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Steven Pinker and the Decline of Violence

by Christopher Chantrill
January 20, 2012 at 1:51 pm


FOR YEARS I’VE been saying that people are very sensitive to “incoming rounds.” When a mortar round, real or metaphorical, lands in your fire-base, it spreads death and destruction. But outgoing rounds are different. You fire a shot in the air, and who cares where it comes down?

Now I learn from Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature that this is a highly advanced notion in social psychology, related to the Moralization Gap, self-serving biases and the “myth of pure evil.” We humans like to think of ourselves as good and reasonable. But when victimized, it’s only a skip and a jump to judge our tormentor as pure evil.

Given how we humans are wired not to worry too much about the harm we do others, it’s remarkable that the killing rate has declined from 500 persons per 100,000 per year in the good old days of the Noble Savage hunter-gatherers to the present rate in Europe of 1 per 100,000 or the US rate of 4.8 per 100,000. That is the amazing story that Pinker tells. It’s not just homicide either. Torture, judicial penalties, infanticide, oppression of other races, oppression of women and gays, cruelty to animals: the rate is way down.

Pinker wants to credit the 18th century Republic of Letters that birthed the Humanitarian Revolution, and the Civilizing Process of Leviathan states that imposed a top-down justice to eliminate the private justice of feud and revenge. Add to that the Rights Revolutions of civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and animal rights that have expanded the circle of sympathy and you get the Long Peace after World War II and the current New Peace, the continuation of the reduction of violence since World War II even into the War on Terror.

In other words, liberals did it, and maybe “gentle commerce.” On the way, we celebrate all the good things that liberals did, and take an appropriate swipe at the gun culture, the honor culture of the South, and the intelligence of George W. Bush.

We humans have five Inner Demons, Pinker writes, that urge us towards violence. There is predatory violence or violence for gain, there is the contest for dominance, the instinct for revenge, the learned appetite for sadism, and the collective delusion of ideology. Against the demons are the Better Angels that lead us away from violence. Here we are talking about empathy, that people are nicer to those to whom they have sympathy, about self-control, which can be developed, like a muscle. In addition there are morality and taboo, in which people hold notions about right and wrong that they very often can’t explain, and reason, the cultivation of intelligence.

For Pinker, it is the cultivation of civilization and enlightenment, the encouragement of Better Angels over Inner Demons, that has made the decline of violence possible. But I wonder. When it comes to the decline of violence, I believe that Marx’s “productive forces” are a better fit.

Humans come equipped with tools for conflict and for cooperation: demons and angels. But universal cooperation made no sense in the world of hunter-gatherers, where land was food, and a dawn raid on a neighboring village could yield the double bonus of plunder and, if the men were all killed, extra territory for food gathering and hunting. In our age things are different, not because we are better, but because innovation and new productive forces have changed the terms of trade. Today it makes no sense to attack a neighboring state and put its people to the sword. It’s much better to loan them capital and ratchet them up into the global commercial system, whether they are Chinese making Christmas lights for Wal-Mart or Koreans making LCD touch screens for tablets. In today’s system of global commerce, people aren’t fighting for scarce resources, they are competing to convert resources into great products.

All this leads us to the elephant in the room of Better Angels. If the Rights Revolution is so wonderful then why don’t liberals extend it to conservative Christians, the One Percent, and “millionaires and billionaires?” And why does President Obama hype his equality agenda, at a mere Step 3 in Pinker’s moral progression from Communal Sharing to Authority Ranking to Equality Matching to Market Pricing? Pinker reports that the Public Goods game shows that people will only contribute to the public welfare if the freeloaders are punished. Really? Then why do liberals encourage freeloading with big-government entitlements? Dead silence.

Good: let’s fly into the future with Pinker “On Angels Wings.” If only liberals, with their divisive president, could exorcise their Inner Demons: their lust for a predatory government that takes 40 percent of the national product, their need for chest-thumping domination of the nation’s culture and education, and their ideology of equality.

We can but hope.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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