Zahwil's Reviews > The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker
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's review
Feb 19, 12

Read in February, 2012

This is a big book, but despite it's length, the writing is so clear, and the ideas in it so provoking, that I didn't have any trouble completing it. Pinker writes beautifully. Here's but one example. When explaining how murder is very often the actualization of fantasies that we all harbour, Pinker writes:

“The small number of premeditated murders that are actually carried out must be the cusp of a colossal iceberg of homicidal desires submerged in a sea of inhibitions”.

Pinker accomplishes an enormous task: he uses a mountain of data and graphs to make a persuasive case that violence has declined massively throughout the ages. Thus the first part of the book is a history of the world and a shocking exposure of its barbarism. In non-state societies, pre-civilizaiton, the average annual death rate in warfare exceeded 500 per 100,000 people. Pinker does an excellent job of putting perspective around this statstic, and the many others that he uses. For example, Germany's average annual death rate from warefare in the 20th Century was 144. And the median national homicide rate among the world's countries is 6, with modern Western Europe enjoying a rate of 1. The worst decades of U.S. history (70's and 80's) in the most violent U.S. cities had annual homicde rates of 10 to 45.

Why were ancient people's so violent? Pinker provides many explanations. One is that they put a low value on other people's lives becuase pain and death were so common in their own. Life had lots of nasty surpises, such as famines and plagues. With so much suffering, people may have reasoned that God was sadistic, and they were therefore quick to sacrifice others using brutal, bloody means such as burning at the stake, breaking on the wheel, or Judas's Cradle. Indeed, a belief in temporal bodies but eternal souls justified some of the worst violations of human life.

With life being short and uncertain, people were rationally less willing to sacrifice present pleasure for future pleasure. Pinker supports this hypothesis by showing a sharp decline in interest rates, while controlling for other variables such as inflation. Modern people are willing to accept a lower rate of interest since they can be reasonably assured about living long enough to enjoy the benefits conferred to their future selves, enhanced by modern institutions for saving. Self-indulgence, or a lack of self-control, led people of past eras to steeply discount the future, and thereby ignore the longer-term consequnces of seeking immediate gratification.

In Pinker's telling of the civilization process, it becomes astoundingly clear how disgusting our ancestors were to our eyes. Their habits and hygiene were completely unregulated by the self-restraint, social norms, and taboos to which we are all inculcated from a tender young age. It is clear, therefore, that what we take as our 'second nature' is aptly named; it is not our first, animal nature and had to be learned. Pinker makes the interesting point that much of our culture's norms, such as table manners, swearing, dressing modestly, have their roots in the civilizing porcess. Now that we are civilized, and do not need to fear being harassed or assaulted, some of these norms (such as women showing a lot of skin or men cursing in public) may have outlived their purpose.

Another explanation for our violent pasts center around the lack of a state, or Hobbes's Leviathan. For example, in non-state societies, people are left to pursue their own justice. Without a state to pursue justice blindly and using the principle of proportionality, people are vulnerable to the "Moralization Gap", whreby they interpret the "harms they inflict to be mild and forgettable but the harms they suffer to be unprovoked and grievous". In contrast, the law can weigh harms without the self-serving distortions of either the perpetrator or the victim.

Yet another reason for our ancestors endorsing torture is a fascinating and convincing case made by Pinker that torture is an acquired taste, like our taste for dry wine, aged cheese, or hot peppers. The pheonomenon describes the way that "neophytes must overcome a first reaction of pain, disgust or fear on the way to becoming a connesieur".

Having provided a full account of our violent past, and the reasons therefore, Pinker sets about to explain the extraordinary decrease in violence beginning around the 18th Century. Pinker identifies many exogenous forces that led to this decline, such as an effective state and judiciary, gentle commerce and the opportunity for positive-sum games, the feminization of society and a shift in culture from honour to dignity, the perspective-taking enabled by the spread of books and travel, and the force of reason in dispelling any basis for privileging one's interests over others.

In his discussion on morality and taboo, Pinker makes the interesting point that no societies build their moral underpinnings around the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative (universalizable principles). Morality in practice is a set of relational models consisting of Communal Sharing, Authority Ranking, Equality Matching, and Market Pricing. Morality then consists of respecting or violating the models. Over time we have shifted our moral framework toward the values of personal freedom and autonomy, displacing the role of the first three models in our moral lives. In fact, for Pinker, morality seems to consist of the interchangability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.

This leaves us with a moral evolution that stops at Market Pricing, essentially the language of formal contracts and the workings of the modern economy. Pinker's account of the decline of violence clearly privileges the world of commerce and markets. A free market respects people's freedom (it it not value-laden), puts a premium on empathy (becuase the yardstick of business is satisfying human needs in markets), and keeps people peacable in order to preserve the networks of cooperation and trust that facilitate trade.


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