When one of the leading ethicists, Peter Singer, reviews a book about human nature by one of the leading neuroscientists, Steven Pinker, it’s worth your time to see what the former has to say about the latter:

It is unusual for the subtitle of a book to undersell it, but Steven Pinker’s “Better Angels of Our Nature” tells us much more than why violence has declined. Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard who first became widely known as the author of “The Language Instinct,” addresses some of the biggest questions we can ask: Are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future?

The central thesis of “Better Angels” is that our era is less violent, less cruel and more peaceful than any previous period of human existence. The decline in violence holds for violence in the family, in neighborhoods, between tribes and between states. People living now are less likely to meet a violent death, or to suffer from violence or cruelty at the hands of others, than people living in any previous century.

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.

Apart from the book itself, you can find a much longer version of Pinker’s argument in his Edge.org Master Class from earlier this year. Sam Harris also interviewed Pinker about the religious aspects of his argument. It’s a compelling argument though, as Singer notes, our relative harmony lately could be dependent upon environmental circumstances, and a change in the climate or availability of resources could change things considerably. Call it The Road corollary.

This is a legal blog, though, so I try to find some sort of ‘legal’ excuse to post non-legal articles of interest, and here’s the legal angle for a venture into Better Angels of Our Nature. It’s a practice tip.

After Steve Jobs died, the professional trolls at the Westboro Baptist Church saw another opportunity for attention, and so they reached for it on Twitter:

No peace for man who served self, not God. #hellgreetedhim Westboro must picket funeral. #warnliving MT @applenws: RIP Steve Jobs 1955-2011.

Of course, the tweet bore the automatic software stamp of “via Twitter for iPhone,” and so the internet lulz promptly followed.

The informative part for our purposes is not that the Westboro folks are a bunch of obnoxious hypocrites, but, rather their response when called out on it:

Question tweeps: If Westboro uses iPhones during pickets, are they iPickets? :)We sing iPraise to our glorious King, who created the iPhone!

Which brings us back to Pinker. Humanity might be on “accelerating escalator of reason,” but not everyone is on for the ride. Some people’s brains are so fixed in their ways that they will not accept new ideas, new arguments, new facts, or even their own observations. Everything that comes in to them just gets contorted into brand new evidence in support of their worldview; that’s how the Westboro Baptist folks can tell themselves that God, rather than Steve Jobs, came up with the iPhone (guess which one is named on the patent?) and justify to themselves paying their own money over to a man they believe is damned to hell.

There are people who have the tools of reason, but they choose not to use them.

Your job as a lawyer is to avoid these people.

I don’t mean avoid clients with mental illness. Clients with mental illness often need more legal help than the rest of the population. The flight-from-reason I’m talking about is not the same thing as mental illness. You won’t find their diagnosis in the DSM-IV. These people appear entirely normal on the surface. You won’t see their pathological cognitive biases at work until you watch them fit every fact that comes their way into the same absurd narrative.

I also don’t mean you shouldn’t represent clients who have made — and often will continue to make — bad choices, even malicious choices. Great lawyers, particularly trial lawyers, dwell in the folly of humanity. Consider this passage about Clarence Darrow, Attorney for the Damned from one of his co-counsel on many cases:

In homely language and with a great wealth of illustrations he would talk about human beings, the difficulties of life, the futility of human plans, the misfortunes of the defendant, the strange workings of fate and chance that had landed him in his trouble. Darrow would try to make the jury understand, not so much the case, as the defendant.

Making juries understand salient, but non-obvious issues is what great trial lawyers do. If you turn away every case that isn’t a surefire winner, you’re playing a game or running a business, not practicing law. (On the subject, Darrow may not have be very obliging of Pinker’s thesis; “A great many people in this world believe the end justifies the means.I don’t know but I do myself,” he said in  his closing argument during the Leopold and Loeb trial.)

What I’m suggesting is that you avoid the people who, despite being sound of mind, have chosen to ignore the reality around them because they would prefer it be otherwise. Don’t  take on the client who refuses to have realistic expectations about their case. Don’t rely on the witness who refuses to defend their testimony on cross-examination. Don’t partner with the co-counsel who sees a case as only strengths or only weaknesses.

They will eat your time and play with your emotions. It’s what they do. Every lawyer has encountered, at one point or another, an attention or time vampire who lives and breathes for the purpose of causing others pain and creating burdens. The more successfully you can avoid these people, the more successful you will be.