‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

The facts seem clear. Our lives are enormously safer than they used to be. Compared to prehistoric or medieval times the violence in modern society is a tiny proportion, and even in the past generation the overall violence created by both war and crime continues to reduce significantly. Looked at in terms of the bigger picture, even the Second World War was a blip that only temporarily interrupted a larger improving pattern. We are doing something right.The Better Angels of Our Nature

Steven Pinker’s detailed and well-evidenced book provides this important optimistic message – that the levels of violence in the world are decreasing – and more importantly gives a convincing account as to why. Weighing in at over 1000 pages, it is almost encyclopedic in its coverage of evidence about all aspects of violence through history. However, Pinker doesn’t just provide lots of evidence, but also a series of counter-arguments against stock explanations and a strong account of the endogenous causes (i.e. ones that are distinct from the phenomena being explained).

So why is violence decreasing? Pinker’s final chapter usefully summarises five big picture trends. First there was the nation state, that drastically reduced violence by providing a neutral arbiter to maintain order. Next there was increasing commerce, which from the late middle ages has provided an alternative way of competing in which we have a positive investment in the lives and prosperity of others. Then there is feminisation: the more women have improved their status in society, the more peaceful it has generally become. Then there is the extension of sympathy, for which we have much to thank the novel and other media, and finally the escalator of reason, by which we have gradually improved the consistency with which we treat others, thanks particularly to mass education and the gradual percolation of rational attitudes through our society.

What made me initially interested in this book, and its connection with Middle Way Philosophy, was the amount it tells us about conflict. Conflict is a central theme of my recent book, Middle Way Philosophy 2: The Integration of Desire, where I put forward a view of conflict as created by our divided selves as much as differences between persons. In that book there is relatively little attention to violence specifically, but I describe violence as disinhibited conflict. This is a long way from Pinker’s approach, as he focuses solely on identifiable social and psychological causes of violence between people, and does not really make any distinction between violence and conflict. He gives no attention at all to inner conflict, or violence against oneself when that conflict becomes disinhibited. Nevertheless, I have learnt much from what he has shown within the model he was using, because much of what he says about the causes of violence or its decrease also explains the causes of conflict.

Of the five kinds of causes for improvement that Pinker discusses, mentioned above, the first three seem to me to be largely focused on violence rather than conflict. The development of the state, for example, inhibits people from settling their disputes violently, because they are increasingly afraid of punishment by the state, but it does not by itself resolve conflicts between people. Rather, under the threat of the law, people become more likely to repress the contrary desires that created external conflict. If instead of attacking my enemy, I repress my anger, I will substitute an internal conflict for an external one. This is indeed progress – but progress in reducing violence rather than progress in reducing conflict. Similar points can be made about the effects of commerce, because the reflection that violence would interfere with business interests is more likely to repress emotions that would previously have produced violence than to make them disappear.

When we come to the improved position of women in society, however, there does seem to be some genuine resolution of conflict together with mere repression of desires. Women, at least, probably have to repress desires less, and face less inner conflict thanks to their liberation, even if there are also men who repress their desires more compared to their previous position. Feminisation appears to be partially about reducing violence and partially about reducing conflict.

However, Pinker’s last two and most recent factors, the expanding circle of sympathy and escalator of reason, potentially indicate a lot more genuine resolution of conflict, with a reduction of violence following from this rather than violence merely being inhibited. When we actually come to feel that others are like ourselves, or to think of them as having similar status, we are actually being more objective and addressing more conditions. Pinker makes it clear here how much we have improved since the Enlightenment: slavery, the treating of women and children as chattels, and wanton cruelty to animals have all successively been drastically reduced as an increasing range of others were recognised as persons and considered fit subjects of moral and legal rights. This has been accompanied by the rise of democracy and the use of peaceful political methods for the resolution of disputes both within and between nations. Pinker gives a huge amount of evidence for this on a social level, but what he does not seem to recognise is its internal psychological benefits: for every avoidance of conflict through the objective recognition of others is simultaneously an avoidance of the repression and alienation that would follow from our repressed sympathies and divided reason. The recent achievements of Western civilisation in reducing violence are simultaneously achievements of greater integration.

Many will find that point difficult to stomach, accustomed as we may be now to dwell particularly on the environmental shortcomings of our civilisation, as well as its many other serious imperfections. But Pinker stands up for the sheer imperfect inductive power of evidence. The evidence builds up and can hardly be dismissed without prejudice. We may still have a long way to go, but our civilisation has made massive gains in objectivity. If we do not allow ourselves to appreciate this we will probably be imposing some dogma of pessimism rather than looking at the evidence. So we do not need to idealise the East, or the Past, or some alternative ‘natural’ or revealed way of understanding things apart from the accumulating evidence of experience. We just need to have confidence in what we have done and build on it. The importance of Pinker’s book as a healthy basis for optimism can hardly be understated.

Robert M Ellis (written in 2013)

2 thoughts on “‘The Better Angels of Our Nature’ by Steven Pinker

  1. I’m a huge fan of this book.

    I’ve been in a weekly book group for six years and after one year of my salesmanship and heartfelt convincing they agreed to read Pinker’s exploration of the decline of violence. I’ve debated the contents for the past three years in person and online with liberals and conservatives. They have knee-jerk criticisms that they tend to maintain no matter how much data one puts forward. Of course, Pinker writes about a lot more than the data in his book. He has many theories and analyses that one can challenge. Many academically oriented people in my group did. My point is try and make sure lots more people are exposed to the overall fact that violence has declined. Then, we can listen to Pinker and others who may help us understand or formulate our own theories as to why this happened and what might be done to continue and even improve the trend.

    I’ve included a few dozen nice color charts related to the text here:

    https://persuademepolitics.wordpress.com/2015/07/30/now-most-peaceful-time-in-world-history/

    More can be found through an image search for “steven pinker better angels charts”.

    Through my many discussions on “Better Angels”, I’ve developed and revised multiple times an overview statement for the book along with attaching or copying many charts that Pinker put together. Here is my latest version:

    ——————————————————————–

    Much of the information below comes from Steven Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”. This remarkable text evaluates and combines the work of dozens of historians to show that, contrary to popular opinion on the left and right, the planet has become far more peaceful than in any other time in history. Terrible things like warfare, rape, murder, legal and illegal slavery, bullying, lynchings, racism, sexism and animal abuse are all in radical decline. This process started when societies began to organize away from hunter-gatherer communities between 7,000-10,000 years ago into structured civilizations, but shifted to an accelerated level of reform during the 18th century’s Age of Enlightenment and afterward. By absolute numbers and percentage of population, the trend is downward in violent behavior.

    Whether intentionally or not, the media often makes the global situation look like everything is getting worse or at least not significantly improving. That’s just not the case when it comes to acts of violence. There still is plenty of harm being done by humans to one another, but thankfully it’s far less prevalent overall than in 1965 or 1805 or 1585. Through a very large range of historical narratives, archaeology and statistics, the human condition generally reveals itself as more barbarous the further backward one looks. On a recent note, the U.S. crime rate now is half of what it was in the early 1990s. This includes places known to be more dangerous like Baltimore, Washington D.C, New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia. Between 1973 and 2008, rape decreased by 80% and murder became 40% less common. According to the FBI, from 2001-2010, the crime rates went down in categories of violent crime (20%), forcible rape (13.8%), robbery (19.7%), aggravated assault (20.8%) and motor vehicle theft (44.5%).

    When using percentage of population as a guide to study the scale of war related deaths, the worst atrocities of the 20th century don’t top the historical list. Just 4 horrific events of the 1900s make it into the top 20. Only 1 makes the top 10, as WWII ranks 9th. Archaeological evidence from almost 40 pre-state societies of eras as far back as 14,000 years ago and up to those active today show an average of a 15% violent death rate because of trauma evidence in the skeletal remains. The Middle Ages hovered under 10% and gradually lessened. The 20th century, even with all of its devastation and human suffering, had a rate of a much smaller 3%. The 21st century is astronomically low in comparison, 0.03%. That’s 500 times less than typical pre-state levels of brutality. Contrast modern levels of carnage to that of the American Wild West, where the percentages ranged up to 30% or higher in each town. England, for another example, now has a murder rate that is 35 times less than in the Middle Ages.

    The Wikipedia page about this book summarizes the proposed causes for the decline in violence:
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    Pinker identifies five “historical forces” that have favored “our peaceable motives” and “have driven the multiple declines in violence.” They are:

    The Leviathan – The rise of the modern nation-state and judiciary “with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force,” which “can defuse the [individual] temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge, and circumvent…self-serving biases.”

    Commerce – The rise of “technological progress [allowing] the exchange of goods and services over longer distances and larger groups of trading partners,” so that “other people become more valuable alive than dead” and “are less likely to become targets of demonization and dehumanization”;

    Feminization – Increasing respect for “the interests and values of women.”

    Cosmopolitanism – the rise of forces such as literacy, mobility, and mass media, which“can prompt people to take the perspectives of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them”;

    The Escalator of Reason – an “intensifying application of knowledge and rationality to human affairs,” which “can force people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, to ramp down the privileging of their own interests over others’s, and to reframe violence as a problem to be solved rather than a contest to be won.”

    From – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Better_Angels_of_Our_Nature
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    For an interesting video presentation/summary of the contents of this book, see this link:

    A great web site that can be used as a reference to double-check this data is necrometrics.com, where typically a half dozen or more historians contribute their estimate on the death toll for each significant historical event. As far as I have been able to study, Pinker many (if not most) times chose one of the conservative numbers in the ranges.

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