Timothy Snyder Responds To Steven Pinker’s New Book At Foreign Policy: ‘War No More: Why The World Has Become More Peaceful’

Full essay here.

‘The state appears in Pinker’s history only when it confines itself to the limited role that he believes is proper, and enlightenment figures as the rebellion of intelligent individuals against the state’s attempt to exceed its assigned role.’

Well, many Enlightenment figures went about creating the intellectual foundations of the modern State, yet most have vastly different ideas about what its size and scope ought to be, and just how we come to know what we know, and the limits of knowledge.

‘Following a long tradition that he associates with Thomas Hobbes, Pinker emphasizes the durable coercive state as the fount of social order. ‘

And if it’s the fount of social order on Pinker’s view, Snyder is arguing that it follows that the State has more dominion over the individual than Pinker might be willing to accept:

‘But the creation of states necessitates a second level of analysis in the book, one that Pinker does not really sustain. If the subject is violence, and states are in the picture, then the analysis requires a theory of interstate violence — war, in other words — as well as a sociological analysis of the development of pacific individuals within each state. After all, some of the very traits that maintain social order, such as the habit of obedience to authority, also make total wars and policies of mass killing possible. Instead of facing this problem squarely, Pinker conflates homicide and war. But as Pinker knows, states with low homicide rates have initiated horribly aggressive wars.’

Well, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany do stand out, as Snyder mentions. But Hobbes is a far cry from Hegel, Marx, and the journey of the German State to eventually arrive at the National Socialists’ rise to power, and Communism as it travelled from revolution to Stalin to the Eastern Bloc.

He goes on:

‘Pinker shows his libertarian hand when he casually claims that “economic illiteracy” causes redistributive policies and thus “class conflict.” Many have made this claim, of course, but as he notes without seeming to realize he is disproving his own hypothesis, today’s redistributive European welfare states are the most peaceful in world history.’

I suppose we’ll see about European welfare states being the most peaceful in world history.  This is pretty much why I’m skeptical of Pinker and Snyder’s arguments.

‘Pinker’s natural experiment with history generates instead a selective rereading, in which his own commitments become the guiding moral light for past and future. But of course libertarianism, like all other ideologies, involves a normative account of resource distribution: those who have should keep. There is nothing scientific about this, although again, like all other ideologies, libertarianism presents itself simply as a matter of natural reason, or, in Pinker’s case, “intelligence.”

Snyder seems a little eager to attack the libertarian view, here, and I don’t know if I’d call Pinker a libertarian so much as a person erring toward liberty and something of a contrarian amongst moral psychologists/neuroscientists (though he does tend to focus on the freedom from violence, as many libertarians do).  This must take some courage in some of the circles he moves around in at Harvard.

Pinker borrows heavily from Thomas Hobbes (how bad are people really, and is man’s state in nature itself, as Hobbes argued, requiring of the Leviathan?), which generally leads toward authoritarianism and a larger State, and yes, Pinker needs to make better and deeper arguments.  But, does this necessarily invalidate libertarianism?.

As I understand it, libertarianism isn’t just ‘those who have should keep,’ it is more “those who have should be more free to keep or give away as they see fit…and those who have not should be more free to get and give away as they see fit.’  I think the rank inequality and problems that result bother many people, and I personally don’t find a Stateless state of affairs particularly desirable.  Anti-statists and anarchists have always seemed a little extreme to me, given human nature (as they do for many people), but some deep thinking has been done. On this site, see: A Few Thoughts On Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State and Utopia”… Two Sunday Quotations By Albert Jay Nock in ‘Anarchist’s Progress’Via Youtube: (1 of 3) Kant, Chomsky and the Problem of KnowledgeLink To Lew Rockwell Via A Reader.  I almost always find myself taking the libertarian or conservative position against liberals.

Open markets (creative destruction, privatized gains and losses, lower barriers to entry into the marketplace) provide more individuals the opportunity to work, gain marketable skills, compete on merit and live much of their lives merely relying on the State only for securing them in their lives, liberty and property (a Lockean formulation, I know).  It also requires people to participate, some basic moral behavior on their part and requires them to participate as citizens, voters, some as watchdogs etc.  This also requires a legal framework.  It’s open for debate how those laws are drafted and made, and how well made they are and by whom, and what powers over people’s lives they have.

Snyder finishes with:

Pinker is to be praised for asking a crucial question — perhaps the crucial question — of modern history. But as he moves between the premodern world of violence and a postmodern style of discourse, he loses sight of the modern world in which we actually live. What he provides is less an answer to his question than a mode of reasoning that has little to do with the scientific study of the past and much to do with a worldview that happens to be his own.”

Agreed, Pinker doesn’t really get there, and what he does isn’t necessarily science, but science may not be the only measure of useful governance, nor perhaps, truth.  Libertarians often assume there is a ground floor of individual responsibility, duties and freedom upon which civil society is built, and thus liberty conserved (libertarianism often has trouble with the moral arguments of many religious conservatives and the authority of the Church (not all do though)).

Libertarians also generally have trouble with the arguments put forth against the injustices of slavery which happens to be one of the core moral elements to big-state progressivism and the fact that some people’s freedom was abridged by that civil society through its laws.  Of course, it doesn’t necessarily follow that what’s become of modern American liberalism and Statism is the necessary alternative (let alone the desire to be like old Europe with her problems).

Any thoughts and comments are welcome.

Related On This Site:   What about a World Leviathan?: At Bloggingheads Steven Pinker Discusses War And Thomas HobbesFrom Reason.TV Via YouTube: ‘Steven Pinker on The Decline of Violence & “The Better Angels of Our Nature”‘

Simon Blackburn Reviews Steven Pinker’s “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial Of Human Nature” Via the University Of Cambridge Philosophy Department

Morality in the emotions? Jesse Prinz argues that neuroscience and the cognitive sciences should move back toward British empiricism and David Hume…yet…with a defense of multiculturalism and Nietzsche thrown in:  Another Note On Jesse Prinz’s “Constructive Sentimentalism”From Bloggingheads: Tamar Szabo Gendler On Philosophy and Cognitive Science

From The Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy Entry On Eliminative MaterialismMilton Friedman Via Youtube: ‘Responsibility To The Poor’A Few Quotations From F.A. Hayek’s: ‘Why I Am Not A Conservative’A Few Thoughts On Isaiah Berlin’s “Two Concepts Of Liberty”

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3 thoughts on “Timothy Snyder Responds To Steven Pinker’s New Book At Foreign Policy: ‘War No More: Why The World Has Become More Peaceful’

  1. Though psychology is not as politicized as some of the other social sciences, it too is sometimes driven by a Utopian vision in which changes in child-rearing and education will ameliorate social pathologies and improve human welfare. And psychological theorists sometimes try to add moral heft to arguments for connectionism or other empiricist theories with warnings about the pessimistic implications of innatist theories. They argue, for example, that innatist theories open the door to inborn differences, which could foster racism, or that the theories imply that human traits are unchangeable, which could weaken support for social programs.

  2. drs

    “After all, some of the very traits that maintain social order, such as the habit of obedience to authority, also make total wars and policies of mass killing possible.”

    Funny how pre-state hunter-gatherer tribes are capable of wiping each other out given the opportunity. Ambush, early-morning raid, kill the men and children and enslave the women.

    Heck, chimps do it

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