to return to a starting point that it really never left: a virtual reality, a fantasy of technological salvation that does not, for many, many people, reflect the real world at all

    #1 The first mechanism is the rise of the nation-state.
    Back in the 80’s Francis Fukayama’s The End of History (made possible by a Rand Corporation think tank) created a splash by “appropriating” Marx’s application of the Hegelian Dialectic to argue that liberal, Western-style democracies were becoming the international norm. The final chapter of the book (I think) ends with a list of countries that made this shift. Therefore, the end of conflict vis-a-vis (a capitalist) Utopia ushers in the end of history.

    If one believes in this kind of thing, OK, but “Violence Vanquished” is at war with itself as it advances its argument. Read the few quotes below.

    “It’s not that the first kings had a benevolent interest in the welfare of their citizens. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his livestock from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding. From his point of view, such squabbling is a dead loss—forgone opportunities to extract taxes, tributes, soldiers and slaves.”

    “Though it’s tempting to attribute the Long Peace to nuclear deterrence, non-nuclear developed states have stopped fighting each other as well. Political scientists point instead to the growth of democracy, trade and international organizations—all of which, the statistical evidence shows, reduce the likelihood of conflict. They also credit the rising valuation of human life over national grandeur—a hard-won lesson of two world wars.”

    “The most immediate cause of this New Peace was the demise of communism, which ended the proxy wars in the developing world stoked by the superpowers and also discredited genocidal ideologies that had justified the sacrifice of vast numbers of eggs to make a utopian omelet.”

    #2 “The angels of our better nature.”
    Back in the late 60’s (I think) playwright Robert Audrey created a splash with the publication of African Genesis. Here, he proposed that the rise of a “killer ape” enabled the survival of our evolutionary branch of hominids, but this has since been disproved: our species flourishes because we are hard-wired for cooperation and altruism. (This wiring shouldn’t be taken as a guarantee against violence. In certain situations, it creates violence, and that’s because of real biological mechanisms we must discuss in another post. The point here is that the angelic metaphor promotes a romantic conception of all this, not a scientific one.)

    #3 The definition of “violence” is narrowly limited to “killing.”

    “Violence has declined because historical circumstances have increasingly favored our better angels” (says the article).

    In some ways this is like saying the novel The Lord of the Flies has a happy ending.

    #4 The article races breathlessly across the centuries…only to return to a starting point that it really never left: a virtual reality, a fantasy of technological salvation that does not, for many, many people, reflect the real world at all.

    “Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism.”

    “For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money.”

    ME, AVRAMAKIS: “Morality aside…[this is] reciprocal altruism.” Does anyone else find that an intriguing formulation?

    Like so many things, the article is made possible by a leap of faith. As Terry Eagleton argues somewhere toward the beginning of After Theory, theorists in the United States are not used to thinking internationally, so they reason outwards from their own centers. That is, their theory is existentially “true,” created more by a lived-engagement with “first world” culture than with “pure Reason.” It is not possible to step outside of one’s culture and look back on it dispassionately (says Eagleton), so beliefs (felt viscerally) always find expression in theory.

    VIOLENCE VANQUISHED: “A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.”

    “These technologies have also powered an expansion of rationality and objectivity in human affairs. People are now less likely to privilege their own interests over those of others. They reflect more on the way they live and consider how they could be better off. Violence is often reframed as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won. We devote ever more of our brainpower to guiding our better angels. It is probably no coincidence that the Humanitarian Revolution came on the heels of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, that the Long Peace and rights revolutions coincided with the electronic global village.”

    ME, AVRAMAKIS: Eagleton’s message is that “the marginalized” are actually the center, and theorists need to recognize that. Those stuck in dead-end jobs make nation-states, multi-national corporations, and now virtual spaces/bodies possible. For them, older notions of class conflict have real application and provide the tools for political action (says Eagleton). Fantasies of salvation through technology (i.e. that tech/teleological Star Trek outlook) obscure this fact/process. (See #1 and #3 above.)

    In this final quote, I find agreement with “Violence Vanquished”: “And a better understanding of what drove the numbers down can steer us toward doing things that make people better off rather than congratulating ourselves on how moral we are.”

    (Note: I had to quote the article at some length. I like to imagine that you read everything posted to the blog so I try to be concise and sparing in my posts. How do you find time to run this blog? I hope you keep doing it.

    Re: Hume: Isn’t this where one character says Nature is a flawed/rough draft created by a lesser deity? This was a high school reading assignment so the memory is muddled, but no teenager is going to forget that statement about a lesser deity! The assignment went with the Carl Becker. Thanks for the link.)

    • Correction!

      #4 is a bit muddled.

      I dug out my Eagleton (who is a Marxist) just to be sure and found most of my memory in the chapter “The Path to Postmodernism.” #4 mostly presents Eagleton’s take on “anti-theorists” like Stanley Fish who spend too much time demanding the impossible. Fish might argue (Eagleton suggests) that because we’re imprisoned in language/culture that is contingent and arbitrary — e.g. since we can’t “see” in anything but a non-Euclidian universe (although some math/physics people do manage to do this) — we can’t ever critique it. But this isn’t Eagleton’s position. (Well, maybe his is a difference of degree and not kind.)

      As a Marxist, Eagleton partakes of reason/the Enlightenment project, and he believes in political action and critical self-reflection and such. He writes, “It may well be that cultural habits like imagining time as flowing forward…run so deep in us that we could not possible think ourselves outside of them. But the same can scarecely be said for cultural habits like banning customers who are not wearing evening dress from hot-dog stalls…. The trick of some anti-theorists is to make these two kinds of case appear the same.”

      (BTW: Fish has become more political lately.)

      • Hi, Avramakis!

        It took awhile, but I made it and here goes!

        First and foremost (or: starting with the not quite last part first), I always appreciate your offerings and read each one with care, Avramakis, so it’s not just your imagination. I have to admit that the spareness of your prose is both challenging and admirable so I usually I have to give it more than one reading before I feel confident that I’m tracking your point, but A) I know it’s there to be tracked, so when I can’t find it, I know the problem is mine and I just need to read and think some more, and B) I always enjoy the devil’s advocacy–I don’t know if there’s a more important service to provide the world, so thansk for doing it!

        As for the rest, I guess I would say that my initial emphasis was meant to be less of an advocacy for the causal argument that Pinker was making and more for the statistical and informational consideration about the likelihood of suffering a violent death back in the day versus now. Of your four points, I’m most sympathetic initially with #3, but I wonder if that one (and the others) might not be addressed or mitigated in the longer work. I think the contradiction that you point to in #1 is both insightful and the most likely candidate to be a significant problem for Pinker, but I suspect that #2 is largely a function of trying to present a much longer work and complex idea in a short form–Pinker may indeed be guilty of some romanticism but the longer form of the argument may not rely as much on it as the one that makes it into the paper. Embarrassingly, I haven’t read Eagleton (this summer!), nor Pinker’s book so maybe my guess will change down the road.

        I found myself swinging from interest to skepticism upon reading your analysis, but then back to interest when I read this review of the book by Peter Singer (whose work I admire a lot, even if I’m not quite a Utilitarian acolyte myself. The review gives me hope that the longer version addresses some of the issues to which you draw our attention.

        Check it:

        Finally, on Hume, yes it is. Also, you asked for a Hume pointer a while back, and I’d say (if you have the time) that his “A Treatise on Human Nature” is the best place to go, building from a foundational commitment to empiricism, he ends up hammering on our ability to be confident in any sort of induction (which creates doubt in any and all scientific inquiry), personal persisting identity, and religious commitments. It is pretty accessible (philosophy in English!) and clearly argued (at least the first part and not too technical. No harder than the Federalist Papers. Plus it’s free on Kindle! (Yes, that’s part information and part joke/tweak regarding the techno commentary of your post.) Digression–I just started reading a book (Fooled by Randomness) by what seems to be his modern day incarnation, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, which is spectacular and will probably send me back to Hume, too! Anyway, if you don’t want Hume, Taleb would be a good choice. Anyway, if you don’t have time for the longer form, he did us all a favor by providing a condensed version of (part of) the argument called, “An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding.” It’s only a hundred pages or so, and it gets the job done.

        As for the time, I’ll just say that most of it doesn’t take that much time, but the most fun stuff (for me) are the posts that are more developed and substantive which require some time, some luck (that other things don’t eat up the time I’ve set aside), and some patience (from my family, mostly), but in addition to the altruistic reasons behind the blog, I also wanted to get back into writing regularly (long emails just weren’t doing it for me anymore), and I’m not disciplined enough to do it on my own, so I’ve made this a kind of professional priority (not the top one, but higher than some others), which has been professionally beneficial in multiple, unexpected ways.I don’t have much interest in being a “blogger” though. My intention has always been to start it and hope that it becomes decentralized and self sustaining. Maybe it will, but it doesn’t seem to be headed in that direction, so at some point it will change as my contributions to it change. I figure I’ll try to do the full thing through this semester, which will make two years or so fo working on it, and then maybe gear back in the Spring through the end of my Faculty Council term in November and then hang up the keyboard and see what happens. Who knows! Someone might have a better idea by then…Anyway, you’re welcome, and thanks for the kind words.

        I look forward to the next exchange/opportunity. Maybe once I’m done with the blog management we can do a back and forth thing (Becker Posner like). We might be the only two reading it, but it would be fun and educational since we seem to have read different stuff. Hmm…

  3. That reading list keeps growing.

    I assumed that you were pointing to the statistics, but the article struck me as some kind of weird apologia.

    I’ll try Fooled by Randomness. I did PDF the Hume (Natural Religion) and I’ve recently made some time for that. Adobe Acrobat is the way to go, you know, since you can highlight as you read and then summarize the annotations, allowing you to toggle back and forth between quotes in and out of context.

    Pinker was on “Chicago Tonight” a few weeks ago and I was surprised to find that he did, in fact, emphasize that instinct and altruism manifest according to stressor and situation (e.g. I might like you and, in order to be an altruistic pal, turn around and punch your enemies). Everything else he talked about didn’t stray from the article. That was disappointing.

    Kindles may be given away for free as soon as next summer. I can’t remember where I read that but prices keep dropping and Amazon stands to make more money just giving them away since new owners will purchase material from Amazon for their Kindle.

    Given some of my past posts (and, surely, those in the future) one can see why I’d refer to Lord of the Flies. It lends itself to extended discussion concerning altruism, violence, “standing on principle,” game theory, insecure loud mouths and their followers, and so on. The violence among the boys grew slowly and things could have gone differently had Ralph chosen to fight at first (and I don’t mean physically). Ah, bullies! On islands, in schools…. There is an instinct for violence too, said Pinker to Ponce. And there’s one for following.

    As for the rest, my opinion is this: as goes the blogger, so goes the blog. I’ve been gone for a month. There’s no “dead air” on a blog. Less can be more. The epistolary blog? Hmmmm…. Now that is interesting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s