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Steven Pinker on protecting children too much instead of not nearly enough

A recurring theme in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (see some earlier postings here about this book, here and here) concerns how a modern and humane principle, cruelly ignored in the past, then gets over-emphasised. Such a price is worth paying for the triumph of the principle, says Pinker, but the price is indeed a price, not an improvement.

An example being the extreme lengths now gone to in order entirely to eliminate child abductions by strangers (p. 538):

And even if minimizing risk were the only good in life, the innumerate safety advisories would not accomplish it. Many measures, like the milk-carton wanted posters, are examples of what criminologists call crime-control theater: they advertise that something is being done without actually doing anything. When 300 million people change their lives to reduce a risk to 50 people, they will probably do more harm than good, because of the unforeseen consequences of their adjustments on the vastly more than 50 people who are affected by them. To take just two examples, more than twice as many children are hit by cars driven by parents taking their children to school as by other kinds of traffic, so when more parents drive their children to school to prevent them from getting killed by kidnappers, more children get killed. And one form of crime-control theater, electronic highway signs that display the names of missing children to drivers on freeways, may cause slowdowns, distracted drivers, and the inevitable accidents.

The movement over the past two centuries to increase the valuation of children’s lives is one of the great moral advances in history. But the movement over the past two decades to increase the valuation to infinity can lead only to absurdities.

We here nod sagely. This book is full of cherries like that, pickable by people who think along Samizdata lines. But it also includes fruits to please those deviating from correct opinions in quite other directions.

With regard to the matter of children’s rights, libertarians like me are fond of urging property rights solutions for problems not now considered properly soluble by such means, such as preserving endangered species or sorting out such things as the right to transmit radio waves. But it is worth remembering that we applaud the fading of the idea that parents own their children, to the point where they may destroy them with impunity, as if binning unwanted household junk. And yes, such a right to kill faded because it could. The world can now afford to keep all newborns alive. That doesn’t make this any less of an improvement. Well done us. We can understand why so many people were child killers in the past, and still rejoice that times have changed.

The pages where Pinker describes the murderous cruelties inflicted upon many newborns are very vivid. I will never think of the ceremony of christening in quite the same way. He reminds us that what is being said with it is: this one’s a keeper.

A bit of crime-control theater is surely a small price to pay for the pleasure of living in less cruel times.

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12 comments to Steven Pinker on protecting children too much instead of not nearly enough

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    But it is worth remembering that we applaud the fading of the idea that parents own their children, to the point where they may destroy them with impunity, as if binning unwanted household junk.

    Bollocks. The right has been made more absolute if anything. The cutoff that makes infanticide allowable is the point of birth.

    In America 5 seconds before delivery can be legally classed as late term abortion whereas 5 seconds after would be infanticide.

    Even the ancients would have baulked at such callousness.

  • RRS

    CHILDRENS RIGHTS

    children’s rights is only a label of convenience for the concept of the obligations of adults in their relationships with children. In the case of parents the obligations are multifold and often conflict to some degree.

    They are distinct from property rights which involve the obligations of all not to interfere with the relationship that another (or group) may have to, or with, material things.

    In the first case the obligations are positive in large measure, in the second case the obligations are largely negative similar to many of the injunctions of the 10 Commandments or other well-known precepts.

    If we examine most of the relationships of humans with one another and with their surroundings in terms of the obligations involved, instead of fixing upon the concept of “rights,” we may come closer to concord on many issues.

  • Jaded Volutaryist

    As with all the criticisms (seriously – all of them) I have so far heard of Pinker’s ideas in this book, this one is fully answered in the book. This, aside from his being a huge subject, is why it is so long.

    The short answer is: no they wouldn’t. Not bollocks at all. The infanticide rate was huge. Had they known how to do abortion, that would have been too. Now, the abortion rate is falling, after a big rise when it worked as substitute infanticide.

    The point is, abortion 5 seconds before delivery is now more and more frowned upon and regretted, legally and by other means. By you and certainly by me. And by our fellow humans, more and more.

    It’s not that things are perfect now. Nothing like. Just that many, including you it would seem, set aside, or perhaps do not even realise, how cruel the past was.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    I don’t see that there is a linear trend there Brian. Some cultures were more righteous and some were more wicked, both in the ancient past and now.

    The Baal worshippers were condemned in the Old Testament for passing their children through sacrificial fire, but the Hebrews did not do this. The ancient Greeks often practised infanticide, yet the original Hypocratic oath specifically forbids doctors from providing abortions.

    And the sheer scale of our modern acts of infanticide are truly staggering. If you were in include all abortions carried out in Britain today in our infant mortality figures, we’d have a higher infant mortality rate than Liberia.

    I still don’t buy the main contention of the book – that humanity is improving. I believe its evil is becoming more concentrated and less casual. So while we maybe don’t randomly hack limbs off a few thousand here, a few thousand there – we do see Jews being gassed 6 million at a time – Chinese peasants being starved to death 45 million in one go etc. While random violence from your neighbours has certainly gone down since, say, 1300, targeted violence by governments with the intent of bringing about mass produced genocide has become mind bogglingly more efficient if not more common.

    We’ve graduated from the Mom and Pop model of death and destruction to the Wallmart model. We now wholesale.

  • RRS

    J V

    Are you not accepting that the relationships amongst individuals is improving?

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Not really RRS – I just think states increasingly have the monopoly on violence.

    Given the right circumstances and British society is quite capable of bettering the horrors of the dark ages,

  • I’m perfectly happy that I was born in the forties, before all these coddlings were carried this far. There’s a lot of good in being a free-range kid.

  • RRS

    J V

    I just think states increasingly have the monopoly on violence.

    It may be “off thread” but at some point it would be interesting to have those observations which lead you to that conclusion.

    To that end your conclusion goes in my Samizdata “bank” on the external harddrive.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    It wouldn’t take me long to explain RRS – government’s will punish you if you use violence (for good reasons or for bad). They do not punish themselves for the same crimes. They also are very keen to deprive you of the tools of violence while permitting them for their own use. Ergo government wants the monopoly on violence.

    Relationships between individuals may well be improving generally, but only because the state has become that much better at controlling individuals. This is nothing to do with a moral improvement of mankind and everything to do with a small group of men wanting to be the only group who can use violence – and they have shown an alarming willingness to do so.

    And in spite of this, in the UK at least, relationships between individuals are not improving. They got better for a while but are getting worse again. The murder rate is higher now than it was in 1910, even though the government was approximately then 1/5th the size it is now. Violent crime per capita is through the roof.

    Scotland (where I live) is the most violent developed nation on earth. Fortunately the murder rate is relatively low, but you are extremely likely to be randomly nutted by some drunken nutter on a Friday night.

    I may be doing this book an injustice because I have not read it, but I really think the whole thing is just wishful thinking. Mankind is not improving morally. Governments are getting more authoritarian. That this increases the level of order on the streets isn’t really the point.

  • RRS

    J V

    First, to tie this to the thread of a particular aspect of Pinker’s works, we are probably not talking about the “moral improvement” of humanity. We are more likely addressing spreading commonalities of what are recognized and accepted as “moral.” Principal among those appears to be the regard for human life and for the exogenous physical impairments to that life.

    What we have learned of human social orders from the history available does not indicate a monism of the components of morality for all social orders.

    Next, to move back to the observations you cite, we are indeed observing changes in the mix of the social orders within Western Civilization and diminished force of earlier ideologies that are disrupting previously recognized and accepted commonalities to some degree, and therefore are affecting the nature of human relationships within them. Perhaps new levels of commonalities may evolve that will result in a return to the desirability and efficacy of centralized control of violence; but the diversity of objectives do not auger for that immediate conclusion.

    In the peripheries of Western Civilization, particularly in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Africa and other sub-marginal areas, we are actually observing losses of centralized control of violence by any specific sector or coalitions within the social orders that make up those peripheries. In far Asia, the previous monopolies of violence are becoming more tenuous as the social orders there are undergoing the changes of urbanization and shifts from subsistence existence.

    Even in cultures such as the U.S. and to some extent the English part of Great Britain, a trend is developing toward return to the power of individual violence through private weapons and by judicial decisions on instances of violence.

    Perhaps these views are somewhat over-influenced by the studies of Douglas C North at et al., but an argument can be made that despite the “want,” “desire,” and political struggles for monopoly of violence (and the necessary tools) that monopoly which has existed is being fragmented; in some cases radically, in others into oligopolies. The radical cases are those in which there are no specific social order objectives on the parts of those engaged in breaking the monopoly.

    With the coming changes in the technology and expense of weaponry, there may well be a restoration of the centralization of control of violence. But currently that centralization (or monopoly) is disintegrating, probably at an accelerating rate.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    First, to tie this to the thread of a particular aspect of Pinker’s works, we are probably not talking about the “moral improvement” of humanity. We are more likely addressing spreading commonalities of what are recognized and accepted as “moral.” Principal among those appears to be the regard for human life and for the exogenous physical impairments to that life

    I agree with your first point but not your second. The principle commonality that is being accepted is not that life is sacred but that people need to be controlled. If the societal changes we are discussing are indeed because of a triumph of principle, I would contend it is a triumph of a bad principle that bodes ill for the future.

  • RRS

    J V

    The second sentence was not a second point. It was merely descriptive of the nature of the issue. It certainly is arguable whether or not that particular commonality has been spreading or strengthening. I merely wish to differentiate the concept of “moral improvement” from the kinds of issues arising in our current social order.