Better Angels


Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 9

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 9: Better Angels

“[It] cannot be disputed that there is some benevolence, however small, infused into our bosom; some spark of friendship for human kind; some particle of the dove, kneaded into our frame, along with the elements of the wolf and serpent. Let these generous sentiments be supposed ever so weak; let them be insufficient to move even a hand or finger of our body; they must still direct the determinations of our mind, and where every thing else is equal, produce a cool preference of what is useful and serviceable to mankind, above what is pernicious and dangerous.” ~David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals

All throughout this book, empathy is touted as the greatest contributor to peace in a society. Adam Smith doubted it. He proposed a charming “Little Finger Paradox” that goes such: If a natural disaster were to befall a foreign people you would probably feel sorry for them but lose no sleep over it, being so far removed from your own daily life. Yet if some personal “disaster” were to befall you, such as losing your little finger in an accident, such a thing would dominate your thinking, your speech, your actions, and sustain a sense of anguish in you for quite some time. Suppose then that you were offered a bargain of sacrificing your little finger in order to save millions from some far-off disaster. Most people would accept such a sacrifice, not necessarily out of a sense of grandiosity, but of reason: one individual’s little finger is worth far less than millions of strangers’ lives. Why the disconnect? His “paradox” asks why our emotions (indifference vs agitation) are so varied from a reasoned comparison. Of course, it’s no paradox at all, it merely highlights the fact that emotion (including sympathy) is a biological function of a self-interested animal, and that reason is something that transcends evolution.

While there are several better angels in the human constitution, Pinker declares reason the king of them all. Reason is what allows us to analyze moral puzzles like the above from a disinterested bird’s eye view before making decisions that affect us personally. In the world of abstract reason, “my little finger” and “a disaster claiming millions of lives” can be represented as “a small loss for X” vs “a great loss for millions of Y” and this abstraction, from “me vs you” and “us vs them” to a generic “X vs Y” is the engine at the heart of empathy. The ability to step outside yourself and see the world through the eyes of those around you (and others far away!) leads to an attitude of “there but for fortune go I.” It is reason, therefore, that underlies the philosophies of secular humanism and classical liberalism. (“Classical” used here to distinguish enlightenment thinking from the modern political use of the word “liberal.”)

What about morality? Most of us have an instinctive understanding of crime and mayhem as being committed by a small group of people driven by motives of pure evil and hatred. In effect, we project our shadow (to borrow a term from Jung) on those we dislike, misunderstand, or are suspicious of, and consider “them” living in a separate world completely cordoned off from our own, living by principles completely antithetical to our own. This is “morality.” The idea that some core set of principles guides the better angels of our natures and those that stray from those principles or were never taught them are unhuman and descend into a life of darkness. Immoral individuals can only be “saved” from darkness by instilling in them the right principles, and if they cannot be saved, they ought to be oppressed, resisted, vilified, and excoriated. The central problem with morality is this all or nothing approach to the way we treat people. Shared cultural values place a stranger within your circle of empathy, and there are no holds barred regarding the treatment of those outside of it.

The fact is that 99% of crime and mayhem is perpetuated in the name of morality, not sadism. Consider: terrorists consider themselves soldiers; most gang violence is perpetuated in the defense of honor and retribution; many murders are crimes of passion, and most murderers maintain their innocence for the duration of their incarceration (“he made me do it”). So for starters, the facts are not with morality. The illusion of morality contains at its heart the very key to transcending it: What are those core principles, if not lighthouses designed to steer us away from our own impulses? Does the very existence of “thou shalt not kill” imply the existence of the killing instinct within us? Don’t we all have the capacity to kill under the right circumstances, say, if defending our family from a home invader or if dropped into enemy territory in wartime? Enter reason: All human beings, regardless of their cultural values, share a common set of motives and emotions, encoded in human DNA. We are angered by an insult, saddened by death and injury, envious of those who have more, and long for the respect and adoration of others, to name a few. These are the “X’s and Y’s” that make human beings interchangeable when analyzing hard moral questions: How would I react if my spouse was shot? My house burned? My city flooded? My country bombed? If I were born in a dictatorship?

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest. The human moral sense can excuse any atrocity in the minds of those who commit it, and it furnishes them with motives for acts of violence that bring them no tangible benefit.

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.