A review of ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ by Steven Pinker – Amazon link
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.
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 men who repress them 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.