In The Better Angles of Our Nature Steven Pinker writes about the civilizing process that humans have gone through to be less impulsive, less vulgar, and less violent over time. We are less likely to lash out at people who offend us or minorly inconvenience us today than people of 500 years ago. We have created spaces of privacy for personal grooming or using the bathroom and in 2020 we made such an effort to limit the spread of bodily fluids that wearing masks in public has become second nature to many of us. Beyond these niceties, we are also less likely to murder someone who has seriously wronged us or our family and political leaders (despite the feeling we often get in the news) are less likely to send their countries to war. But what was the process that humanity went through in acquiring virtues that Pinker praises us for in his book?
Pinker spends hundreds of pages demonstrating the declines of violence alongside the civilizing process I mentioned before. What Pinker uses a full book to explain, Quassim Cassam sums up in a single line, “How are virtues acquired? By training, habituation, and imitation.”
In the book Vices of the Mind, Cassam generally takes a consequentialist view when thinking about virtues and vices. He specifically examines epistemic vices, which are thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically obstruct knowledge. They don’t necessarily need to be evil or clearly dangerous on their own, but what is important, and what characterizes them as an epistemic vice, is that they systematically result in the obstruction of knowledge and information. He characterizes vices based on their real world outcomes. To contrast this view, we can look at virtues as thoughts, habits, traits, behaviors, and characteristics that systematically lead to more positive outcomes for individuals and society. Beyond the realm of epistemology, we can see that Pinker’s praise of impulse control, civilizing forces in history, and reductions of violence are praises of specific virtues.
These virtues did not spring up over night, as Pinker demonstrates with graphs stretching back hundreds of years showing declines in all forms of violence. These virtues were built over time through training, habituation, and imitation, the civilizing process that Pinker refers to throughout his book.
This means that the positive trends identified by Pinker on a global scale can be understood at individual levels, and it means that we can become more virtuous people through our own efforts. By increasing our self-awareness and thinking critically about our thoughts, behaviors, and actions, we can direct ourselves toward ways of being that will systematically produce better outcomes for ourselves and humanity as a whole. By training ourselves to avoid things like epistemic vices, we can put ourselves on a path to be better. We can become habituated toward virtues, and other people can imitate our behaviors to expand the civilizing process and the spread of virtues. Our virtues, and presumably our vices, don’t exist in isolation. They have real world consequences that can be studied and examined in context, and our virtues can be strengthened, harnessing the better angles of our nature, if that is what we set our minds to.