Freddy Gray Notebook
Empathy is all the rage. Cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists and Guardian readers all tell us that the most important development in human history is the growth of our ability to understand others. Last month, to considerable intellectual buzz, the Harvard scientist Steven Pinker published The Better Angels of Our ature : The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. Pinker reckons that, despite what most people think, humans have become more and more peaceful. Over 800 pages, he seeks to explain why.
Pinker’s big idea – drawn in part from the famous philosopher Peter Singer, who first proposed the “expanding circle” theory of human concern – is that, as mankind has evolved, so has our awareness of how others think and feel. Technology and trade, among other factors, have enabled men and women to mingle, communicate and co-operate. This in turn has led to more understanding and the reduction in violence.
It’s true that today we are less likely to die in war than 50 years ago. And we might be more appalled by torture than we were. But let’s not get too pleased with ourselves. The trouble with Pinker and Singer is that, in their thinking, the ability to empathise quickly becomes almost a definition of virtue. But empathy is not morality. Modern man is quite capable turning off his empathetic antennae when it suits him. Abortion, for instance, is violence on a massive scale but it doesn’t bother most people because they choose not to think about it from the perspective of the unborn.
In moral terms, empathy is a neutral faculty: it can help us make compassionate decisions, but it can also be a conduit for evil. Wicked men take pleasure in other people’s pain because they can imagine their suffering. And does not empathy lead to vanity? Our ability to see the world from the perspective of other people is linked to our ability to understand what other people think of us. It might be no coincidence that in our “age of empathy” we have seen a rise in self-obsession and sentimental narcissism.
Pinker also suggests, draw ing on Hobbes’s Leviathan, that the emergence of a powerful democratic state has helped to limit aggression. And he says that, as medicine and technology have progressed and people have been able to live longer and happier lives, the value which humans place on existence has increased. When life is not cheap, humans are less willing to extinguish it.
That makes sense. Irritatingly, though, Pinker and other great brains seem determined to dismiss the role of religion in making man more peaceful. The phenomenon which they attribute to modern times is essentially the propagation of the ancient Golden Rule. It ought to be impossible to discuss the history of non-violence without considering the Christian, Muslim or Buddhist emphases on humility and forgiveness. But Pinker adheres to the standard liberal humanist view of religion as a bloody force through the ages. He acknowledges, on page 677 of his book, that “particular religious movements at particular times in history have worked against violence”. Overall, however, he regards the Enlightenment as the “tipping point” in human progress, when man cast off the shackles of medieval religion – with all those brutal biblical injunctions – and began to think for himself (and others).
What Pinker does, in fact, is synthesise some fascinating and complex ideas about human evolution and the way our brains work, only to shovel them into a rather linear, Whiggish interpretation of history in which mankind is always getting better and better. Sometimes the cleverest people are the most naïve. One day, perhaps, Steven Pinker will discover the concept of Original Sin.