Fondling as Flourishing: Steven Pinker’s Hymn to Autonomy


Editorial Note: Anamnesis will be publishing a series of book reviews on Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Enjoy the first such review by Professor Glenn Moots.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (New York, NY: Viking Adult, 2011), 832 pp.

About two-thirds of the way into his book, Steven Pinker writes something very revealing, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe . . . nor can I divine it by conscience. But . . . let’s see how much of it we can understand with science” (481). Whereas Tertullian asked, “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” the age of scientism forces us to ask, “What hath evolutionary psychology to do with moral teleology?” I mean “moral teleology” in the classical sense, as Aristotle understood it: human flourishing. Interrogating the terms of human flourishing is not an unreasonable request to make of Pinker. In his book, he claims to champion “humanism” as “the flourishing of humans” and “the only value that cannot be denied.” (183, cf381, 427) But once you get beneath the surface of Pinker’s rhetoric, his only clear prescription for flourishing is to avoid a violent death.

Pinker’s inability to distinguish survival from flourishing exemplifies why modernity and scientism provide a paltry feast for the soul. The expectant reader of Pinker’s tedious book is forced to rely on a few crumbs of overconfident liberalism and cold rhetorical leftovers from the Enlightenment. At 700 pages prose, these leftovers are hardly a light snack. They are inconsistently and eccentrically seasoned by rhetorical excess, hyperbole, overtaxed anecdote, historical reductionism, conceptual overreach, and literature reviews of varying quantity and quality. The result is a book saying very little about a lot, indoctrinating when it should be enlightening, and proselytizing when it should be pondering. One wonders if Pinker has become the social science equivalent of Iris Murdoch, delivering his manuscript to the publisher in a bag—conditional that not one word be changed.

Perhaps association with the Enlightenment is too high a compliment, however. Pinker’s Enlightenment heroes still retained some hope of flourishing through the arts and letters. Many of them still hoped to commune with divinity even if only in vague terms. Better Angels reflects none of the eloquence of early modernity—either its (albeit poor) exaltation of humanity or its respect for divinity. This paucity is most likely due to Pinker’s preference for ephemeral social science over philosophy. When it comes to philosophy, it is not at all clear that Pinker has understood or read many of the canonical sources he rallies to his cause. He calls Edmund Burke’s work “a fine application of reason” and “a small tweaking of Enlightenment humanism” (240). He looks to Cesare Beccaria to support his arguments, but his bibliography and endnotes give no evidence that he’s read a word of Beccaria. He appears to have gleaned it all from Lynn Hunt’s Inventing Human Rights.

Given these initial remarks about style and sources, we now proceed to the argument. Pinker’s triumphal narrative—and it is really a narrative more than it is an argument—promises to explain declines in violence using cognitive sciences (xxiii). But his epistemology is clear as mud. While Pinker is reputed to be a brilliant social scientist, the only definition of science that he can muster is what he calls “scientific in the broad sense of seeking explanations for why things happen.” We are only looking for changes in the human “milieu” giving “our peaceable motives the upper hand” (xxiii). Not surprisingly, the queen of this kind-of-science is the assumption of evolution on all fronts–particularly an evolution that has led us to the pinnacle of humanity: Pinker’s own generation. Prior generations, even as recently as the early twentieth century, were “monstrous” and “stupid” (658). The progress that moved us from generations of monstrous and stupid humans was “propelled by ideas” (133). But Pinker offers no explanation of how or why we acquire or hold our ideas. We may even come to knowledge without our choosing (381). Serendipity meets the Sixties.

And what has this unconscious, serendipitous evolution blissfully delivered us from? All real and historical forms of community, of course. Modernity (and that’s the word that Pinker uses for the shift away from violence) enables us to desert family, tribe, tradition, religion, instinct, culture, authority, purity, and standard practice. In its place is empathy, reason, science, mobility, and cosmopolitanism (xii, 475, 640). (You may not think of those as alternatives, but that’s where you’d be wrong.) The old communities, Pinker argues, were not consensual. The new ones are. Everything nonconsensual contributes to violence because violence is by definition nonconsensual. The highest calling for a man or woman is to survive and freely engage in those activities enabling one’s genetic desire for survival to trump the genetic desire for violence. In one of his frequent episodes of rhetorical self-indulgence, Pinker commends George Carlin’s model man who spends all day on the couch watching TV while fondling himself. After all, Pinker echoes Carlin, he isn’t causing any trouble (622).

To make way for Fondling Man, the highest form of the human species, Pinker attacks the two virtues that might most infringe on his pleasure: religion and honor. There is no nuance or deliberation in Pinker’s attack on them, only a dichotomy pitting “religion and custom” against “science and secular philosophy” (427). Pinker savors every opportunity to insert his evident prejudice against anyone who denies God to be a genocidal, sadistic tyrant. Religion is labeled by Pinker a “dead hand” that impedes science (365). Believers are irrational morons who evangelize by force and respond with rage when met by skepticism (139–140). Pinker mocks anyone who would celebrate a crucifixion, casts martyrologies as perverse voyeurism, and argues that Christianity “sanctified cruelty” for a millennium in Europe (14–15). He demurs by saying that he intends no offense against those who “revere” the Bible, but this olive branch(!) extends only to those who don’t take the book or its religious traditions seriously. After all, Pinker says, those who claim to really be Christians or Jews do not get their morality from the Bible (11–12). Good Jews and Christians are simply moderns who approach their faith in the spirit of autonomy and treat the Word as a talisman. Similar arguments are made about Muslims. They aren’t really committed to Sharia law; it is only a symbolic affiliation with their own culture (367). There are still “theocrats” to fear, however, and Pinker knows this because Damon Linker told him so (704, 735, 756). And don’t forget that everyone knows that Nazis were Catholics, and Catholics are fascists (677). One is dumbfounded that an intellect as highly-regarded as Pinker has devoted nearly 700 pages to everything from modern cartoons to the hypothalamus, but exerts no effort to understand why religion has been both cause and cure of violence. Despite asserting that believers are now harmless hypocrites who compartmentalize their “religious ideology” (17), Pinker is not interested in explaining if or how believers were transformed. Shouldn’t this be part of any robust explanation for the decline of violence, especially in a book of such length?

When Pinker does acknowledge that religion played a role in counteracting violence, it is only in the tersest and vaguest terms (106, 125, 127, 136, 423); the real hero remains a secular humanitarianism that makes “no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people” (183). Should we mention here that Pinker’s own paragons of modernity were hardly the militant secularists that he calls us to be. Furthermore, God may play a very important role in inhibiting violent revenge and sadism. John Locke, whom Pinker mentions on numerous occasions, understood that the Leviathan state Pinker recommends cannot be the final arbiter of justice. For most people, it will be God. As Locke wrote in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, the true source of morality was “the will and law of God, who sees men in the dark, has in his hands rewards and punishments, and power enough to call to account the proudest offender.”

Not only ought there to be no piety, there ought to be no honor. For Pinker, honor is just another source of irrational violence. Pinker is so opposed to honor that he even writes it out of Hobbes’s Leviathan. Hobbes argued that conflict is the result of competition, diffidence, and glory. Pinker renames competition “gain” (as does Hobbes). Diffidence becomes “fear” (Hobbes renamed it “safety”). Glory disappears, however. When it reappears in the argument, Pinker re-labels it “credible deterrence” (46) or the motivation for retaliatory raids (56). But are “credible deterrence” or “retaliatory raids” the same thing as glory in the sense that Hobbes meant it—as “reputation?” Obviously not, but Pinker’s revision fits his narrative. Honor is an invention, according to Pinker; it does not exist by nature. Pinker calls honor “the strange commodity that exists because everyone believes that everyone else believes that it exists” (23). Knights were simply bloodthirsty machismo “gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry.” (67). Henry’s St. Crispin’s Day oration from Shakespeare is simply a motivational speech made to make the men feel like genetic relatives (355). In short, appeals to honor are only appeals to those clever, clever genes. If it still exists today, honor is only among “bubbas from the bayous” and “herders from the hill country” (101). In this new and triumphant age of Enlightenment humanism, we will learn to sweep aside “fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor” (183).

That assertion of honor as a fetish is very dangerous to Pinker’s argument because he also suggests that honor gives way to “dignity.” But dignity is simply defined as “controlling one’s emotions”—no different from the self-control Pinker also praises (72). We are therefore left wondering what motivates self-control. If Pinker is going to exalt both reason and self-control, what are its motivating powers if devoid of spirit or courage? Are reason and self-control supposed to motivate themselves? Are they somehow motivated by Pinker’s Leviathan rule of law? It is here that philosophy can enlighten where social science cannot. Pinker would do well to contemplate the insights of Plato’s tripartite soul, Aristotle’s call to high-mindedness, or Cicero’s call to greatness of spirit. What’s more, if Pinker had only read Cicero’s De Officiis, he would have learned that the manners and civility limiting violence are not recent inventions. Has Pinker ignored such insights because they are so old or because his secondary sources have not talked them up enough?

We are left with the conclusion that self-control is motivated by what Pinker calls tolerance or empathy; but couldn’t these so-called virtues just as well be cast as indifference? Likewise, many of the developments that Pinker claims as moral development could simply reflect ambivalence. Ambivalence and indifference could just as easily explain the reduction in infanticide avoided through contraception and abortion (426), the refusal to think that one’s own religion is exclusively true (392), decreasing rates of corporal punishment (430), the decline in hunting (467), or the rise of gay rights, animal rights, gender neutrality, and ethnic diversity (475). Are people truly committed to these in principle, as Pinker would have us believe, or have we simply responded to them with a collective but affluent “Whatever”? That’s hard to say, but it’s all the same to Pinker. He never discerns the distinction or assigns qualitative difference.

In conclusion, Pinker’s modern man eschews violence not because he loves his fellow-man, or God, or even his own soul. He does not love other men because he first learns to love his family or his people. Rather, he is peaceful because he feels a vague blend of sentiments toward other living things and wants to be free to make his own choices. What those choices should be, however, cannot be informed by the organic culture that preceded him. He is, after all, autonomous. Pinker’s non-violent man is the lawless, hearthless, stateless man of Homer. He is the Bible’s Cain who wanders the earth. But since he is less likely to be hunted down, at least for the time being, he has become the happiest of all men.

Glenn Moots is 2013–14 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is also Professor of Political Science and Philosophy and Director of the Forum for Citizenship and Enterprise at Northwood University in Midland, Michigan. 

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7 Responses to “Fondling as Flourishing: Steven Pinker’s Hymn to Autonomy”

  1. ddlinz

    Great review. I was going to buy “The Better Angels of Our Nature” since I was much impressed with Pinker’s earlier book “The Blank Slate” .However, I since happened upon an example of Pinker’s new anti-religious / scientific triumphalism on display in the New Republic and I subsequently cancelled my order. It’s a quite tragic that a man, who once was such an insightful intellectual, has morphed into a Sam Harris/Dan Dennet clone.

  2. Ethan_C

    Perhaps we could add that there is a reason why it is important to discover *why* we have arrived at our present lower level of violence — so that we can tell whether or not it is fragile, and what we might need to do to protect it from failing. But I suppose that’s just the Burkean conservative talking; perhaps Pinker is uninterested in that sort of fretting. Suffice it to say that European progressives were writing stuff of this exact same stripe up through 1913.


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