Steve Pinker on The Decline of Violence

Steve Pinker’s book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature – Why Violence Has Declined” is a striking refutation of the commonly held belief that violence has increased. Not so, he says, and he marshals a huge amount of data to bolster the case, which in fact is not original with him, but documented in many scholarly books and articles over a long period. What this means is that, despite the large numbers of violent deaths we have seen in the mid-20th century, the probability of a violent death, for modern people, is much less than that for people in, say, medieval Europe. What reasons account for this? In a closing chapter he cites several broad themes:

1) The rise of the Leviathan, the nation-state, which took over the right to use violence against citizens, reduced the rate of violence.

2) Commerce developed between nations, which reduced the incentives for war and increased the reasons for peace.

3) Feminization, the progressive transition of women from a position of chattel toward equality of status with men, increased the sway of peaceable virtues and practices.

4) We feel a sense of identity with an ever-expanding circle of people. Moving beyond family to clan, from clan to community, from there to country and nation, and thence to humanity as a whole, people have developed an increasing habit of recognizing the humanity of others. A good deal of this is attributable to the invention of printing and the increased availability of books, importantly novels.This has been a long time in coming.

5) Beginning in the Renaissance and continuing through today, the reduction in superstition and the enhancement of rational arguments led to a greater appreciation of the benefits of peaceful resolution of conflicts.

While Pinker declines to make predictions, one can take some comfort from the analysis. Contrary to our intuition, violence has gone down. It seems possible that we might be able to keep it down.

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