My Shaky Faith in the Better Angels of our Nature

[Available in PDF format here.]

I have been re-reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, trying to figure out why that book leaves me dissatisfied. The question intrigues me because I largely agree with its author’s thesis: there is proportionately less violence in the world today than there has ever been, and the main cause of the decline in violence has been the increasing sway of reason and science. I also agree with the philosopher Peter Singer’s positive review of the work (in The New York Times of October 9, 2011), all the way down to his conclusion that The Better Angels of our Nature is “a supremely important book”, masterly in its prodigious deployment of evidence and the persuasiveness of its arguments. So, why do I come away from it irritated?

On the surface, the question has a simple answer. The book offends me personally because I hear its author arguing that my persistent uneasiness about the state of our world is largely due to my being taken in by the unrelenting focus of the news media on what is appalling in our world. I do not see myself as an innocent consumer of news. I read The New York Times every day, but I am blind neither to its editorial biases nor to its inventing topics to be alarmed about when there is nothing else with which to fill its front and editorial pages. During the past few months, for example, the paper has published a number of articles and editorial pieces the main purpose of which was to vilify and demonize Vladimir Putin in excess of the objective facts in the quarrel between Russia and Ukraine. Playing on memories of the Cold War, it sought to suggest that in Russia the United States faces an adversary as dangerous as the former Soviet Union, and, in the process, to mobilize American emotion against Russia, including fear of Russia. Classic media circus and hardly benign!

In short, I am aware of the attention trawling agenda of the news media and tend to correct for it, yet I feel just as much uneasiness about the state of the world as the next person. And I dislike being told that while I may think myself immune to the news effect and its distortions of the truth, I am being naïve on that front.

While there is some truth to that explanation, the real cause of my annoyance with Pinker lies a little deeper. One of the accidental virtues of The Better Angels of our Nature is its bringing home to me that the malaise I feel about the human situation is immensely more complicated than distress induced in me by rates of homicide in war or urban hellholes, of sexual violence, or of child abuse. As its author convincingly shows, those rates have greatly declined compared to where they were a thousand, or even a hundred, years ago, and yet knowing that does not make me feel noticeably better. And when I look to the book for an explanation of that fact, I find none. I am left therefore with having to figure it out for myself. And once I try to do that, my frustration with Pinker’s account increases.

An apparently trivial, but quite significant, element in my alienation from the modern world is that it constantly gets on my nerves. Living in it often feels like being caught in a traffic jam that lasts for hours on end, is no one’s fault, and has no explanations. Not only is there nothing that you can do about it, but it behooves you to keep your chronic irritation with it under control. Start leaning on your horn or otherwise taking your frustration out on other drivers, and you’ll only make the situation worse. After a while it erodes your sanity, more or less like the wind that blows on the Outer Cape in the winter 24 hours a day, day after day.

Compared with other people, I have it easy. I am comfortably retired, have no employer whom I need to keep happy, no hour-long commute on a crowded interstate to travel 11 miles, no noisy neighbors, no sound of gunshots or police helicopters in the middle of the night. I own a nice house at the edge of a forest miles from anywhere. My only complaint, it seems, is the relentless wind coming off the North Atlantic in winter.

But, for one thing, I spent enough years commuting 11 miles to and from Boston to earn a living to remember what that is like. When I occasionally travel to Boston today and find myself in that traffic on Interstate 93, I can barely imagine how I was able to put up with it twice a day, day after day. And while I worked in a university which, as employers go, don’t ask for much that goes against one’s grain, I remember many a day at work when, had I had a choice, I would have chosen to be elsewhere. There is sometimes a huge gap between academic rhetoric and everyday academic reality.

For another thing, even my now idyllic life is not as gentle on my nerves as it may sound. In the last three weeks, for example, I have spent probably a total of twelve hours getting my wife signed up for health insurance. For some incomprehensible reason, everyone’s health insurance in Massachusetts had to renewed, which meant applying for that renewal online. Among other things, the state needed to know my wife’s race, her place of birth, whether she is a US citizen and, if so, a naturalized citizen or one by birth. Don’t ask me what any of that has to do with health insurance, which happens to be mandatory in Massachusetts. And then, to complete the application, we had to submit documentary proof of our being Massachusetts residents. We have lived here for fifteen years, paid both income taxes and property taxes, have Massachusetts drivers licenses, have been registered voters, etc., all of which the state knows. Were we to fail to file a state income tax return, or to pay what we owe when we owe it, the state would have no trouble at all remembering that we are Massachusetts residents.

It goes on. On December 18th, we sent them a check for the January premium. Our bank records show that they cashed it a few days later. On December 30th, we received a call that unless we paid the premium by December 31st, my wife would not be covered by health insurance in January. Two hours on the phone, much of it on hold, with a baffled clerk unable to find a record of the premium having been paid. Etc. We are keeping our fingers crossed that they’ll sort out the mess eventually.

Here is another story. Earlier this month, my wife needed a prescription renewed. She called her doctor and was assured that he would call the prescription into the pharmacy. Because the pharmacy is 18 miles away, and to avoid a wasted trip, my wife called the pharmacy the next day to make sure that the prescription had in fact been renewed. It hadn’t. She called the doctor back. He was now on vacation. It took five days of phone calls and increasing anxiety to get the problem resolved.

Here’s another one. At the beginning of December, we received a notice from the electric company informing us that beginning in December, electric rates were going up by 30%, this in a state that, possibly next to Hawaii, already has the highest utility rates in the nation. The reason given for the increase was some verbiage about inadequate pipe line capacity to transport natural gas to power plants in New England. Outraged people called their state representatives, complained in the newspapers, and so on, all to no avail. The rate increase somehow snuck by the Public Utilities Commission and it was too late to do anything about it.

And another. By law, as in most states, cars in Massachusetts have to pass a yearly safety inspection and display a valid inspection sticker. In theory, the inspection costs $35. I have yet to get one for that price. Inspection stations are run by private automative repair shops. Where I live, there are few of them. When I take my car in, it always needs new tires, or new license plate bulbs, or an expensive repair job on the emergency brake, this even when the tires are a year old, with 10,000 miles on them, the bulbs are not broken, and the emergency brake is never used. Four Michelin tires cost $1,000 and are supposed to last for 50,000 miles. When I pointed this out to the folks who did my last car inspection, I was told that our roads are very bad. In fact, they are no worse than any other roads. But this time I came prepared. I had brought the sales receipt for four tires I bought in the same place a year earlier. They eventually backed off with talk about how I probably need a wheel alignment, but they would let it go this time.

The company that supplies our heating oil recently sent me a bill for 110 gallons ($317), supposedly delivered three days earlier. Because I happened to be in the basement the day before, I noticed that the oil tank was half full. There had been no oil delivery. When I called to inquire as politely as I could, I was told that my fuel gauge was probably stuck. So, I watched the gauge going down for six weeks until it showed close to empty, then called the heating oil supplier asking for a delivery. They came the next day. It took 230 gallons to fill the tank. So, I called them again to suggest that we could not possibly have used 230 gallons of heating oil during six weeks of relatively mild weather in a small well-insulated house and a thermostat set at 60 degrees F. Could I possibly have been billed by mistake for an original delivery that went to someone else? They promised to investigate but came up with nothing. The same driver apparently made both deliveries and remembered them clearly. “I don’t know what to tell you,” the woman said to me when they called back a couple of days later. Well, I have been watching the gauge on the tank: our heating oil consumption is normal. Go figure!

One of my old computers recently took to giving out several times a day. I read this as a sign of its impeding death, which I thought would be unfortunate because it is running Maple for me, a rather expensive ($1,200) mathematical software program. Because I had another computer of the same vintage that one of my children left behind, I tried to transfer that software with its license to that computer. I am reasonably savvy about computers, but couldn’t bring off the feat. So I sent an email to Maple asking for help. They replied quickly, only to tell me that what I wanted couldn’t be done. Once a software license is activated on one computer, it cannot be transferred, even if that computer dies. I needed to buy a new license, they said. In fact, I know enough about this kind of thing to be aware of the reality that all it would have taken on their part was a minor change in their license database that would have taken them 15 seconds. But they badly wanted that $1,200 to which they were not in fact entitled.

I therefore decided to repair my old computer instead. It turned out that what I had interpreted as machine crashes was merely an intermittently malfunctioning graphics card. The VGA port on the card was dying. But the DVI port still worked. Unfortunately, my monitor had no DVI port. I needed either a new video card, costing $150, or a new monitor costing $100, or a DVI/VGA converter costing 99 cents at Amazon. I made the obvious choice. But because getting the converter from Amazon would for some reason have taken five weeks, I decided to to buy the item locally. It proved hard to find. I finally found one at Staples, 18 miles from here, for $22 – exactly the same item at a breathtaking markup. I bought it anyhow, and the computer now works just fine.

I could add more of those stories, but then, you probably live in the same world I do. You have your own.

Told individually, each of those stories invites the reply that the aggravation of which you complain just happens to be one of the irritations of everyday life, more or less on a par with the stupid driver on the highway who rides on your rear bumper at 60 miles an hour. Confronted with it, it behooves you to keep your cool. You don’t want to waste your time arguing with a heating oil company over the phone, or loose your temper at a car inspection station, or get yourself thrown out at Staples for protesting a $22 price tag for an item available elsewhere for 99 cents. And God knows, you don’t want to convey to a state agency that you think them incompetent because they are screwing up your health insurance application, or making you jump through hoops that serve no good purpose. Do that, and you can count on your application being delayed even longer. But put all these stories together, and these apparently occasional irritations of everyday life turn into one large continuous irritation. Add the telephone ringing an average of eight times a day, with calls from fund raisers, salesmen, con artists, and other such people. Add thirty emails a day trying to sell you stuff. If you run a blog, add comment spam so overwhelming in its magnitude that you end up disabling the comment function. Add the dents to your car in the grocery store parking lot, put there by other drivers being careless when they open their car doors. Keep adding, and pretty soon the amount of self-control required to put up with it all comes perilously close to exceeding what you are capable of.

And that’s when the going is good. Throw in a job that does little for you except to pay the bills, office politics, a nerve-wracking commute, scarce or expensive parking, flu scares that make you wary of public transportation in crowded subway cars, an ominous-looking tick bite that leads to an $800 bill (even with insurance) for a blood test that checks for tick-borne diseases, and it can seem downright astounding that more people are not in mental hospitals, or at least on tranquillizers.

But responsible citizen that you are, you read the newspaper, or you turn on CNN. You hope for reassurance that the world is not falling apart after all. Instead, you get to watch the antics of a network devoted to turning news into sensationalist entertainment. And when the coverage is of politics and the circus in Washington, you remember that it is not so much the politicians who are crazy as the people who elect them, your fellow citizens, in other words. It takes self-control not to despair. And if you do not have much of it left that day, you may need a double scotch, or at least a stupefying game show, not to lose it altogether.

So here comes a philosopher/psychologist trying to reassure you that our hope lies in the exercise of reason. Even if you agree as I do, you may arguably be forgiven for thinking that this person does not fully understand the nature of the problem, which is that after all that the stresses of everyday life take out of us, we usually lack the psychological wherewithal to avail ourselves of the resources of reason. Doing so takes self-control, our supply of which suffers chronic depletion. It may be a renewable resource, but that is of little comfort if we constantly must use more of it than we can renew. The only defense is numbness and apathy – euphemistically called cognitive reframing – posturing as self-control.

I have not met many people who have read The Better Angels of our Nature in its entirety. It is a 700-page book. The last four chapters do not make for easy reading. The arguments deployed in them are complex. Understanding them, never mind assessing them critically, requires enormous concentration – sustained self-control, if you prefer, more of it than is easy to come by these days. Of course coming up with it pays off. So do reasonable and measured judgment. I have no quarrel with Pinker on that front. But I am unhappy with his apparent obliviousness to the fact that the sort of self-control and exercise of reason that he recommends are thin on the ground, not because people are defective, but because modern life takes too much out of us. Modern life is not reasonable in the sense of displaying an implemented awareness of the scientific fact Pinker himself cites, that self-control is a limited resource that constantly suffers depletion and requires constant renewal.

For many people, the exercise of reason in general is becoming harder by the day. So who is it whose reason is going to save the day in the future that is upon us? Surely not a democratic electorate that is already overburdened with stress. Who but a scholar heavily insulated by private means, or by employment in a generous institution, from the vicissitudes of daily life can come up with the psychological wherewithal to even read a serious book like Pinker’s with a measure of critical detachment? I share the edifying sentiments that Pinker repeatedly expresses vis-a-vis democracy, but I worry that continuing to save the day may lie increasingly beyond the reach of democracy, and that because of the conditions of life that democracy itself has wrought.

Although I am inclined to share it too, there are deeper reasons for being skeptical of Pinker’s faith in reason. I will discuss them eventually. But for now, let this account suffice for why his book irritates me. I feel uneasy about the world because even in my well-protected enclave, it constantly gets on my nerves. God knows what effect it has on people less fortunate than I am. It is good to know that homicide rates are down. And I am not seriously tempted to reverse that trend by braking hard the next time some tailgating fool rides on my rear bumper, or someone takes me for an ugly ride in a commercial transaction. I understand that self-control is a virtue. The only question is how much self-control it takes to keep the world from falling part, and whether we can collectively come up with that much of it as the demand for it increases. When I contemplate that question, I feel profoundly uneasy about our prospects, notwithstanding Pinker’s superbly documented decline in violence.

©Serge Kappler 2015


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