Light of the World

The premise of Steven Pinker’s latest book Enlightenment Now (“My new favourite book of all time”: Bill Gates) is as follows. Humankind evolved in an essentially hostile world, set in an indifferent universe, and for millennia humans merely compounded these unfavourable conditions with their own special savagery and error. Yet within the last few centuries they have learned how to live long lives in safety, comfort, and good health, not just getting steadily more prosperous, but Pinker books.JPGhaving popular access to forms of wealth (information, communications) not available even to the Croesuses and Fuggers of former times.

All this, Pinker insists, has been the consequence of those ideas and practices thought out and championed during the ‘Enlightenment’ of the late 17th and the 18th centuries: reliance on reason, the pursuit of science, humanist ideals, confidence in the possibility of progress. “The Enlightenment,” writes Pinker, “has worked – perhaps the greatest story seldom told.” [6] It’s “seldom told” for various reasons which he gives, the chief of them being that our brains (Pinker is a cognitive psychologist) have not had time to evolve to suit these new conditions, and remain pessimistically alert for trouble, better at fearing disaster than recognising and enjoying good fortune. Modern news media exploit and confirm this “negativity bias”. Therefore Pinker takes it on himself to tell this greatest story, and the book’s title is both a statement (‘This is what we’ve gained, thanks to the Enlightenment’) and an injunction: hold fast to it because, as he says on the last page of the book, “there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.” [453]

“human flourishing” – the index to the book gives some hint of the range and detail of its manifestations in Pinker’s survey: freedom, equal rights, vacuum cleaners, drowning deaths [fewer of them], literacy, cooking smoke [reduced], peace, sewerage. In keeping with Enlightenment principles of reason and science, he evidences all this good news with graphs and numbers (e.g. deaths by water down by 90% over the last 115 years). It’s an impressive record, though we may doubt whether every one of these varieties of progress really does constitute flourishing. Population, for instance: Pinker argues that the growing numbers (not just proportion) of humans enjoying such benefits should be welcomed: “Every additional long-lived, healthy, well-fed, well-off person is a sentient being capable of happiness, and the world is a better place for having more of them.” [88] Then, not unconnected, there’s jet travel: counted by ‘number of arrivals’, we’ve apparently flourished from a mere 0.55 billion in 1995 to 1.2 billion in 2015, with all that implies of expansion in our “awareness of our planet and species” [259].

And there’s the key: “our planet and species”. This is the story not just of how well we’ve done for ourselves since 1700, but of how we’ve made the planet ours. Higher numbers of well-off people (to repeat) make the world itself “a better place”. Humans, then, are the world. The speciesist assumption is everywhere. When we are invited to welcome the rise of “a moral principle – Life is sacred” [213], there’s no need to specify that it’s human life that’s meant. Even when we congratulate ourselves on conservation successes, it’s for saving “many beloved species” [133] (you see what makes them worth saving).

One glaring casualty of Enlightenment-style progress, the world’s climate, Pinker acknowledges with unreserved scientific candour, but he makes this disaster part of the great adventure, rather than the delinquency, of man: “Humanity has never faced a problem like it.” [137] Solving problems is what science and reason do; he keeps saying it. In this sense, then, for all its enormity, climate change is like housework and death by drowning, a project for reason and science to get their teeth into. So it’s not surprising that when Pinker asks, towards the end of his book, what should be regarded as “the proudest accomplishment of our species”, he chooses science: not that we shouldn’t be proud of “the masterworks of art, music, and literature”, but these may after all not be cosmically estimable, reliably intelligible to “any tribunal of minds”, whereas our scientific knowledge is independent and absolute [385]. The reasoning is sound, I’m sure, and I don’t suggest that Pinker should have preferred the masterworks. I just note that he expects “our species” to look for approval to the universe, not to our real paying audience (and how they do pay!) in this world. What net good we have done to any lives but our own here on “our planet” is not a question that the book gets round to asking.

Well, Steven Pinker is a humanist. “He has been named Humanist of the Year”, says the publisher (no sniggering, please), and he defines humanism as the “goal of maximizing human flourishing.” [410] He does note, in the last chapter of the book, that humanism “doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals” but he explains that “this book focuses on the welfare of humankind.” Yes, it certainly does that, and rather more: it privileges that welfare to a nearly absolute degree.

It’s true that the other animal species have been given a more spacious attention in Pinker’s earlier book The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011). Even here, however, he speaks of human flourishing as “the only value that cannot be denied” [220], and in fact the account of animals which he does give goes some way to explaining why they seem to matter so little in Enlightenment Now.

The earlier book is a survey of human violence, including violence towards animals. Like its successor, it claims that we have made enormous progress (“the historical decline of violence”), and it aims to demonstrate as much with graphs and statistics, for as Pinker says in Enlightenment Now, “how can we appraise the state of the world? The answer is to count.” [43] But although he does indeed do plenty of counting – deaths in civil war, lynchings, domestic assault, levels of political violence, even (and fascinatingly) ‘apologies by political and religious leaders’, all of which do support his case – there’s a noticeable deficit in the statistical element when he speaks about the other animals.

The slaughtering of farm animals, for instance: figures for this form of violence are easily available and surely as telling as any of his other numbers, but they don’t appear in the book. Pinker concedes, in words only, that there has been “a stealthy creeping up of the numbers”, but he explains it as a growing preference for chicken meat, which costs more individual lives per weight of food than, for instance, beef. This explanation helps him to fit the daily world-wide massacre of animals into his general thesis, because the numbers reflect “changes in economics and taste” rather than “a backsliding of moral sensibilities or an increase in callousness” [566]. That’s all right then, and by way of further reassurance, cruelties to farmed animals “are by no means a modern invention”, and factory farming itself “not a phenomenon of the 20th century” [554]. The point is illustrated not with numbers (which would hardly do it) but with some gruesome and obsolete cruelties quoted from histories of food. We can take satisfaction, then, in our increased human decency, even though the total suffering caused by its deficiencies is actually going up. It’s an argument which would not, I think, be accepted anywhere else in either book.

But then can they even be called deficiencies? Meat-eating, for instance: is its opposite, vegetarianism, really such an ethical choice? Pinker argues that vegetarianism has always been a scene of mixed motives (asceticism, health, belief in the transmigration of souls); it’s a line of argument whose summation (and one sees it coming from afar) is the vegetarianism of “Hitler and many of his henchmen” [557]. So you can feel confident that he’ll also be mentioning the fact that other animals eat each other (“nature red in tooth and claw”), which in fact he does on p.571.

So although we humans have apparently been able to half-cure our devotion to war, an achievement which Pinker very reasonably classes among “those psychological retunings … that cause violence to decline” [303], no such retuning is expected or even much missed in our eating habits. After all, as Pinker states with a fatalism quite opposite to his general thesis, killing animals for food is “part of the human condition” [550].

Very much the same technique of argument is used for vivisection. On the one hand, there has been a great improvement. Pinker describes the routine cruelties of laboratory life in the U.S.A. as recently as 1975, when he had some direct experience of it, but he is “relieved to say” that “just five years later, indifference to the welfare of animals among scientists had become unthinkable, indeed illegal.” [549] This is an assertion for which no statistics are provided. (N.B. The Silver Spring monkeys scandal dates from 1981-3. I won’t attempt to list the other abuses which PETA has exposed in laboratories over the years since then.) Then, again undocumented, not only are animals “now protected from being hurt, stressed, or killed in the conduct of science” by adults, but “in high school biology labs the venerable custom of dissecting pickled frogs has gone the way of inkwells and slide rules.” [560] If this shaky assertion is at least a welcome idea, things are even better in the U.K. Here, according to Pinker, scientists “acceded to laws banning vivisection” as long ago as the late nineteenth century [558]. No statistics are provided, in fact no details at all, and I don’t know how they could be. (Incidentally, we’re also told that all blood-sports have been illegal in the U.K. since 2005.)

On the other hand, like meat-eating, it seems that vivisection is just one of those things (perhaps there are only the two of them) about which it can’t be said that there is “no limit to the betterments which we can attain” (the phrase from Enlightenment Now). The general proposition in both books is that humans aren’t fated to any particular status quo. With the aid of reason, science, and optimism, we can change anything for the better: “Indeed, a naïve faith in stasis has repeatedly led to prophecies of environmental doomsdays that never happened.” [EN 125] And so, for instance, we needn’t fear that the world will “run out of resources” [EN 126]; we can find others, or other ways of getting the benefits which such resources gave us: “Why should the laws of nature have allowed exactly one physically possible way of satisfying a human desire, no more and no less?” [EN 127] Why indeed, but evidently that is all they’ve allowed in the case of vivisection, for we’re told that without this particular way of doing research “medicine would be frozen at its current state, and billions of living and unborn people would suffer and die for the sake of mice.” [571] Violence towards other species, it seems, is the one thing that the laws of nature, including our own human nature, simply won’t allow us to abjure.

Pinker does not himself see the animal question as an exception to his argument. At any rate he presents it in such a way as to show that we have indeed improved even here, in the hardest of all tests of our moral progress, and he waves genial goodbye to it with a fittingly unconvincing assurance: “it is certain that the lives of animals will continue to improve.” [572]

These two big books (more than 1500 pages between them) demand respect and attention: they are mighty in scope, they’re written with wit and lucidity, and mostly they’re telling good if often disputable news. You’d have to call them ‘important’ books, influential books at least (“The most inspiring book I’ve ever read”: Bill Gates again, on Better Angels this time). That makes their rigid anthropocentrism both significant and deplorable.

There’s a chapter in Enlightenment Now titled ‘Progressophobia’, in which Pinker reviews some of the objections and objectors to the case he presents. Among these latter is the political philosopher John Gray “an avowed progressophobe” [EN 191]. Certainly Gray himself is no teller of good news, but at least he reminds us that there is more light shining in the world than that one beam of human mind which Pinker urges us to see by:

Humanism is a doctrine of salvation – the belief that humankind can take charge of its destiny … But for anyone whose hopes are not centred on their own species, the notion that human action can save themselves or the planet must be absurd … What could be more hopeless than placing the Earth in the charge of this exceptionally destructive species? It is not of becoming the planet’s wise stewards that Earth-lovers dream, but of a time when humans have ceased to matter.

 

Notes and References:

Quotations are from Enlightenment Now: the Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress (Allen Lane, 2018) and The Better Angels of our Nature: a History of Violence and Humanity (Penguin Books, 2012, first published 2002), page numbers as given in square brackets. The testimonials from Bill Gates appear on the two covers. John Gray is quoted from Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, Granta Books, 2003 (first published 2002), pp.16-17.

For the Silver Spring exposé, see https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/silver-spring-monkeys/.

 

Advertisements

Moral Maze

After 27 years on air, BBC Radio 4’s discussion programme The Moral Maze has at last got round to the animals, with an episode titled ‘Veganism and Animal Rights’. The advertised formula for this programme is “combative, provocative and engaging debate”. The journey not the arrival, then: that is, it aims to make a showy fight of things amongst the four panelists, not to reach a finished position – as, for instance, Radio 4’s more intellectual Agree to Differ does. But a position of some sort may be reached all the same, and it certainly was in this episode: “We’re all riddled with inconsistency”; “Most of us haven’t got a leg to stand on”; “Human beings are all over the place, aren’t they?” In this case, then, it turned out not to be a maze at all. Faced, for instance, with the acknowledged “unspeakably disgusting” practice of industrial farming, the panelists knew the way out (it was in their title anyway); they just haven’t yet taken it.

That “all over the place” was the voice of Matthew Taylor, director of the Royal Society of Arts and also the excellent chair of Agree to Differ – accordingly an intelligent and judicious contributor. Not speaking very elegantly here, perhaps, but then the discussion is a hustled one: “shouty talking over each other”, someone on Twitter calls it. Ideally the more or less expert ‘witnesses’, whom the programme invites along each week, would bring order and, even more usefully, knowledge to the scene, but this is not quite how it happens. Probably the programme is “engaging” (at least in the sense ‘harassing’ or ‘tormenting’) partly because of this absence of controlling information: “No mention of … !” seems to be a common exasperated complaint online.

Thus the first witness on the present occasion, the self-styled ‘Angry Chef’ Anthony Warner, was presumably invited as an expert on the rights and wrongs of food. But although strongly opinionated he had no moral or other case to offer. In fact his repeated assertion (there’s a lot of repetition in The Moral Maze, a disheartening indication of how we commonly do think and argue) was that this primary business of eating, which conditions all we are and do, is a non-moral activity: “guilt and shame have no place in starvation-textthe world of food.” I recall Ronald Sider’s eloquently titled book of 1978, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. There’s morality enough there, and it would have been helpful to have had someone on The Moral Maze to point out the contribution which the meat and dairy diet, as pioneered in the West, makes towards that continuing age of hunger in other parts of the world.

At the other end of the programme, the fourth witness was an animal rights philosopher, Professor Mark Rowlands. Wouldn’t he bring some intellectual order? No: he got cornered and harried by the programme’s least articulate but most belligerent panelist, Claire Fox, brandishing that weakest of all intellectual enforcers of animal-abuse, ‘contractarianism’. The notion is that animals have no moral claim on us because they aren’t themselves ‘moral beings’: i.e. that morality is a contract, and only contract-makers like ourselves, who bring moral responsibility to the table, can participate. This most reductive and unconvincing thesis, straying into ethics from its proper home in political theory (where the philosopher Thomas Hobbes originated it), could surely be shot down by a professional philosopher? Or rather, in this case, put right, because in fact there is an improved version of contractarianism for which Rowlands himself is a leading spokesman. He even regards it as “a strong – and perhaps the best – case for the moral claims of non-human animals” (see his book Animal Rights: Moral Theory and Practice, 2009, p.118).  He twice called the unreformed contractarianist argument “strange”, which I suspect is a professorial hint to a student to try again, but there’s no time for such gentilities in The Moral Maze, least of all with Claire Fox. And the professor’s mild academic joke, querying whether humans are right to think even themselves morally responsible, was simply trampled by her.

Vivisection had come onto the scene with the third witness, Dr Bella Williams from Understanding Animal Research. In Dr Williams, the new ‘Concordat’ style of PR – conciliatory, un-strident – was very much in evidence, impressing chairman Michael Buerk (“absolutely splendid”), but exasperating Claire Fox (“a disaster for medical research if that was the strongest proponent”). But the fact is (or “is is”, as Claire Fox habitually says) that a moral case for vivisection is impossible to put well, since the actual and originating rationale for the practice is simple expediency. Giles Fraser – “priest and polemicist”, as the chairman introduces him – put the familiar but effective Martian question to Dr Williams: would it be right for superior aliens to experiment on us? There was a fascinating silence of two seconds or so, but the vivisector’s answer has to be yes, and Dr Williams reluctantly gave it. Giles Fraser, for whom perhaps this trope was new, expressed astonishment: “A big wow!” And he said of her evidence “I don’t think you agree with your own position [i.e. that it’s morally right to use animals in research] … You’re basically saying there’s no morality in it at all.”

And yet animal research is, so Michael Buerk said when he introduced Dr Williams, “the ultimate example of prioritizing our interests over those of animals”: he meant, and she agreed, that all the other abuses are patently unnecessary, and accordingly indefensible, whereas this one at least claims to respond to an authentic need. If this case fails, there’s nothing left.

Though introduced as a priest, Giles Fraser was not putting an explicitly Christian point of view. Claire Fox, however, did claim to be putting what might be regarded as religion’s philosophical opposite: “As a humanist, I think animals are useless unless humans make use of them”, she said; “I am a humanist, and animals are beneath us.”

Humanism, then: traditionally it has been aimed at severing humans from gods, dogmatic religions, and all the other means and excuses by which we might evade the responsibility for our own situation and future. In particular, it asks humans to give up the privileged status provided for us by supernatural fictions (as humanists consider them), and to come to terms with what our best guide to knowledge, i.e. science, has shown: that we are part and product of the natural world, homogeneous with all the other life in it. Humanism ought, therefore, to be an animal rights position, though certainly not the only one. At any rate, one of the originators of modern animal rights thinking, the novelist Brigid Brophy, was a signatory to the 1973 Humanist Manifesto. In fact she considered anthropocentrism to be one of the superstitions from which humans urgently needed to free themselves; she mockingly called it a “special revelation”.

Claire Fox’s version of humanism severs us not from gods and their like, or not only from them, but also from the rest of nature. Another word for it, which Ms Fox threw in at one point, is ‘exceptionalism’, a most dangerous and unpleasant concept which one would suppose had been permanently discredited by the twentieth century. To substantiate her vision of man as the solitary value in the world she used a curiously politicized and unscientific zoology, habitually speaking of the other animals as “a species”: “an animal is a completely different species … an inferior species.”

I thought at first that Claire Fox’s pugnacious contempt even for welfarism in our relations with other animals (she called factory farming “a wonderful step forward for humanity”) might be a role gamely adopted by her in order to keep up the programme’s “combative” format. But having learned a little about the Institute of Ideas, of which she is the director, and its hostile attitude to environmental values in general, I see that she meant it all. From her point of view, the violence of factory farming is not just permissible; it’s desirable, as evidence and actuation of human ascendancy. To think animal suffering important in the way our own is, and in fact to see our own suffering as a useful guide to what they feel, “reduces us to lumps of meat”. More generally, to concede rights to animals is “anti-humanist”.

This is a very ugly version of humanism, for which happily I can find no authority in the statements of the main humanist organisations. The International Humanist and Ethical [nota bene] Union, for instance, which regards itself as the “umbrella group” for the national organisations, speaks in its foundational statement of “an ethic based on human and other natural values”. It specifically reminds humanists that “other animals deserve moral consideration too!” I think that the exclamation mark is probably a sign of recognition that humanism has been slow to come to terms with nature, and is still uneasily disorganised on the subject, just because its vis-a-vis has traditionally been the supernatural. But that phrase “other animals”, acknowledging our proper context as humans, is by itself sufficient to put Claire Fox’s version outside the mainstream. Her ideology is not really humanism at all: it’s simply speciesism, raised from a convenient wrong into an ideology. The best name for it would be human-racism.

All the same, this episode of The Moral Maze was a welcome (at times even entertaining) broadcast. It did not bring anything new to the subject; in fact I think that everything in it, good and bad, had already been accounted for in Brigid Brophy’s momentous Sunday Times article of 1965, ‘The Rights of Animals’. But at least it evidenced that the vegan case “has traction”, as Michael Buerk (not known as a friend to animal rights) admitted in his opening remarks. The very great importance of the vegan case, both as a work of moral reasoning and as a growing presence in contemporary attitudes, was plainly shown. True, most human beings are still “all over the place”, hypocrites in the matter, as Giles Fraser said of himself. Animals will continue to pay a terrible price for that. But morality is always further along the road than practice, and at least this programme suggested that the majority of us are on the way or know we ought to be.

 

Notes and References:

The episode of Moral Maze was broadcast on Wednesday, 2 August. It can be heard again here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08zcbv5. For more about The Moral Maze, see the VERO post for 10 May 2016. The episode of Agree to Differ which treated vivisection, and brought together VERO’s patron Richard Ryder and Professor Tipu Aziz, is available for hearing again here (though I couldn’t get it to work this time): http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b04fc70m

The “special revelation” quotation is from Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Godlovitch and Harris, Gollancz, 1971, pp.126, in Brigid Brophy’s chapter entitled ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’. There’s more about Brigid Brophy and the Sunday Times article in the VERO post for 11 October 2015.

The 1973 Humanist Manifesto (there have been other more recent formulations, of course) can be read at https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/manifesto2/ The International Humanist and Ethical Union statement is online at http://iheu.org/humanism/what-is-humanism/

The Institute of Ideas and its background is featured in a long but quite entertaining article by Jenny Turner in London Review of Books, 8 July 2010, here: https://www.lrb.co.uk/v32/n13/jenny-turner/who-are-they