RSS

Tag Archives: Science in Society

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has DeclinedThe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

My Rating★★★★☆

The Skeptic’s Peace

Pinker warns the reader upfront that the book is huge, and with more than 800 dense pages there is no question about it. It is so wide-ranging that it is fortunate it has such a memorable title – the reader might have easily lost track of where it is all supposed to be heading. Individually, any section of the book is a throughly entertaining masterpiece, but as a whole, in terms of coherence, and on how the thesis and the direction of the arguments hold together, the book is not as much of a delight.

But it is an ambitious book and is in some respects a new sort of history – almost a moral history of the world, and Pinker deserves praise for the attempt. The next such historian to come along has been given much to work with.

Pinker is very convincing about the fact that violence has indeed declined; he is even persuasive on why it was but bound to happen. But when it comes to explaining the phenomenon (which he spends most of the book convincing us is real) based on his strength (psychology and evolutionary biology), he comes up slightly short. Pinker says all the right things and spares no punches and doesn’t flinch from taking on the worst arguments the critics might throw at him but his arguments still seem to lack that knockout blow.

This is not to say that the arguments are weak. Pinker does a remarkable job in his survey of history, of stats and of a multitude of ideas. The scholarship is immaculate, the intentions are noble and the conclusions are plausible but I would still wager that Pinker would fail to convince the majority of his readers.

Why? Because he ignores the contingent nature of history and he forgets that the ‘better angels’ has not only made us a more moral society but has also made us a more skeptical society. I was disappointed that Pinker does not explore the preventive powers of sheer skepticism.

My own thesis, which was evolving as I read Pinker’s, is ultimately that the skeptical mentality is what the ‘civilizing process’ (and the years of bloody wars) has ultimately given us – a conviction that there are no easy answers, no ‘final solutions’. And that is a powerful deterrent to most forms of drastic action, since now it is harder to justify them. This to me is the real cause for optimism (of the measured and skeptical sort, as is our wont now).

View all my reviews

 
3 Comments

Posted by on September 3, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

A Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

A Companion to EthicsA Companion to Ethics by Peter Singer

My Rating★★★★☆

Singer takes a different approach with this book and instead of culling from existing literature, he calls for essays and the result is an eclectic mix of essays that exhibit a wide range of contemporary’s takes on some of the classic and current problems that philosophers wrestle with or theorize about. It consists of some fifty original essays. These essays deal with the origins of ethics, with the great ethical traditions, with theories about how we ought to live, with arguments about specific ethical issues, and with the nature of ethics itself.

As Singer puts it, a quick summary might go like this: in the first part, we see how little we know about the origins of ethics, how ethics in small-scale societies takes forms very different from those it takes in our own, and how the most ancient ethical writings already reflect a variety of views about how life is to be lived. Then the great ethical traditions are put on display; and we find divergence of opinion not only between the different traditions, but within each tradition itself. The history of Western philosophical ethics shows how, from the earliest Greek thinkers to the present day, old philosophical positions have resurfaced at intervals, and old battles have had to be fought out all over again in more modern terms. When, in Part IV, the volume moves from the past to the present, we are presented with many theories of how we ought to live, and about the nature of ethics, all plausible, sometimes disagreeing with other approaches.

The many voices makes this a valuable collection in that the method provides a level of over-all detachment that a single author tackling multiple philosophies might find hard to achieve. Here each of the authors are (presumably) scholars who wanted to make a distinct point and Singer is okay with accepting that the book might not have any coherence beyond being a companion to the many schools; but the reader also develops a sense of convergence of ideas as the book moves from the past to the present and from questions to possible solutions. What is striking at this point is the unexpected extent to which writers who had started from quite different places all seemed to be heading in the same direction.

That is the strength of the book. It lays out the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle but leaves it to the reader to divine if there is an overarching outline connecting them. And a book on philosophy should always endeavor to let that thrill be the reader’s.

View all my reviews

 

 
Leave a comment

Posted by on August 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books, Philosophy

 

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

 
%d bloggers like this: