Pinker’s brief contribution to the Edge‘s year-end treat gives a cheerful & progressive sense of proportion. While acknowledging our historical tendency toward cruelty and barbarism, he describes a world more dovish. But also this week Arts & Letters links to a Foreign Policy article “Why Hawks Win” that argues our reasoning is biased toward war. Both seem flawed but both attempt to understand the elusive “nature of man.” Of course, both also come with their own preconceptions.
Pinker might see this “hawkishness” in terms of the tribal loyalties so central to traditional defense. Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon are, I suspect, finding such tribal perspectives when discovering bias:
Evidence suggests that this bias is a significant stumbling block in negotiations between adversaries. In one experiment, Israeli Jews evaluated an actual Israeli-authored peace plan less favorably when it was attributed to the Palestinians than when it was attributed to their own government. Pro-Israel Americans saw a hypothetical peace proposal as biased in favor of Palestinians when authorship was attributed to Palestinians, but as “evenhanded” when they were told it was authored by Israelis.
What the authors don’t acknowledge is how those biases helped earlier generations protect their own. That we tend not to trust the “other” may at times have to do with the nature of the “other” (Arafat’s reign did little to lead Israelis to find Palestinians trustworthy), but the biological truth remains: we trust our own.
The economist & political scientist argue our predispositions favor “hawkish” arguments.
In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. These psychological impulses—only a few of which we discuss here—incline national leaders to exaggerate the evil intentions of adversaries, to misjudge how adversaries perceive them, to be overly sanguine when hostilities start, and overly reluctant to make necessary concessions in negotiations. In short, these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.
Foreign Policy solicited a discussion/debate of the short essay’s points by Matthew Continetti and Matthew Yglesias. Continetti contends:
The claim is grand, but there is a frivolity to Kahneman and Renshon’s argument. They assert that all of the biases found in their survey of the past 40 years of psychological research favor hawks. Yet they examine closely only four such biases and mention only three experimental studies—and the biases they do describe are exhibited by doves just as often as they are exhibited by hawks.
And so we return to Pinker’s question,
What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question—”Why is there war?” instead of “Why is there peace?”
Pinker suggests much in the secular realm (living longer and less painfully, we are more hesitant to inflict death and pain on others; a growing consciousness of those different from us) has led us to less violence, fewer wars. Of course, these are likely to be important to our understanding. Still, in the midst of the Western tradition, he sometimes ignores it; he seems almost willfully blind to the important role of an increasing internalized value system, a rule of law that trumps tribalism, and, especially, respect for the “divine spark” in others not of our tribe.
I suspect it is his admirable desire to not be (or appear) tribal himself that leads him to acknowledge the violence of capital punishment in Texas and tortures at Abu Ghraib, but he defends a society in which these are “hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial.” Saddam’s Abu Ghraib and the Army’s are different – in the tortures, but especially in the treatment of the torturers. Under Saddam these were not “hidden, illegal, condemned”; this indicates Pinker’s optimism may not be as universal as he (we) might wish. Some of our “bias” is likely to derive from the tribal when risk-taking may be necessary for the tribe’s survival. Still, Pinker’s original insight has his usual freshness, depth & breadth that help us develop a sense of proportion.
P.S. My daughters wanted to watch Gettysburg tonight. I’ve got to say seeing that carnage and then returning to complaints of American hawkishness in the current war gives me pause. Certainly our perspective on death and suffering has changed dramatically from 1863 and that battlefield to 2007 and Baghdad.