Primum non nocere

Much has been written of Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of our Nature, which argues the apparently-controversial point that violence is in long- and short-term decline.  Much of the pushback against the book’s thesis seems to come from people who insist that violence can’t be in decline, because their own brave new world hasn’t been instituted.  To a neoconservative, for example, the only legitimate decline in violence can come from American imperial hegemony; if we hairless bipeds stop murdering each other quite so much without the dissolution of the anti-war movement or the subjugation of International Communism… it doesn’t count!

Andrew Sullivan finds another case in point, a hilarious vegan quasi-interview that attempts to pick apart Pinker’s thesis on the grounds that humans are still slaughtering animals for meat.  Can H. sap. sap. really be getting more peaceful if we still engage in factory farming?  Pinker’s reply is outstanding:

With any humanitarian advance, there are always cynics who insist that no one … ever acts out of true morality, that there always must be some self-serving interest (the Quakers opposes slavery because they were bankers who financed the industrial revolution; the British stopped the slave trade because their French rivals were getting rich from their Caribbean plantations, and so on).  …

I don’t care.  My book is about the decline of violence, not a putative increase in virtue. I don’t think the chickens [who are more humanely treated] (or the slaves) care about whether their better treatment was motivated by an altruism that is pure in the eyes of God or other moralistic judges, as long as they suffer less. And if we set up institutions that allow people to be less cruel and destructive as they pursue their interests, that is a sign of progress–God help us if every advance in human welfare depended on Christ-like levels of moral purity.

(Emphasis added, elisions and elaborations from Sullivan.)

Hence the title.  If we’re interested in making the world a better place — and we should be — we should study trends as Pinker has done, and try to understand them, and hurry the positive ones along.  Approaching the problem as if we’ve already found the solution and need only persuade the rest of the (ignorant, ungrateful) world of our own majestic rectitude is not helpful.

2 Responses to “Primum non nocere”

  1. 1 Gabriel
    January 1, 2012 at 11:04

    Should we care about racism in our society or care that policies that we hold (which are supposedly a-racial) sends thousands of black people to jail because they’re black and/or poor?

    I’d say that a lot of the times we end up hung up on the first: “you’re a racist because you said nigger” and forget about the (more important) second part of racism. We say Rand Paul’s a racist for saying the Civil Rights act of 1964 was wrong but those who perpetuate institutional racism and have been in Congress, etc. for years are given a free pass, even though they have blood on their hands.

    • January 3, 2012 at 13:48

      It’s all about intent. Sure, the drug war may have horrendously racist outcomes, but because the drug warriors’ intent is pure (er… more or less) that’s just the cost of doing business. If Lew Rockwell stereotypes black people in a rant about the evils of the drug war, however, that’s racist, and therefore awful, despite the fact that if Lew got his way on the drug war we’d be living in a much less factually racist world.

      This mindset is even more irritatingly clear when it comes to taxes. Some taxes are paternalistic, like taxes on cigarettes or liquor or plastic grocery bags, and the folks who advocate for them do so explicitly because if you tax something you get less of it. However, when it comes to revenue-generating taxes (on capital gains or financial transactions or work hours, say), these very same people will swear up and down that there’s no way that taxing those things will result in less of them. It’s really rather breathtaking.

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