Saturday, October 15, 2011

Steven Pinker and The Evolutionary Decline of Violence

I am reading Steven Pinker's new book--The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined.  This will be the first of a series of posts on questions raised by the book.

The cover of this book has a beautiful reproduction of Rembrandt's painting of "The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God," which is based on the famous story of Abraham's faith being tested by God's command to sacrifice his son to God (Genesis 22:10-12).  This is a vivid way to capture the argument of the book.  Isaac is bound on top of a stack of wood.  One of Abraham's hands forcefully holds down Isaac's head.  The other hand has held a knife and is thrusting towards Isaac's chest.  But the angel has grabbed his wrist so that the knife falls from his hand.  (Oddly, the book jacket reproduction is actually a mirror image of the original painting, so that Abraham is stabbing with his left hand rather than his right hand.)

The painting is a compelling depiction of the disturbing questions raised by the story.  Abraham is vigorously executing God's command to murder Isaac, which shows his faith.  But the angel's intervention suggests that God knows that this is wrong.  And yet, we wonder, if God knows it's wrong, why did he command it?  Are we being taught that there is no natural standard of right and wrong, because whatever God commands is right?  Should we infer from this that, as Kierkegaard argued, this story shows that total faith requires a "suspension of the ethical"?

From Pinker's perspective, what this really shows is the tension between the "better angels of our nature"--as Abraham Lincoln called them--that favor peaceful cooperation and the "inner demons" that move us to violent conflict.  The tension is not within God's will, but within human nature.  Unfortunately, Pinker suggests, the belief that one is executing God's will can release the inner demons of human nature and suppress the better angels.   

We can see this in Thomas Aquinas's writings.  Thomas justifies Abraham's binding of Isaac by arguing that it cannot be wrong for God to command us to kill an innocent person, because God's command can never be wrong (ST, I-II, q. 100, a. 8, ad 3; II-II, q. 64, a. 6, ad 3; q. 104, a. 4, ad 2).  And yet Thomas indicates the contradiction here between natural reason and supernatural revelation when he observes: "Abraham did not sin in being willing to slay his innocent son, because he obeyed God, although considered in itself it was contrary to right human reason" (ST, II-II, q. 154, a. 2, ad 2). 

Similarly, Thomas justifies the violence of the Inquisition by insisting that any Christian who disagrees with even one article of faith as set down by the authority of the Catholic Church, residing primarily in the Pope, can be rightly "exterminated from the world by death" (ST, II-II, q. 5, a. 3; q. 11, aa. 1-2). 

The peak of Christian sadism comes when Thomas teaches that part of the blessedness of Heaven will be that the saved will be able to look down into Hell and rejoice at the eternal torment of the damned (ST, suppl., q. 94, aa. 1-3).

And yet, Thomas shows another side of his teaching when he argues that it does not belong to human law to punish all vices.  "Human law is established for the collectivity of human beings, most of whom have imperfect virtue.  And so human law does not prohibit every kind of vice, from which the virtuous abstain.  Rather, human law prohibits only the more serious kinds of vice, from which most persons can abstain, and especially those vices that inflict harm on others, without the prohibition of which human society could not be preserved.  For example, human laws prohibit murders, thefts, and the like" (ST, I-II, q. 96, a. 3).  Here Thomas points to the central principle of liberal jurisprudence--that the primary aim of law is not to force people to be perfectly virtuous but to prohibit any conduct that inflicts harm on others, and particularly violent harm.

Pinker's book is about the history of the great transformation in human life by which we have moved from the violent conflict of Thomas's medieval world to the peaceful cooperation of the modern world.  Pinker's history is a story of six trends, five inner demons, four better angels, and five historical forces.

The first trend in the decline of violence was the Pacification Process, by which agricultural civilizations used governmental institutions and formal laws to reduce the violence of raiding and feuding endemic to the state of nature of foraging and horticultural societies.

The second trend was the Civilizing Process, by which centralized authority and commercial society in early modern Europe reduced the violence and brutality characteristic of the Middle Ages.

The third trend was the Humanitarian Revolution, beginning in the 17th and 18th centuries, by which the European Enlightenment reduced socially sanctioned forms of violence such as slavery and torture.

The fourth trend was the Long Peace, after World War II, the longest period in history in which the great powers have not fought wars with one another.

The fifth trend is the New Peace, since the end of the Cold War in 1989, in which all kinds of organized conflicts have declined.

Finally, the sixth trend, beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, is the Rights Revolution, by which human beings have shown increasing disgust towards violence directed at persecuted groups, such as ethnic minorities, women, children, and homosexuals.

Much of Pinker's argumentation for these six trends depends on marshaling the quantitative data showing the decline in violence.  The absolute level of deaths by homicide in the modern world--as, for example, in the two world wars--can be very high, and that makes us think that the modern world is much more violent than the premodern world.  But Pinker shows that when we look at the level of homicidal violence in proportion to the human population, we can see that the per capita rate of homicide has dropped dramatically across human history.

To understand the causes of violence, we must understand the "five inner demons" of human nature.

To understand the psychology of violence, Pinker argues, we must understand the complex interaction between many environmental, social, and neurobiological factors.

The first inner demon is instrumental violence, or violence employed as a practical means to any end.

The second inner demon is dominance, or violence employed to gain power or glory in contests over prestige.

The third inner demon is revenge, or violence employed by a moralistic desire for retributive punishment.

The fourth inner demon is sadism, or violence employed because of one's pleasure in the suffering of others.

The fifth inner demon is ideology, or violence employed as a means to achieve some utopian vision of human perfection grounded in a shared utopian belief system.

These five inner demons are countered by four better angels.

The first better angel is empathy, or a sympathetic concern for the pains and pleasures of others.

The second better angel is self-control, or the habituated ability to inhibit our impulses based on our anticipation of the bad consequences of impulsive behavior.

The third better angel is the moral sense, or the social norms governing conduct that can sometimes reduce violence, but which can also increase violence towards those outside of one's group.

The fourth better angel is reason, or the capacity of deliberate judgment by which we see ourselves as others see us, by which we expand our moral concern to ever wider circles of humanity, and by which we can plan how to use the other better angels of our nature to improve our social life.

The success of these better angels in promoting peaceful cooperation and reducing violent conflict depends on five historical forces.

The first historical force is the Leviathan, or the legal and governmental institutions that mediate conflict in ways that reduce the disorder that comes from the selfish impulses that incline us to exploitation and vengeance.

The second historical force is commerce, or the exchange of goods and ideas over ever longer distances and ever larger groups of people, so that we see people as valuable trading partners, and consequently we are less inclined to attack them.

The third historical force is feminization, or the process by which the increasing status and influence of women has promoted feminine caregiving as a check on male violence.

The fourth historical force is cosmopolitanism, or the globalization of human culture by which an increasing number of people expand their circle of sympathetic concern.

The fifth historical force is the escalator of reason, or the growing application of human rationality to recognizing how violence becomes self-defeating and how peaceful cooperation with an ever expanding circle of trading partners becomes beneficial for all.

There is much here that deserves comment.  But my first thought is that Pinker's book confirms and deepens much of what I have written about deep history, coevolutionary history, and Darwinian liberalism.

When Thomas Huxley in 1860 proclaimed that Darwin's Origin of Species would become a powerful weapon for liberalism, he anticipated how evolutionary science would eventually explain the emergence of modern liberal social thought as the culmination of the deep evolutionary history of humanity.  Pinker's book can now be added to a collection of recent books--including Douglass North, John J. Wallis, and Barry Weingast, Violence and Social Orders (2009), and Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist (2010)--that survey the recent research on human evolution as a history of liberalism.

Every human society throughout history has faced the problem of violence.  No society can solve this problem by eliminating violence completely, because the tendency to violence is too deeply rooted in human nature and the human condition.  But violence can be contained and managed, and the different kinds of social order can be distinguished by how they do that and by how well they do it.  The modern liberal society can be recognized as the best society because it contains and manages violence more successfully than any other social order.

North, Wallis, and Weingast distinguish three broad kinds of social order: the foraging order of hunter-gatherers, the agrarian order of states based on agricultural production, and the open access societies that have arisen only in the last few centuries.  In the foraging order, social norms are enforced by vengeance and vigilante justice, so that violence is checked by retaliation.  But in the absence of impartial judges and formal law, foraging societies tend to fall into a violent state of nature caught in cycles of feuding and raiding. 

Hobbes and Locke saw the need for pacifying this conflict through formal laws and government that came with the establishment of agricultural communities and the invention of writing.  But Locke also saw the tendency to despotic violence in agrarian states and thus the need for limited government and the protection of liberty.

The open access order of liberal capitalist republics constrains and manages conflict through free competition and cooperation.  An open polity provides free access to political organizations.  An open economy provides free access to economic organizations.  And an open society provides free access to ideas and culture.

As liberal capitalist republicanism has spread around the world and as the liberal regimes are bound together in global networks of open political, economic, and cultural exchange, violence has been reduced to the lowest levels of human history.

The liberal success in constraining and managing violence promotes the political good of liberty, the economic good of prosperity, and the cultural goods of moral and intellectual excellence.

Some posts on related themes can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.


Empedocles said...

I think what he is really missing is technology and the growth of energy consumption. I would bet that if we had to go back to using wood and animal power for everything the violence would be right back and that his historical forces are all the results of this increased ability to extract energy from the environment.

Larry Arnhart said...

I agree, as indicated in my blog post a few years ago on David Christian's "big history."

Rob S said...

So Steven Pinker, a Harvard Professor and expert in Psychology, writes an extraordinary well-researched 700 page book documenting all the myriad reasons why violence has declined, citing hundreds of credible sources from history, economics, psychology, paleontology, and anthropology. He is well-reviewed in virtually every major venue by experts of all ilk.

And Empedocles comes along and says, in two vague sentences, that Pinker is wrong, and it all comes down to energy extraction.

Wow. I'm sold.

Empedocles said...

I'm just saying that if he left out the way that increased energy production allows for economic growth which removes many causes for competition over resources, he has left out a big, and in my view the most important, part of the story. And its not like I just pulled the two sentences out of thin air, there's lots of work on the way economic growth leads to win-win, non-zero sum game, scenarios, and the way that increased energy extraction is required for economic growth. You surely aren't dismissing that work with your two sentences, are you?

Rob S said...

Obviously he talks at length about economic growth. Clearly you haven't read the book.

Empedocles said...

Guilty as charged. I was commenting on Dr. Arnhart's post. And I did say "if he left out the way that increased energy production allows for economic growth..." There is a definite "if" in there, you'll notice.

Rob S said...

You weren't commenting on Dr. Arnhart's post. Your first post continually uses "his" in reference to Pinker.

It's a matter of etiquette and intellectual honesty to wait to comment on a work until you've read it. Notice how Dr. Arnhart himself didn't comment, but rather summarized what he had read so far. You might learn a lesson there.

Empedocles said...

Well this is Dr. Arhhart's blog so I'll let him decide:

Dr. Arnhart,
You often post summaries and commentaries on various articles and books. Many of us look forwards to your discussion of work that we either do not have access to or have not read (or by the time we've read it the post is long gone) and we enjoy discussing and commenting on these posts. Is it the policy of your blog that we should not post a comment until we have read the primary sources? For instance, I commented on your Aquinas posts without having read the entire Summa Theologica. Should I have not? Or if I have read some works, on, say, energy extraction and economic growth, am I permitted to offer that information if I feel it might add to the current discussion?

There is another principle of etiquette and intellectual honesty: do not go beyond the text and attribute beliefs, motives, and positions missing from the author's writing, and generally give the benefit of the doubt to others. And don't be dismissive and snarky.
"Although Dr. Arnhart's post does not address this, you might be interested to know that Pinker does address the issue of energy production and economic growth."
"Empedocles comes along and says, in two vague sentences, that Pinker is wrong, and it all comes down to energy extraction.
Wow. I'm sold."

Rob D said...

I reserve the right to be critical ( what you call snarky) if you are going to attack works without having read them. I know from being a student of Dr. Arnhart's that he would prefer commentators to have read a text before commenting extensively. I think perhaps you should read Pinker's book before criticizing it.