Stephen Pinker’s guide to violence: dotting some “i’s” in Rawls

Stephen Pinker's new book is a powerful paean to humanistic modernity. But its method of questioning may not be its own best friend
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
4 November 2011

I’ve had three recent experiences and one piece of reading that have got me thinking (critically) about John Rawls’ counterfactual intuition pump. John Ralws - the American philosopher of liberal/social democracy -  proposed that a good way to guide political choices is to imagine what rule on some subject or other would prevail in a society built on a collective agreement struck before anyone knew what actual life they would live in that society. Rawls asked for a choice “behind a veil of ignorance”. Think of it as agreeing the rules of a card game before the cards are dealt … (“oh! you mean low clubs are _bad_??? that’s not how I see it, now I’ve seen my hand...”)

Here are the recent experiences that have reminded me of the habit of thought - not an altogether positive one - that the Rawlsian question naturally invites. The first was a very congenial supper just after the fall of Tripoli; the second was a visit to a World War 1 war grave in Northern France; the third was an Intelligence Squared talk given by Stephen Pinker in which he presented his thesis on declining rates of violence (disclosure - iQ2 employ me part time); and the reading was Elizabeth de Fontenay’s philosophical memoir (that I have used in the “quote of the day” here before).

First, the dinner just after the fall of Tripoli. A person I like and whose judgement I respect offered this Rawlsianism: “If I were to be tortured, I’d rather it be at Guantanamo than in Tripoli”. It was a Rawlsianism in the sense that the person was proposing this thought game: “all you know is you’re going to be tortured; now come up with a preference ranking over societies”. This was torture behind the veil of ignorance, as it were.

Now, I don’t really want to argue the facts. If (under duress) I really had to make this kind of choice, I imagine I would go along with the proposer. But the point is to try to understand why the Rawlsian question might be a damaging one - a part of the problem, not the solution.

In this case it seemed clear: if you use it to make these sorts of invidious comparisons, then you tend to ignore the specificity, the criticism and the sorts of solutions that are needed to counter two undoubted ills. In the US, due process was easily circumvented; even a president genuinely committed to ending the abuse could not … etc. To effectively criticise and reform, we need a real understanding of America, its politics and its culture; we don't need to know much about Libya. I am appalled at the violence, vengefulness and blood-lust that was reported from the victorious forces in Tripoli. I have little idea of how those episodes of violence might be made more infrequent, but I know others will know better. To make the comparison - to bring the two together behind a Rawlsian veil actually disarms the right kind of criticism on all sides. A comparison is always an invitation to ignore the specific, and the Rawlsian method in political judgement is therefore essentially de-particularising. It might smetimes happen that we can learn what works in one context and apply to another, but that needs even more attention to the particular to avoid the possibility of creating the worst sort of well-intentioned interventions. Maybe Rawlsian comparisons are simply a bad habit for most policy decisions.

Now for the intense experience of the particular that also now calls Rawls to mind. I was in Northern France over half term, and we took a morning out of the delights of the coastal holiday to visit the nearest war cemetery, which happened to be at Wimereux. These were mostly British and Commonwealth graves from World War 1. They commemorated those who had mostly died at a local hospital in Boulogne-sur-Mer. A few lines of inscription on each grave, usually from family, spoke, even in the extraordinarily reduced format, of the specific love, place, pain, life of each. “If love could have saved, he would not have died. His sister” … “the only son of Mr & Mrs ...” … Thousands of testaments to loss condensed into just a few words. And even when they were not personal stories, they were still highly specific. A small Canadian flag had recently been planted by the Canadian graves, and one of them was inscribed just with “One of many Canadian Indians who gave their life for …” and here I no longer remember what it had been claimed he had died for; the popular placeholders were “empire”, “freedom”, “us”. The absence of the personal, with the continued, small, official recognition in the fresh flag, tells its own story.

The experience in Wimereux was the antithesis of Rawlsianism - each actual life remembered; a few words to take us away from the veil of ignorance of the statistics of World War 1 deaths. Even the couple of seconds that reading each inscription takes is part of a habit of mind that Rawls wants us to avoid in political judgement.

Now for another Rawlsian experience: Stephen Pinker’s commanding presentation at an Intelligence Squared talk (see the video in the side-box on this page) of his impressive new book on violence, “The Better Angels of our Nature. The decline of violence in history and its causes”. (There is a short article by Pinker from a couple of years ago that summarises the thesis over here. The book is very rich analytically and Pinker is a master of thought-provoking detail; the presentation he gave at the Royal Geographic Society has many more of the interesting graphs than the online article). 

Pinker is utterly convincing in presenting the evidence of a reduction in rates of violence of (almost) all sorts over the last 5,000 years. (Ivan Briscoe wonders, in a powerful essay on openDemocracy, how these statistics translate into a sense of security and notes, rightly, that these are different questions). The detail is fascinating and the range of the scholarship impressive. Here is a typical example from the evidential, first part of the book.

Here is Pinker showing the "Hobbesian revolution" - from anarchic band to State and the consequent fall in rates of violent death. Again, my point is not to go into the detail or the presentation of the numbers - is there selection bias in the historical and archaeological record, etc. Instead, I want to focus on the form of question that Pinker is asking. His best evidence is on rates of death, and it is reflected in the text with his emphasis on the thought experiment of “your risk of reaching a violent end”. The moral thrust of Pinker’s thesis comes from this essentially Rawlsian move: “if you had to chose which society to be born into, and given that coming to a violent end is one of the worst life-outcomes imaginable, where would you like to go?”

Rawls’ “A theory of justice”, the 1971 book in which he develops his veil of ignorance argument, is richly full of theory from many fields of social science but very short of history and example. If he had written it in an intellectual climate kinder to the anecdotal than was the 1960s, the book might have been more like Pinker’s and a much better and more convincing read for it. Rawls tries to construct a theory-based counterfactual to convince us that we’d choose social-democratic societies in which the welfare of the least-well off is properly regarded. Pinker offers history instead of theory: modern, individualist, capitalist societies are pretty convincingly the ones in which your chance of the very worst outcomes is lowest. Just as the appreciator of fine wines might wander the aisles of a well-stocked boutique holding Parker’s guide to score what was on offer, so, if you were ever in a supermarket for societies, you’d do well to carry around Pinker’s.

But Pinker and Parker are different, of course, in an important respect: you do choose amongst many competing wines, but you don’t choose societies. You are born into a time and place and you engage with your environment. How useful is Pinker’s question when it comes to that situation? He is offering a thought experiment from decision theory: “which society would you choose? which is least risky?” Yet, as Pinker himself argues (approvingly citing utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer), one of the important driving forces for the reduction in the riskiness of society are the habits of empathy. Human empathy asks not “what would you choose?”, but rather “what is it like to be you rather than me?”

So here is the issue: does Pinker’s central question, the one of risk, itself contribute to reducing the very worst risks? or is some other habit of thought involved? Since we’re not in the social supermarket, what habits of mind, what thought experiments, prepare us properly for social choice? My moment at the Wimereux war grave suggests a different mental exercise. What if, instead of the imaginary social supermarket, you decided to spend an imaginary 20 seconds in front of every violent death, a virtual war cemetery? I doubt you would ever in a lifetime leave the 20th century and its mass produced industrialised violence. Instead of plotting the rate of death, why not plot the acreage of imaginary war graves? That graph would point decidedly and depressingly upwards, not downwards.

I had the good fortune to be able to put the point to Stephen Pinker, and his reply was two-fold. The first was a recommendation to read to the end of the book where he explicitly makes this point. And so he does:; this is taken from his penultimate paragraph:

“...I have adopted a voice that is analytic, and at times irreverent, because I believe the topic has inspired too much piety and not enough understanding. But at no point have I been unaware of the reality behind the numbers. To review the history of violence is to be repeatedly astounded by the cruelty and waste of it all, and at times to be overcome with anger, disgust and immeasurable sadness. I know that behind the graphs there is a young man who feels a stab of pain and watches the life drain slowly out of him …. [and] the numbers are not in the hundreds, or the thousands, or even the millions, but in the hundreds of millions - an order of magnitude that the mind staggers to comprehend, with deepening horror as it comes to realize just how much suffering has been inflicted by the naked ape upon its own kind.”

The second part of his answer was that modernity would certainly cover more space in the virtual cemetery, but that it has also allowed vastly more fulfilled lives than other periods. This, in a sense, is his way back to the Rawlsian veil of ignorance. If you are in that position of choice, you care about the likelihood of good lives as well as the extent of terrible ends. 

This Rawlsian attitude is sometimes right. Policy does need to be made, and impersonality is important in many of the operations of the State and the law. But we shouldn’t think it is obviously the right attitude for us in our contemplation of history. Here, finally, is the connection to Elisabeth de Fontenay’s philosophical memoir, “Actes de Naissance”. She writes:

“I do not accept that conflicts are resolved through some dialectical achievement of synthesis … Isn’t there a huge degree of bad faith - or even callousness -  in accepting the divisions [of conflict]? ‘Every determination is a negation’ according to Spinoza … Thus, [in the face of conflict] I remain in two minds, and I don’t think this is duplicity. I have never sacrificed anything for anything else, and perhaps that is why I have never held or seized anything...”

Rawlsianism, and utilitarianism more generally, tries to always put us in the stance of the decision - to resolve the conflict of goods and bads - of realised lives versus violent deaths - by netting them out, de Fontenay’s “dialectical achievement of synthesis”. Instead, she proposes a stance that avoids the negation - in this case the denial of the reality of the massive scale of violent death that becomes drowned in the synthesis represented by rates of death. When de Fontenay says that her two-mindedness has led her to "never holding and seizing" anything, she may be describing some philosophical detachment; but the military metaphor is very striking in the context.Pinker’s statistics and his analysis of modernity tell an important story. But it is important not  to forget his penultimate paragraph. Remain in two minds but without duplicity. Avoid the bad faith of utilitarian netting out. What good, after all, does it do?

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