Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan

Rights arise from voluntary and enduring social relationships. In that respect, they are natural because they represent the accommodations that a people make with each other in order to coexist peacefully and to their mutual benefit. (Natural rights, as I define them, are not the same thing as the kind of “natural rights” that many philosophers, political theorists, mystics and opportunistic politicians claim to find hovering in human beings like Platonic essences. See this, this, this, and this, for example.)

Natural rights, in sum, are the interpersonal claims that a people agree upon and (mainly) observe in their daily interactions. The claims can be negative (do not kill, except in self-defense) or positive (children must be clothed, fed, and taught about rights). For reasons discussed later, such claims are valid and generally honored even if there isn’t a superior power (a chieftain, monarch, or state apparatus) to enforce them.

Liberty is the condition in which agreed rights are generally observed, and enforced when they are violated. Liberty, in other words, is the condition of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Peaceful, willing coexistence does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference”, which is a standard definition of liberty. Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of beneficially cooperative behavior. Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

That’s all there is to it. Liberty isn’t a nirvana-like state of euphoria; it’s just what everyday life is like when people are able to coexist by their own lights, perhaps under the aegis of a superior power which does nothing but ensure that they are able to do so.

The persistence of natural rights and liberty among a people is fostered primarily by mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Punishment of violations of rights (and therefore of liberty) helps, too, as long as the punishment is generally agreed upon and applied consistently.

Natural rights, as discussed thus far, are distinct from “rights” (sometimes “natural rights”) that people demand of a superior power. (See, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is a wish-list of things that people are “entitled” to.) Those are really privileges. Government can (and sometimes does) recognize and protect truly natural rights, but it doesn’t manufacture them. The Bill of Rights, for example, consists of a hodge-podge of actual rights (e.g., the right to bear arms), and privileges (e.g., protection from self-incrimination). Some of the latter are special dispensations made necessary by the existence of government itself, that is, promises made by the government to protect the people from its superior power.

As mentioned in passing earlier, rights are usually divided into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are natural rights that can be exercised without requiring anything of others but reciprocal forbearance [1]. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Adrian has a negative right to x against Clay if and only if Clay is prohibited from acting upon Adrian in some way regarding x…. A case in point, if Adrian has a negative right to life against Clay, then Clay is required to refrain from killing Adrian….

To spin out the example, there is a negative right not to be harmed (killed in this case) as long as Clay is forbidden to kill Adrian, Adrian is forbidden to kill Clay, both are forbidden to kill others, and others are forbidden to kill anyone. This is a widely understood and accepted negative right. But it is not an unconditional right. There are also widely understood and accepted exceptions to it, such as killing in self-defense.

In any event, the textbook explanation of negative rights, such as the one given by Wikipedia, is appealing. But it is simplistic, like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

“Negative rights” and “harm”, by themselves, are mere abstractions. It seems obvious that a person shouldn’t be harmed as long as he is doing no harm to others, which is the essence of Wikipedia‘s explanation. But “harm” is the operative word. Harm isn’t an abstraction; it’s a real thing — many real things — with concrete meanings. And those concrete meanings arise from social interactions and the norms born of them.

For example, libertarians consider it a negative right to sell one’s home to another person without interference by one’s neighbors (or the state acting on their behalf). One’s neighbors must forbear intervention, just as the seller must forbear intervention against the sales of the neighbors’ homes. But intervention may be necessary to prevent harm.

The part that libertarians usually get wrong is forbearance. Libertarians assume forbearance. They assume forbearance because they assume away — or simply ignore — the possibility that a voluntary transaction between two parties may result in harm to third parties.

But what if the buyer is an absentee owner who rents rooms to all and sundry (resulting in parking problems, an eyesore property, etc.)? Libertarians reject zoning as an infringement on the negative right of property ownership. So what are put-upon neighbors supposed to do about the absentee landlord who rents rooms to all and sundry? Well, the neighbors can always complain to the city government if things get out of hand, can’t they? Yes, but in the meantime harm will have been done, and the police may not be able to put a stop to it unless the harm actually violates a statute or ordinance that the police and courts are willing and able to enforce without being attacked as racist pigs, or some such thing.

Does the libertarian conception of negative rights have room in it for homeowners’ associations that actually allow neighborhoods to define harm, as it applies to their particular circumstances, and act to prevent it? In my experience, the libertarian conception of negative property rights — thou shalt not interfere in the sale of a house — has become enshrined in statutes and ordinances that de-fang homeowners’ associations, making them powerless to prevent harm by enforcing restrictive covenants (e.g., against renting rooms) that libertarians decry as infringements of negative rights.

The only negative rights worthy of the name are specific rights that are recognized within a voluntary and enduring association of persons. Violations of those rights undermine the fabric of mutual trust and mutual forbearance that enable a people to coexist in beneficial, voluntary cooperation. That — not some imaginary nirvana — is liberty.

By the same token, a voluntary and enduring association of persons can recognize positive rights. That is to say, positive rights — those broadly accepted as part and parcel of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior — are just as much an aspect of liberty as are negative rights. (Doctrinaire libertarians, who aren’t really libertarians, mistakenly decry all positive rights as antithetical to liberty.)

Returning to the Wikipedia article quoted above, and the example of Adrian and Clay,

Adrian has a positive right to x against Clay if and only if Clay is obliged to act upon Adrian in some way regarding x…. [I]f Adrian has a positive right to life against Clay, then Clay is required to act as necessary to preserve the life of Adrian.

Negative and positive rights are compatible with each other in the context of the Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity: One should treat others as one would expect others to treat oneself. This is a truly natural law, for reasons I will come to.

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule fosters negative rights. The second sub-rule fosters positive rights. But, as discussed earlier, the rights in question are specific — not abstract injunctions — because they are understood and recognized in the context of voluntary and enduring social relationships.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct (e.g., the “given-if-then” formulation discussed here) nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy.

That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it. Those benefits accrue not only to the person who complies with the Golden Rule in a particular situation (the actor), but also to the person (or persons) who benefit from compliance (the beneficiary). The consequences of compliance don’t usually redound immediately to the actor, but they redound indirectly over the long-term because the actor (and many more like him) do their part to preserve the convention. It follows that the immediate impetus for observance of the convention is a mixture of two considerations: (a) an understanding of the importance of preserving the convention and (b) empathy on the part of the actor toward the beneficiary.

The Golden Rule will be widely observed within a group only if the members of the group are (a) generally agreed about the definition of harm, (b) value kindness and charity (in the main), and (c) perhaps most importantly see that their acts have beneficial consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to slogan.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? Yes, with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned. (Many — with whom I wouldn’t choose to coexist voluntarily — embrace it as a concomitant of a government-run or government-regulated health-care “system” that treats the delivery of medical services as matter of rationing.) Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. (More behavior that is beyond the pale of my preferred society.) Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation, and occasional acceptance. (To be pro-homosexual nowadays — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that connote membership in the tribe of “enlightened” “progressives” [a.k.a., “liberals” and leftists], along with being for abortion [i.e., pre-natal infanticide] and against the consumption of fossil fuels — except for one’s McMansion and SUV, of course.)

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring various behaviors, that is, regarding them as beneficial or harmful. Those reasons range from utilitarianism (calculated weighing of costs and benefits) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons for favoring or disfavoring various behaviors. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there a strong risk that it will not be indulged responsibly, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits, or to severely restrict and monitor it.

Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care); infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life); homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice — especially among males — that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges); alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). In the absence of governmental edicts to the contrary, long-standing attitudes toward such behaviors would prevail in most places. (Socially and geographically isolated enclaves are welcome to kill themselves off and purify the gene pool.)

The exceptions discussed above to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Killing is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “takings” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “takings” ,especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it”.)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art”.)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect. (Leftists turn a virtue into an imposition when they insist that “charity” — as in income redistribution — is a proper job of government.)

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, but kindness and charity are nevertheless indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who in an enduring social relationship. Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

Of course, the delicate balance would be upset if the Golden Rule were violated with impunity. For that reason, the it must be backed by sanctions. Non-physical sanctions would range from reprimands to ostracism. For violations of the negative sub-rule, imprisonment and corporal punishment would not be out of the question.

Now comes a dose of reality. Self-governance is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual forbearance — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.

More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat family members, friends, and acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

The preference of like for like is derided by libertarians and leftists as tribalism, which is like the pot calling the kettle black. There’s no one who is more tribal than a leftist, who weighs every word spoken by another person to ensure that person’s alignment with the left’s current dogmas. (Libertarians have it easier, inasmuch as most of them are loners by disposition, and thrive on contrariness.) But the preference of like for like is quite rational: Cooperation and help include mutual defense (and concerted attack, in the case of leftists).

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another (as the referee of last resort) and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from a self-governing community to a component of a state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may operate within non-kinship groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves) by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises in part from the fear of giving offense that will be met with hostility or harm, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms. And the state will diminish the ability of members of a group to bestow charity on one another through the loss of income to taxes and the displacement of private charity by state-run schemes that mimic charity (e.g., Social Security).

The all-powerful state destroys liberty, even while sometimes defending it. This is done not just by dictating how people must live their lives, which is bad enough. It is also done by eroding the social bonds that liberty is built upon — the bonds that secure peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.
[1] Here is a summary of negative rights, by Randy Barnett:

A libertarian … favors the rigorous protection of certain individual rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act. These fundamental rights consist of (1) the right of private property, which includes the property one has in one’s own person; (2) the right of freedom of contract by which rights are transferred by one person to another; (3) the right of first possession, by which property comes to be owned from an unowned state; (4) the right to defend oneself and others when fundamental rights are being threatened; and (5) the right to restitution or compensation from those who violate another’s fundamental rights. [“Is the Constitution Libertarian?”, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1432854 (posted at SSRN July 14, 2009), p. 3]

Borrowing from and elaborating on Barnett’s list, I come to the following set of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.

This set of negative rights that would obtain in a state which devolves political decisions to the level of socially cohesive groups, while serving only as the defender of such rights (in the last resort) against domestic and foreign predators.

The Fallacy of Human Progress

Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is cited gleefully by leftists and cockeyed optimists as evidence that human beings, on the whole, are becoming kinder and gentler because of:

  • The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”
  • Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;
  • Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”
  • Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which “can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”;
  • The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

I can tell you that Pinker’s book is hogwash because two very bright leftists — Peter Singer and Will Wilkinson — have strongly and wrongly endorsed some of its key findings. Singer writes:

Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution. Among the wide range of evidence he produces in support of that argument is the tidbit that since 1946, there has been a negative correlation between an American president’s I.Q. and the number of battle deaths in wars involving the United States.

I disposed of this staggeringly specious correlation here:

There is the convenient cutoff point of 1946. Why 1946? Well, it enables Pinker-Singer to avoid the inconvenient fact that the Civil War, World War I, and World War II happened while the presidency was held by three men who [purportedly] had high IQs: Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR….

If you buy the brand of snake oil being peddled by Pinker-Singer, you must believe that the “dumbest” and “smartest” presidents are unlikely to get the U.S. into wars that result in a lot of battle deaths, whereas some (but, mysteriously, not all) of the “medium-smart” presidents (Lincoln, Wilson, FDR) are likely to do so….

Let us advance from one to two explanatory variables. The second explanatory variable that strongly suggests itself is political party. And because it is not good practice to omit relevant statistics (a favorite gambit of liars), I estimated an equation based on “IQ” and battle deaths for the 27 men who served as president from the first Republican presidency (Lincoln’s) through the presidency of GWB….

In other words, battle deaths rise at the rate of 841 per IQ point (so much for Pinker-Singer). But there will be fewer deaths with a Republican in the White House (so much for Pinker-Singer’s implied swipe at GWB)….

All of this is nonsense, of course, for two reasons: [the] estimates of IQ are hogwash, and the number of U.S. battle deaths is a meaningless number, taken by itself.

… [The] estimates of presidents’ IQs put every one of them — including the “dumbest,” U.S. Grant — in the top 2.3 percent of the population. And the mean of Simonton’s estimates puts the average president in the top 0.1 percent (one-tenth of one percent) of the population. That is literally incredible.

As for Wilkinson, he praises statistics adduced by Pinker that show a decline in the use of capital punishment:

In the face of such a decisive trend in moral culture, we can say a couple different things. We can say that this is just change and says nothing in particular about what is really right or wrong, good or bad. Or we can take take say this is evidence of moral progress, that we have actually become better. I prefer the latter interpretation for basically the same reasons most of us see the abolition of slavery and the trend toward greater equality between races and sexes as progress and not mere morally indifferent change. We can talk about the nature of moral progress later. It’s tricky. For now, I want you to entertain the possibility that convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong counts as evidence that it is wrong.

My observation:

I would count convergence toward the idea that execution is wrong as evidence that it is wrong, if … that idea were (a) increasingly held by individuals who (b) had arrived at their “enlightenment” unnfluenced by operatives of the state (legislatures and judges), who take it upon themselves to flout popular support of the death penalty. What we have, in the case of the death penalty, is moral regress, not moral progress.

Moral regress because the abandonment of the death penalty puts innocent lives at risk. Capital punishment sends a message, and the message is effective when it is delivered: it deters homicide. And even if it didn’t, it would at least remove killers from our midst, permanently. By what standard of morality can one claim that it is better to spare killers than to protect innocents? For that matter, by what standard of morality is it better to kill innocents (in the womb) than to spare killers? Proponents of abortion (like Singer and Wilkinson) — who by and large oppose capital punishment — are completely lacking in moral authority.

Returning to Pinker’s thesis that violence has declined, I quote a review at Foseti:

Pinker’s basic problem is that he essentially defines “violence” in such a way that his thesis that violence is declining becomes self-fulling. “Violence” to Pinker is fundamentally synonymous with behaviors of older civilizations. On the other hand, modern practices are defined to be less violent than newer practices.

A while back, I linked to a story about a guy in my neighborhood who’s been arrested over 60 times for breaking into cars. A couple hundred years ago, this guy would have been killed for this sort of vandalism after he got caught the first time. Now, we feed him and shelter him for a while and then we let him back out to do this again. Pinker defines the new practice as a decline in violence – we don’t kill the guy anymore! Someone from a couple hundred years ago would be appalled that we let the guy continue destroying other peoples’ property without consequence. In the mind of those long dead, “violence” has in fact increased. Instead of a decline in violence, this practice seems to me like a decline in justice – nothing more or less.

Here’s another example, Pinker uses creative definitions to show that the conflicts of the 20th Century pale in comparison to previous conflicts. For example, all the Mongol Conquests are considered one event, even though they cover 125 years. If you lump all these various conquests together and you split up WWI, WWII, Mao’s takeover in China, the Bolshevik takeover of Russia, the Russian Civil War, and the Chinese Civil War (yes, he actually considers this a separate event from Mao), you unsurprisingly discover that the events of the 20th Century weren’t all that violent compared to events in the past! Pinker’s third most violent event is the “Mideast Slave Trade” which he says took place between the 7th and 19th Centuries. Seriously. By this standard, all the conflicts of the 20th Century are related. Is the Russian Revolution or the rise of Mao possible without WWII? Is WWII possible without WWI? By this consistent standard, the 20th Century wars of Communism would have seen the worst conflict by far. Of course, if you fiddle with the numbers, you can make any point you like.

There’s much more to the review, including some telling criticisms of Pinker’s five reasons for the (purported) decline in violence. That the reviewer somehow still wants to believe in the rightness of Pinker’s thesis says more about the reviewer’s optimism than it does about the validity of Pinker’s thesis.

That thesis is fundamentally flawed, as Robert Epstein points out in a review at Scientific American:

[T]he wealth of data [Pinker] presents cannot be ignored—unless, that is, you take the same liberties as he sometimes does in his book. In two lengthy chapters, Pinker describes psychological processes that make us either violent or peaceful, respectively. Our dark side is driven by a evolution-based propensity toward predation and dominance. On the angelic side, we have, or at least can learn, some degree of self-control, which allows us to inhibit dark tendencies.

There is, however, another psychological process—confirmation bias—that Pinker sometimes succumbs to in his book. People pay more attention to facts that match their beliefs than those that undermine them. Pinker wants peace, and he also believes in his hypothesis; it is no surprise that he focuses more on facts that support his views than on those that do not. The SIPRI arms data are problematic, and a reader can also cherry-pick facts from Pinker’s own book that are inconsistent with his position. He notes, for example, that during the 20th century homicide rates failed to decline in both the U.S. and England. He also describes in graphic and disturbing detail the savage way in which chimpanzees—our closest genetic relatives in the animal world—torture and kill their own kind.

Of greater concern is the assumption on which Pinker’s entire case rests: that we look at relative numbers instead of absolute numbers in assessing human violence. But why should we be content with only a relative decrease? By this logic, when we reach a world population of nine billion in 2050, Pinker will conceivably be satisfied if a mere two million people are killed in war that year.

The biggest problem with the book, though, is its overreliance on history, which, like the light on a caboose, shows us only where we are not going. We live in a time when all the rules are being rewritten blindingly fast—when, for example, an increasingly smaller number of people can do increasingly greater damage. Yes, when you move from the Stone Age to modern times, some violence is left behind, but what happens when you put weapons of mass destruction into the hands of modern people who in many ways are still living primitively? What happens when the unprecedented occurs—when a country such as Iran, where women are still waiting for even the slightest glimpse of those better angels, obtains nuclear weapons? Pinker doesn’t say.

Pinker’s belief that violence is on the decline reminds me of “it’s different this time,” a phrase that was on the lips of hopeful stock-pushers, stock-buyers, and pundits during the stock-market bubble of the late 1990s. That bubble ended, of course, in the spectacular crash of 2000.

Predictions about the future of humankind are better left in the hands of writers who see human nature whole, and who are not out to prove that it can be shaped or contained by the kinds of “liberal” institutions that Pinker so obviously favors.

Consider this, from an article by Robert J. Samuelson at The Washington Post:

[T]he Internet’s benefits are relatively modest compared with previous transformative technologies, and it brings with it a terrifying danger: cyberwar. Amid the controversy over leaks from the National Security Agency, this looms as an even bigger downside.

By cyberwarfare, I mean the capacity of groups — whether nations or not — to attack, disrupt and possibly destroy the institutions and networks that underpin everyday life. These would be power grids, pipelines, communication and financial systems, business record-keeping and supply-chain operations, railroads and airlines, databases of all types (from hospitals to government agencies). The list runs on. So much depends on the Internet that its vulnerability to sabotage invites doomsday visions of the breakdown of order and trust.

In a report, the Defense Science Board, an advisory group to the Pentagon, acknowledged “staggering losses” of information involving weapons design and combat methods to hackers (not identified, but probably Chinese). In the future, hackers might disarm military units. “U.S. guns, missiles and bombs may not fire, or may be directed against our own troops,” the report said. It also painted a specter of social chaos from a full-scale cyberassault. There would be “no electricity, money, communications, TV, radio or fuel (electrically pumped). In a short time, food and medicine distribution systems would be ineffective.”

But Pinker wouldn’t count the resulting chaos as violence, as long as human beings were merely starving and dying of various diseases. That violence would ensue, of course, is another story, which is told by John Gray in The Silence of Animals: On Progress and Other Modern Myths. Gray’s book — published  18 months after Better Angels — could be read as a refutation of Pinker’s book, though Gray doesn’t mention Pinker or his book.

The gist of Gray’s argument is faithfully recounted in a review of Gray’s book by Robert W. Merry at The National Interest:

The noted British historian J. B. Bury (1861–1927) … wrote, “This doctrine of the possibility of indefinitely moulding the characters of men by laws and institutions . . . laid a foundation on which the theory of the perfectibility of humanity could be raised. It marked, therefore, an important stage in the development of the doctrine of Progress.”

We must pause here over this doctrine of progress. It may be the most powerful idea ever conceived in Western thought—emphasizing Western thought because the idea has had little resonance in other cultures or civilizations. It is the thesis that mankind has advanced slowly but inexorably over the centuries from a state of cultural backwardness, blindness and folly to ever more elevated stages of enlightenment and civilization—and that this human progression will continue indefinitely into the future…. The U.S. historian Charles A. Beard once wrote that the emergence of the progress idea constituted “a discovery as important as the human mind has ever made, with implications for mankind that almost transcend imagination.” And Bury, who wrote a book on the subject, called it “the great transforming conception, which enables history to define her scope.”

Gray rejects it utterly. In doing so, he rejects all of modern liberal humanism. “The evidence of science and history,” he writes, “is that humans are only ever partly and intermittently rational, but for modern humanists the solution is simple: human beings must in future be more reasonable. These enthusiasts for reason have not noticed that the idea that humans may one day be more rational requires a greater leap of faith than anything in religion.” In an earlier work, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he was more blunt: “Outside of science, progress is simply a myth.”

…Gray has produced more than twenty books demonstrating an expansive intellectual range, a penchant for controversy, acuity of analysis and a certain political clairvoyance.

He rejected, for example, Francis Fukuyama’s heralded “End of History” thesis—that Western liberal democracy represents the final form of human governance—when it appeared in this magazine in 1989. History, it turned out, lingered long enough to prove Gray right and Fukuyama wrong….

Though for decades his reputation was confined largely to intellectual circles, Gray’s public profile rose significantly with the 2002 publication of Straw Dogs, which sold impressively and brought him much wider acclaim than he had known before. The book was a concerted and extensive assault on the idea of progress and its philosophical offspring, secular humanism. The Silence of Animals is in many ways a sequel, plowing much the same philosophical ground but expanding the cultivation into contiguous territory mostly related to how mankind—and individual humans—might successfully grapple with the loss of both metaphysical religion of yesteryear and today’s secular humanism. The fundamentals of Gray’s critique of progress are firmly established in both books and can be enumerated in summary.

First, the idea of progress is merely a secular religion, and not a particularly meaningful one at that. “Today,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, “liberal humanism has the pervasive power that was once possessed by revealed religion. Humanists like to think they have a rational view of the world; but their core belief in progress is a superstition, further from the truth about the human animal than any of the world’s religions.”

Second, the underlying problem with this humanist impulse is that it is based upon an entirely false view of human nature—which, contrary to the humanist insistence that it is malleable, is immutable and impervious to environmental forces. Indeed, it is the only constant in politics and history. Of course, progress in scientific inquiry and in resulting human comfort is a fact of life, worth recognition and applause. But it does not change the nature of man, any more than it changes the nature of dogs or birds. “Technical progress,” writes Gray, again in Straw Dogs, “leaves only one problem unsolved: the frailty of human nature. Unfortunately that problem is insoluble.”

That’s because, third, the underlying nature of humans is bred into the species, just as the traits of all other animals are. The most basic trait is the instinct for survival, which is placed on hold when humans are able to live under a veneer of civilization. But it is never far from the surface. In The Silence of Animals, Gray discusses the writings of Curzio Malaparte, a man of letters and action who found himself in Naples in 1944, shortly after the liberation. There he witnessed a struggle for life that was gruesome and searing. “It is a humiliating, horrible thing, a shameful necessity, a fight for life,” wrote Malaparte. “Only for life. Only to save one’s skin.” Gray elaborates:

Observing the struggle for life in the city, Malaparte watched as civilization gave way. The people the inhabitants had imagined themselves to be—shaped, however imperfectly, by ideas of right and wrong—disappeared. What were left were hungry animals, ready to do anything to go on living; but not animals of the kind that innocently kill and die in forests and jungles. Lacking a self-image of the sort humans cherish, other animals are content to be what they are. For human beings the struggle for survival is a struggle against themselves.

When civilization is stripped away, the raw animal emerges. “Darwin showed that humans are like other animals,” writes Gray in Straw Dogs, expressing in this instance only a partial truth. Humans are different in a crucial respect, captured by Gray himself when he notes that Homo sapiens inevitably struggle with themselves when forced to fight for survival. No other species does that, just as no other species has such a range of spirit, from nobility to degradation, or such a need to ponder the moral implications as it fluctuates from one to the other. But, whatever human nature is—with all of its capacity for folly, capriciousness and evil as well as virtue, magnanimity and high-mindedness—it is embedded in the species through evolution and not subject to manipulation by man-made institutions.

Fourth, the power of the progress idea stems in part from the fact that it derives from a fundamental Christian doctrine—the idea of providence, of redemption….

“By creating the expectation of a radical alteration in human affairs,” writes Gray, “Christianity . . . founded the modern world.” But the modern world retained a powerful philosophical outlook from the classical world—the Socratic faith in reason, the idea that truth will make us free; or, as Gray puts it, the “myth that human beings can use their minds to lift themselves out of the natural world.” Thus did a fundamental change emerge in what was hoped of the future. And, as the power of Christian faith ebbed, along with its idea of providence, the idea of progress, tied to the Socratic myth, emerged to fill the gap. “Many transmutations were needed before the Christian story could renew itself as the myth of progress,” Gray explains. “But from being a succession of cycles like the seasons, history came to be seen as a story of redemption and salvation, and in modern times salvation became identified with the increase of knowledge and power.”

Thus, it isn’t surprising that today’s Western man should cling so tenaciously to his faith in progress as a secular version of redemption. As Gray writes, “Among contemporary atheists, disbelief in progress is a type of blasphemy. Pointing to the flaws of the human animal has become an act of sacrilege.” In one of his more brutal passages, he adds:

Humanists believe that humanity improves along with the growth of knowledge, but the belief that the increase of knowledge goes with advances in civilization is an act of faith. They see the realization of human potential as the goal of history, when rational inquiry shows history to have no goal. They exalt nature, while insisting that humankind—an accident of nature—can overcome the natural limits that shape the lives of other animals. Plainly absurd, this nonsense gives meaning to the lives of people who believe they have left all myths behind.

In the Silence of Animals, Gray explores all this through the works of various writers and thinkers. In the process, he employs history and literature to puncture the conceits of those who cling to the progress idea and the humanist view of human nature. Those conceits, it turns out, are easily punctured when subjected to Gray’s withering scrutiny….

And yet the myth of progress is so powerful in part because it gives meaning to modern Westerners struggling, in an irreligious era, to place themselves in a philosophical framework larger than just themselves….

Much of the human folly catalogued by Gray in The Silence of Animals makes a mockery of the earnest idealism of those who later shaped and molded and proselytized humanist thinking into today’s predominant Western civic philosophy.

There was an era of realism, but it was short-lived:

But other Western philosophers, particularly in the realm of Anglo-Saxon thought, viewed the idea of progress in much more limited terms. They rejected the idea that institutions could reshape mankind and usher in a golden era of peace and happiness. As Bury writes, “The general tendency of British thought was to see salvation in the stability of existing institutions, and to regard change with suspicion.” With John Locke, these thinkers restricted the proper role of government to the need to preserve order, protect life and property, and maintain conditions in which men might pursue their own legitimate aims. No zeal here to refashion human nature or remake society.

A leading light in this category of thinking was Edmund Burke (1729–1797), the British statesman and philosopher who, writing in his famous Reflections on the Revolution in France, characterized the bloody events of the Terror as “the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.” He saw them, in other words, as reflecting an abstractionist outlook that lacked any true understanding of human nature. The same skepticism toward the French model was shared by many of the Founding Fathers, who believed with Burke that human nature isn’t malleable but rather potentially harmful to society. Hence, it needed to be checked. The central distinction between the American and French revolutions, in the view of conservative writer Russell Kirk, was that the Americans generally held a “biblical view of man and his bent toward sin,” whereas the French opted for “an optimistic doctrine of human goodness.” Thus, the American governing model emerged as a secular covenant “designed to restrain the human tendencies toward violence and fraud . . . [and] place checks upon will and appetite.”

Most of the American Founders rejected the French philosophes in favor of the thought and history of the Roman Republic, where there was no idea of progress akin to the current Western version. “Two thousand years later,” writes Kirk, “the reputation of the Roman constitution remained so high that the framers of the American constitution would emulate the Roman model as best they could.” They divided government powers among men and institutions and created various checks and balances. Even the American presidency was modeled generally on the Roman consular imperium, and the American Senate bears similarities to the Roman version. Thus did the American Founders deviate from the French abstractionists and craft governmental structures to fit humankind as it actually is—capable of great and noble acts, but also of slipping into vice and treachery when unchecked. That ultimately was the genius of the American system.

But, as the American success story unfolded, a new collection of Western intellectuals, theorists and utopians—including many Americans—continued to toy with the idea of progress. And an interesting development occurred. After centuries of intellectual effort aimed at developing the idea of progress as an ongoing chain of improvement with no perceived end into the future, this new breed of “Progress as Power” thinkers began to declare their own visions as the final end point of this long progression.

Gray calls these intellectuals “ichthyophils,” which he defines as “devoted to their species as they think it ought to be, not as it actually is or as it truly wants to be.” He elaborates: “Ichthyophils come in many varieties—the Jacobin, Bolshevik and Maoist, terrorizing humankind in order to remake it on a new model; the neo-conservative, waging perpetual war as a means to universal democracy; liberal crusaders for human rights, who are convinced that all the world longs to become as they imagine themselves to be.” He includes also “the Romantics, who believe human individuality is everywhere repressed.”

Throughout American politics, as indeed throughout Western politics, a large proportion of major controversies ultimately are battles between the ichthyophils and the Burkeans, between the sensibility of the French Revolution and the sensibility of American Revolution, between adherents of the idea of progress and those skeptical of that potent concept. John Gray has provided a major service in probing with such clarity and acuity the impulses, thinking and aims of those on the ichthyophil side of that great divide. As he sums up, “Allowing the majority of humankind to imagine they are flying fish even as they pass their lives under the waves, liberal civilization rests on a dream.”

And so it goes. On the left there are the ichtyophils of America, represented in huge numbers by “progressives” and their constituents and dupes (i.e., a majority of the public). They are given aid and comfort by a small but vociferous number of pseudo-libertarians (as discussed here, for example). On the right stands a throng of pseudo-conservatives — mainly identified with the Republican Party — who are prone to adopt the language and ideals of progressivism, out of power-lust and ignorance. Almost entirely muted by the sound and fury emanating from left and right — and relatively few in number — are the true libertarians: Burkean conservatives.

And so Leviathan grows, crushing the liberty envisioned by our Burkean Founders in the name of “progress” (i.e., social and economic engineering). And as Robert Samuelson points out, the growth of Leviathan doesn’t ensure our immunity to chaos and barbarity in the event of a debilitating attack on our fragile infrastructure. It is ironic that we would be better able to withstand such an attack without descending into chaos and barbarity had not Leviathan weakened and sundered many true social bonds, in the name of “progress.”

Our thralldom to an essentially impotent Leviathan is of no importance to Pinker, to “progressives,” or the dupes and constituents of “progressivism.” They have struck their Faustian bargain with Leviathan, and they will pay the price, sooner or later. Unfortunately, all of us will pay the price — even those of us who despise and resist Leviathan.

*     *     *

Related reading: Wesley Morganston, “The Long, Slow Collapse: What Whig History Can’t Explain,” Theden, October 26, 2014

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