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Kant’s Utopian Daydream
Rick Searle   Feb 6, 2013   Ethical Technology  

I am currently reading a monster of a book. At 802 pages, Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature, leaves even a voracious reader like myself a little winded. Pinker’s argument is that the world has become less and less violent over time, so much so that we now live in what is the most peaceful period of human history ever.

I know what you’re thinking, but Pinker should not be dismissed as just another Dr. Pangloss preaching that we live “in the best of all possible worlds”. The sheer volume of statistics, and studies ,and stories, Pinker brings together make a strong case that the world has become progressively less violent, though it is a case that does indeed have some holes. It will be best then to deal with his argument in digestible pieces rather than all in one gulp, something I will try to do in a series of installments.

But not in this post, for Pinker has managed to get me sidetracked by drawing my attention to the writings of Immanuel Kant, a philosophical giant who never left his native city of Koenigsberg, but whose imagination stretched out to embrace not just deep questions on the nature of thought and ethics, which I knew, but the history and fate of the species, and indeed the state and future of intelligence in the universe, something I did not.

I can vividly remember, many moons ago now, attending a philosophy class as an undergraduate with the professor trying to explain Kant’s noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance) with the vague feeling coming over me that my head was about to explode. Those ideas from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and his famous guide to ethical behavior, the categorical imperative, which states: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law” were basically all I remembered of old Meister Kant.

Pinker’s fascinating argument, however, made me want to take a second look. Better Angels of our Nature, talks extensively about Kant’s essay On Perpetual Peace, but I became more interested in an essay of Kant’s Pinker mentions, but discusses much less,an essay entitled: Idea of a Universal History from A Cosmopolitical Point of View. (Except for Nietzsche, German philosophers are never easy on the ears.) Kant sets his sights pretty high in this essay where he explores whether, in the seemingly senseless tumult of human history, some pattern or purpose can be seen.

Like in his other works, Kant sets his argument in a series of propositions.  These propositions essentially give us his idea of progress, an 18th century idea that the human species had entered a new and brighter phase of history, an “enlightenment” after the cave- black barbarism of the “dark ages. “

What I found so interesting about Kant’s idea of progress in this essay was the way he seems to be groping towards ideas about human potential, the evolution of mind, the trajectory of human history, and even the possibilities of intelligence in the universe beyond the earth that we can, two centuries later, see much more clearly. These were ideas that could only be put into what we would recognize as a modern context by the theory of evolution, something that would have to wait 64 years into until Darwin published his Origin of Species.

Kant speculates that any creature will move towards the full manifestation of its potential, and that the full potential of all creatures are destined to be reached at least  over the long arc of time.  For human beings, this potential is definitively historical in that every generation builds on the accomplishments of the one before, so that the possibility space of human potential expands with each new person born into the world. (First and Second Propositions) .

These ideas are remarkably similar to Kevin Kelly’s idea of the relationship between human beings and the expanding possibilities opened up by technology found in his book What Technology Wants. For example, Kelly thinks that only a certain level of technological development in musical instruments could have allowed a genius like Mozart to achieve his full potential.  In Kelly’s religiously inspired view, God desires for there to exist the maximum number of perspectives and intelligences, who in turn realize their potential, and therefore constitute a reflection of God’s own divine intelligence.

They also echo the explorations of two fellow bloggers whose work I really love both of whom, from quite different perspectives, attempt to understand the evolution of human consciousness and spirituality in light of the findings of modern science and what it has told us about our place in the universe. These bloggers are John Hyland who writes the blog, John’s Consciousnessand James Cross who writes at Broad Speculations.   Check them out.

To return to Kant, in The Third and Fourth Propositions Kant reflects on how humankind had uniquely been granted almost nothing by nature except raw intelligence, and therefore, had to develop all of its capacities from their own powers of reason.  As mentioned earlier, Kant has no knowledge of the theory of evolution, though what he’s talking about in modern parlance is something we would probably call cultural evolution. And much like evolution in the biological sense, he sees innovation caused by both environmental pressures against which human beings have no natural protection, and competition for scarce resources, especially between human beings themselves. Kant deliciously calls this natural competition human beings’ “unsocial sociability”.  Humans have both a deep need to be social and the need to be separate and provide for themselves. They naturally compete with one another, and if they did not humankind would have found themselves stuck in a kind of effortless paradise reminiscent of the Eloi of H.G. Well’s The Time Machine or the Greek poet, Hesiod’s, Golden Age.  Kant writes:

Without those qualities of an unsocial kind out of which this Antagonism arises which viewed by themselves are certainly not amiable but which everyone must necessarily find in the movements of his own selfish propensities men might have led an Arcadian shepherd life in complete harmony contentment and mutual love but in that case all their talents would have forever remained hidden in their germ. As gentle as the sheep they tended such men would hardly have won for their existence a higher worth than belonged to their domesticated cattle they would not have filled up with their rational nature the void remaining in the Creation in respect of its final End.

Like other social contract theorists Kant thinks humankind’s natural antagonism leads to the creation of a coercive state which eventually gives way to mutually recognized law. The reason for the creation of a coercive state is that man as an animal needs a “master”, but this need for a master can not ultimately be fulfilled by other human beings because these “masters” are other animals as well. The answer is for human beings to place themselves under the rule of Law. For, to be ruled by Law is at one and the same time to be ruled by both an product of human intelligence and something that does not share in their animal nature.

As was the case for Hobbes, states, in Kant’s scheme, exist in a condition analogous to individuals before a the state has come into being. That is, in a condition of extreme and often violent competition. The solution Kant sees to this would be an international institution under which the world’s of representative democracies would voluntarily place themselves under in effect constraining their sovereignty with the limits of international law. An issue he more fully explores in On Perpetual Peace.

Here Kant gets interesting for he is indeed serious when he uses the phrase “cosmopolitical” in the title to his essay. The scope of his speculation expands beyond the earth and humankind to other worlds and different intelligent species. In a fascinating footnote he writes of alien worlds:

The part that has to be played by man is therefore a very artificial one. We do not know how it may be with the inhabitants of other planets or what are the conditions of their nature but if we execute well the commission of Nature we may certainly flatter ourselves to the extent of claiming a not insignificant rank among our neighbours in the universe. It may perhaps be the case that in those other planets every individual completely attains his destination in this life .With us it is otherwise only the species can hope for this.

I find this quote interesting for several reasons. For one, it seems we, or our children, will likely be the very first generation in human history to discover life elsewhere in the Milky Way. And not just bacteria, but fully developed biospheres like our own earth. People often wonder how this will affect humanity’s idea of itself, and it is a helpful reminder that for a long stretch of time after Galileo discovered “other-worlds” orbiting Jupiter, many people actually accepted, and expected , other fully developed sister-earths to exist and eventually be found. It wasn’t until telescopes were improved and long after probes sent out into space that we realized our own solar system was largely dead, and our living planet unique. In fact, the Church’s struggle with Galileo may have been much more about this implication of other earths being out than it was about any contradiction with scripture. If anyone knows of any books looking at Galileo from this angle, please share.

Kant also seems to be suggesting that human beings are collective in their intelligence in a way other species need not be, though I have no idea how to understand this without adopting the position that Kant was somehow blinded by his lack of knowledge regarding evolution- unable as I am to imagine any form of true intelligence that was truly fully formed to begin with and not the product of prior events or social in nature. Unless, that is, if he is thinking about the kinds of imagined intelligence found in immortals.

In his ninth and final proposition Kant seems to sum the whole thing up:

Much more than all this is attained by the idea of Human History viewed as founded upon the assumption of a universal plan in Nature. For this idea gives us a new ground of hope as it opens up to us a consoling view of the future in which the human species is represented in the far distance as having at last worked itself up to a condition in which all the germs implanted in it by Nature may be fully developed and its destination here on earth fulfilled.

In other words, Kant dreams that we will someday arrive in utopia, our potential fulfilled, our worst characteristics reformed.

There are intimations here not just of Kevin Kelly, and my fellow bloggers, but of Hegel, and Teilhard de Chardin, and Condorcet, and Francis Fukuyama, and Robert Wright, and Ray Kurzweil, and now, as I started this post, with Steven Pinker.

But here is where I have a bone to pick with Pinker who uses Kant as a launching point for his own progressive view of human history. For, the assumption found throughout Better Angels of Our Nature is that he (Pinker) and the and other prophet of progress who share his liberalism do real history, have a handle on reality, and are free from dangerous assumptions, while those “other guys”, the prophets of progress that he deems il-liberal, such as Marx or the French Revolutionaries, among others do “utopia”,  imagine a world which never was and can never be, and by even attempting to make it so show themselves to be lunatic, dangerous. But there is something not quite right about this view of ,and so, it is will be to this selective anti-utopianism on the part of Pinker that I will turn next time…    

Rick Searle, an Affiliate Scholar of the IEET, is a writer and educator living the very non-technological Amish country of central Pennsylvania along with his two young daughters. He is an adjunct professor of political science and history for Delaware Valley College and works for the PA Distance Learning Project.


Thanks for this article, and the links..

It has been many years since I wrestled with Kant’s critique - of “pure reason”, and I only ever got half way through anyhow.

Yet I did not find this noumenon (thing in itself) vs phenomenon (appearance), much different from Platonic ideas of patterns and forms? Doesn’t he also argue for knowledge “a priori”, another very Platonic view for the substantiation and evidence of souls as real?

Also this determinism for purpose and direction of the Universe, (and intelligence), can also be found in the beliefs of the ancient Greek stoics.. such as “everything that happens, happens for a reason”.. for the purposeful direction of the Universe?

So how much of this was Kant’s original thinking from that of ancient Greeks?

The Categorical imperative would seem impossible to attain in any circumstance, and morality ought only be defined as purely subjective anyhow?

I will dig a little deeper with these proposals - thanks!


I think one of the main differences between a modern, like Kant,
and the ancients is the idea of progress or the unfolding of human consciousness.

You do find the notion of moral progress in people like Aeschylus:

But that is particular to a certain people’s experience, not human kind as a whole.

Even with the Stoics I don’t think you find the idea of the progress of human kind merely the existence of an order to the Universe that is already there, a recognition of it, and an ordering of one’s individual life according to its precepts.

... enjoyed the post. Thanks, Rick.

If Kant never (you mean never?) left Königsberg, how could he have known the welt? But good for him.

As for the original topic, a v. strong case can be made that violence has indeed diminished since 1945: all the evidence is available, nukes probably—obviously—put a stop to the escalation of war; the proxy wars of 1945- 1989 were, to the interest of the great powers, limited, contained.
Whether the diminishment of war will continue is unknown, yet it does appear to be a long-term trend. This month is the 70th anniversary of the end of the Stalingrad battle; since 1945 few or no battles have been as large as Stalingrad (would have to examine all the battles of the Chinese Civil War to know for sure, albeit it does appear WWII was the high mark of titanic warfare—and we’d better damn well hope it remains so). The first and last time nukes were used was in August of 1945.
Thus one can state with great confidence warfare has diminished to some degree since 1945.


A whole world can be created in a person’s imagination.

I tried to tackle the decline of violence question in an extended fashion here:


The long and short is that the picture is not as bright as Pinker paints.

Foucault, now there was a genius. Am going to read your link.

However one might say (and naturally it’s been gone into before) violence has been ‘randomised’—dis-organised to some degree. Rather than being concentrated in some locations, violence has been ‘spread out’; diffused. WWII Europe, for starters, saw war concentrated in E. Europe, Russia, certain areas of N. Africa and the Pacific.
Less so since 1945.
Violence in America (the only nation I’m familiar with) has ‘spread out’; in some ways worse.. in some ways the situation has improved.. but nonlinear change is the oldest platitude in sociology, futurism. True, crime, oppression—the deplorable court, jail, prison, situation mentioned in your link and elsewhere—is in fact worse in some ways. Think though how blacks were lynched by the thousands previous to a half-century ago. For brevity’s sake will write that is for starters and leave it there. The outright genocide of native Americans. Etc. The Civil War of 150 years ago was worse than any other US war since. Etc. And on and on. I do remember the ‘60s-‘70s as being ‘better’, yet I remember quite clearly when and why such began: an escape from the Vietnam War, the riots in cities, the Six Day Mideast war of June ‘67 right at the beginning of the Summer of Love. And more. WWII also changed a great deal of minds by shocking those minds. The Korean War of 1950- 1953 played a role in pacifist thinking. I never say better per se, however different, yes. To write I’m overly-optimistic would be a new twist! it does appear that by midcentury violence might diminish radically; perhaps war will finish altogether- but maybe not. In 1913, a century ago, some thought war might end yet by August of the next year they may well have changed their minds. And by the early ‘40s (i.e. midcentury) they were less sure war would finish soon. I get pessimistic every time I see the oppressed, uneducated, manipulated people around, the bad religion at soup kitchens, the revolving door court and recidivist penal systems. And they are systems, even the welfare system is somewhat predatory a system. All to squeeze the lower and middle classes out. I diss the Midwest at times but it out in the open, is clinically fascinating to watch how productively and vibrantly, often cheerfully, people here squeeze each other out. It is v. sophisticated and grossly materialistic at the same time-
people convince themselves they are only doing what Darwin, Adam Smith, or even God, want them to do. The umbrella term would be creative destruction, correct? Don’t know how anyone can stand it, albeit if they’ve known it all their lives, have benefitted from it then it is second nature to them, it is their psychic substrate and they cannot imagine different parameters. Mostly I think how foolish I was to think the world could idiosyncratically be as I wanted it to be, that in a world of differentiation, life could be simply understood. We have to go with the flow and hope the flow doesn’t wash us away…

... the Pinker topic is too large to get a handle on, however though there’s no hard evidence violence has diminished since 1945, violence has leveled out. Nukes were used twice in August of ‘45 but not since—there’s been no escalation in using nukes, only constructing them.

Steven Pinker may be a little premature in light of the current world global socioeconomic problems and future ecological pressures, (climate change, food, water shortages etc). I remain rather sceptical of his viewpoint myself.. why?

Q: Has the Human “individual mindset” towards violence really changed at all since the times of the ancients? I would declare with emphasis NO! Not at all! Not in the slightest, and this is reflected in localised and domestic violence against innocents even now in the most civilized of societies?

Violence against women and children is no less psychologically deep seated than ever it was, and it is only social cooperation and adherence to deterrent laws and fear of punishment that keeps us all in tow?

Increase in legislation and nuanced laws against all types of abuse, including racism, and together with accountability leads to a more “peaceful and secure” society held under duress of justice and punishment. Yet remove these restrictions even slightly, and nothing will stop regression towards darker times?

Austerity measures across the world are leading to social unrest and increased violence. Shortage of food and water will lead to greater unrest and violence. Societies can only cater for punishment against the few, so lesser crimes including sexual harassment, molestation and rape, (still sexual violence), are dealt with using leniency, leading to statistical anomalies that support reduction of global violence?


The way I approached violence in my Foucault piece was, yes, that violence had far from disappeared but had become hidden, internalized, psychological. The best example of this is, yes, the prison system, but much else of violence has gone underground in this way including slavery which is still around and I don’t mean “wage slavery”, but the old-fashioned kind of forced work through coercion. Pinker is, however, not completely off when it comes to the decline of violence as I’ll discuss in my comments to CYNGUS below.


For how much I find Pinker’s argument flawed, I think he is onto something. It is certainly the case that our norms regarding physical violence have changed- at least in the West, although it seems to be spreading beyond that.

Cases in point: it isn’t just illegal to beat your spouse today, for most of us I think it has become unthinkable. Similarly, hitting ones children as a form of discipline was once near universal and now, at least among elites is almost unheard of. Pinker does not think human nature has changed- there hasn’t been enough time for evolution on that score it is more like society has put its weight behind the “better angels of our nature”. He does not think, nor do I, that any breakdown of society would result in the instant reappearance of human kind’s violent side. It took a long time for us to internalize these new norms regarding violence and it would likely take very extreme social breakdown over an extended period to undo them.

@ Rik

“He does not think, nor do I, that any breakdown of society would result in the instant reappearance of human kind’s violent side. It took a long time for us to internalize these new norms regarding violence and it would likely take very extreme social breakdown over an extended period to undo them.”

We shall see, (although I think we have already in Syria, Libya and elsewhere)?

Like I said, it is society and law/punishment that contains violence, not memes.


I do not think we should over generalize the cases in Syria, Libya,
Iraq etc. as proof of any sort for Hobbseian conclusions about human nature.

In Syria, for instance what you have is a civil war against an Alawite minority that has brutally ruled over a Sunni majority for decades. However deep the sociopolitical divisions in America they are no where near that deep and however weak our political institutions they are not one step away from collapse as they were in these other places.  Violence in the case of disaster is not, in our case, a forgone conclusion.

@ Rik

I am not over generalising, but you and Pinker are.

I am not talking politics, I am saying that violence at the level of the individual mindset has not diminished at all. You may not like this opinion, but it is offered none-the-less.

I am not sure what the levels of violence are like in Pennsylvania, (although I remember a heinous shooting crime at an elementary school some couple of years back that turned my stomach and raised my emotion), But I live in London a city where there is violence occurring every single day.

Just two examples this week..

Two young girls of 16 murdered in different parts of the country, one in Blackpool where she was stabbed in the face and then set alight.

Man stabbed and killed in front of his pregnant wife and young son outside KFC for protesting they should not swear at the staff.

Are you aware of the child murders and raping perpetrated by rebels in Syria?


Yes I am aware of the horrendous level of violence in the Syrian conflict.

Any unnecessary murder or assault is a tragedy, but what I think you are missing is the per capita level of violence. The per capita level of crime in London is less than in the past even if we are more aware of individual crimes through modern media.

@ Rik

We must take care to differentiate between crime and violence, violent crimes statistics? Nothing would soothe more than to believe that violent instincts and memes are diminishing, I hope that Pinker is correct. However it is also dangerous to delude ourselves and become too complacent when heading for a future of socioeconomic instability and uncertainty?

People scoffed at Plato too, for proposing that only the ignorant and unwise commit violence and crime. We Humans are not so enlightened as yet, and although the buck stops with the individual and his conscience, justice and laws are the only thing protecting societies from pandemonium?


And although you don’t find the “Nightfall” social destruction dilemma convincing, (I was not convinced either), remember it takes but a few days and nights to raise a city to ashes, a scenario where only more violence can halt violence?

“The way I approached violence in my Foucault piece was, yes, that violence had far from disappeared but had become hidden, internalized, psychological. The best example of this is, yes, the prison system, but much else of violence has gone underground in this way including slavery which is still around and I don’t mean “wage slavery”, but the old-fashioned kind of forced work through coercion. Pinker is, however, not completely off when it comes to the decline of violence as I’ll discuss in my comments to CYNGUS below.”

Above you have responded right on-target. Nothing to add save for writing the one bright spot in futurism for me has always been examining WWII and its aftermath to perceive how there was conscious decision to avoid the fiasco of the League of Nations—and perhaps the only success was the avoidance of utilising WMDS after ‘45 (a specific example: during the Korean War it was decided not to use tactical nukes on a N. Korean target, probably most of all because of fear of a large-scale reaction from China. Vietnam War was so gnarly in part because of the Western interest in being humane versus the gung-ho interest in winning the war; no wonder it was such an ultra-confused mess.. colonels telling generals what they wanted to hear; generals telling LBJ what he wanted to hear and so forth).
It was witnessing the early ‘70s which inspired my particular strain of optimism on this. How the worm has turned if I should be optimistic via something.


Oh, I don’t think Pinker’s theory tells us anything we can bank on in terms of the future. He had a pretty hard time explaining the spike in violence of the 1960s and 70s and only half jokingly blamed it on rock ‘n roll. Sufficient social breakdown could easily throw positive trends regarding norms and violence into reverse- but I don’t think this happens overnight as in Nightfall- but something I think we are seeing now in places under great stress such as Greece.  Which ties into my response to Intomorrow.

@Intomorrow: I don’t think we have any clear idea what caused “peace” to break out since WWII. Although I am not sure we were
very “humane” in Vietnam- we dropped more bombs on that little country than we did in all of WWII, we at least walk the walk now. What worries me in terms of keeping this peace going is what will happen in East Asia- the disputes between China and its neighbors look surprisingly like 19th century Europe. Perhaps the sheer destructiveness of modern war will cause cooler heads to prevail. I think we would cross a new risk threshold if one of the major powers thinks it can “win” a conflict because of some technological break through- such as Israel’s “Iron Dome”. I’d rather Pinker be proved right and my fears shown to be unfounded or as the hippies always said “make love not war!”. 


“not sure we were very ‘humane’ in Vietnam- we dropped more bombs on that little country than we did in all of WWII”

There was an interest in being humane conflicting with the militarism. That’s where the political schizophrenia of the time could be seen in full view: make love not war versus the hardhats attacking war protesters with lengths of pipe.


Agreed, I think the first group moved us morally along. It’s up to us to preserve the gains.

Thinking about for the last week, one might say Pinker had something. I remember the Vietnam War era clearly, and surveying the period it cannot be said humaneness has definitely improved since then. Yet as Kant might have written, people are more realistic (empirical). The Blake painting brought back memories of the naiveite’ of the times, when millions thought they could return to nature; predictably, it was a fad.
If memory serves, Kant wrote of science as being based on synthetic a priori: science is human-constructed but it exists apart from us, as an extension of us—it does possess ‘materiality’.
And all that jazz.


Even in light of its many flaws I’d still recommend you check out Better Angels at some point. It’s an 800 + page monster, but it does give one a lot to think about.

Will skim through it sometimes- 800+ pgs. is too much of a good thing, Rick. But we can postulate in a nebulous, globalistic, futurist sense the world has become to some degree less violent—problem is, at the rate we are civilising we wont be truly civilised until after 2100.
This is a good piece, Rick.. incl. the illustrations; Blake’s painting was a good choice, Blake was perhaps the epitome of Romantic Age ‘culture’.. brings to mind why the ‘back-to-nature’ movement surfaced and why it predictably—inevitably—faded after a decade or so (‘68 to ‘78, just say). It was a continuation of romanticism a century later. The last gasp of the Romantic Age. ‘Back-to-nature’ was the one aspect of alternative ‘culture’ the straights appreciated. In America it fitted into Jefferson’s maverick ruralism—as distinguished from Hamiltonian urbanism. The Silent Majority might have thought Blake was a prissy European painting nude 18th century blonde cuties, yet Blake had an attraction to nature or at least the rustic, and Andy Griffith could have admired that. Aunt Bea mighta placed a copy of one of Blake’s painting on the living room wall- however not one of them nude ones.


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