Second Thoughts about Steven Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Nature and the New Morality

Recent cases of horrific, cold-blooded murders lead one to wonder about Steven Pinker’s intriguing hypothesis that human history leads naturally, if not inevitably, to the decline of violence.   From Dylann Roof going to a church service and then pulling out a gun and shooting everyone in sight, to Islamic fundamentalists calmly beheading and incinerating captured prisoners, the news is filled with images that make one wonder whether The Better Angels of our Nature, as Pinker’s book is called, are truly in the ascendency that he depicts.  Of course, his approach to what can be called a new morality (although he doesn’t see it in these terms) is historical and statistical.  He doesn’t argue that violence is disappearing, or even that it has become uncommon, but only that it is decreasing over time from its levels that we would now regard as astronomical.  On the other hand, Pinker does seem to believe that the decline in violence that he observes is a natural result of human development, a cognitive solution to a type of Prisoner’s Dilemma problem that leads people in the direction of more cooperative and irenic behavior.  Continued and widespread examples of savagery make one wonder about this, and whether he has really identified the causal mechanisms that determine human history.

Such doubts lead naturally to reconsideration of Pinker’s most startling assertion:  that deaths from armed conflict have steadily declined over time.   The obvious counter-example (although that sounds like too mild a term) is the 20th Century, which featured the Holocaust, World War II, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s various depredations, and a host of lesser catastrophes.  World War II and the Holocaust are generally regarded as being directly responsible for 55 million deaths, Mao for 40 million and Stalin for 20 million. To explain, or explain away, these horrors, Pinker resorts to some rather dubious arguments.

·        First, he multiplies the number of deaths from earlier catastrophes, sometimes by a factor of 10 or 12, to account for the fact that the world had a lower population in previous times.  But if he is measuring events, rather than the total number of violence-related deaths, this seems to be a questionable strategy.   Is World War II less violent because the relatively unaffected parts of the world, such as South America or Sub-Sahara Africa, had much larger populations, in both absolute and relative terms, than they did in the past?    Are the 8 million deaths resulting from the fall of Rome truly the equivalent of 105 million deaths today?  A death is a death, and 55 million deaths counts as more violent than 8 million, regardless of how many other people are alive.  Would we say that Dylann Roof was no more violent than someone who committed one murder during the Renaissance, or that someone during the Middle Ages would have needed to commit 180 murders to counts as equally violent?

·        Second, many of Pinker’s figures are open to question on a variety of grounds.  In some cases, the events that he compares are not truly comparable.   His third most deadly event is the Mideast Slave Trade (19 million people, which he adjusts to 132 million) but this, according to his own characterization, took place over the course of 1, 200 years, which hardly counts as an event.  The “Annihilation of the American Indians” (20 million deaths, adjusted to 92 million – ranking 7th), was a 400 year process, and was primarily due to disease, which is certainly tragic, but unintentional and hard to treat as violent.  Pinker’s number one event, the revolt of An Lushan against the Tang Dynasty in 8th century China is listed as having caused 36 million deaths, which he adjusts to an almost absurd 429 million, but the chaos produced major gaps in record keeping, many people probably went into hiding to escape the violence, and the Chinese Empire lost territory in the process, so the dramatically reduced population that imperial authorities recorded after the revolt is probably not an accurate reflection of the death toll.

·        Third, Pinker tries to minimize the significance of the 20th Century cataclysms by attributing them to the individual personalities of a few adventiously placed leaders.  “No Hitler, no Holocaust” he quotes on more than one occasion (see pp. 208-09, 248-49, 343).  And he adds, quoting Harry Harding, “Without a Mao, there could not have been a Cultural Revolution” A lame effort of this sort to explain away conflicting evidence calls Pinker’s entire theory into question.  To begin with, Pinker has no metric whatsoever to determine the relative role of individuals in historical events, and thus no basis for saying that the 20th century events were deviations caused by the chance influence of a few individuals, while previous events reflected the prevailing culture.  Could the An Lushan revolt have occurred without An Lushan (a paranoid maniac) or the Mongol conquests (40 million deaths according to Pinker, which he recalculates as 278 million) without Genghis Khan? In any case, such “Great Man” or in this case Great Monster theories of history are no longer favored, and they seem particularly implausible for the mass society of the modern era.  Hitler rose to power through an electoral process, and maintained his power, even when he used it to commit unspeakable atrocities, with the support of the German people (see Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners).   Stalin triggered the slaughter of the Kulaks, and Mao inaugurated the Cultural Revolution though public statements, which their enthusiastic followers voluntarily into homicidal action.

There are many insights in The Better Angels of Our Nature, but the horrors of the 20th century, and the continued violence of the 21st, suggest that his basic explanation needs to be revised.  Pinker attributes the increasingly orderly nature of society, and the moral condemnation of violence, to intrinsic features of the human mind.  He sees the state, which he acknowledges as a major force in reducing violence, as a sort of logical outgrowth of individual efforts to find personal security, a curious return to pre-modern social contract theory.  It is this sort deterministic approach to his history, based on assumptions about rational behavior, which requires him to explain away obviously inconsistent data such as the 20th Century catastrophes.

Pinker relies heavily on Norbert Elias’s great book, The Civilizing Process, but Elias is both an historian and a Freudian, and offers a different sort of explanation.  He views the gradual decrease in violence as an historically contingent effect of Western society, which its denizens achieved by internalizing certain culturally-generated attitudes.  This strikes me as more convincing than Pinker’s variation on his theory.  My own view is that Elias is describing the emergence of a new morality, which not only discourages violence but also involves equality of opportunity, sexual self-fulfillment, and social welfare programs.  The ongoing interaction between this morality and the development of an effective, service-oriented administrative state, is responsible for the current level of orderliness in our society, and our increasing condemnation of violence.  There is, unfortunately, nothing inevitable about this process; it is a cultural achievement, and the extent to which it applies to non-Western nations (such as the Middle East) may be nothing more than the result of the influence that we wield in those nations.




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