Abstracts V


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Thomas CATHCART, The Trolley Problem, or Would You Throw the Fat Guy Off the Bridge? – A Philosophical Conundrum, 2013.
Kindle Edition. 112 pp, incl. Source Notes.
After a brief Prologue summarising the philosophical origin of the trolley problem – which asks about the moral justification for either pulling a lever which would re-route a run-away trolley so that it would run over and kill one person rather than five, or for not pulling it – the author presents the problem in terms of a fictitious legal case, or rather a moral case before 'the court of public opinion', where first the facts and then different arguments are presented. [In a legal case, though this point is not made in the book, the person might be found guilty of murder, as some would argue he or she should be, but the saving of the other five might count as mitigating circumstances so that the person would receive a suspended sentence.] The different responses to the problem are related to different philosophical traditions, and some of these have 'further information' boxes about philosphers associated with them. And since moral argument often depends on analogies, the question of the relevance of certain related cases is discussed: one, where one can stop the run-away trolley and save the five people only by pushing a heavy man off a bridge onto the track, and another where a surgeon has used – in a fictitious case again, in which he was of course found guilty of murder – the organs of one healthy person to enable five patients to survive.

  1. "The Newspaper Story"
  2. "The Policeman's Statement"
  3. "The Jury Officer's Civics Lesson"
  4. "The Prosecutor's Thrust": utilitarianism and individual rights – Jeremey Bentham, Immanuel Kant
  5. "The Defence Attorney's Parry" – St. Thomas Aquinas
  6. "The Professor's Analysis": problems of using analogies – David Hume, Intelligent Design (aka Creationism)
  7. "The Psychologist's Opinion", followed by a discussion on social media – G.E. Moore
  8. "The Bishop's Brief", amicus curiae, that under certain conditions it is permissable to cause the bad alongside the good, provided that the bad effect is not the means by which the good effect is achieved (as it is in the two related cases above)
  9. "The Altruist's Dilemma", and NPR debate – Peter Singer, Friedrich Nietzsche
  10. "The Faculty's Colloquy"
  11. "The Judge's Charge"
  12. "The Jury's Decision", or rather their deliberation, no conclusion is given – Niccolo Machiavelli
In the Epilogue, the nature of moral judgement is discussed, that even if our moral reasoning often only rationalises our intuitions, moral reasoning can also change our intuitions, and that in any case we must be able to give some rational account for our actions. [I wonder if one could put it more strongly: as long as I can recognise their underlying reasoning as properly moral – in that it is consistent, for instance, and not tainted by self-interest – then I have to accept that some persons, or all persons at a different time in history, may (have) come to a different conclusion from me.]

The book is entertainingly written and the different arguments clearly presented, but it would have been interesting to hear more about something that is only briefly hinted at, that the proportions of people who judge a certain course of action acceptable or not are fairly constant across populations; if this was so, it might suggest that there has been an evolutionary advantage in us having a universal moral faculty, but also in some of us not having the same (– as there is an evolutionary advantage, in some parts of the world, in a certain proportion of people having sickle-cell anaemia, which is why the condition has not disappeared.)


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Paul COLLIER, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, 2008.
Oxford University Press, 2008. 195 pp + research on which the book is based + index.
The development discourse, since it started about sixty years ago, has been largely informed by various ideological positions, and has gone through a number of different paradigms. However, by now enough has happened – there have been enough coups, civil wars, rigged elections, and so on: mostly failures of course, but also a number of successes – for the question of the title to be answerable empirically, using a statistical approach, and that is what the author is attempting in this short book. The question of the title has usually been asked about African countries in particular, since that is where the majority of 'the bottom billion' live, but the evidence used and the recommendations put forward here are not so limited. Paul Collier summarises much of the underlying research, taking care to give credit to his collaborators, and to be up-font about when any research has not yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The book does feel a bit like a whirlwind tour of observations, analyses, conclusions and proposals, but is still very readable, not least because of some neat asides as well as quite a few little anecdotes, many of them of encounters with some of the political actors in the development world, amongst whom he has no hesitation to distinguish between heroes and villains. The tone of the book does betray the frustration, even indignation, that anyone studying this topic must feel; but the author reserves his most explicit censure for supposedly well-meaning NGOs, for having their own agenda and for being willing to be in league with certain vested interests, both in the poor countries and in the rich.

The argument starts by identifying certain traps that countries can keep falling back into, often into more than one, such as the well-established resource trap and the traps of being a land-locked country or having bad neighbours. The author then considers the traditional ways of addressing these, notably aid, but finds them not very effective: the breadth and depth of the problems, notably but not only corruption, are such that the solutions have to come mostly from within each country, and this requires strengthening the hand of 'heroes', people who place the development of their society above their own personal gain. These people certainly exist, and one way of supporting them is by developing internationally agreed sets of standards – of democracy, of transparency, and so on – based on what has been found to be effective in bringing about development, that anyone can appeal to in particular situations and that decisions, such as when to provide what kind of aid or when to intervene militarily, can be based on. – This process seems to actually have got under way in the last decade, and the author is able, in a concluding section, to give examples of discussions in 'the real wrold' of the approach advocated in his book.


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Richard DAWKINS, The God Delusion, 2006.
Black Swan, 2007. 420 pp + addresses + bibliography + notes + index.
[Over all more of a review, perhaps, than an abstract:] If someone said to me that “there are fairies [human-shaped beings with magical powers] at the bottom of the garden,” I would have the responsibility to set them straight, to disabuse them of that notion: while I cannot prove that there are no fairies, it is sufficient that after looking carefully, I have no evidence at all that there are. My responsibility would, I think, be even greater if the person said that the very absence of evidence was a reason for believing in the fairies. And even greater if those fairies told them to harm, even kill, others who did not believe in them. − After reading this book I can no longer 'sit on the fence' as regards organised religion, any more than I can as regards those fairies.

The author is a scientist who has much highly respected work to his credit in the area of genetics, and as such he knows well what evidence there is, and what evidence there is not − as well as I know the bottom of the garden. He is best known for books of popular science, like The Selfish Gene, 1989, but here the arguments he marshals come from a wider range: psychological experiments as well as the traditional discussions about religion, and religious texts themselves.

For many readers there will not be much in the book that is new, but one thought in it has radically changed my way of thinking and talking about religion: I had always, if not without discomfort [expressed on various occasions at the annual 'Interfaith Conference' at Atlantic College,] allowed the nice religious people to get away with disowning the atrocities committed by their fellow-believers. An enlightened Muslim would typically claim that those Muslims, for instance, who bombed and stoned to death other Muslims belonging to a different branch of the same faith were not following the tenets of their faith properly, (always side-stepping the issue that those perpetrating the violence would of course say that he, the enlightened Muslim, was not being a proper Muslim ...) I now accept that the 'nice' religious people are implicated in the murders: by insisting, for the sake of their own belief, that there is an area of our lives which is not subject to the evidential requirements we all expect in all other aspects of our living together in society, they have been giving cover to the fundamentalists and extremists − and we have let them. Is it surprising, then, that the author, even if he at times writes entertainingly, often sounds angry, as much at the fence-sitters as at believers? [See another personal take on this.]

He shows how religion can be explained as a social construct and be understood in psychological terms, even though he perhaps makes the point a little too often that there are no Christian, Muslim or whatever children, only children with Christian, Muslim or whatever parents. [This is similar to the form of Nietzsche's argument, culminating in the famous phrase “God is dead” (rather than “There is no God,”) that once someone understands religion properly, his faith will just go away.]

Along the way, he disposes of common arguments, such as that without religion we would be lacking a moral compass. Not only are instances of callous or violent behaviour (some of which were new to me though not to some of my religious friends) approved of in some religious texts, but religion actually distorts our natural moral judgement: in a neat experiment, behaviour that one group of Jewish children clearly recognised as immoral when it was attributed to a Chinese emperor, a similar group generally approved of when it was attributed to Joshua. And as he points out, even if it was true that society needs religion, not only would that not make its claims any more true, it would also be counter-productive to keep religion as 'necessary for the masses'. − Or that without appeal to divine creation much of the world around us cannot be explained, like the eye (− an updated version of the traditional 'argument from design'): as a geneticist, the author is on his home territory here, into which he had made earlier forays, in Climbing Mount Improbable, 1996.

Right though I am sure he is, Dawkins may sometimes underestimate the other side. Pascal, for instance, in putting forward his idea of the wager to explain his faith as a rational choice, was well aware that God, seeing through his base motives, would reject a fake believer; but he makes the further point that by going through the motions of believing, one may become less critical and arrive at a genuine faith.

Dawkins is clearly also right about an asymmetry in disagreements about religion: there is clearly no danger of someone shooting a priest after reading his book, whereas those who hold that our beliefs must be based on shared evidence are taking more of a risk. But then the fanaticism with which someone holds their beliefs is no evidence of their truth.


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Guy DEUTSCHER, Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, 2010.
Arrow Books, 2011. 249 pp + 12 colour plates + notes + bibliography + index.
Whereas it is of course naive to "infer the spirit of a nation in great measure from the language" (Emerson) or to suppose that our mothertongue influences how we think, or even determines what we can think, (as Benjamin Lee Whorf supposed) recent research does suggest that (pace Chomsky, who held that there was an innate 'universal grammar' underlying all language learning) "cultural differences are reflected in language in profound ways" and that "different languages [can] lead their speakers to different thoughts and perceptions." Underlying this is of course the debate about the relative importance of nature and nurture/culture.

At first the differences between languages might seem to just lie in the names that are used for the same concepts, but if we look beyond simple words like "dog" and "chien" and simple concepts like 'cat' and 'dog', we soon see that the very concepts that are named cannot be assumed to be the same and given naturally, as it were, and such differences may indeed reflect something about cultures, (though not of course culture in the sense of high art or civilised behaviour and good manners.) This is language as a mirror, a looking glass, held up to culture, and the first part of the book explores this aspect of the relation between language and culture by considering the division of the spectrum into different colours, and the degree of grammatical complexity of different languages.

While their language does not "determine speakers' capacity for logical reasoning or how speakers of ... [some] language would not be able to understand ... [some] idea because their language does not make ... [some] distinction", language can instil "habits of mind ... on the ground level of thought": memory, attention, perception and associations. This is language as a lens through which we view the world, and this role of language as "an active instrument ... through which culture imposes its conventions on our mind" is the topic of the second part of the book.

The book is entertainingly written, with the author engaging in a fair amount of punning, not inappropriate in a text dealing with language – but too often, for this reader at least, in an 'unfair' amount of it, i.e. so much that it takes away from the pleasure of reading, as in: "In their pronouncements on language, culture and thought, it seems that big thinkers in their grandes œuvres have not always risen much above the little thinkers over their hors d'œuvres" (– and it goes on like this a bit longer ...) Or, almost puerile, as often: "[Gladstone] left no god unturned in his effort to detect Christian truth in the Homeric pantheon." (pp 6, 29)

1.1. It was Gladstone who discovered, (1858) through painstaking textual analysis, that Homer and his Greek contemporaries must have had a very limited awareness of colour, a conclusion universally derided at the time; that we today perceive the whole palette is, he thought, the result of a progressive 'education of the eye', resulting from the increasing availability of dyes and objects of different colours. [If the sky is always blue, and only the sky is, then I don't need a word for blue.] The philologist Lazarus Geiger showed (1867) that not only Homer's Greek, but all ancient languages, except perhaps Egyptian, were deficient in colour words, notably for green and blue, and this was for a long time, following Hugo Magnus, (1877) attributed to a physiological deficiency: our modern perception was then the result of a very rapid Lamarckian evolution, by the inheritance of acquired characteristics (– despite the fact that Darwinian evolution by natural selection had by then been widely accepted.) But with further anthropological research, and in particular W.H.R. Rivers's observations of the Torres Straits islanders, (1898) 'culturalism', the view that the problem lies in the mind rather than in the eye, gradually gained ground: while everyone can distinguish all the colours, one's division of the spectrum depends on one's culture, and is only learnt with difficulty, as one can see in young children; it may help to compare this with the relative roughness of our distinctions of flavour, or to consider the deficiency of English, compared to Russian, in only having one word for blue. Having been neglected for many years, perhaps out of fear of political incorrectness, the fact that cultures acquire colour terms in a certain order, black/white > red > green > yellow > blue, was only rediscovered by Berlin and Kay, (1969) who postulated a set of universal, and hence presumably natural, 'focus colours'; but more wide-ranging research has shown, and this is the conclusion of the author, (applicable not only to the division of the spectrum) that there is a range of cultural variation, but within constraints which are natural – so we have come full circle, except that we now understand that the Lamarckian development is not biological but cultural.

1.2. While it is clearly not the case that "primitive societies have primitive languages", the tenet that "all languages are equally complex", though long held by linguists, has been an article of faith, not based on evidence – in fact, in the absence of a definition of complexity, this statement even is meaningless. When different aspects of language are investigated, one does find, and these findings have plausible explanations, that, statistically, the languages of smaller (less complex) societies have more (!) complex words but a smaller inventory of sounds, and that in 'simple' societies grammar does not allow for subordination, making do with mere juxtaposition of sentences.

2. Not only was Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) the first philologist to realise that other languages had very different grammars from Western ones, he also already thought that different grammars could lead to different ways of thinking. However, there is no concrete evidence for the much stronger hypothesis of 'linguistic relativity' of Benjamin Lee Whorf, [the bad guy: no picture shown, no dates given!] taking to extremes some ideas of his teacher Edward Sapir, (1884-1939) and ostensibly – creatively! – based on a detailed study of in particular the conception of time implicit in the grammar of the Hopi language, that a language limits what its speakers can say or understand. But while language clearly is not the 'prison house of our thoughts,' (Nietzsche) it may still be that a particular language habituates its speakers to certain ways of thinking: not by not allowing them to have certain thoughts, but by obliging them to state, and therefore think about, certain things – the 'Boas-Jakobsen principle'. Contrary to what we would consider 'natural', there are languages, such as Guugu Yimithirr, (from which we got the word "kangaroo") in which position is described in geographical (north/south, uphill/downhill) rather than in egocentric terms, (left/right, in front/behind) which can lead, it has been shown, to significant differences in how speakers place objects and remember positions. Pinker's suggestion, that the linguistic feature reflects nature, may be true for the culture as a whole, again in the sense that a language makes choices, but within constraints that are natural, but misses the point that each child has to develop the necessary sense of orientation as part of learning the language. Closer to home, another case is the division of nouns by gender, two or more, found in many languages, which is often quite arbitrary and can make for funny translations, (as the author takes half a chapter to demonstrate) which can be shown to affect the associations that speakers make with objects, not just with the words for the objects – perhaps the closest we can get to support for the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Returning to colour, (the physiology of the perception of which is discussed in the 9-page Appendix) increasingly clever experiments, measuring reaction times and using evidence from fMRI scanning rather than verbal reports, have shown that colour perception, such as the perceived distance between different hues, is indeed influenced by the language of the speaker.

So the book shows, "through the evidence supplied by language, that fundamental aspects of our thought are influenced by the cultural conventions of our society, to a much greater extent than is fashionable to admit today." [Sorry, this has ended up as a summary rather than an abstract of the book.]


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Jared DIAMOND, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, 2005.
Penguin, 2006. 525 pp + 42 plates photographs + further readings + index.
The subtitle of this book is of course not quite accurate – societies don't choose to fail. But what they do is to make choices which result, often very suddenly, in their disappearance, with nearly everyone either dying or, if they manage it, moving away. That is what Diamond calls a collapse, and this book, his next bestseller after Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997, is a discussion of how and why this has sometimes happened, or has in other, similar situations been avoided.

After a quite personal description of a close-to-home situation, the environmental degradation over his own lifetime in contemporary Montana and its consequences for the people living there, the author first discusses a range of past societies, such as the Easter Islands, famous for their giant, abandoned stone statues, where a flourishing society declined within a very short time around 1680; and the Norse settlements in Greenland, which survived for 450 years as the most remote outpost of European civilisation, until within a very short time, after a change in climate and the disruption in the trade with the mainland, everyone in the two settlements seems to have just starved, around the beginning of the 17th century. The author's other examples of failures are the Polynesian societies on the Pitcairn islands, the Anasazi in the Southwestern US, and the Maya in Mexico and adjacent parts of Central America. In each case he considers a range of possible factors: 1. damage inadvertently inflicted on the environment, 2. climate change, 3. hostile neighbours, 4. decreased support by friendly neighbours, and 5. the society's responses to its problems. In different cases different combinations of these factors are found to have played a role, but what becomes apparent is that whatever other problems there were, the collapse in the end always resulted from an over-exploitation of natural resources - due to competition between chiefs whose status was expressed by those stone statues, or to blind adherence to patterns of agriculture and lifestock-raising that had been brought from the mainland – and the inability of the society to respond appropriately. The main aim of the book clearly is to make an environmental point.

Throughout the book Diamond attempts to apply a rigorous, comparative approach: thus, there are other islands in the Pacific, with similar kinds of conditions to those of the Easter Islands, which have been continuously and successfully settled; and where the Greenland Norse failed, the Inuit who arrived later, from North America, have survived until today, and the population of Iceland has managed to cope in a similar adverse environment. What enabled these societies to survive was that their way of life was less damaging to their environment, or that they realised, and drew back, in time when their actions began to be unsustainable. An example, and other ones are mentioned, of the latter situation is the successful, top-down change of policy when Japan in the early Tokugawa period was on the verge of a catastrophic deforestation (– a policy that is now pursued in parts of Europe.)

In our own times, the major factor behind the genocides in Rwanda may have been, as some people in the country are aware, population pressure – a problem that remains to be addressed. And the very different situations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, though they share one island provide a neat contrast, even though the more positive situation in which the latter finds itself may partly be due to a more fortunate starting point, and credit for the sustainable policies may have to go to an otherwise unsavoury leader. The other main discussions concern China and Australia, where the race is on between the increasing damage to the environment and a growing awareness and willingness to address the problems.

Nowadays it is the planet as a whole that is facing potentially devastating environmental damage rather than just individual regions, but they are due to the same social problems, writ large: failure to anticipate, failure to perceive, rational bad behaviour, disastrous values, other irrational failures and unsuccessful solutions. If despite these problems our situation is not quite hopeless, it is because of an increasing awareness of where we are heading. It is of course big business that is often held responsible for the threats to the global environment, but our societies depend on the extraction of resources, and the author mentions particular initiatives in mining, logging and fishing, where a combination of business sense and public pressure have begun to result in positive changes. To the author, the conclusion that it is the public that has the ultimate responsibility is empowering and hopeful, rather than disappointing.

In the last chapter, after making a list, under various headings, of "the most serious problems", and disposing of a series of one-liners often used either to deny or to play down the seriousness of the situation we are in, Diamond ends on a hopeful note: that in contrast to the victims of past collapses, we have the opportunity, not least through a book like this, to learn from their failures.


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Bruce HOOD, The Self Illusion: Why There is No 'You' inside Your Head, 2012.
Kindle edition. 218 pp + Notes + Acknowledgement + Index.

This was a very annoying book to read, at least for me, for a number of reasons, with too few points that were new or made me think.

Firstly, the book is unnecessarily argumentative, as though its conclusion, which is already contained in the title, might be shocking or revolutionary. But in fact any reader who is likely to pick up a book with this title would already have taken on board the idea that our perception and our memory construct coherent accounts of our surroundings and our past on the basis of very patchy, often distorted evidence, and that they are therefore liable to being in error. (We have arrived at this conclusion in each of the last four years in my ThoK lessons.) And they would therefore only need to take a small step, if any, to accept the thought that our self too is a construction – that it is just a largely fictional character in a story which we can consider, for convenience but necessarily, as our story.

Secondly, after presenting some philosophical considerations, most of the book draws on the same kind of material – and sometimes actually the same material – as a number of other recent books, combining behavioural anecdotes, psychologial observations and introspective reports with evidence from brain scans, and some evolutionary arguments, to account for our sense of self and to argue against the validity of that sense. So, while we cannot but think of most of our behaviour as self-determined, there are many observations and experiments which show it to be largely determined by outside and inside influences which we are not aware of. – Having said that, the author does make some interesting points about our 'mirror self', (Lacan even comes to mind ...) which represents how our sense of self partly arises as a reflection of the behaviour of others.

Thirdly, the book is badly written. It is sensationalist, arguments being introduced by 'human interest stories', like (bad) newspaper articles. And there are many grammatical and even logical mistakes which stop the reader short again and again. Some examples: "Regulating our self [what self?] is one of the major roles of the prefrontal cortex." (p 79) or: "we prefer and admire original works of art until we discover they are forgeries." (p 82) or: "The advent of the Web has made our preoccupation with what others think about us a part of human nature." (p 187) or: "but sometimes meet new acquaintances" (p 188) or: "This age group spends over half their online time engaged in social networks in comparison with older age groups." (p 189)

And lastly, some parts of the book, although they do somehow concern the concept of the self, are only tenuously connected with the argument, such as when the author discusses our offline and online selves or the difficulties of growing up.



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Daniel KAHNEMANN, Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2012.
Kindle edition.
The main point made in this book is that the rational agent model that still underlies much of the theorizing in Economics is not just slightly inaccurate but downright wrong, and not only occasionally but in many situations that matter; and that therefore it needs to be replaced by models that are closer to the actual behaviour of people. The book reports a large amount of research that has been done, over the past 40 years, as the field of behavioural economics has grown, and summarises the clever new insights that have been gained – mostly, apparently, by the author and his close collaborators, in particular his friend and fellow-recipient of the Nobel prize, Amos Tversky. Throughout the book there are autobiographical accounts of the personal observations and thought processes which led him/them to their new ideas, but in these he does unfortunately often come across as rather self-congratulatory and condescending. Having said that, the writing is lively, if at times repetitive, and the examples and the new models proposed, to explain why we act the way we do, are certainly very interesting and give one pause for thought. The author clearly intends to change the way in which people usually think and talk about the process of taking decisions, and thereby to improve the decisions that are taken; to this end he offers, at the end of each section, some typical new ways of talking that he hopes people might adopt when they meet around the office water cooler.

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Anthony KENNY, A New History of Western Philosophy, 2006 – 2008.
????

This is apparently the first historical overview of Western philosophy by a single author in a long time; the title of course refers us back to Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy of ????, organised ????. Kenny's history was first published in four separate volumes, but was re-issued in a very hefty, 1000-page, single-volume edition, with only very minor changes to the introductions, maintaining the division into four parts:

  1. Ancient Philosophy
  2. Medieval Philosophy
  3. The Rise of Modern Philosophy
  4. Philosophy in the Modern World

The parts all have the same structure, starting with an overview of the period in ? chapters, followed by chapters on issues particularly relevant to the period. Some of these issues are the same, so each part has a chapter on

, but other issues are specific to certain periods:


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Leonard MLODINOW, Subliminal: The Revolution of the New Unconscious and What it Teaches Us about Ourselves, 2012.
Kindle edition.




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Steven PINKER, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined, 2011.
Kindle edition.
It is a great pleasure to read a book, drawing on a wide range of evidence and previous research, that clearly argues for a position that one has held oneself for many years already. That position is that, contrary to wide-spread misconceptions about our dismal times, the amount of violence – of all kinds, ranging from murder to genocide and war – has greatly declined over the course of history. The decline has been so steep, that many of the diagrams that illustrate it, especially in the first, historical part of the book, require a logarithmic scale, to be able to show rates from 150 (/100,000 of the population /year, which is the usual unit) to below 1. The evidence, if one is open to it, is quite incontrovertible; some of my own observations include the following:
  1. for much of history, people went out, with their families, to watch gladiators kill one another or criminals being hanged, as entertainment, (as even the 'civilised' Samule Pepys did, according to one of his diary entries)
  2. not only in the Catholic church, known for the crusades and the inquisition, but in many other religions too, the torture and killing of innocent believers, often elaborately if spuriously justified by the hierarchy, has at times been an essential part of religious life,
  3. my father was born five years after World War I, so when World War II came, he was old enough to have to fight, whereas I was born seven years after World War II and have not experienced a war: throughout history, my father's was the normal way of life, not mine,
  4. in World War II, both sides routinely targeted civilians, (of whom my mother was one ...) so that in some nights as many as 30,000 people died in bombings and fires; contrast this with the investigations, and often even compensation for the victims' families, when a few civilians are killed – accidentally or through human error – in Iraq or Afghanistan, and
  5. while the genocide in Rwanda stands out, in our times, as a particular horror, that kind of event has been commonplace for much of our history – so commonplace that often there are not even any records of what happened.

The first part of the book presents a large amount of evidence, anecdotal as well as statistical, that there has been such a decline, and the steps through which it has happened, the most significant of which was the development of government and a system of justice. The main stages of this historical trend, which persisted even through the 20th century with all its blood-letting, are covered in chapters – after the first one, in which the past is compared to "a foreign country" – entitled

  1. The Pacification Process
  2. The Civilizing Process
  3. The Humanitarian Revolution
  4. The Long Peace
  5. The New Peace
  6. The Rights Revolutions

My main regret/complaint as a reader concerns the author's style in some of the earlier historical accounts: while his flippant manner may aim to ridicule those who refuse to see that what to us are horrors used to be the acceptable norm, or perhaps to distance those horrors, it does not sit well with descriptions of the workings of torture instruments, for instance.

In The Blank Slate, 2002, the author had merely argued that while the possibility of violence is innate, violent behaviour is inhibited within one's in-group; and that in order to reduce violence it is essential to properly understand both the roots of violence and when it is inhibited. In the present work, the remaining three, longer chapters, consist of more detailed critical discussions of the roots of violence in societies, and of the causes of the decline we have seen. In each case the discussions bring together evolutionary and game-theoretical explanations and physiological and socio-psychological evidence, obtained through often very neat, even entertaining, experiments, on animals as well as humans, the most convinving ones of which enable us to correlate brain activity with thoughts and actions.

In brief, the "inner demons", corresponding to different categories of violence, are

  1. predation, i.e. exploitative, instrumental or practical violence,
  2. dominance, i.e. a demonstration of one's willingness and ability to defend oneself against predation,
  3. revenge, serving at bottom the purpose of deterrence,
  4. sadism, which can give satisfaction to a range of different needs, and
  5. ideology: the conception of a greater good which justifies all manner of atrocities, has throughout history resulted in the highest body counts.

However, the notion of 'pure evil' does not stand up to such thoroughly empirical scrutiny and is relegated to the realm of myths. Similarly, amongst our "better angels" might be

  1. empathy, which has become a popular virtue,
  2. self-control, which has certainly increased in all areas of our lives,
  3. recent biological evolution, and
  4. morality and taboo.

But the important historical forces turn out to be

  1. reason, although the reasonable persons ends up in the 'pacifist's dilemma',
  2. Hobbes's 'leviathan': a government that arrogates the right to violence to itself, and imposes a high cost on all other violence, solves the pacifist's dilemma,
  3. 'gentle commerce',
  4. 'feminization',
  5. 'the expanding circle' of others that are considered as being in our in-group, so that violence is inhibited,
  6. the escalation of reason, i.e. the virtuous circle resulting from technological and other progress.

While the author takes a clear moral stand, he does not so much argue from it – for morality notoriously has changed and varies between individuals and groups – as account for it. In the end it is difficult to disagree with him that "[t]he decline of violence may be the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species. Its implications touch the core of our beliefs and values – for what could be more fundamental than an understanding of whether the human condition, over the course of its history, has gotten steadily better, steadily worse, or has not changed."


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Peter WATSON, The German Genius, 2010.
Kindle edition.
The main reason for buying this fairly massive book – it runs to 816 pages, excluding the Conclusion, an Appendix listing "35 Under-rated Germans", the 2193 Notes and References and a very detailed Index – was that having moved back to Germany, part-time at least, after having spent nearly all my adult life in the UK, I wanted to know more about the ideas that had shaped my long-ago and now new country of residence. After reading the back cover of the print edition and some on-line reviews, I had high expectations, but I found it very frustrating and was struggling to even finish it.

The author's reason for writing the book seems to be that he wants to set the record straight. The awareness of Germany and German history, in the UK and the US in particular, no matter whether one looks at movies or at what history is taught in schools, is largely limited, he says, to "Hitler and the Holocaust", and so even educated people are mostly ignorant of German thought and its development, and the way in which it has contributed to, or even shaped, our present world. Accordingly he gets the historical aspects of that period out of the way in his Introduction, before starting a history of ideas, starting with a concert in 1747 at the court of Friedrich der Grosse to which the old J.S. Bach turned up.

"Dr. Artur Dinter, a former scientist and dramatist whose daughter died tragically in childhood, [so?] ..." (p 674)
"Whatever their other [?] differences, these books had one thing in common: ..." (p 703)
Rather than saying about one person after another that they were "the son of yet another Lutheran pastor", he could have explained, at some point, what it might have meant to grow up in such a household, and then give some examples.


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