Expressing the same sharp skepticism that has appeared in his series on ethicists and ethics (you'd be surprised), the philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel praises, then criticizes Steven Pinker's latest book, "The Better Angels of Our Nature."
There aren't many 700-page books I enjoy from beginning to end. Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature was one. Pinker's sweep is impressive, his ability to angle in on the same issue in many ways, his knack for extracting central points from a morass of scholarship, his engagingly accessible but rigorous prose. He is a gifted scholar; his mind scintillates.
But the book also has a comfortable, self-congratulatory tone that leaves me uneasy. By 'self-congratulatory' I don't mean that Pinker congratulates himself personally, but rather that he congratulates us -- us Western, highly educated, cosmopolitan liberals, with our broad, sober, rational sense of the world, with our far-reaching sympathies, with our ability to take the long view and to keep human vice in check....
Pinker concludes his chapter on the "Better Angels" -- on the sources of all our new peace and rights -- in praise of reason as the best and most dependable source of our progress. He argues that in the past hundred years our ability to think abstractly has risen enormously due to formal schooling, as revealed by massive improvements in people's performance on IQ tests (the Flynn Effect). And this increase in abstract reasoning capacity has, in turn, resulted in immense moral improvement.
Schwitzgebel isn't buying it.
Let's get this out of the way. Intellectual achievement is far too often ignored or minimized by too many people in our culture today in favor of a certain false regard for all opinions. To wit: the April snowstorm in your state or county has nothing whatsoever to do with the global phenomenon of climate change. Human activity is changing the climate, and thanks to machines continually falling around the planet we know more than we once did about that process. The United States produces far too few engineers and scientists, and it may well affect the quality of life for my children. I cringe, for example, when people with that inevitable hint of self-satisfaction from having made some deep connection ask why the United States spends money on the space sciences "when there are so many problems on Earth!" Feel free to return the integrated circuit. Ample public funding for science in general has dramatically improved life for countless people. Cancer research is steadily gathering more and more information with which to mitigate if not eventually cure that horror. So yeah, I've got a thing for reason, repeatability and the testable hypothesis.
But like Schwitzgebel, the gee-whizery in the argument made by some very smart people that getting to ought from is merely involves a suppleness with the mathematics is Sheldon-esque, and not in a cute way. To the extent that reason does not put those right ideas in motion I'm not only less attracted, but genuinely irritated. Ask Somaly Mam about the logic employed by the men who prey on and traffic vulnerable girls. Their logic, such as it is, certainly is not taking the long view.
When paired with testable propositions, abstraction remakes the world. It develops life saving medicines. It laid bare the human genome. But the history of the 20th century should stand in sharp rebuke to the idea that reason, itself, has a single (onward!) orientation. We must feel something toward the object of our thinking. So no, I don't think "an increase abstract reasoning capacity" leads the individual, or less likely, whole cultures, to the moral high ground. People are led to the moral high ground at least as often by betrayal, lies and general scum-baggery. They lose everything and everyone to a drinking habit, or completely foul up a marriage because they can't listen, or through the acid drip of self-deception reason their way into that wretched business deal. They go on to scale new heights because their hearts were broken.
If you've made it this far, read what Schwitzgebel has to say about "The Better Angels of Our Nature."