Peace on Earth: will we ever have it? With Peter Singer and Gary Francione discussing Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”
Peace on Earth?
This season of peace and goodwill, in our special Christmas show, we ask whether there will ever be peace on Earth. Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, says that human violence has decreased over the centuries – but does that include violence to other animals? Diana asks him. What does “peace on Earth” mean to Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and grandfather of the modern animal movement? What does animal rights iconoclast Gary Francione think of Steven Pinker’s theory? Listen to find out.
Steven Pinker and “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined”
Professor Pinker’s book has gathered a lot of media coverage, including a review by Peter Singer in the New York Times where he calls it “supremely important”, as well as a more skeptical one in Scientific American. There’s more about Steven Pinker’s core thesis, about human intraspecies violence, here:
- the London School of Economics podcast of Steven Pinker’s talk, which Diana attended and features in the show
- Steven Pinker’s TED talk on the myth of violence
- Better Angels of Our Nature
You can find him on the web at:
Q: It’s not clear from the section in “Better Angels …” how you might or might not engage with animal ethics personally. Can I ask if you boycott any animal products or any products tested on animals? (i.e. are you vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, totally omnivorous or do not eat things like veal or foie gras).
Q: How would you respond to the criticism that improvements in animal welfare have only taken place insofar as they are economically advantageous for producers and thus do not really represent a decrease in violence toward animals? (e.g. under the US Humane label animals are still castrated without anesthetic, male chicks who cannot lay eggs are routinely ground up alive and numerous other welfare changes that would increase cost are not being suggested even in Western Europe).
I think I’ll keep my own practices out of the discussion, and respond only to the other questions. With any humanitarian advance, there are always cynics who insist that no one (or at least, no one in some demonized group that the cynic has in mind, in this case, evil corporations)ever acts out of true morality, that there always must be some self-serving interest (the Quakers opposes slavery because they were bankers who financed the industrial revolution; the British stopped the slave trade because their French rivals were getting rich from their Caribbean plantations, and so on). These always strike me as far-fetched, not just because we know (both from evolutionary psychology and experimental game theory) that people often incur costs for moralistic reasons, but because the particular explanations often seem more strained than the moralistic one, which is more parsimonious. I sense a dogmatic attitude in which it is simply inconceivable that any human (or any Western power, or any corporation, etc.) could act morally, so any deflating explanation, however conspiratorial, is accepted.
But the more important point is that I don’t care. My book is about the decline of violence, not a putative increase in virtue. I don’t think the chickens (or the slaves) care about whether their better treatment was motivated by an altruism that is pure in the eyes of God or other moralistic judges, as long as they suffer less. And if we set up institutions that allow people to be less cruel and destructive as they pursue their interests, that is a sign of progress–God help us if every advance in human welfare depended on Christ-like levels of moral purity.
Regarding your answer of whether we are “better humans,” again, that is not my question, if you’re asking a moral question. If you’re asking the biological question of whether our genomes have changed in a way that makes our nonviolent motives more powerful, I consider this question in chapter 9, but end up rejecting it. So yes, we need to teach it to each new generation so our progress doesn’t go away–that is why education, and socialization, are important.
Q: I am interested in an evolutionary perspective on why the animal movement has progressed slowly compared to other movements advocating nonviolence. You mentioned “meat hunger” and the fact that animals are not our kin and cannot negotiate social contracts with us. Do you have any other ideas why, from an evolutionary perspective, rational understanding of animal sentience (at least the vertebrates we eat) has been so slow to change human behavior?
I think you’ve identified the main reasons that animal rights have progressed more slowly than other rights. A more basic reason is that animals lack language (which influenced Descartes). Our sympathies tend to lie with animals like dogs (and to a lesser extent cats) that respond nonverbally but positively to human interaction.
What Pinker doesn’t understand is most of the advances towards supposed more humane exploitation of non-human animals – he doesn’t appreciate that for the most part, most of those efforts result in the more efficient exploitation of animals.
Gary Francione (@GaryLFrancione) is a distinguished professor of law and scholar of law & philosophy at Rutgers Law School, New Jersey, USA. More information from and about Professor Francione is available here:
- Gary Francione’s website, The Abolitionist Approach
- Professor Francione’s own podcast, Abolitionist Approach Commentaries
- Gary Francione’s faculty page as a Professor at Rutgers Law School
- Gary Francione fan site, with transcripts of interviews
Ultimately one day we would stop using animals for food …
Professor Peter Singer (@PeterSinger) is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, New Jersey, USA, and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He’s best known as the author of Animal Liberation. More information is at:
- The Life You Can Save, his charitable giving campaign
- Peter Singer’s faculty page as a Professor at Princeton
He recently appeared in the hundredth episode of “Our Hen House“, where Jasmin Singer also asked him about “Better Angels of Our Nature”.
Stephen Pinker’s audio answer is an excerpt from ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in World History and Its Causes’ by Professor Steven Pinker. Recorded October 2011, courtesy of the London School of Economics. That work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License on the common understanding that this show is a collection, and it is non-commercial by being offered for free. Our thanks to LSE for permission, and Stephen Emmott for helping us clear rights.
We used Skype for VoIP conversations. Diana gathered the vox pops at the Animal Aid Christmas Fair.