Moral Flynn effect

Steven Pinker's recent book “Better Angels of Our Nature” argues that our modern era is far less violent and cruel than any previous era in human history, and this thesis is backed up by convincing research and data. One of the challenges for Pinker as an anthropologist is to explain what has brought this about. A reasons he gives is that our increased ability of abstract reasoning has led to better moral commitments, what he calls the 'moral Flynn effect'. Peter Singer explains this in his review of Pinker's book:

"Pinker’s claim that reason is an important factor in the trends he has described relies in part on the “Flynn effect” — the remarkable finding by the philosopher James Flynn that ever since I.Q. tests were first administered, the scores achieved by those taking the test have been rising. The average I.Q. is, by definition, 100; but to achieve that result, raw test scores have to be standardized. If the average teenager today could go back in time and take an I.Q. test from 1910, he or she would have an I.Q. of 130, which would be better than 98 percent of those taking the test then. Nor is it easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen most do not require a good vocabulary or even mathematical ability, but instead test powers of abstract reasoning. One theory is that we have gotten better at I.Q. tests because we live in a more symbol-rich environment. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role.

Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century. He therefore suggests that the 20th century has seen a “moral Flynn effect, in which an accelerating escalator of reason carried us away from impulses that lead to violence” and that this lies behind the long peace, the new peace, and the rights revolution."


Komal said…
This is very interesting, and quite consistent with a progressivist view of the world.
Rekhaa said…
An optimistic weltanschauung which feels good, especially if not over-analyzed :D Actually, I first read about this reduction in violence in Fareed Zakaria's book a few years ago (a name I have now forgotten) where he stated the same without much explanation. It's good to see this coming again, this time from an eminent psychologist and most of his analysis feels so right.

The review says: Among the wide range of evidence he produces in support of that argument is the tidbit that since 1946, there has been a negative correlation between an American president’s I.Q. and the number of battle deaths in wars involving the United States.

Linking IQ and the morality of 'lesser violence' seems a bit unjustified to me (unless more cases are documented that include other leader from other countries too). The problem-solving reason used in cracking IQ tests is not the same used in exercising empathy, understanding and goodwill that the author claims is involved in the 'escalator of reason'. If it were that these high IQ presidents, instead of bombing Islamic nations to establish 'peace', did something substantial for Tibet or Burma or Africa to establish the same 'peace', that perhaps would have been convincing in establishing the relationship between IQ and the morality of violence. Here at least, I find IQ as an inadequate and inappropriate tool to judge this.

In general too, it is better to be cautious in linking IQ and morality as there seems to be some disconnect. Look at some great men of this world. Feynman and Einstein were superior geniuses but were womanizers and Bertrand Russell's penchant for affairs is well-known. And on the other hand, we have extraordinary geniuses like Sri Aurobindo and Vivekanada who had a very strict moral code in life.