"Almost all of history is nothing but a series of horrors."
"Enjoy and give pleasure,
without doing harm to yourself or to anyone else -
that, I think, is the whole of morality."
Actually, I am neither very fit nor do I feel particularly optimistic
about much, but I am always interested in learning things, and there
are quite a few things that I do believe that I would like to be
One of the things I
would like to be mistaken about that I am quite certain I am not is
that the 20th century was by and large, and both in spite and because
very great advances in science and technology, a cruel and warring age
in which several hundreds of millions lost their lives unnecessarily,
often also in cruel and degrading ways.
Here is a
statistical table that I used in
the context of discussing problems of morality, that was compiled
by professor Rummel and was published in his Death by Government.
It lists only the numbers of civillians - that is: not
soldiers - killed by their governments in the 20th century:
|Josip Broz Tito
In fact, as I
explained in Professor Rummel's website
about democide and genocide, professor Rummel collected
many more of these statistics, and has a quite interesting and useful
site, though indeed not one that may incline you to happiness:
Power, Democide, and War
Also, since Death
by Government, professor Rummel did more research, and found
reasons to substantially increase some of the numbers in the above
table, notably the deaths caused by Mao Tse-tung.
Even so, professor
Rummel's message is that all is not lost, and indeed he himself is a
strong propounder of the thesis that democratic government is an
effective cure of death by government, and he has also evidence for
that thesis, of various kinds, for which I refer you to his website,
I have now arrived
at my title, which was caused by a reading of a fairly long but
interesting talk by professor Steven Pinker, who teaches psychology at
Harvard University, and who lectured on the following subject for the Edge organization:
History of Violence
I have written before about the Edge
organization, in 2006, under the last link, mostly in Dutch, and it
has a lot of material that is probably of interest to the more
intelligent and higher educated segment of the population.
But to Steven
Pinker and violence. As I said, the link A
History of Violence is the record of a fairly long (140 Kb
html) but interesting talk and some questions and answers at the end of
it, in which Pinker presents a lot of statistical evidence in charts to
the effect that presently, and indeed the last 60 years or so, "the
times they are a'changing" (as Bob Dylan sung):
The trajectory has
been, to be sure, bumpy, but in the first decade of the 21st century,
we are actually living in a time that even in comparison to recent
decades is comparatively peaceable. In fact, one could almost say that
the dream of the 1960s folk singers is coming true: the world is
putting an end to war.
If you are inclined
to disbelieve this, as you may very well be - and to a considerable
extent should be, rationally speaking, since the world news tends to be
far from disposing one to believe we live in a peaceful and pacifying
world - consult Pinker's
lecture, or read on to get some quotations with a few comments
I quote in the order
in which they appear in the text, and the whole lecture, including
quite a few statistical charts that I will not quote, has this epigraph:
What may be
the most important thing that has ever happened in human history is
that violence has gone down, by dramatic degrees, and in many
dimensions all over the world and in many spheres of behavior:
genocide, war, human sacrifice, torture, slavery, and the treatment of
racial minorities, women, children, and animals.
This justifies my
title - "And now for a stiff dosis of - statistical - optimism"
- and I should add immediately that Pinker justifies his epigraph in
his lecture, supposing that his figures and charts are mostly correct,
as I suppose they are.
I start quoting from
about half way in his lecture, after 18 charts have been shown, that
list the declines in violent deaths, homicides, judicial torture,
executions in the US, abolitions of the death penalty in Europe,
abolition of slavery (illegal everywhere - since 1980(!)), the 100
worst wars in the past 2500 years, the decline of wars and of deaths in
wars, and more:
have tried to track genocide over the centuries are unanimous that the
notion that the 20th was "a century of genocide" is a myth.
Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, their The History and Sociology of
Genocide, write on page one, "Genocide has been practiced in all
regions of the world and during all periods in history."
To give some examples: if Old Testament history were taken literally,
there were genocides on almost every page; the Amalakites, Amarites,
Canaanites, Hivites, Hitites, Jevasites, Midianites, Parazites and many
other. Also, genocides were committed by the Athenians in Melos; by the
Romans in Carthage; and during the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the
European wars of religion, and the colonization of the Americas, Africa
Quite so: Homo sapiens is a murderous
totalitarian ideological ape, often, but indeed also not
necessarily so - the species does also have a, sometimes, rational mind,
and powers of empathy and cooperation,
the latter not necessarily moved by kindness, but by calculation and
shared self-interest. (If you and I try to cooperate, chances are we
profit more than if you and I try to exterminate each other - and we
are each of us smart enough to be successful at both.)
As Pinker argued in
the first half of his lecture that I did not quote, there has been a
rather remarkable decline in human violence, over the centuries, which
raises a question:
So what are the
immediate causes of the Long Peace, and what I call the new peace (that
is, the Post-Cold War era)? They were anticipated by Immanuel Kant in
his remarkable essay, "Perpetual Peace" from 1795, in which he
suggested that democracy, trade and an international community were
pacifying forces. The hypothesis has been taken up again by a pair of
political scientists, Bruce Russett and John Oneal, who have shown that
all three forces increased in the second half of the 20th century. In a
set of regression analyses, they showed that all of them are
statistical predictors of peace, holding everything else constant.
So now more countries in the world discriminate in favor of
disadvantaged minorities than discriminate against them.
The key question
now is: Why has violence declined over so many different scales of time
and magnitude? One possibility is that human nature has changed, and
that people have lost their inclinations towards violence. I consider
this to be unlikely. For one thing, people continue to take enormous
pleasure, and allocate a lot of their disposable income, to consuming
simulated violence, such as in murder mysteries, Greek tragedy,
Shakespearean dramas, Mel Gibson movies, video games and hockey.
Indeed, it may be
remarked that dramas, movies, video games and sports are ways to enjoy
vicarious violence, which very well may decline the urge to commit real
A more likely
possibility is that human nature comprises inclinations toward violence
and inclinations that counteract them—what Abraham
Lincoln called the "better angels of our nature." Historical
circumstances have increasingly favored these peaceable inclinations.
What are the parts
of human nature that militate toward violence? I count five, depending
on how you lump or split them.
There's raw exploitation, that is, seeking something that you
want where a living thing happens to be in the way; examples include
rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals. There’s nothing
particularly fancy in the psychology of this kind of violence other
than a zeroing out of whatever inclinations would inhibit us from that
kind of exploitation.
There's the drive
toward dominance, both the competition among individuals to
be alpha male, and the competition among groups for ethnic, racial,
national or religious supremacy or pre-eminence.
There's the thirst
for revenge, the kind of moralistic violence that inspires
vendettas, rough justice, and cruel punishments.
And then there's
ideology which might be the biggest contributor of all (such as in
militant religions, nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism),
leading to large-scale violence via a pernicious cost- benefit
analysis. What these ideologies have in common is that they posit a
utopia that is infinitely good for infinitely long. You do the math: if
the ends are infinitely good, then the means can be arbitrarily violent
and you're still on the positive side of the moral ledger. Also, what
do you do with people who learn about an infinitely perfect world
nonetheless oppose it? Well, they are arbitrarily evil, and deserve
arbitrarily severe punishment.
I count four (not
"five"), but in any case, these four are awful enough in their
consequences, and indeed the last paragraph gives a good summary of a totalitarian
type of reasoning that is fit to justify any atrocity.
What of optimism?
Now let's turn to
the brighter side, our so-called better angels.
They include the
self-control: the ability to anticipate the consequences of
behavior, and inhibit violent impulses. There’s the faculty of
empathy (more technically, sympathy),
the ability to feel others' pain. There’s the moral sense,
which comprise a variety of intuitions including tribalism, authority,
purity, and fairness. The moral sense actually goes
in both directions: it can push people to be more violent or less
violent, depending on how it is deployed. And then there is reason, the
cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached
Now we face the
crucial question: Which historical developments bring out our better
angels? I'm going to suggest there are four.
The links are to
terms in my
Philosophical Dictionary. To continue with Pinker's answers:
The first implies
that Hobbes got it right: a Leviathan, namely a state and justice
system with a monopoly on legitimate use of violence, can reduce
aggregate violence by eliminating the incentives for exploitative
attack; by reducing the need for deterrence and vengeance (because
Leviathan is going to deter your enemies so you don't have to), and by
circumventing self-serving biases. One of the major discoveries of
social and evolutionary psychology in the past several decades is that
people tend to exaggerate their adversary's malevolence and exaggerate
their own innocence.
Indeed - though it
seems to me to have less to do with Hobbes than with the sort of
society based on civil laws and indeed a state and police to maintain
them, rather than on Hobbes' authoritarian government to prevent civil
pacifying force is identified by the theory of "Gentle Commerce."
Plunder is a zero-sum or even a negative sum game: the victors' gain is
the loser's loss. Trade, in contrast, is a positive-sum game. (We will
hear more from both Leda and Martin that reciprocal altruism, such as
gains in trade, can result in both sides being better off after an
interaction.) Over the course of history, improvements in technology
have allowed goods and ideas to be traded over longer distances, among
larger groups of people, and at lower cost, all of which change the
incentive structure so that other people become more valuable alive
Actually, from my
point of view, this is not so much about blessings of business or
trade, nor about reciprocal altruism, though both enter as well, as on
the clear mutual benefits of free cooperation
- and indeed also, as Pinker says, to there being more and more to
cooperate for, and to exchange with one another, namely as fruits of
human technology and science.
A third pacifying
force is what Peter Singer called the "Expanding Circle," although
Charles Darwin in first stated the idea in The Descent of Man.
According to this theory, evolution bequeathed us with a sense of
empathy. That's the good news; the bad news is that by default, we
apply it only to a narrow circle of allies and family. But over
history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding: from the village
to the clan to the tribe to the nation to more recently to other races,
both sexes, children, and even other species.
Again, from my point
of view it looks similar but a bit different: Indeed empathy plays a
role, and indeed both empathy and morality tend to be limited in ordinary men
to their own
groups - for which reason it seems to me more likely that the
modern ideas of a rule of law, first clearly stated by Montesquieu and in
Papers, as indeed the authors of the papers themselves clearly saw
and said (and I quote here not from Pinker but from the Wikipedia):
It has been
frequently remarked, that it seems to have been reserved to the people
of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important
question, whether societies of men are really capable or not, of
establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether
they are forever destined to depend, for their political constitutions,
on accident and force.
Pinker himself is
somewhat doubtful about the expanding circle of empathy, and remarks
This just begs the
question of what expanded the circle. I think one can argue that the
forces of cosmopolitanism pushed it outward: exposure to history,
literature, media, journalism, and travel encourages people to adopt
the perspective of a real or fictitious other person. Experiments by
Daniel Batson and others have shown that reading a person’s words
indeed leads to an increase in empathy, not just for that person, but
also for the category that the person represents.
evidence includes the timing of the Humanitarian Revolution of the 18th
century, which was preceded by the Republic of Letters, the great
increase in written discourse. Similarly, the Long Peace and Rights
Revolutions in the second half of the 20th century were simultaneous
with the "electronic global village."
Again, I don't say
"no", for clearly more reading, more education, and more knowledge of
how other people live will help, but it seems to me that the ideas of
the rule of law and the separation of church and state, and the ideas
of division of powers and of mutual checks and balances, are more
important for peaceful societies than a rise in empathy and benevolence.
Pinker sees it a bit differently, and has as his fourth angelic force:
I think the final
and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an "escalator of
reason." As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse
increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more
universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a
reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their
parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own
interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality
based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on
fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the
futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be
solved rather than as a contest to be won.
I for my part tend
to go with my earlier more institutional and legalistic explanation,
that I prefer as explanations over increases in average benevolence or
enlightenment, mostly because institutional frameworks are more
important for what people do and don't do than their own inclinations.
In any case, I have
given you a part of Pinker's reasons for qualified optimism concerning
the present state of the world. He concludes his talk with this
I argue that
despite impressions, the long-term trend, though certainly halting and
incomplete, is that violence of all kinds is decreasing. This calls for
a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and for a
sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and
enlightenment that have made it possible.
I do not know
whether he is right, and I tend to doubt waffle about "modernity and
progress", but Pinker's arguments and statistics are quite interesting,
and may provide some hope to some: Even if the human world by and large
is a mess, it is - statistically - less of a mess and is on average
more civilized, and indeed also with more real knowledge and more
scientific understanding and technological power and artefacts, than it
was ever before.
Also, by and large
these are the products of The
Enlightenment and of science, and - alas - the work of an enlighted
minority of the most gifted, rather than of the majority who indeed
also do most of the work to keep all fed and clothed.