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Book review: The better angels of our nature

Sunday, February 18th, 2018 at 18:26

Book review: The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined.

Author: Steven Pinker

Price: €17,99 (Bol.com)

Violence is at an all-time low in the beginning of the 21st century. This paradoxical claim forms the basis of Steven Pinker’s The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. In this lengthy book, he cites a multitude of evidence that shows that the rate at which violence occurs in the world has gone down. The countless atrocities, wars and genocides notwithstanding the 20th century might be the most peaceful time to be alive, especially the latter half of the century. The chance of dying or suffering from any form of violence is currently incredibly low. After millennia of interspecies violence mankind’s better angels may finally be getting the upper hand over our inner demons, which propel us to use violence.

A global decline in violence it not intuitive, especially since news coverage today elicits the belief that violence is omnipresent in today’s society. Coverage of war, atrocities, genocide, racism, murder and assault suggests that humanity cannot overcome its violent dark side. Pinker counters this by stating that we may be prone to an availability bias, which leads us to vastly overestimate the occurrence of violence based on the ease with which we can think of individual episodes of violence. Such episodes are often covered on the news and media which sometimes seem to operate under the principle: “If it bleeds, it leads”. Finally, the mere fact that we bestow a lot of coverage on subjects such as war, murder and domestic violence suggests that these things are not omnipresent in society anymore and are currently abhorred by everyone.

Pinker attributes the decline in violence to several reasons and processes. The first is the creation of states in which the government acts as a Leviathan by imposing and observing rules amongst the citizens. Thus, through applying penalties, the government takes away the incentives for predatory violence by ensuring that the potential payoffs for an act of violence are negative. For Pinker, this does not mean that states should be ruled by an authoritarian Leviathan. He believes that in order for a Leviathan to properly civilise a society its laws and use of violence must be legitimate “so that people do not fall back on their worst impulses as soon as the Leviathan’s back is turned”.

Secondly, the middle ages saw the rise of trade among humans which can also be regarded as a pacifying force. Trade is a positive-sum game, in which cooperation leads to results that are unequivocally better than not cooperating. For the first time in history, the trade-off between taking a fixed amount of loot by force now and establishing a trading relationship for the longer term shifted in the favour of trade. Trading meant that other humans were now “more valuable to you alive than dead”.

Thirdly, Pinker points to the effects of the enlightenment and its effects on the reduction of violence. During this time, literacy rates boomed and books became more widely available. Moreover, fiction was written that allowed readers to take the perspective of others and widen their circles of empathy. This contributes to the humanization of people other than one’s own and such humanization lessens the ease with which one resorts to violence against these other people.

Pinker continues by showing the large decreases of interstate war after the Second World War and counters the view that the Second World War was one of the first wars on a slippery slope towards ever more destructive wars. He uses statistical analysis to show that historical wars and other deathly quarrels (such as murders and pogroms) follow the statistical trend of a “power law distribution”. This means that when a deathly quarrel claims more deaths its chances of happening decrease. Thus, we would expect to see a multitude of extremely small scale deathly quarrels (such as murders) relatively often while the chance of a large-scale war occurring is astronomically small. Currently, the chance of war on a smaller scale seems to be declining as well. After the Second World War humanity has known a period of relative peace between nations. Wars are still occurring but far less wars are occurring than before the Second World War. Entire regions of the world, such a Western Europe (historically one of the most war plagued regions in the world), have seen no warfare since 1945.

Finally, Pinker identifies the Right’s revolution in which humanity has become more inclusive towards those who were previously severely oppressed within society. In the latter part of the 20th century the oppression and violence against women, minorities, homosexuals, children and animals has declined dramatically. Many forms of violence such as legal domestic rape by the husband, racial pogroms and the spanking of children as a disciplinary measure are now completely taboo within our current day society. We abhor such uses of violence, while they were widely practiced only a few generations ago. The fact that the occurrence of such practices (for instance police shootings or the #MeToo scandal) sparks extreme outrage today bespeaks of the incredible progress that has been made in the past decades. There is still much to be achieved but we seem to be going in the right direction.

In the last chapters of the book, Pinker tries to explain the declines in virtually every form of violence. He identifies five inner demons, that propel us to use violence, and four better angels, that steer us away from the use of violence. Our inner demons are our need for predation, dominance, revenge, and sadism and the fact that we are prone to follow ideologies, which condone the use of extreme violence in order to establish a utopian society. Our better angels are self-control, empathy, morality and reason. According to Pinker all of these better angels are increasingly present in our current-day society and steer us away from using violence. It ensures that today is the best time in history to live exposed to the violence which can be used against you.

Cover image: Bol.com