War appears to be old as mankind, but peace is a modern invention.
The Most Peaceful Era in History
The New York Times review of Steven Pinker’s most recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature praises Pinker for addressing some of the biggest questions we can ask: Are human beings essentially good or bad? Has the past century witnessed moral progress or a moral collapse? Do we have grounds for being optimistic about the future? The Better Angels of Our Nature also addresses the biggest question of all – the origin of evil.
In the book, Pinker documents how many forms of violence have declined over long stretches of time, leading him to conclude that today we may be living in the most peaceable era in human existence. As evidence for this remarkable assertion, Pinker cites the fact that in pre-civilisation societies 15 percent of the population on average died violent deaths. By comparison, the death rate from war, genocide, and other violent man-made disasters in the twentieth century was around 3 percent. Even with the catastrophic wars and genocides of the twentieth century, it seems, modern civilisation has brought with it a five-fold reduction in violence.
Demons and Angels
Pinker’s premise is that changing circumstances, rather than changes in human nature, are responsible for this remarkable decline in violence. Human nature, Pinker explains, is a mix of both inner demons and better angels – motives that impel us to violence, like predation, dominance, and vengeance, alongside motives that, under the right circumstances, impel us toward peace, like compassion, fairness, self-control and reason. Changes in the prevalence of violence are the result of changes in social, cultural and material conditions that engage this fixed human nature in different ways. If the conditions which favour our better angels persist, violence will remain low or decline further. If conditions revert to those of previous times, our inner demons will win out and violence will increase once again.
Our inner demons include the temptation to use violence to get our way, our desire for dominance, and our lust for revenge. For most of us, however, the temptation to use violence to get our way is inhibited by emotional and cognitive constraints. Similarly, while competition for status is real, circumstances that deflate the desire for dominance and limit its rewards are likely to kerb our destructive behaviour. And with regard to revenge, the existence of an authority with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force can act as the avenger, and reduce the likelihood of a spiral of tit-for-tat killings.
Democracy as Protection from Evil
Indeed, of all the changes that help to explain the decline of violence, Pinker identifies the emergence of government with a monopoly on the use of force as perhaps the most consistent violence reducer of all. The invention of government however solved one problem – reducing violence between citizens – and created another. For most of history, civilisation meant tyranny.
This situation only began to change with the American Revolution. As Pinker explains, the framers of the U.S. Constitution were obsessed with the problem of how a government composed of fallible human beings could wield enough power to prevent citizens from preying on each other, without giving that government so much power that it could become a predator itself. The idea of representative democracy they invented has proven to be one of the most effective means of reducing violence since the advent of the state itself.
Pinker’s analysis – which also includes the rise of mass education, the increased use of reason in human affairs, human rights law, and economic development – captures the major forces that have helped tilt the balance away from our inner demons and towards a less violent and more humane world. His analysis however omits one crucial explanatory factor – the fact that humanity is composed of a majority whose psychology is a mix of inner demons and better angels, and a small but active minority whose psychology is such that their better angels never win out.
The Missing Link – The Role of Pathology
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker writes convincingly that human nature, as evolution left it, is not bereft of malice. Motives like greed, fear, and dominance keep drawing us toward aggression. But human nature also contains motives such as sympathy and self-control that can steer us away from violence.
For the majority this is true. For people with dangerous personality disorders, however, it is not true. For psychopaths the psychological constraints on instrumental violence are absent; for pathological narcissists, dominance is an all encompassing compulsion; for the minority with paranoid personality disorder, a world without conflict is psychologically inconceivable. Pinker acknowledges the existence of psychopathy and pathological narcissism, but does not go on to incorporate this reality into his analysis.
The New York Times review of The Better Angels of Our Nature concluded that is a supremely important book. It is. In it Pinker lays the groundwork for a definitive explanation of evil. If he were now to write a follow up that incorporates the fact that psychologically we are not all the same, and explores how a pathological minority can so readily encourage the majority to act from our inner demons, that would be a more important book still.