Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pinker as Pangloss

Tired of grim tidings from around the world? Can't handle the thought of predator drones, Hellfire missiles, car bombs and loose nukes? Here's some good news: we're living in the golden age of peace and personal safety.

Stephen Pinker does not believe that we are living in the best of all possible worlds. But he does believe that we are living in a world that has become progressively less violent throughout history. He knows that this flies in the face of many stereotypes (but ... but ... but ... two world wars!), and so he came with charts. Please do read the transcript of Pinker's presentation, courtesy of It's fascinating stuff.

The data seem compelling, although we aren't nearly expert enough to evaluate them. Here are some tidbits:
  • "CSI Paleolithic": Prehistoric burial sites show rates of violent death averaging 15%, against 3% in the twentieth century and 0.3% in the twenty-first. (So far.)
  • Europe's homicide rate has plunged since 1300: "So a contemporary Englishman has about a 50-fold less chance of being murdered than his compatriot in the Middle Ages. (By the way, [the high point] of 100 per 100,000 per year comes from Oxford.)"
  • Fewer atrocities: Pinker looks at major events -- war, man-made famine, and so forth -- measured as a proportion of the world's population throughout history. He finds that "World War II just barely makes the top ten. There are many events more deadly than World War I. And events which killed from a tenth of one percent of the population of the world to ten percent were pretty much evenly sprinkled over 2500 years of history."
There's much more of this. In the present age, colonial wars are gone; wars between great powers are becoming rare; while civil wars are more numerous, they are growing less deadly. Slavery is illegal, wife-beating is on the decline. Arab Spring, anybody?

Why is the world so much less violent? Pinker proposes that there are four developments which incline people toward peace:
  1. The Hobbesian Leviathan: "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."
  2. "Gentle Commerce": "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 than dead. To be concrete: I doubt that the United States is going to declare war on China (though there's much that we don't like about that country), because they make all our stuff. And I doubt China will declare war on us, because we owe them too much money."
  3. The "Expanding Circle": (The term is borrowed from Peter Singer, the idea from Darwin.) "[E]volution 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. 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."
  4. The "Elevator 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."
Now, its all seems very nice, and fits well with our own elitist private-college blue-state worldview. But we do have some reservations.

First, this sounds suspiciously like those confident Victorian declarations that history is the record of endless progress from savagery to a state of universal civilization. These declarations were shot through with prejudices of race and class. They presumed that "civilization" was defined and evaluated by the standards of male Anglo-Americans of a post-Enlightenment Protestant tendency.

Pinker is neither Protestant nor particularly confident -- he sees no guarantee that the trend toward peace will continue -- but he (and his audience, to judge from the Q&A) clearly do have the prejudices of the modern academic class. Surely it can't be a coincidence that he attributes human progress to governments, travel, journalism, books and abstract thinking -- just the things that modern liberal academics value most.

Second, Pinker dances around the role of religion. This is easy to understand; it doesn't take an atheist to recognize that religious faith has served to create both peace and conflict. But where are the comparative data? It seems to us that one of the great contributions of the world's largest religions -- Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism -- has been to help "expand the circle," by uniting in one loose community people who had previously been divided by various forms of tribalism. Ultimately, this process has served to unite (more or less) billions of people at a time. How does this contribution measure up against the subsequent tendency of these united communities to make war on each other? We don't know, but we'd like to see some charts.

Third, Pinker seems to dismiss "moralism" while ... moralizing. His brief conclusion is a modest defense of modernity and the Enlightenment against their occasional detractors. He talks about moving from a "moralistic mindset to an empirical mindset" -- this is the hallmark of Enlightenment thinking, and we ourselves like it very much. But let's be honest about the internal contradiction when Pinker describes this move as asking "not just 'What have we been doing wrong?' but 'what have we been doing right?' " The question, like the presentation, itself presupposes at least a rudimentary moral framework, in which violence is bad and non-violence is good, and a society without violence is best of all. It is hard to disagree with this presupposition, and we certainly do not; but it is a moral position nonetheless. The truth of this becomes more clear when we notice that Pinker's measurements of non-violence include the growth of vegetarianism and the decline of harm to "sentient beings" such as chickens.

Still, reservations duly noted, the presentation is fascinating, and well worth some time.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Except for some forms of rape (i.e. in prison), the US has become a significantly less dangerous place since the early 80s, even in places like NYC which people used to hold up as examples of some sort of Apocalypse.