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Evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker, who has said that he never "outgrew my conversion to atheism at thirteen," has written a theodicy – a tract intended to validate the redemptive power of the Leviathan State. In his new book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker insists that humanity has "evolved to become less violent" through the ministry of elites who employ the State to evangelize on behalf of what he calls "enlightenment humanism." While Mr. Pinker doesn't believe in God, he apparently sees nothing irrational about deifying the State.
According to Pinker, since the emergence of the modern secular state in the 18th century there has been a dramatic decline in primitive expressions of aggressive violence. People who live in contemporary developed societies "no longer have to worry about abduction into sexual slavery; divinely commanded genocide; lethal circuses and tournaments; punishment on the cross, rack, wheel, stake, or strappado for holding unpopular beliefs; decapitation for not bearing a son; disembowelment for having dated a royal; pistol duels to defend their honor … or the prospect of a nuclear world war that would put an end to civilization or to human life itself," Pinker asserts.
The precipitous decline in private violence, which Pinker heralds as "the most important thing that has ever happened in human history," is a triumph of the "social contract," an arrangement in which political government asserts a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of force. By over-awing those inclined toward individual acts of violence, the State supposedly suppresses "demonic" impulses – such as greed and sadism – while emancipating the "better angels of our nature" – empathy, self-discipline, and peaceful cooperation.
As is the case with most religious doctrines, Pinker's theology of the divine State is built on a paradox – in this case the idea that the human tendency toward violence can be eradicated through the scientific application of the same by enlightened people who have supposedly transcended such primitive impulses.
Given that Pinker is one of the leading exponents of the "box with wires" view of the human brain, there is also a rich vein of irony in Pinker's unabashed use of the terms "demons" and "angels" in describing a conflict over competing visions of morality.
In an interview given more than a decade ago, Pinker described human beings as "nothing more than a collection of ricocheting molecules in the head." Like others who subscribe to that view, Pinker has yet to submit a schematic explaining how morality is produced through molecular reactions. And like theologians from other traditions, Pinker is content to leave such matters undisturbed in the unfathomable depths of mystery. This would be a perfectly acceptable arrangement – were it not for the fact that Pinker, like fundamentalists from other traditions, embraces the use of sanctified coercion as a means of purifying those less enlightened than he.
As a child, Pinker, says, he thought as a child, embracing anarchism at about the same time he converted to atheism. But as an adult, he has put away childish things: "I was a Rousseauan then; now I'm a Hobbesian." What this means in practice is that he merely abandoned one sect of totalitarian statism for another.
Rousseau, it should be remembered, was was the author of what he called “The Civil Religion” u2014 a doctrine that would enable the masses, in Rousseau’s phrase, to “bear with docility the yoke of the public good.”
The most important article of Rousseau’s Civil Religion was the absolute divinity of the State; the gravest transgression was “intolerance,” which was regarded as evil not because it injured the rights of individuals, but because it challenged the State’s authority.
According to Rousseau, the ideal social arrangement would be a “form of theocracy, in which there can be no pontiff save the prince, and no priests save the magistrates…. [W]hoever dares to say, ‘Outside the church is no salvation,’ ought to be driven from the State, unless the State is the Church, and the prince the pontiff.”
The State would make belief in its dogmas compulsory, even as it denied it was doing so: “While it can compel no one to believe them, it can banish from the state anyone who does not believe them….." Apostasy would be a capital offense: “If any one, after publicly recognizing these dogmas, behaves as if he does not believe them, let him be punished by death – he has committed the worst of all crimes, that of lying before the law.”
Rousseau believed that man – until corrupted by traditional institutions – was intrinsically good. Thomas Hobbes – not to put too fine a point on the matter – didn't share that opinion. He did agree that the State, as the embodiment of what could be called the "general will," should combine the civil and ecclesial functions and exercise unlimited power to regiment the lives of its subjects. The objective wouldn't be to save people's souls, or elevate their morals, but merely to impose order.
Pinker claims to be "eclectically, non-dogmatically libertarian" in his political outlook. Given his unbuttoned embrace of Hobbesian absolutism, that's a bit like claiming to be an "eclectic, non-dogmatic vegan" while subsisting on a diet of steak tartare.
Although Pinker began his academic career in a Montreal counter-cultural milieu "dominated by hippies … and US draft dodgers," he has endorsed the exercise in State-inflicted violence called the "War on Drugs" in terms that would earn Hobbes's approval: "A regime that trawls for drug users or other petty delinquents will get a certain number of violent people as a by-catch, further thinning the ranks of the violent people who remain on the streets."
This process involves filling the streets with State-licensed "violent people" in military attire, and granting them a plenary indulgence to loot and terrorize the public. The "by-catch" gathered by the government's trawling net includes perfectly innocent people. But it is not our place to question the inscrutable wisdom of the divine State, which causes the pain to fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike.
There is also the matter of quo warranto: By what authority does the State assault and imprison people who peacefully ingest mind-altering substances?
This is where Pinker's Rousseauist background comes into play: It's not necessary for subjects to understand the logic of the State's decrees; they simply must have faith in its bottomless competence and unalloyed goodness – or suffer the penalty for their apostasy.
All religious belief requires the acceptance "of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen." Pinker's dogma requires that we ignore the evidence of things that are clearly visible in order to embrace his vision of something yet to materialize. The most compelling argument against Pinker's claim that humanity has evolved beyond violence is the systematic slaughter during the 20th Century of at least 170 million people by governments claiming and enforcing a monopoly on the "legitimate" use of force.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker – to his credit – does recognize R.J. Rummel's pioneering research into the phenomenon of “democide.” Given the body count compiled through war and politicized mass murder during the 20th century, and the persistent bloodshed in the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere, the idea that humanity has progressed beyond violence "seems illogical and obscene," Pinker admits. This is something else we simply have to take on faith as well, it appears.
The rampages carried out by totalitarian states were a tragic prelude to the "Long Peace" that has prevailed since WWII, Pinker insists. We've reached a point at which mass violence only among those sub-populations that have resisted signing on to a "social contract that [gives] government a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence." That heathen population, he points out, includes Americans who reside in the southern and western states, where people "retain the right to bear arms [and] believe it is their responsibility, not the government's, to deter harm-doers." This means that "private citizens, flush with self-serving biases, [can act] as judge, jury, and executioner…."
Of all the impious nerve! Such power can only be exercised by those duly anointed as emissaries of the divine State – beginning with the Exalted One in the Oval Office, who commands the power to imprison, torture, or execute anybody on the face of the planet.
In a 2007 TED lecture, Dr. Pinker urged Leviathan's subjects to count their blessings: In previous centuries, he pointed out, some of them may have been "burned at the stake for criticizing the king, after a trial that maybe lasted ten minutes." Today, by way of contrast, a U.S. citizen who condemns Washington's imperial aggression can be summarily executed by way of a drone-fired missile without the benefit of a trial – and their children could be executed in their same way, apparently on the basis of the "corruption of blood" doctrine.
The latter approach is acceptable to at least some people of Pinker's persuasion because the State's priestly caste possesses the mystical power to transubstantiate violence into "policy." Those of us who examine these developments without the dubious benefit of Pinker's statist faith see modern killing technology enlisted in the service of a pre-modern view of the ruler's prerogatives.
Although he followed a different vector, Steven Pinker, a proudly irreligious cultural Jew, has arrived at the same destination as the reactionary 18th Century Catholic writer Joseph de Maistre, who insisted that “all greatness, all power, all social order depends on the executioner; he is the terror of human society and tie that holds it together. Take away this incontrovertible force from the world, and at that very moment order is superseded by chaos, thrones fall, society disappears.” While Dr. Pinker criticizes the death penalty, his view of social order ultimately rests on the supposed authority of State functionaries to kill those who refuse to submit to them.
The modern material and ethical progress Pinker properly celebrates are not the product of State coercion. They are the result of private, mutually beneficial action based on reciprocal respect for individual rights – in other words, the application of the Golden Rule, which Pinker acknowledges in passing while pointedly ignoring uncomfortable questions about its provenance and most notable Exponent.
To use Pinker’s categories: The impulses unleashed by the State are demonic, not angelic.
Reprinted with permission from Pro Libertate.