Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Roots of Politics

From Steven Pinker's excellent nature-vs-nurture book The Blank Slate :

The Right-Left axis aligns an astonishing collection of beliefs that at first glance seem to have nothing in common. If you learn that someone is in favor of a strong military, for example, it is a good bet that the person is also in favor of judicial restraint rather than judicial activism. If someone believes in the importance of religion, chances are she will be tough on crime and in favor of lower taxes. Proponents of a laissez-faire economic policy tend to value patriotism and the family, and they are more likely to be old than young, pragmatic than idealistic, censorious than permissive, meritocratic than egalitarian, gradualist than revolutionary, and in a business rather than a university or government agency. The opposing positions cluster just as reliably: if someone is sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders, or to affirmative action, or to generous welfare programs, or to a tolerance of homosexuality, chances are good that he will also be a pacifist, an environmentalist, an activist, an egalitarian, a secularist, and a professor or student.

Why on earth should people's beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military? What does religion have to do with taxes? Whence the linkage between strict construction of the Constitution and disdain for shocking art? Before we can understand why beliefs about an innate human nature might cluster with liberal beliefs or with conservative beliefs, we have to understand why liberal beliefs cluster with other liberal beliefs and conservative beliefs cluster with other conservative beliefs...

The most sweeping attempt to survey the underlying dimension is Thomas Sowell's A Conflict of Visions. Not every ideological struggle fits his scheme, but as we say in social science, he has identified a factor that can account for a large proportion of the variance. Sowell explains two "visions" of the nature of human beings that were expressed in their purest forms by Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the patron of secular conservatism, and William Godwin (1756-1836), the British counterpart to Rousseau. In earlier times they might have been referred to as different visions of the perfectibility of man. Sowell calls them the Constrained Vision and the Unconstrained Vision; I will refer to them as the Tragic Vision (a term he uses in a later book) and the Utopian Vision.

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom, and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. "Mortal things suit mortals best," wrote Pindar; "from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,' wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner.

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be "Some people see things as they are and ask `why?'; I dream things that never were and ask `why not?"' The quotation is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough")." The Utopian Vision is also associated with Rousseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, the jurist Earl Warren, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and to a lesser extent the political philosopher Ronald Dworkin.

In the Tragic Vision, our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness. That selfishness is not the cruelty or aggression of the psychopath, but a concern for our well-being that is so much a part of our makeup that we seldom reflect on it and would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it...

In the Tragic Vision, moreover, human nature has not changed. Traditions such as religion, the family, social customs, sexual mores, and political institutions are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature. They are as applicable to humans today as they were when they developed, even if no one today can explain their rationale. However imperfect society may be, we should measure it against the cruelty and deprivation of the actual past, not the harmony and affluence of an imagined future. We are fortunate enough to live in a society that more or less works, and our first priority should be not to screw it up, because human na﷓ture always leaves us teetering on the brink of barbarism. And since no one is smart enough to predict the behavior of a single human being, let alone millions of them interacting in a society, we should distrust any formula for changing society from the top down, because it is likely to have unintended consequences that are worse than the problems it was designed to fix. The best we can hope for are incremental changes that are continuously adjusted according to feedback about the sum of their good and bad consequences. It also follows that we should not aim to solve social problems like crime or poverty, because in a world of competing individuals one person's gain may be another person's loss. The best we can do is trade off one cost against another...

In the Utopian Vision, human nature changes with social circumstances, so traditional institutions have no inherent value. That was then, this is now. Traditions are the dead hand of the past, the attempt to rule from the grave. They must be stated explicitly so their rationale can be scrutinized and their moral status evaluated. And by that test, many traditions fail: the confinement of women to the home, the stigma against homosexuality and premarital sex, the superstitions of religion, the injustice of apartheid and segregation, the dangers of patriotism as exemplified in the mindless slogan "My country, right or wrong. " Practices such as absolute monarchy, slavery, war, and patriarchy once seemed inevitable but have disappeared or faded from many parts of the world through changes in institutions that were once thought to be rooted in human nature. Moreover, the existence of suffering and injustice presents us with an undeniable moral imperative. We don't know what we can achieve until we try, and the alternative, resigning ourselves to these evils as the way of the world, is unconscionable...

Those with the Tragic Vision are unmoved by ringing declarations attributed to the first-person plural we, our, and us. They are more likely to use the pronouns as the cartoon possum Pogo did: We have met the enemy, and he is us. We are all members of the same flawed species. Putting our moral vision into practice means imposing our will on others. The human lust for power and esteem, coupled with its vulnerability to self-deception and self-righteousness, makes that an invitation to a calamity, all the worse when that power is directed at a goal as quixotic as eradicating human self-interest. As the conservative philosopher Michael Oakshott wrote, "To try to do something which is inherently impossible is always a corrupting enterprise."

The two kinds of visionaries thereby line up on opposite sides of many issues that would seem to have little in common. The Utopian Vision seeks to articulate social goals and devise policies that target them directly: economic inequality is attacked in a war on poverty, pollution by environmental regulations, racial imbalances by preferences, carcinogens by bans on food additives. The Tragic Vision points to the self-interested motives of the people who would implement these policies—namely, the expansion of their bureaucratic fiefdoms—and to their ineptitude at anticipating the myriad consequences, especially when the social goals are pitted against millions of people pursuing their own interests. Thus, say the Tragic Visionaries, the Utopians fail to anticipate that welfare might encourage dependency, or that a restriction on one pollutant might force people to use another.

Instead, the Tragic Vision looks to systems that produce desirable outcomes even when no member of the system is particularly wise or virtuous. Market economies, in this vision, accomplish that goal: remember Smith's butcher, brewer, and baker providing us with dinner out of self-interest rather than benevolence. No mastermind has to understand the intricate flow of goods and services that make up an economy in order to anticipate who needs what, and when and where. Property rights give people an incentive to work and produce; contracts allow them to enjoy gains in trade. Prices convey information about scarcity and demand to producers and consumers, so they can react by following a few simple rules—make more of what is profitable, buy less of what is expensive—and the "invisible hand" will do the rest. The intelligence of the system is distributed across millions of not-necessarily-intelligent producers and consumers, and cannot be articulated by anyone in particular.

People with the Utopian Vision point to market failures that can result from having a blind faith in free markets. They also call attention to the unjust distribution of wealth that tends to be produced by free markets. Opponents with the Tragic Vision argue that the notion of justice makes sense only when applied to human decisions within a framework of laws, not when applied to an abstraction called "society." ...

Some of today's battles between left and right fall directly out of these different philosophies: big versus small government, high versus low taxes, protectionism versus free trade, measures that aim to reduce undesirable outcomes (poverty, inequality, racial imbalance) versus measures that merely level the playing field and enforce the rules. Other battles follow in a less obvious way from the opposing visions of human potential. The Tragic Vision stresses fiduciary duties, even when the person executing them cannot see their immediate value, because they allow imperfect beings who cannot be sure of their virtue or foresight to participate in a tested system. The Utopian Vision stresses social responsibility, where people hold their actions to a higher ethical standard...

Radical political reform, like radical judicial reform, will be more or less appealing depending on one's confidence in human intelligence and wisdom. In the Utopian Vision, solutions to social problems are readily available. Speaking in 1967 about the conditions that breed violence, Lyndon Johnson said, "All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs:'" If we already know the solutions, all we have to do is choose to implement them, and that requires only sincerity and dedication. By the same logic, anyone opposing the solutions must be motivated by blindness, dishonesty, and callousness. Those with the Tragic Vision say instead that solutions to social problems are elusive. The inherent conflicts of interest among people leave us with few options, all of them imperfect. Opponents of radical reform are showing a wise distrust of human hubris...

Those with the Utopian Vision see crime as inherently irrational and seek to prevent it by identifying the root causes. Those with the Tragic Vision see crime as inherently rational and believe that the root cause is all too obvious: people rob banks because that's where the money is. The most effective crime-prevention programs, they say, strike directly at the rational incentives. A high probability of unpleasant punishment raises the anticipated cost of crime. A public emphasis on personal responsibility helps enforce the incentives by closing any loopholes left open by the law. And strict parenting practices allow children to internalize these contingencies early in life.

The Utopian Vision is of course the Pelagian Heresy. And the finest exposition of the Tragic Vision is IMHO that of Rudyard Kipling.


Recusant said...

Well, that makes me pretty Tragic then.

Good snip from that book, Laban.

Dan said...

I can't see how that particular excerpt justifies the term 'excellent', Laban, but I haven't read the book. I'll assume - from the subtleties of phraseology and other Pinker works (eg The Language Instinct) that it's not pro-conservative, though!

He's all over the shop.

Traditions 'must be stated explicitly so their rationale can be scrutinized and their moral status evaluated'.

And, apparently, 'by that test, many traditions fail'.

No need to test that assertion, notice - they just fail, it's a fact, because Stephen Pinker says they do.

The traditions he mentions are a nicely conflated bunch, too - some of which virtually no-one with a brain now subscribes to ('the injustice of apartheid'), others of which have empirically been proven to work but are phrased so as to suggest otherwise.

For instance, the 'confinement [no loaded term, there] of women to the home' sounds pretty bad. But the evidence is overwhelming that children raised by mums who stay at home are happier, more successful members of society than children 'raised' by single mums who work. Not 'tradition' - just tested fact.

Here's another: '(T)he dangers of patriotism as exemplified in the mindless slogan "My country, right or wrong."'

Well, yes. There are probably a few rednecks in America's deep south (that's the sort of stereotyping Pinker et al allow) who believe horseshit like this.

But if we look at the current UK situation, most of the discontentment with what is happening to and in 'my country', and actions being carried out by it, is limited to 'conservatives'; 'progressives' have rushed to sign up to do pretty much anything, including launch wars based on utter lies, just so long as it keeps those 'conservatives' out of power.

Only ultra-conservative 'Tragic Visionaries' believe in a strong military, hmmm? I guess that makes Stalin, JFK and Mao Tragic Visionaries (they were, Steve, but not for the reasons you think).

And what’s the obverse of this – let’s have a weak military? Well, that worked well – to take one example - for the French in 1939, eh?

Only ultra-conservative 'Tragic Visionaries' are 'in favor of judicial restraint rather than judicial activism', you say?

Well, partly that's because we have a weird attachment to democracy - imperfect though it may be - and partly it's because the activist judges are all left-wing.

Funny how the Utopians never seem get behind right wing Supreme/High Court judges, isn't it?

'Proponents of a laissez-faire economic policy...'

How about that for a definition: 'a laissez-faire economic policy'?

Is there any such thing, so expressed? There are various degrees of laissez-faire(ness), and people support it to those various degrees. But all of those degrees work a hell of a lot better for the downtrodden and oppressed people (rich though they make the rich) than Communism or Socialism.

Why was it the East Germans who built a wall and shot people who tried to climb it, Steve?

'...tend to value patriotism...'

Well, sometimes, and always over internationalism.

'...and the family...'

Because it works, and because we get strangely attached to our parents and children, uncomfortable as that makes the progressives - see this horrible recent case, among many others.‘…and they are more likely to be old than young…’

Not true.

On the other hand, he’s right: we’re not ‘sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders…’

Because it doesn’t work, and creates crime.

‘…or to affirmative action…’

Because it doesn’t work, and puts imbeciles into jobs they cannot do simply because they tick a non-task-related box.

‘…or to generous welfare programs…’

Because they stultify and enervate and create stasis, rather than enabling and creating and producing.

I think the thing which annoys me, as a young(ish) Conservative, most about this kind of nonsense – and which I think Conservatives everywhere should fight, tooth and nail – is the sheer presumption inherent in sentences such as this: ‘In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.’

This is the greatest lie that socialists, progressives, liberals and new Labour tell: that they are the only ones who care.

I am a Conservative, with large and small c, because I believe it is best for all of us, not just for me and mine.

Welfare handouts, government oversight of all that we are and do, reliance on the State – this is not progressive, it is suffocating of all ambition and honesty and endeavour and, thus, exactly opposed to progression.

I have boundless optimism as to the potential of Britain’s young people – they are from the same stock, after all, that drove the agricultural and industrial revolutions and colonised a quarter of the world.

I am pessimistic about their ability to succeed in the modern British state.

I agree with this, though. People who hold the sort of believes Pinker holds do tend to be ‘professors or students’ – in other words, people generally funded by the State to sit around and talk all day, with the funds taken from those who get off their backsides and work.

At least the students – some of them, anyway – grow up eventually.

Recusant said...


It amazes me, seeing the length of your comment, that you cannot see that Pinker was stating 'ascribed views'. That is, what a Utopian would say about a Tragic's(!) behaviour; and vice versa.

You've just wasted a lot of time chasing an Aunt Sally.

Anonymous said...

I strongly recommend Sowell's later book, "The Vision of the Anointed" in which he develops these ideas further, and in a way that is easy for the fairly casual reader to appreciate.

Together with "The Triumph of the Policital Class", it goes a long way towards explaining a lot of our problems.

Anonymous said...

..."they are from the same stock, after all, that drove the agricultural and industrial revolutions and colonised a quarter of the world"...

Well, some of them are.

The others are those who were colonised themselves, and many of those are from traditions which bitterly opposed those revolutions - and all other forms of progress - and still do.

We are carrying a lot of passengers, as well as facing the opposition of the centralised and stultifying state. Optimism may be misplaced.

Dan said...

Recusant - I understand entirely that that is what he appears to be doing.

However, as I think I point out, to do that successfully he would have to be giving each side of the argument equal weight; insofar as this is possible (I actually don't think it is - one's own prejudices will always come through, as they often do in Pinker's work), in this I think he is unsuccessful, and instead does, indeed, allow what I believe to be his own prejudices to come through.

I do allow myself a small get-out in respect of this at the top of my comment, where I admit that I haven't read the book (yet, I will) and am assuming, based on the subtleties of his phraseology and other Pinker works that I have read, that it's anti-conservative; if I'm wrong about his general bias then I'd be interested in proof of that!

That would involve, for instance, explaining why he chooses the terms 'Tragic' and 'Utopian', as opposed to the less value-weighted 'Constrained' and 'Unconstrained' - or some other terms. I don't consider myself a Tragician but I'd be happy to be called a Realist, for instance.

He also repeatedly mischaracterises this 'Tragic Vision', vis a vis its 'Utopian' counterpart. For instance, he says: 'In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world.'

While this may be an accurate summation of Utopianism, the only way to read this is that the 'Tragic' does wish to restrict his gaze from what is possible in a better world. Yes, I understand that Pinker is ostensibly merely relaying the views of others - but it's what he chooses to relay, what he chooses not to relay and how he does it - hardly accidental in a Harvard academic. Where is the suggestion that those who hold opposing views are not also seeking 'what is possible in a better world'?

'Its creed might be "Some people see things as they are and ask `why?'; I dream things that never were and ask `why not?"'

It's creed might be that. And so do many conservatives dream things that never were and ask why not.

Homophobic Horse said...

Dan is right, that paragraph on tradition was tendentious rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Have to agree with Dan, Recusant.

It's the difference between saying, for instance, 'Liberals support Labour, a party dedicated to the improvement of the lives of the poor by a system of redistribution' and saying 'Liberals support Labour, a party which says it is dedicated to the improvement of the lives of the poor by a system of redistribution'.

As Dan says, is there no value to be assumed in the phrase 'the confinement of women to the home'? Could Pinker not have chosen instead, and as a for instance, 'the system by which a mother takes an active role in bringing up her children'?

And if he had, would liberals not have had something to say (fairly) about the values contained in that?

dearieme said...

I tend to Burke's view myself, but I still can't help thinking that the lists he offers of people on each side of the debate are a bit unbalanced in calibre.

Anyway, here's a competition: "The quotation is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw" - who was the bigger shit, RFK or GBS?

Catesby said...

"The Right-Left axis aligns an astonishing collection of beliefs that at first glance seem to have nothing in common."

I think he's wrong from the first sentence. Religious adherence is spread equally across left and right as he defines them.

Moreover, catholic societies tend to be more left leaning on economic issues than protestant ones, and so on.

There's a load more examples which would contradict his opening assertion.

It's typical yank culture wars stuff; over simplistic.

Even the whole premise of the pessmistic right versus optimistic left is invertable. It's the right (at least as he defines it) that believes in individual freedom, the left it's curtailment by the state, and the nannying supervision of us all, let we go amok.

Which of these positions speaks of greater optimism vis a vis human nature?

Mr Grumpy said...

Utopian Vision = Pelagianism - right, but beware of equating Pinker's exposition of the Tragic Vision with orthodoxy.

'In the Tragic Vision, our moral sentiments, no matter how beneficent, overlie a deeper bedrock of selfishness. That selfishness is not the cruelty or aggression of the psychopath, but a concern for our well-being that is so much a part of our makeup that we seldom reflect on it and would waste our time lamenting it or trying to erase it...'

Definitely not the view of Augustine or that great Augustinian, Pope Benedict. If it wasn't lamentable it wouldn't be tragic. And our moral sentiments are NOT an overlay. They, and not the selfishness, are fundamental to our nature, but they are corrupted.

TDK said...

I have to say I thought Dan's comment was a pretty good addition even though I liked Pinker's essay.

Pinker is writing in support of ideas that would normally be thought of as conservative. I grant him some slack because he inhabits a milieu where no one is right wing and any arguments that challenge the bien pensant are to be welcomed.

I'd like to reinforce one of Dan's points. Before WWII progressives loved the idea of the military - not for war but for its organisation in pursuit single purpose. The metaphor of organising all of society in a similar way to the military was frequently used by those on the left. Think "war on poverty". Labour won in 1945 on the idea of mobilising society - the vicory was an example of what planning could achieve. In particular, military uniforms were a leftist fetish (think Trotsky) long before the Fascists stole the idea.

Progressives have very selective history. If an idea like eugenics fails it becomes an example of right wing bigotry. So too the attitude to the military.

There's a repeated idea dating from Adorno that the right is associated with authoritarians. Aside from the debunking by John Ray et al this is an incredibly silly idea. The far left is populated by enormous numbers of people who love "big" men like Che, Castro, Mao, Lenin etc. Look at the excuses they make for excesses. Look at Galloway and his idolising of Stalin, Saddam and al Assad. Compare the concentration of hope in Obama (by those on the left) with the embarrassed support Bush achieved (by those on the right).

Anonymous said...

A better way of describing the situation imo.
Those who feel that they are part of the current power structure of a nation want it to remain intact, so support the traditions of the country along with a strong defence, with a particular concern for family values.
Those who don't feel an affinity with the power hierarchy of a nation want to break it and build a new one. They do this with mass-immigration, liberal trashing of tradition, undermining of the military, encouraging debauchery and single parenthood, and social engineering in the education system. etc.

This would explain why the same people support radically different policies in different countries.
Often being very Conservative at home, and liberal elsewhere.
And why many revolutionary movements that started out pretending to be about freedom turned into authoritarianism as they try to consolidate their new position.

wildgoose said...

Am I a "Tragician" because I believe in gradual change to society from below rather than radical change from above?

Because I have also read the "Utopian" William Godwin and clearly remember in "Enquiries Concerning Political Justice" him making the point that you can't artificially raise a single cog in a watch without it stopping working, and by analogy to society change should not be too sudden and radical for fear of the resulting disruption. And this from the man who wrote what is described as the first anarchist text in the English language.

And the Left/Right analogy is far too simplistic. Libertarians such as myself are fond of saying that we want to "keep the State out of both the Boardroom and the Bedroom". The implication that only "Tragicians" would deny homosexuals the right to their sexuality is just a deliberate slur.

Anonymous said...

Anon 11:25, so what we have now is a situation where people who ARE part of the power hierarchy of the country - broadly, middle-class NuLab supporters, the Beeb, Polly, etc - also want to destroy it by the means you have listed.

Where does that leave us?

In the deep brown stuff, I believe.

Catesby said...

Mr Grumpy is IMHO correct. Orthodoxy provides the most rational description of human nature - and that holds true whether it is divinely inspired truth or purely human wisdom presented in allegorical form.

The conception of the inherently flawed but always redeemable nature of man, or the tension between spirit and flesh is a perfect analogy for the what science tells us about our evolution. Post Darwin, Freud and Jung, we might describe the same thing as the battle between our higher instincts and our animal drives. But for all practical purposes with regard to observing human behaviour, the results are the same.

Now in my view this recognition supports philosophical conservatism - something Pinker would probably associate with tragedy. But for me the gradualist approach and recognition of the fragility of our social settlements is a fittingly mature response to the conflicting impulses that comprise the human condition whether described by Augustine or by science.

It does not, however, automatically extrapolate to the whole rag bag of of positions on specific issues from which Pinker tries to knit together his tragic mindset.

It has been said before by many, and I myself believe it, that conservatives understand liberals better than vice versa, not least because many conservatives have been liberals in their immature years.

I think - and I caveat I'm only going by the excerpt - Pinker is a liberal making a decent fist of understanding the conservative mindset but failing through a couple of key errorss; 1) By working within the context of a particular form of american conservatism - as he would understand it - and 2) By just not quite being able to put himself inside a mindset he has never occupied.

Ultimately I think what separates the philosophical conservative from the utopian is a mature conception of human nature. This is why I believe many people grow from left to right but few in the other direction. Put simply, some people learn from experience in a way others never do.

But I don't think philosophical conservatism mandates a position on laisseze faire versus a mixed economy, or corporatism for example, nor a position on gun control or whatever. And, once more, it's from a bunch of those more specific positions that Pinker tries to knit together his tragician psyche.

Moreover, I think that a whole bunch of things get lumped as conservative that are essentially utopian, such as the neo-conservatism born of former marxists and liberals. And from a different front; a certain unthinking nativism also corresponds with conservatism on some points, and yet on so many others is very contrary to the sanity of Burkiean thought and Religious Orthodoxy.

The flirtation of the american right with this kind of wilfully uneducated folkiness is profoundly foolish and probably influences Pinker's own thoughts.

It is is from a primordial soup of cynical liberal neo-conservatism, american nativism, Randian selfishness as well as a glimpse of a more considered orthodox / conservative appreciation of the human condition, from which, it seems to me, Pinker's tragician emerges.

Anonymous said...

..."they are from the same stock, after all, that drove the agricultural and industrial revolutions and colonised a quarter of the world"...

Well, some of them are.

Just what I was going to say.

Pinker may be all over the place because, as an academic, he knows perfectly well the rules of the current state religion. Everybody is the same, all races have the same capabilities, men and women are the same. In other words the blank slate.

Trouble he is there in the frontline of research, he knows perfectly well this egalitarianism is a complete crock by now, the evidence is piling up all the time. He doesnt want to be branded a heretic - remember James Watson - so he has to do his best to fudge the issue. Plus throwing in morsels about the dangers of patriotism and those dreadful white rednecks, a smokescreen in other words.


Anonymous said...

Generally I think the piece is good. In parts it is rather weak. for instance, I would say a Tragic Vison would lead to the need for a strong defensive army (to protect the "family" from the selfish greed of "foreigners")whilst the Utopian is as likely to desire a strong army to impose a Utopian vision on others. However, I notice that Tragics tend to like the idea of a strong military also to act as an international policeman in situations where the Utopians have by their nature created an obvious Dystopia. So a little more complicated on that score...

Would it be a false dichotomy to suggest that if belief in god was irrational then Kant must have been mad? Kant seems to be a most rational philosopher but considered that a belief in god was a necessary prerequisite to a belief in any shared moral absolutes. Without god, he would argue, there is really no morality other than that which is personal to the individual. On that basis it is odd that the Utopians do not believe in religion in the main (judging by the Guardian at least). The Deists tended to consider that god existed and that the goal or reaching Utopia could best be achieved by gaining a greater understanding of god through science - that would seem to be a better basis on which to be a Utopian. But perhaps most Utopians dispense with "god" on their way to finding new man-made gods - Hitler, Stalin, Marx, Guevara, Trotsky. If you raise such men to the level of gods it becomes so much easier to believe in their Utopian visions I guess.

It does seem to explain why many left-wingers turn right-wing suddenly and completely in middle-age. Laban. Orwell (died before he inevitably became a small government Tory in my view...). The realities of human frailty prove too much for Utopia to bear.

Interesting the "tradition" of rejection of homosexual practices. The nature of homosexuality in men tends to lead to gross promosicuity and spread of serious STDs - some fatal. So perhaps we now know where that particular "tradition" came from. Doesn't seem so irrational in the light of the millions that have died from a prediliction towards the actual practice of anal sex and promiscuity.

Wildgoose: I had the impression that the Tragician would still believe in the advancement of human society but only by baby steps imperfectly formed and mostly directed by self-interest and an understanding of the self-interest of others. We each advance our own families - but not just by wealth but also by the imposition of strong moral rules. Otherwise we would not bother - we would teach an "get all you can" approach. We see advancement through each generation - hence our desire for quality education but aimed at a realistic appraisal of human nature not a Utopian vision. We expect others to follow the same path towards raising their children with an understanding that British society advances through each generation a small step at a time.

Clearly Pinker is using a lot of pejoratives to describe "tragic" thinking - but I for one cannot decide if that is because he wants to trash the Tragic Vision or merely wants to open the minds of the Utopians to the thinking of those with the opposing view.