Thursday, April 30, 2009

Roots of Politics II

More from Steven Pinkers "The Blank Slate". After his review of the competing Tragic and Utopian Visions :

My own view is that the new sciences of human nature really do vindicate some version of the Tragic Vision and undermine the Utopian outlook that until recently dominated large segments of intellectual life. The sciences say nothing, of course, about differences in values that are associated with particular right-wing and left-wing positions (such as in the tradeoffs between unemployment and environmental protection, diversity and economic efficiency, or individual freedom and community cohesion). Nor do they speak directly to policies that are based on a complex mixture of assumptions about the world. But they do speak to the parts of the visions that are general claims about how the mind works. Those claims may be evaluated against the facts, just like any empirical hypothesis. The Utopian vision that human nature might radically change in some imagined society of the remote future is, of course, literally unfalsifiable, but I think that many of the discoveries recounted in preceding chapters make it unlikely. Among them I would include the following:

· The primacy of family ties in all human societies and the consequent appeal of nepotism and inheritance.
(for which, see the Labour Party's selection procedures - LT)

· The limited scope of communal sharing in human groups, the more common ethos of reciprocity, and the resulting phenomena of social loafing and the collapse of contributions to public goods when reciprocity cannot be implemented.
(we've certainly got the social loafing - but so far, tax contributions to public goods have proven quite robust)

· The universality of dominance and violence across human societies (including supposedly peaceable hunter-gatherers) and the existence of genetic and neurological mechanisms that underlie it.
(I call it Original Sin. Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee called it 'who's to be master ?')

· The universality of ethnocentrism and other forms of group-against-group hostility across societies, and the ease with which such hostility can be aroused in people within our own society.
(In white people it's called racism, even when expressed in terms of love of one's own rather than hatred of others. Elsewhere it's called solidarity. But group-against-group hostility isn't necessarily ethnocentric.)

· The partial heritability of intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies, implying that some degree of inequality will arise even in perfectly fair economic systems, and that we therefore face an inherent tradeoff between equality and freedom.
(See also assortative mating. At the other end of the intelligence, conscientiousness, and antisocial tendencies spectrum, although to be fair there are some high-IQ psychpaths, see underclass)

· The prevalence of defense mechanisms, self-serving biases, and cognitive dissonance reduction, by which people deceive themselves about their autonomy, wisdom, and integrity.
(See under "Polly Toynbee")

· The biases of the human moral sense, including a preference for kin and friends, a susceptibility to a taboo mentality, and a tendency to confuse morality with conformity, rank, cleanliness, and beauty.
(A tendency to confuse morality with conformity, eh ? That's pretty much all of us)

It is not just conventional scientific data that tell us the mind is not infinitely malleable. I think it is no coincidence that beliefs that were common among intellectuals in the 1960s—that democracies are obsolete, revolution is desirable, the police and armed forces dispensable, and society designable from the top down—are now rarer. The Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision inspired historical events whose interpretations are much clearer than they were just a few decades ago. Those events can serve as additional data to test the visions' claims about human psychology.

The visions contrast most sharply in the political revolutions they spawned. The first revolution with a Utopian Vision was the French Revolution—recall Wordsworth's description of the times, with "human nature seeming born again." The revolution overthrew the ancien regime and sought to begin from scratch with the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity and a belief that salvation would come from vesting authority in a morally superior breed of leaders. The revolution, of course, sent one leader after another to the guillotine as each failed to measure up to usurpers who felt they had a stronger claim to wisdom and virtue. No political structure survived the turnover of personnel, leaving a vacuum that would be filled by Napoleon. The Russian Revolution was also animated by the Utopian Vision, and it also burned through a succession of leaders before settling into the personality cult of Stalin. The Chinese Revolution, too, put its faith in the benevolence and wisdom of a man who displayed, if anything, a particularly strong dose of human foibles like dominance, lust, and self-deception. The perennial limitations of human nature prove the futility of political revolutions based only on the moral aspirations of the revolutionaries. In the words of the song about revolution by The Who: Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.


Recusant said...

A quick apology to Dan who, in the comments to the last Pinker quote, I criticised: he was right I was wrong.

And now I think that even Pinker might be coming round to his views, if in a disguised and roundabout manner.

Word verification = 'poloi'. Speak for yourself!

Spud said...

- although to be fair there are some high-IQ psychpaths, see underclass)

No, the underclass is more likely to get the low-IQ and violent psychopaths.

Boardrooms, trading floors and political parties of all stripes probably have their fair share of crafty and high-functioning psychopaths.

Anonymous said...

What does he mean by 'tragic revolution'? Does he mean the English Civil War?


wildgoose said...

I've just started reading "English Civil War: Conservatism and Revolution 1603-1649" by Robert Ashton, thanks to a recommendation by FreebornJohnIt makes the interesting point that the Revolution wasn't so much a radical ("Utopian") revolution as also a reactionary ("Tragician") Counter-Revolution caused by the threats to traditional English liberties of the King's imposition of foreign (European) absolutism.

Hmmm... Time for another English Revolution?

Martin Meenagh said...

I always thought that the levellers and chartists were much more like the American revolutionaries than the socialists that people often claim them to be. I also think that if you compare Pym's two speeches on grievance before the war started, you'd find a very English evolution of anti-continental, anti-absolutism.

I once saw Pinker talking in Oxford with Dawkins beside him. They were holding forth on the stage of the old Magdalen Street cinema, and I couldn't stop myself thinking most of the things your post articulated. I agree with you. I thought at the time as well that Pinker was essentially taking the enlightenment back to the insights available to religious philosophers and scientists in the seventeenth century, before it started pretending that none of those things mattered.