September 21, 2017 · 6 min read
I recently finished reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. I wholeheartedly recommend it.
Most of The Roots of Progress so far has been about technology, with a bit here and there on science and perhaps philosophy. But as I stated at the beginning, I am interested in progress of all kinds: technological, scientific, and political/moral. Pinker’s book was about political and moral progress throughout human history, specifically from the standpoint of the decline of force and violence.
It is the kind of book I would be proud to have written: a fascinating, important topic; rigorous analysis integrating tons of empirical data within a broad philosophical framework; clear and even entertaining exposition.
It is a long book: thorough and dense (although very readable). As such it will be difficult to summarize. But let me try to recount what I’ve learned.
The first major step in the decline of violence was the establishment of government: the transition from tribal existence to life under a king or other local ruler. Life in tribes was a life of constant warfare. Pinker estimates that government alone, any functioning government, reduces the rate of violent death fivefold compared to pre-state society. He calls this the Pacification Process.
The second major step is what he calls the Civilizing Process: a process by which, over centuries, individuals living within state societies became less violent towards each other. He documents a long downwards trend in homicide rates: In England, for instance, from a peak of somewhere between 10 and 100 murders per 100,000 people per year in the 1300s, the rate declined steadily over the centuries to less than 1. Similar declines are seen all over the civilized world, and they are accompanied by similar declines in violent crime in general. (Pinker also addresses why crime rates have not fallen as far in America as they have in Western Europe (short answer: the South), and why crime rates actually rose in the ’60s and then fell again in the ’90s (short answer: the Counterculture).)
With the Enlightenment came what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution. Slavery, a practice older then civilization, was outlawed around the world. Cruel and unusual punishments were abandoned, especially the use of torture: in medieval times, torture was applied even for minor crimes (or what today are non-crimes, such as blasphemy), and far from abhorring it, the public enjoyed it as a spectacle, even as entertainment. (!) War, previously seen as noble and glorious, came to be seen as a form of hell that civilized people should avoid at all costs. Pinker documents the overall decrease in deaths from war, despite the outliers of the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. He notes that the great powers have not gone to war for for 70 years, that the Cold War ended without erupting, and that the threat of nuclear war has been kept at bay, all of which would have seemed like a ridiculously optimistic prediction to an observer circa 1950.
Finally, there were the Rights Revolutions of the twentieth century—civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights—in which the “circle of sympathy” was expanded and the principles underlying the previous centuries of progress were universalized to include people of all races, ages, genders, etc.
The sum of all of this: a consistent downward trend in virtually all forms of violence, over the long term, pretty much everywhere.
What caused this? And, as I asked in another context, how do we keep it going? Pinker rigorously examines many hypotheses for each decline, and the causes he finds are many and complex. However, there are some broad themes. The ones that stand out to me (Pinker summarizes it somewhat differently) are:
Government. Government, as a stage of advancement past tribal existence, is the first step in the process, greatly reducing the deaths from tribal warfare. But early states were not much more than bigger tribes under badder warlords. Violence continued to decline as states were consolidated under more powerful kings, who quelched infighting among the lords subservient to them; and more-civilized behavior “trickled down” from the aristocracy to the rest of society. Finally, the Enlightenment saw the rise of democratic republics in place of monarchy. This form of government is built on a principle of eliminating certain kinds of force and violence, and, since it holds its leaders accountable to the people, is also the form that is best at preventing war.
Commerce. The growth of economic activity reduces violence in multiple ways. Societies that embrace it move from plunder and conquest as a way of life to production and trade. It also increases communication and exchange between peoples, which makes them more likely to like and trust each other and less likely to see another nation or race as a dangerous or odious Other that must be fought and destroyed.
Reason. Ultimately, violence has declined because it just makes sense. It’s better for everybody. The advance of reason shows this to all. Reason helps us see that war is bad, that if someone insults us we don’t need to kill them in a duel, that women are people rather than property. And reason gives us the universalizing ability that broadens our perspective and our circle of sympathy to include all human beings, and to see them as equally possessing of individual rights.
I must include a word on Pinker’s methodology. For me, Better Angels sets a new standard for what social/political/philosophic writing can be:
The analysis is empirical, in the best sense of the word. It is based on history and on facts. In particular, wherever possible, it is based on quantitative data. At the same time, Pinker summarizes the data and boils it down to key comparisons and trends, so you don’t drown in it. And he doesn’t shy away from broad abstractions, unifying themes, or deep, philosophic causes.
Pinker explains not only what we know but how we know it. This goes far beyond citing his sources. When he uses data, he explains which data sets he’s using and why, how he is combining them, and any key points about how they were collected. When dealing with a tricky question such as how much of a trait is hereditary vs. environmental, he explains the various ways one can determine the answer, and then examines each one systematically.
He considers multiple hypotheses to explain a phenomenon: not just the one he thinks is true, but all plausible hypothses he knows of, and gives the evidence for and against each before coming to his conclusion. Even when he believes he has identified the cause of a trend, he considers counter-arguments and alternate explanations, and deals with them.
When evaluating a possible causal connection, he is not content to combine correlation of A and B with a plausible causal story linking them. He points out that in many such cases, the hypothesized causal connection is in fact a chain of connections, and he examines each individual link in the chain, looking both for plausible reasoning and for data to back up the specific link. He uses this both in positive cases, to make the strongest possible argument for an effect, and in negative cases (such as tearing down the flimsy hypothesis, popularized by Freakonomics, that Roe v. Wade led to the ’90s crime decline). This is a new technique for me and one I’m sure I will employ in the future.
I’ve been a fan of Pinker ever since I read his essay on the decline of war in the WSJ (which caused me to completely rewrite a Quora answer) and his incisive takedown of Malcolm Gladwell in the NYT (years later, I’m still chuckling about “igon values”). Now, I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.
For me personally, there were a few interesting takeaways from the book. The biggest is that it gives an overview of the government/morality row in the overview chart I presented in “Charting progress”. This book is close to a summary of exactly what I had in mind for that row, and now I have a lot more substance to it and a framework for thinking about these issues.
It also gave me an even stronger appreciation for the excellence of the times we live in. The safest and most peaceful time in history is right now.
The book also made me more sympathetic to arguments for gun control and against torture and the death penalty. (It didn’t make me any more sympathetic to the animal rights movement, although for what it’s worth I don’t think Pinker is necessarily very sympathetic to animal rights; he and I agree, though, that burning cats alive as public sport, as they did in the Middle Ages, is disgusting and it’s a good thing we don’t do that anymore.)
But the most intriguing idea to me is the notion of the expanding circle of sympathy: the realization that until recently, most people, even the most enlightened intellectual leaders, simply didn’t see all of humanity as fully human.
From our modern standpoint this is simply bizarre, and I’m still struggling to comprehend it. Furthermore, I can’t analyze it with any of the moral philosophy that I’ve studied. I’m used to thinking about things like duty- vs. value-based morality, subjective vs. objective morality, or reason- vs. faith-based morality. I’m used to asking questions like “what does this ethical code hold as its ultimate good or standard of value?” and “what does this morality hold as the essence of virtue?” But none of these ideas help me understand why someone could think deeply about the universal rights of mankind and not comprehend that these apply to women or blacks. When I began this project, I suspected that there was a story here that devleoped in parallel with the progression in government from anarchy to tyranny to liberty. Now I’m sure of it, and I want to learn more.
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