Philosophy Weekend: Why Steven Pinker's Book is Important

Existential History Politics Psychology

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?

This article is part of the series Philosophy Weekend. The next post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: Is The World Becoming Less Violent, or More?. The previous post in the series is Philosophy Weekend: The Disappeared Auguste Comte.
7 Responses to "Philosophy Weekend: Why Steven Pinker's Book is Important"

by Claudia on

Levi, I'm also very skeptical that violence has declined or that human nature has fundamentally changed for the better, psychologically speaking. What may have changed, however, is our SOCIAL attitude towards violence. As totalitarian regimes declined in the post Cold War era, so does the normalization of violence and oppression (in the regions that have become more or less democratic). But we shouldn't take that decrease, if it did indeed happen, for granted since it's so dependent on the social institutions (and human rights) we create and defend.

by Nardo on

It doesn't matter even if it is in decline, when the resources start growing thin, the plowshares shall be beaten back into swords.

by mnaz on

i'm skeptical that "violence has gone down" across the span of history. for example, in the nineteenth century the u.s. basically tried to annihilate itself. and how many 100's of millions were killed or grievously injured in the two world wars of the twentieth century and their (ongoing) aftermath? how many millions continue to fall victim to the toxic side effects of war, and war-based economy? how many millions fell victim to genocide in the last 100 years?

but if the claim is some measure of a per capita decrease in violence over time, then i suppose pinker could show an overall decrease, depending on how he crunched numbers, since the world's population has increased exponentially in the last couple centuries. that's fine, but it doesn't necessarily prove an irreversible trend.

violence could trend upward again due to many possible factors ... like increased resource competition due to population pressure, erosion of an educated middle class and increasing poverty levels in the most powerful nations with the most capacity to wage global war (which makes promotion of a war economy easier to perpetuate via essentially state-sponsored corporate media), to name a few. even our old friend, religion could play a part ... as in, end-times prophecy / doctrine.

we've all heard of anti-western indoctrination that (reportedly) goes on in some muslim countries, but few stop to consider the possible effects of disturbing end-times scenarios routinely taught in u.s. suburban "evangelical" megachurches. and when you consider how closely this doctrine is tied to restoration of "the holy land " to israel, it's even more concerning. for example, a few years ago it came out (ever so briefly) that president bush called french president chirac in 2003 and told him that "gog and magog were at work in the middle east," and that the iraq war was "willed by god to erase his people's enemies and prepare the way for a new age" ... (paraphrased). chirac was of course baffled by all of this.

i (reluctantly) left an account of this little exchange in my book about southwestern desert wandering; most of the book is raw exploration of the far side of silence, light and vista ... but i read chirac's account during one of my long road swings; something that stayed with me, and i thought it should be noted. google-search "gog and magog war" sometime for some disturbing doctrinal treatises, some of them very detailed and precise on time lines. i remember one of them, a fifty-page opus, predicted syria's utter demise ("shall be a ruined heap") and iran's fall to western conquering forces, all before the end of 2007 (bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb iran...). not pleasant to think about, really.

sorry for the long comment. enough for now.

by Steve on

I don't necessarily agree with this. Considering that hundreds of millions of people died last century alone from the direct or indirect causes of war and the millions who continue to die thanks to wars - not even considering violent crime statistics - I would think that violence has become more prevalent in the past 100 years.

I think maybe society in general has become more and more insensitive to violence, hence maybe that viewpoint that it's lessened. But I can't honestly see that any unbiased 'statistical database' could even remotely point to violence as decreasing in our modern era compared to history.

by Levi Asher on

Thanks for the feedback, all. Certainly, Pinker's hypothesis is a hard one to swallow, given the facts of the past century. But that's his whole point -- despite the fact that the past century was a global horror, when you look at the larger scale of thousands (not hundreds) of years, it appears that we are becoming less violent. This does not contradict the fact that the last century was a major setback.

I guess the fact that the last century was a major setback for peaceful civilization is the reason the book is important -- I think Steven Pinker's point is that we need to build upon positive changes (the long trend of improvement) and stop empowering the negative ones (the past century).

It's a hypothesis worth discussing, no matter what. More on this next weekend, once I've finished reading the actual book ...

Hi Levi,
I know Pinker only by reading "The Language Instinct" many years ago (and, of course, by his mega-star reputation and 2 million dollar salary as a professor!), and my impression is overall positive. He's a smart guy, and a good writer.

However, I think I like your approach to this topic better than his. You say, "I think Steven Pinker's point is that we need to build upon positive changes (the long trend of improvement) and stop empowering the negative ones (the past century)."

This, I believe, is an honest and even bold perspective on the prospects for getting ourselves back on the track of optimism and self-respect as a culture. It may be a difficult argument to make, but it is worth while, probably true (and truer than Pinker's thesis) and it has the virtue of going against the grain of modern despondence and negativity without going against the most recent and obvious facts.

Whether "we" are more or less "violent" - as a people?, a species?, a culture?, or as individuals (or psyches)? - is a hopelessly subjective matter of perspective. The answer to the question will be different depending on what frame of reference is employed --and Pinker knows that, but does it anyway, thus assuring himself the 'controversialist' reputation which helps so much in selling copies! The book trades on that relativity. It sounds like he's pretending to make a persuasive statistical argument for a moral judgment. He won't win much (or my) approval that way.

Like I said, I like your approach more. It is generous of you to attribute the insight and motive to Pinker; but it may be generous to a fault. Is it possible that "that is what he should have argued", but didn't?

Regards, as always,

by TKG on

Thanks for turning me on to this writer/researcher.

I went to get the kindle preview and found the book isn't released yet, so I downloaded another of his books.

I definitely think we are treating each other better with the passing of time. The understanding of human rights and the value of life I think are increasing.

On the other hand the Nazis murdered millions and Stalin and Mao each murdered more than Hitler.

These unholy trinity of the 20th century show that in the modern world that a little bit can go very far and that we should be aware that even within the trend toward more humane treatment of people in general can come a huge aberration.

Recently the massacres in Rwanda and what has happened in Sudan show us it still happens.

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