I have read this rather long book twice now. I think I'll read it again soon. I hope you will, too (and I hope you = everyone).
The idea that we are living in the most peaceful, least murderous time in the history of the planet is an oddly uncomfortable one for many. First, it just doesn't feel that way. We hear about and see on TV and the internet a seemingly endless stream of stories about mass killings, senseless acts of cruelty, war and even genocide. Also, if we say now is better than ever, then maybe people will stop working to make the world yet less violent.
And for those of us in our middle years, we can readily look back and say that, Yes, things were simpler then. We left our doors unlocked. Kids played outside, etc.
The thing is, it doesn't really take all that much more thinking to notice that not that long ago even in this country women and African Americans were not allowed to vote. Not long ago, we had segregation, lynchings, race riots, assassinations of our leaders, a long a protracted war in Southeast Asia, which followed not long after a protracted (Undeclared) war in Korea, which came very shortly after the nuclear bombing of Japan, which essentially ended the worst global war ever, which some historians consider to have been simply part two of the other worst global war ever. And as one goes back in time, the wars, genocides, ethnic cleansings, etc., keep piling on.
The massive tyrants responsible for the annihilation of tens, maybe hundreds of millions of people in the beginning and middle of the 20th century are long gone. There hasn't been conflict among the world's super powers since the bombs fell on Japan.
On a scale much closer to home, Pinker talks at length about the change in the moral zeitgeist such that treating wives and children as property is outlaw throughout a much greater part of the globe today than just 30 years ago. Spanking children could land you in jail. Spanking your dog can now land you in jail in some places! Foods and cosmetics are often "cruelty" free, where the idea was unheard of not long ago.
Pinker does a brilliant and thorough (800+ pages worth) job of laying out all the statistics to support his case that violence has actually declined. More importantly, he adduces a long list of forces that have contributed to that decline. It's a big book, and it's not possible to summarize it in a few paragraphs. However, it might suffice to say that the forces Pinker adduces are pretty well supported in their various academic disciplines (anthropology, sociology, psychology).
Among the most interesting forces thought to be at work civilizing the world is commerce. This is one that ruffles some feathers a bit, but the argument is essentially this. When you look at the data, what appears to be the case is that countries that trade with each other don't tend to kill each other. Pinker uses a line from writer Robert Wright, who said (paraphrasing), "The reason I don't want to kill the Japanese is that they make my minivan." The line is intended to be ironic, of course, but the point stands. When our economic lives are intertwined, we find ways to resolve disputes peaceably. How likely is it that France and Spain would go to war today over disputed territory in the Alps? Moreover, by this stage in world history, we (powerful countries) have figured out that overtaking and subjugating nations by force is more expensive than trading with them and imposing economic and policy-based restrictions. One may object to neo-liberalism, but it can hardly be more objectionable than its predecessor strategy, conquest and empire. This part of the book and argument is long and involved and fascinating.
Another strong force in the civilizing of the globe involves media and its globalizing effects. Again, we may not like what we see in our media outlets every day, but the fact that people nearly everywhere know a lot about people nearly everywhere else on earth helps reduce violence. The reason it does is that the more we know about other people, the more we can put ourselves in their shoes, the less likely we are to kill them. We can relate a little more. We don't de-humanize them as much. This isn't to say that racism, culturism, etc, has or ever will go away. We are a tribal species. But, data show that as people in general are more and more able to reason abstractly about the world, and to think about what it is like to be someone other than who they are, the less violent they are. This type of reasoning leads to more understanding and less killing. There are plenty of exceptions to this, and this isn't to say that neighboring countries or ethnic groups within countries don't still kill each other. They certainly do (but moreso when infused with lots of religious fervor). But, in general, the trend is away from killing.
A final point. PInker cites a good deal of data and some theorizing to suggest that even the 21st century terrorism plague is already fading away. The reason: it doesn't work. In the big picture, terrorists never succeed in accomplishing what they wanted to accomplish via their terrorism. Ireland is not united. Basque country is not independent. Israel is still Israel.
To continue to make things better, it is critical that we know what has worked in the past. Many strategies and natural trends have contributed to making the world a safer place today. The Better Angels lays out in detail what has been working. It is well worth knowing what they are. It is also helpful to feel just a bit better about who we are as a species today.
By and large, I think this is a good and even an important book. In it, Haidt very clearly lays out the research that supports the view that human beings have been endowed by evolution with 6 moral intuitions, or foundations. The moral intuitions are innate, which Haidt clearly explains does not mean fixed and immutable, but, rather, arranged in advance of experience. We don't all have a fixed set of moral intuitions, but there is a limited palate from which experience may paint the picture of how we perceive the world.
The most important part of Haidt's research and the argument of this book is that liberal and conservatives share these moral intuitions but tend to emphasize them very differently, and it is the different emphases that cause the divisions among us. In brief, liberals tend to assign moral weight to issues of justice (is it fair - does everyone have an equal chance) and harm/care (does it cause harm to another - bad; or does it help another - good). Conservatives share these intuitions, but their take on justice is different. For a conservative, justice is determined by proportionality. Each according to his/ her contribution, not his/ her need. In addition, everyone, but conservatives to a much greater extent than liberals, also feel that questions of loyalty (to one's group/family/country), authority (obedience), and purity/ sanctity (as in not mixing this with that) are moral issues. A sixth intuition concerns liberty. Here again, however, liberals and conservatives differ in how they think about liberty. Liberals wish to be free of constraints applied by other members of the group, while conservatives think of liberty as freedom from government.
As a framework for parsing arguments between liberals and conservatives, I think this is extraordinarily helpful. What Haidt and colleagues argue is that when we disagree with our ideological counterparts, the disagreements arise from differences in the weight we apply to these moral intuitions. For liberals, there really are just two primary moral issues, fairness and harm/care, while conservatives also value authority, loyalty, purity and liberty to a great extent.
Importantly, Haidt argues that each of the moral intuitions has been vital to the evolution of human culture. While those among us who are liberals care more about justice and care, without the other intuitions, we would never have achieved the groupishness and hence the culture that separates humans from other animals. It is primarily the conservative intuitions that have been responsible for providing the glue that held groups together over our evolutionary history, and it is as groups that human beings have generated a culture that has distanced us from our primitive ape cousins.
Not much to take issue with there.
Ultimately, however, Haidt explains that his study of morality produced in him a sort of conversion from liberal to moderately conservative, having discovered the value of groupish moral intuitions. He also cites research showing that conservatives are better able to take the view of a liberal into account that vice versa, and invites liberals to try to broaden their view to include these other intuitions. His suggestion in this book and elsewhere is that more conservative voices should be added to the intellectual debate over the role of moral intuitions in society.
So here's my problem with that. 1) I am liberal and have a hard time, as he says, understanding how the groupish intuitions might continue to retain their value as moral intuitions in the modern world. It seems to me that many of our greatest problems today have to do with the oversized role of these moral intuitions in buttressing parochial concerns (issues of importance to my group only), leading to inter-group conflict.
2) I am a member of a group (gays) that has been and still is legally disenfranchised in this country, and that disenfranchisement is largely justified by referral to the moral intuition purity. I can't marry my partner, because too many people in this country believe that to allow me to do so would somehow violate the purity/sanctity of heterosexual marriage. So, I can't get behind it. Of course, that is my parochial concern, but I can point to similar concerns that would affect nearly everyone. Purity/Sanctity, in my view, is a moral intuition that has outlived its useful life.
3) Too much of Haidt's argument has the flavor of a naturalistic fallacy. One is committing the naturalistic fallacy when one deems something to be good on the basis of it being natural. Another way it is expressed is when a person assumes that something ought or should be a certain way solely on the basis that it is that way in nature. Haidt's argument is more subtle than saying that because people are endowed with six moral intuitions, therefore all six ought to be valued equally. But, for may taste, his argument still relies mostly on the argument that because these six moral foundations were all critical for the development of what we consider to be civilized society, that they are all to be consulted in policy- and decision-making now. Much of our civilization consists of norms and rules for curbing natural instincts. The instincts that continually reify parochial groupishness, ie, the conservative moral intuitions, are among the natural instincts that I believe must be curbed. An alternative take is that the moral foundations are fine as is, but the groups to which they are applied must be continually enlarged to include everyone, and then perhaps everything. Clearly, this circle-enlarging has been occurring and will likely continue. That's great. But, shouldn't we also work to limit the sway of the intuitions that, while historically vital, are presently harmful or at best of dubious value for large swathes (i.e., anyone not in the majority) of our society today?
I wanted to read this as soon as the book appeared in the audible.com inventory. "The Undertaking" attracted my attention as the subject is neither common nor comfortable for many. So I couldn't wait to jump right in.
Thomas Lynch is both a published poet and the director of a funeral home; perhaps an odd pairing of professions, but each job informs the other and stories of the living (as he cares for and buries the dead) flow poetically through this novel as the Huron River flows through his home town in Michigan. As Lynch anecdotally brings life to those his clients have left behind, the poetry within the prose is musical, nuanced, and sustaining.
Kevin T. Collins' performance makes a substantial contribution and I am not certain this book will impact readers in quite the same way as hearing it read with such sensitivity, emotion, and grace, and at times I could not tell if I was reading prose or poetry.