A scholar of early modern political thought once commented that reading Locke’s critique of Filmer is like watching a wolf tear up a teddy bear. Much the same could be said of Glenn Moots’ review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined . Moots invests in the task of exposing Pinker’s inadequacies a level of effort and attentiveness that are ludicrously out of proportion to Pinker’s desertsbut then, that’s what makes the review so much fun.
Moots is right that the basic problem in the thought of Pinker, as of contemporary secularist ethical and political thought in general, is the “inability to distinguish survival from flourishing”:
The highest calling for a man or woman is to survive and freely engage in those activities enabling ones genetic desire for survival to trump the genetic desire for violence. In one of his frequent episodes of rhetorical self-indulgence, Pinker commends George Carlins model man who spends all day on the couch watching TV while fondling himself. After all, Pinker echoes Carlin, he isnt causing any trouble (622). To make way for Fondling Man, the highest form of the human species, Pinker attacks the two virtues that might most infringe on his pleasure: religion and honor.
One sees the same thing in figures as different from Pinker as Rawls and Cass Sunstein. Despite all efforts to incorporate other goods into the utilitarian calculus, the only goods that are ever really the subject of any attention are those that facilitate survival. I believe Allan Bloom was the first to point out that if Rawls had really thought through his idea that the means to the enjoyment of life should be equitably redistributed, he would advocate the policy depicted in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae , in which beautiful people are required by law to have sex with ugly people. Subsequent theorists have acknowledged the intellectual problem and offered no solution, yet no one seems to think this detracts from the theory. Survival and money (the means to survival) are what these people really care about. Pinker’s sole virtue is that he acknowledges openly the crass utilitarian calculus that is really going on in contemporary ethics.
That said, I do wish Moots had done more to challenge Pinker’s one-dimensional account of “modernity.” The modern world is not simply the rationalistic or secularistic world; to say that it is concedes unnecessary ground to what Moots calls Pinker’s “triumphal narrative.” The view that absolutely everything that happens in the world is ultimately the result of which epistemological system is favored among the tiny minority of people that pays attention to epistemological systems is held by a surprising number of religious people but is implicitly irreligious. Just as economic determinism presupposes that the body is the essence of the human person, epistemological determinism presupposes that the brain is the essence of the human persona view that is one of the essential foundations of scientism. But if a human being is a soul, body, and mind all together, then religious, economic, and intellectual causes of modernity should all be given due weight. And if we are religious creatures before all else, perhaps the religious causes should be at least moderately prioritized.