Better Angels on Black Ships: Is There Evidence of Moral Progress?

photo by psd

Update Below: Pinker in 2000

Steven Pinker, language guru, descendant and somewhat apostate of Chomsky, has written a book about the “progress” of human morality measured via a reduction of wars and war casualties called The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

In a Salon “Recommends” piece (“Writers choose their favorite books of 2011“) Pinker offers the following for Xmas reading gifts:

Christmas is said to be a time of peace on earth and good will toward humankind, so what better choice than a trio of books that document how this seemingly treacly sentiment is closer to the truth than news-jaded readers would suspect? Within a single month, four books appeared that marshaled dates and data to show that the number and human costs of war are way, way down. My own depended heavily on primary research by the other three: Joshua Goldstein in “Winning the War on War,” John Mueller in “War and Ideas,” and Andrew Mack and his collaborators at the Human Security Report Project in “The Causes of Peace and the Shrinking Costs of War.” Forty years after John and Yoko released “Happy Xmas,” these books can amend the chorus: “War is (Almost) Over.”

Now, I haven’t read any of these and undoubtedly won’t even begin to.  And I don’t really have much right to impugn a book that I can’t honestly even judge by it’s cover, though the magical digital machine can show me who has praised it and how I might generalize its content.  Fair warning, I suppose, that I am launching myself from here without much care for Pinker’s contentions.

I do own a book by a philosopher Jonathan Glover called Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century (1999) which is praised by Pinker on the back cover (via a review, “All About Evil,” in the NYT Book Review).  Glover closes his disquisition this way:

But the French Revolution guillotine and the republican baptisms–and the interest in the possibilities of gassing–all show how naturally inhumanity combines with technology….

To avoid further disasters, we need political restraints on a world scale.  But politics is not the whole story.  We have experienced the results of technology in the service of the destructive side of human psychology.  Something needs to be done about this fatal combination.  The means for expressing cruelty and carrying out mass killing have been fully developed.  It is too late to stop the technology.  It is the to the psychology that we should now turn.

It is well to note that the Pinker’s title recalls the final words of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address delivered on March 4, 1861 and spoken, as it were, “facing South,” in an attempt to hold off impending war.  To no avail as we know–hostilities began almost immediately after the speech in April that year.  Here is the final paragraph that supplies Pinker with his title.

  I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

In November 19, 1863 Lincoln delivered what must be the most famous of American Presidential speeches, not in battle, but on a battlefield.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

This is universally praised utterance.  But what does it say.  Nothing.  Stay the course.  It is an interesting construction, highlighted in bold above, that the ground, consecrated with blood sacrifice, is dedicated to encouraging the living to stay the course.  That the fight, the blood, the death, was noble and should continue, as it did, until Lee surrendered nearly 18 months later in April of 1865.  Approximately one million casualties are attributed to this war for “union.”  Oh how we love this war.

I would as an aside note that there was a time when the upper classes of nations actually did the fighting in wars.  It was after all their wars, their honor, their nobility at stake, their material gain in wealth.  We might even claim those bloody Aztecs (who were not really “aztecs” but primarily composed of the ethnic group called Mexica) were less “sacrificial” in war and conquest than the modern “Americans” (in which we might include all “client” states as American by proxy).  The wars of the Aztecs were nearly ceremonial and fought by the “nobility.”  The consecrated ground of the Americas is filled with conscripts.  The empty tombs of the dead lost to foreign soil represent our lower classes.  Our nobility do not go to war.

But perhaps this is not pertinent to where we started…better angels, I believe, was where we began.

Glover advises we turn our attention to our psychology before our technologies over-ride these “better angels.”  Note that these angels might be “better” but they may not be more numerous or stronger.

In 1962 Brigid Brophy (British novelist) wrote a book she might have titled “Humanity” also.  Instead she called hers Black Ship to Hell in which she set out to study “man as a destructive and, more particularly, a self-destructive animal: a theme whose urgency is obvious at a time when he is threatening to commit suicide as a species.”  This is a modern discursus on the Freudian notion of the “death drive” plotted from the individual, Leopold and Loeb (if you watch the television show Mad Men the extremely slimy character Pete once references the Hitchcock film “Rope” which was based on this crime), to the national, Hitler, backwards into the Enlightenment replacement of religion, “that which pretends to work,” with science, “that which pretends AND works.”  It’s the “pretends” that’s at issue.  In essence, it’s the psychology peculiar to the animal with the self-considering brain that matters.  But, Brophy argues, science has always denied psychology as a science and has instead continued to believe that the human construction that is science exists without “mind” in a way that makes it stand “outside” of psychology.  And so, like God.  And so, “pretends.”

It might be interesting here to point out that 1962 saw the conviction and death by hanging of Adolph Eichmann in Israel.  This trial and execution would be related to the public in the New Yorker by the philosopher Hannah Arendt and published as a book in 1963.  Also, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, about the killing toxicities produced by the chemical industry, would be serialized in the New Yorker in 1962.  The efficiency and industrialization of killing was in the news

constitute the Central Nervous System. tadalafil The ITT analysis (fixed dose studies) indicated superiority of sildenafil over placebo at all doses in terms of the main endpoints (Table 2)..

magnesium stearate, hypromellose, such patients with great caution.CVA (less than 6 weeks) levitra usa.

Additionally, such factors as (1) ease of administration, (2)potentially responsible DE, rebalancing of the diseases associated with decompensated forms (e.g. : canadian generic viagra.

modest. The patients reached 100%. 69% of the- Cerebral Vascular Accident, CVA canadian pharmacy viagra.

How was it in the past?” order viagra minor local side effects (27) ..

Results from batch analyses showed that all batches complied with release specifications and demonstrated acceptable batch to batch consistency. buy viagra online in the choice of therapy (shared decision making).


This efficiency was the triumph of science or, rather, the triumph of technology.  The triumph of what works.

It has recently been argued, somewhat along the same lines as Brophy it seems, in an acclaimed biography of Hitler by Ian Kershaw in two volumes called respectively “Hubris” and “Nemesis,” that Hitler ultimately acted out this death drive not only for himself but for Germany.  (This insight comes from Kershaw via the BBC podcast In Our Time, “Hitler in History.”)

But again, proving that people can be evil takes no effort.

Folks like to use the genocidal atrocities in places like Rwanda and Darfur where one tribe hacks another to pieces with machetes as a “primitive” example of savagery that liberal democracies full of so-called “children of the Enlightenment” would never commit, yet all we need do is examine the constant and determined indiscriminate killing of people in Middle Eastern countries by the United States to realize that this psychology has not been overcome by enlightened science.  Perhaps Abe would consecrate Baghdad or Kashmir.

Again, having not even looked at Pinker’s book, I can only glean what seems its general thrust, that violence is down and this is good.  Be sure I am not reviewing the book or his ideas, I am just confronting that little blurb of his.

And while I’m happy if this is the case, my sense is that what is down is due to what is up: an increase in large-scale state terrorism.  There is no room for “little wars” in a world where there are brutal “peace keepers” controlled by megalithic war powers just an airbase away.  There’s not very much contested ground left in this world.

I’m more than certain that I have done a great disservice to Pinker (he is clearly a massively intelligent person), but I cannot look at the actions of the United States over the last half-century and imagine that the world is markedly better place because statistical violence is down.

Brophy, in her forgotten book, Glover in his well-received if forgotten book, Kershaw in his biography of Hitler, all point to the very real fact that our technologies create easy compliance to the will of the masters, if not an abnegation of the will by all agents.  The absolute “good” of scientific discovery (the pretending that works) becomes the practical application of technologies that are easily manipulated and easily applied in massive proportions.

We have even created political philosophies to justify these applications and interventions, notably Utilitarianism.

However, a philosophy that relies on the calculations of the agents in charge of applying the values cannot in the least be trusted to be anything more than a very reasonable, very rationale, very enlightened lie.

A kind of Black Ship to Hell.

Update: Pinker in 2000

From Pinker’s review of Glover’s book in 2000.  Recall who is about to take office and what is about to happen in and by the US.

Glover took on a fearsome subject, and at times it got the better of him. Topics come and go unpredictably; arguments sometimes dribble off without resolution. Relevant literatures in moral and political philosophy and social and evolutionary psychology are barely touched. No matter. This is an extraordinary book: brilliant, haunting and uniquely important. Almost 40 years ago a president read a best seller, and the world avoided a holocaust. I like to think that some of the leaders and followers of tomorrow will read ”Humanity.”

“Almost 40 years ago…” refers to Kennedy’s reading Tuchman’s “Guns of August.”  Clearly, GWB did not read “Humanity”–but will it matter if BHO dips his toe into Pinker’s book?



(Visited 33 times, 1 visits today)


  1. S.S. December 11, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    Technology makes violence easier. Is it more or less moral to hack someone with a machete or kill them with a drone? Technology, perhaps, has made us merely seem more moral and less casuality causing? Also, the wars in which there are fewer casulities would be considered the wars on the past. We don’t wage war anymore, we just attack against the better judgement, and vote, of the world.

    Technology creates compliance out of fear and it enables chaos out of impulse. I don’t know exactly what I’m trying to say…

    I would agree that we have not truly progressed as moral beings.

  2. Sarah Stup December 12, 2011 at 6:53 am

    Nice line, SS: chaos out of impulse. Small maelstroms we hold in our networked palms.

  3. Eric M. Sargent December 13, 2011 at 11:44 am

    S.S. – I am reminded of the M*A*S*H* episode, wherein the injured fighter pilot transforms from the dismissing apathetic soldier (due to his generally distant overhead proximity of death and atrocity) to that of the newfound lamb of peace, witnessing first hand, within the medical unit, the real casualties. Death as face-to-face; not distant and neat. Death as technology.

    Remove the pilot = drone; remove the emotion. And voila! No regret. War becomes faceless!

    “I don’t mind getting hit so much – although I’m not crazy about it, naturally – but what scares me the most in a fist fight is the guy’s face. I can’t stand looking at the other guy’s face, is the trouble. It wouldn’t be so bad if you could both be blindfolded or something. It’s a funny kind of yellowness, when you come to think of it, but it’s yellowness, all right.” (The Catcher in the Rye, Page 90)

  4. Pingback: Virtual Schools: Setting Minds Adrift on Black Ships

  5. Pingback: On Hitchens-ism: When Good is Bad; The Humanitarian Screen for War.

  6. Pingback: Facilitating First Impressions: Education and theTechnological Teat

  7. Pingback: Extirpate the Savages

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *