In Part One, we had a group of notable thinkers testify on the state of mankind, arguing that we humans, for all our knowledge in other areas, have not and do not make collective moral progress. I thought they made strong arguments, and they are all individuals I enjoy reading. I clumsily labeled them the prosecution, which is unfair because they believe that their views provide hope for the future and support our need to reason. They believe that not appreciating our constant demons or understanding the imperfections of man creates fundamentalist beliefs – be they religious or political — that bring on the very destructive tendencies they oppose. In summary, they believe collective moral progress is a myth and a dangerous one. A belief in moral progress they believe begets utopianism and tyrants.
Before having equally intelligent thinkers make the case for the defense that we have and do make moral progress, allow me to say one thing: “Burning cats.” Yes that’s right: “Burning cats.”
I’m sorry, I love cats, but if you research the writers who believe in collective moral progress, for some reason the pre-1800 French entertainment of gathering up cats and putting them in a net above a fire, seems to be a metaphor for just how far we have come from the jungle. They could have chosen burning witches, disemboweling thieves, mass crucifixions or even tar and feathering, but you get the idea. Regardless, the French burning of cats for entertainment makes me glad we have cable.
Part II — for the defense
Seriously though I’m being unfair, I also thoroughly enjoy the authors for the defense. Perhaps the most approachable thinker for the defense is Steven Pinker, who wrote The Better Angels Of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. (I bet some of you did not think it has)
Pinker is Harvard College Professor and Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and formerly taught in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department at MIT.
According to Pinker who presents a strong philosophical argument and extensive charts and grafts, violence has clearly declined. He co-wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times that war is actually going out of style. His argument and answer to “how do you know” is largely statistical. He uses sources from many fields, is persuasive, and I dare say positive. Pinker’s glass is half full. The book is as thick as the subject but readable. He has a list of demons he believes we are conquering and a list of forces that are poised against the dark side. He takes you through a quick ride of this civilizing process – if 700 pages can be labeled “quick.” Much of his thinking is a compilation of others, so the following Pinker quotes are collective thinking from ”Our Better Angels” (a phrase from Abraham Lincoln by the way):
“As technology and economic efficiency lengthen and improve our lives we place a higher value on life in general.”
Or, from a game theory perspective, he discusses zero sum games in which players come out ahead if they cooperate.
And, in line with many modern scientists who believe in evolution, he suggests, “evolution bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy to people…Over the millenia people’s moral circles expanded to include larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes….”
Pinker sites a lot of theories, but clearly thinks the arrow of time has a patina of moral progress.
Pinker’s mention of evolution brings us to a group of seemingly believers in moral progress that are strong Darwinians (with the usual academic caveats), many of whom are atheists, although I have come to believe that term has so many shades that I think it’s a callous definition, but some wear the definition confidently….
As an aside, you can find believers and non -believers on both sides of this moral progress debate, and in fact I was surprised that most Catholic bloggers, given their strong belief in original sin, came down on the side of a belief in collective moral progress.
It seems to me that Pulitzer prize winning author E.O. Wilson (On Human Nature And the Ants) believed that we could understand the biology of moral sentiments. Wilson states in Consilience that eventually, “the true origin and meaning of ethical behavior may come into focus. From that knowledge it should be possible to adapt ancient moral sentiments more wisely to the swiftly changing conditions of modern life into, which willy-nilly and largely with ignorance, we have plunged ourselves.”
Considered one of our greatest contemporary scientists, it seems obvious to me that Wilson believes that if we do not make collective moral progress then we do not have much of a future. I am not sure if he believes we have reached a tipping point, but I think he believes we are close.
Also for the defense is Sam Harris, who believes faith threatens our very future. He writes in The End of Faith, “There will probably come a time when we achieve a detailed understanding of human happiness, and of ethical judgements themselves, at the level of the brain. Just as defects in color vision can result from genetic defects and developmental disorders, problems can undoubtedly arise in our ethical and emotional circuity as well.”
Yikes! This trial of mankind and this blog are getting long. I also could call as witnesses for the defense Daniele Dennett (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), and many other scientists, theologians, artists, but I bet you get the idea.
As a huge generalization our best apologists for evolution also seem to be our best defenders that evolution includes a moral progress component. And, it does seem at least reasonable that natural selection at some point in the distant past chose those who cooperated with and had empathy for their clan, and became our ancestral DNA. And, perhaps that process is still operating. Funny to think of a nice guy as an alpha male.
In the “The Beginning of Infinity” by David Deutsch, he states “All failures — all evils– are due to insufficient knowledge. This is the key to the rational philosophy of the unknowable…It would be false if there were fields — especially philosophical fields such as morality– in which there were no such thing as objective progress. But, truth does exist in all these fields, and progress towards it is made by seeking good explanations.” (Deutsch is a British physicist at the University of Oxford.)
Phew… that is some scientific optimism.
Well, it’s a big topic. Thanks to those of you who gave me your opinions. Keep them coming. I think there are strong arguments on both sides, and I’ll wrap it up and give you my two cents in Part III.
I’ll leave you with one more Steven Pinker quote:
“Why is there war…We might as well ask why there is peace. From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way we treat cats, we must have been doing something right.”
There you go CATS again.
Read Part III in two weeks, and let me know what you think before I post the last of this three part blog.