The mind of an intellectual

Steven Pinker's monumental study of the decline violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, should be on everyone's reading list. The book is a detailed exposition of the decline of violence from prehistorical times to the present. It offers a multi-faceted explanation of how violence has declined, which is supported by a wealth of detail. The study is truly multi-disciplinary, drawing on History, Sociology, Political Science, Psychology, Anthropology and Economics. It is a master-piece of scholarship.


Whenever one speaks or writes, one inevitably reveals oneself; and the more extended the work, the more one reveals. Pinker's study clearly reveals the mind of its author. What one sees is how an highly educated intellect can both reveal and deny what it knows. Take democracy, one of the forces identifed by Pinker as reducing violence. One would therefore expect him to be in favour of more democracy. Yet, his commitment to democracy is highly qualified. He is, for example, strongly in favour of inter-governmental agencies. These organisations are a mechanism for governments to remove aspects of public policy from democratic accountability. Yet, his support for them is both unqualified and enthusiastic. Indeed, he lavishes hyperbolic praise on the European Union, an organsation that is not merely undemocratic, but is positively anti-democratic.


This democracy deficit is also revealed in Pinker's commitment to open borders. He argues that immigration helps to reduce violence. He is not at his evidentially strongest here and so tries to hitch it to the widespread distribution of ideas, a phenomenon strongly correlated with violence reduction. On this basis, he takes the view that immigration should be encouraged, regardless of the will of the citizens. This issue, not only requires him to downgrade democracy, it also requires him to ignore the empirical evidence that shows the negative effects of immigration.


Another enigma is Pinker's expressed attitude towards Islam, which he clearly knows to be a violent, anti-human rights, anti-democratic ideology. Yet, he goes out of his way to minimise the negative aspects of Islam and even tries to deny that jihadist terrorism has anything to do with the religion. Indeed, Pinker explicitly dismisses all the evidence of Islam's toxic effects by claiming that a person's  commitment to a religion is nothing more than feel good hypocrisy and no one really wants to follow their religion. Indeed, even though he is well aware of the violent, divisive nature of religion, he gives it a free pass.


Freedom of expression is a value and a practice that Pinker demonstrates at substantial length is a fundamental violence reducer. He is equally well aware that Islam does not allow freedom of expression. Yet he sees this as a non-problem. Apparently, for Pinker, his fuzzy notion of religion prevents him from taking seriously the very idea that Islamic repression of freedom of expression is a result of Sharia, even though he explicitly acknowledges this very point.


This ability to know something and not to know it is also apparent when he discusses wars. Clearly, as someone who wishes to see violence reduced to a minimum, he is highly critical of wars - but only some wars. For example, he dismisses the US led bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 in the word "brief". He similarly expresses positive attitudes towards US twenty-first century wars.


Another violence reducer identified by Pinker is trade. On this basis, he is in favour of unfettered global trade. In this discussion, he is completely oblivious to the negative effects of trade; he can only see the winners. Similarly, this leads him into unqualified support for finance capitalism. Indeed, he cannot hide is disdain for those too ignorant to appreciate the benefits of finance capitalism. This line of thinking leads directly to Pinker mocking anti-war activists who are so stupid as to call the armaments corporations "merchants of death". According to Pinker's logic, the selling of billions of dollars worth of arms to Saudi Arabia is not a cause of death and destruction and misery, but a cause of violence reduction.


Steven Pinker is an intelligent and learned scholar. But like all human beings, he has biases. The Better Angels of Our Nature is magnificent work of scholarship. But like all human products, it is less than perfect. It is specifically flawed by Pinker's inability to put his knowledge above his ideology. In fact, he clearly thinks he is devoid of an ideology. However, he is a committed ideologue. His ideology is that of the neoliberal globalist elite. Wherever his ideological commitments and his knowledge conflict, Pinker prefers his ideology.

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Comments (5)

  1. Munkyman

    I would argue that republicanism is less violent than pure democracy & as such, as with most things the “goodness” of democracy is measured by it’s self restraint.

    May 01, 2017
    1. stevehayes13

      Are you thinking of the republic of Turkey or maybe Egypt or the Democratic Republic of Congo?

      May 02, 2017
      1. Munkyman

        France in the beginning, Haiti for over 200 years.

        May 02, 2017
  2. wirelessguru1

    Like he has pre-historical knowledge! LOL!!!

    May 01, 2017
  3. factual

    Pinker sounds like a pseudo intellectual with to much time on his hands and nothing of real value to direct it at. Like most so called intellectuals. Every time I start to read some thing by them I become so bogged down with thoughts that totally contradict them I say, “the hell with it, not even worth commenting on”. Should of stuck with that. Wirelessguru1 makes a good point, Pinker the stinker has a lot of first hand experience living in the prehistoric times. Like those who criticize those who lived during the times when slaves was acceptable and one through upbringing and social norms were conditioned to believe as most did, no two hundred years of hindsight like the pseudo intellectuals and warm fuzzy hypocrits/liberals floating around today, these self righteous phonies spout that some of our founding fathers and writers of the constitution were not patriotic and did nothing for this country if they had a plantation with slaves. Blacks like to push that concept and rewrite history with it.
    Whats changed is not that we become less violent, we just changed violence from that of pure survival and survival of the species (during that time was a daily event) with the best specimens in the human race ensuring it’s survival, to violence by the weakest of the species protected now by a weak society, laws, regulations ensuring the weakest within society can now ensure their genes their sick inferior genes dominate.

    May 01, 2017