The popular psychologist Steven Pinker has written a provocative book about politics and history, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The title comes from Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address:
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
This book proposes that we often miss a vital point when we talk about war, violence and genocide. On a broad historical level, says Pinker, mankind is doing great. Fewer people are victimized by war or violent crime than ever before. This cuts against the common idea that our civilization has declined, that the 20th century was a century of military and genocidal horror, that the 21st century is shaping up to be even worse. Pinker explains the moral significance of his contrary findings, and his approach in writing the book, in the introductory chapter:
The belief that violence has increased suggests that the world we made has contaminated us, perhaps irretrievably. The belief that it has decreased suggests that we started off nasty and that the artifices of civilization have moved us in a noble direction, one in which we can hope to continue. This is a big book, but it has to be. First I have to convince you that violence really has gone down over the course of history, knowing that the very idea invites skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Our cognitive faculties predispose us to believe that we live in violent times.
Not surprisingly, initial reviews of this book are expressing skepticism, incredulity and sometimes anger. Elizabeth Kolbert considers and dismisses the book’s purpose in the current New Yorker, objecting to Pinker’s cold calculus. Even if statistics prove that the world gets less violent as it civilizes, Kolbert asks, what solace is this to teenage shooting victims in Norway, to the murdered millions of World War II, to inner-city African-Americans unlucky enough to live in depressed housing projects that fail to follow the happy trend? Kolbert’s reaction is exactly the one Pinker predicted in his introduction (though, of course, the fact that Pinker anticipated Kolbert’s criticism doesn’t mean that Kolbert’s criticism is invalid).
The book’s inevitable critique has an emotional subtext that you won’t pick up unless you begin to read the book yourself. Pinker, a Harvard professor who has also written How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, writes with the excited tone of a smart-ass at a party who enjoys offending polite society with uncomfortable truth, and the excitement in his narrative voice becomes palpable during the long passages in which he describes the high incidence of pillage, child slaughter and rape (committed, unfortunately, by the good guys) in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and in every book of the Hebrew Bible. This is a book for pacifists, but like many pacifist books, Better Angels is designed to deliver a punch.
I understand Elizabeth Kolbert’s objection to Pinker’s book; why should we celebrate the decline of violence, when it hasn’t declined nearly as much as it needs to? Also, weren’t Homeric or Biblical forms of violence less destructive, at least on an environmental or technological level, than modern forms?
These are certainly valid objections, but even so, The Better Angels of our Nature had me at hello. I have always liked Steven Pinker and I’m thrilled that he is nudging his psychological research closer to the arena of politics. I understand why Pinker considers it so important to stress the fact that our planet has been improving over time. He’s reacting to the same banality and lack of vision that I was reacting to a few weeks ago when I wrote about a radio talk show conversation I’d overheard in which the host and a caller both seemed to agree that the economy in the USA was “as bad as it can get”, or in another recent post in which I objected to the increasingly popular idea that only apocalyptic revolution can save our corrupt society from itself.
Such hyperbole comes all too easily in casual conversation or debate. The Better Angels of our Nature is designed to be a pillar, a foundational statement upon which other arguments can be built. We may dislike many things about modern civilization, but if you’re going to declare that the world would be better without the humanizing influence of modernity and civilization, you’ll have to face Steven Pinker’s barrage of contrary statistical facts before you go any further.
I’ve only read the first two chapters of this book so far, and haven’t yet gotten into the heart of Pinker’s statistical database (which he has gathered, apparently, from numerous other sources, including numerous archeological researchers and at least one reputable “atrociologist” who has compiled detailed information about civil and military violence since the beginning of time). This book is so close to my own area of interest — ethics, history, the psychology of violence — that I think it merits at least two Philosophy Weekend pieces. I’ll finish the book in the next few days, and plan to discuss the book’s information and basic argument in greater detail next weekend.
In the meantime, if you’ve read the book or any of the reviews of the book (or if you haven’t, and have something to say), please let us know what you think about Pinker’s thesis. Does the evidence really show that our world is getting better and better over time, or do you think we’re going in the opposite direction? And does the answer to this question really matter at all?