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Book reviews, Middle Way Philosophy, Psychology

Better Angels

A review of ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ by Steven Pinker – Amazon link

The Better Angels of Our NatureThe 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.


About Robert M Ellis

I am an independent philosopher, with a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and a distance tutor in Critical Thinking, Philosophy and Politics. I also have experience of Buddhist practice. I developed Middle Way Philosophy to apply what I see as the central insights of Buddhism in an entirely Western context.


5 thoughts on “Better Angels

  1. Thanks for this Robert. You usefully summarise a big book and provide some very interesting comments about conflict. Your review makes me want to mention a thought I have been having recently, that it might be argued that not only is there less violence in the world but that we are getting more moral, in the sense of collectively developing a greater appreciation of morality. For instance, the perception that violence is a bad thing, and that there are better ways to get along and to resolve our differences along the way, might be based on a widening appreciation that it is more moral to refrain from actual harm. You’ve probably thought about this. Anyway, the point is that we are probably much more morally sensitive in an objective sense now than in, say, the Buddha’s day. I agree that there’s really no need to idealise Buddhist societies of the past in relation to morality. They didn’t even have the rule of law. The whole business of karma might be seen as an attempt to deal with such a situation of totally unintegrated standards of justice, by promoting ideas of reward and punishment on a metaphysical level. That way of thinking about morality hardly seems very advanced these days.

    Posted by dhivanthomasjones | June 5, 2013, 9:50 am
  2. Hi Dhivan, I agree entirely that we are collectively developing a greater appreciation of morality, which I think one could also otherwise put as a greater level of objectivity and integration. This suggests to me that Western civilisation in general practices the Middle Way more successfully than Buddhist tradition and the civilisations it has been associated with, despite the fact that the Buddha articulated it better in some ways, and that science and liberal democracy in many ways contain a more effective Middle Way practically implicated in their approaches – even if they also frequently stray from it.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | June 5, 2013, 10:25 am
    • I find these comments reassuring and helpful. In my (fairly infrequent) meetings with western Buddhists, it’s not unusual to hear people running down western democracy, contemporary culture and modern attitudes to life.

      Well, I do it too at times, so I shouldn’t be too critical. But sometimes even rational thought and the beauty of our cognitive faculties is rubbished. “Let go of thoughts” is the meditation mantra. A bit like throwing the baby away with the bathwater, perhaps? I know quite a few people who struggle with meditation, yet have what appear to me to be very sophisticated minds, and sophisticated ethical standards. Is meditation as a path to enlightenment overvalued? I don;t know, but I’m prompted by my experience of others (including people with ‘mental illnesses’) to to inquire of others who may have ideas about it.


      Posted by bagmanhattan | June 6, 2013, 3:33 pm
  3. Thanks for this Robert,

    Like you I think some groups find Pinker difficult given their familiarity with an image of the west as damaging.

    Another objection I’ve heard that has made me think is this: Pinker doesn’t account for the ways that violence has morphed over the centuries. As the state has become more sophisticated so too has its method of control. These people talk about implicit violence. Anarchist thinkers might say that explicit violence has been seen to decrease but at the same time a more quiet and insidious notion of violence as risen.

    There are two issues here for me:

    1. Can implicit violence really be called violence?
    2. If so does how would that impact on Pinker’s claim?

    What do you think?


    Posted by Andy West | August 2, 2013, 10:16 am
  4. Hi Andy,
    Thanks for your comment. I would identify the anarchist’s ‘implicit violence’ with conflict as opposed to violence per se. The state’s methods of control operate mainly through internalised conflict – e.g. there are parts of us that want to follow the regulations and parts that want to use our own judgement in the immediate situation. Corporations also use such methods of control, in a way that I think is actually more of a threat to individual freedom now than the state is. I wouldn’t call this violence because it doesn’t actually involve violence, but the strength of the anarchist case is to point out the extent of conflict and to get us to take this conflict seriously despite the fact that it is internalised.

    So, I think I’ve already mentioned above my thoughts about the implications of Pinker’s focus on violence rather than conflict. He gives us some useful indications of a decline in violence and probably of externalised conflict. That is progress, but it is resolving internalised conflict as well that is the bigger challenge.

    Posted by Robert M Ellis | August 2, 2013, 11:32 am

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