10/13/2011—Since I am a critic of things—whether it is what I call the crisis in secularism in my book, or my call for a new look at Marx—it is good to be reminded of just how much progress there actually has been in human affairs over the past few centuries. The book is The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard. The book was reviewed in the New York Times on Sunday, October 9, by the well-known professor of bioethics at Princeton, Peter Singer. As Singer puts it, “[t]he central thesis of [the book] is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence.” According to Singer, to whom this argument does not come easily, Pinker makes a careful and persuasive case.
Not as clear, even to Pinker, are two questions that are more important than how we are doing right now. First, if Pinker’s claims are accurate, how and why did they happen? A lot of it has to do with the Enlightenment, according to Pinker, which is important, considering how much bad press the Enlightenment has been getting.
Second, will these positive trends continue? Pinker thinks they will, but he is not certain about that and admits that they may not.
But I want to raise a different issue, without having read the book. Just judging by the review—and I have a lot of confidence in the thoroughness and integrity of Peter Singer—there does not seem to be much in the book about the current environmental crisis. Yes, there may be less physical violence, but if we cannot manage to avoid ruining the Earth’s capacity to sustain human life well, that decline will not mean much.
What if the same Enlightenment thinking that has given us so much, is also at the heart of our inability to appreciate the common good that the earth represents? After all, the Enlightenment gave us, or helped give us, individualism and it is individualism that is hindering us from seeing this collective threat.