The Better Angels of Our Nature

Two weeks ago The Boston Globe ran my review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.

A bit from the review:

If reason is humanity’s saving grace, our persistent downfall isn’t madness so much as morality, or what passed as morality for our “morally retarded’’ ancestors. People often feel that violence results from amorality. “On the contrary,’’ Pinker argues, “violence is often caused by a surfeit of morality and justice, at least as they are conceived in the minds of the perpetrators.’’

Progress against aggression occurs when societies “retract’’ morality from privileged, foundational positions. This retraction is “precisely the agenda of classical liberalism: a freedom of individuals from tribal and authoritarian force, and a tolerance of personal choices as long as they do not infringe on the autonomy and well-being of others.’’

This should be fine by everyone: The values of classical liberalism are better than those of theocratic irrationalism or predatory autocracy, two alternatives. Pinker gums up the works a bit, however, when he exhibits some of the chauvinism that often attends the celebration of liberal superiority.


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