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That question poses a special challenge to an author who has consistently argued against the view that humans are blank slates on which culture and education draws our character, good or evil. There has hardly been time for the changes to have a basis in genetic evolution. Pinker considers this possibility, and dismisses it.

Violence and Human Progress

That way of putting it assumes a simplistic nature-nurture dichotomy. Our material circumstances, along with cultural inputs, determine whether the demons or the angels have the upper hand. Other large-scale trends have paralleled the decline in violence and cruelty, but it is not easy to sort out cause and effect here.

Are factors like better government, greater prosperity, health, education, trade and improvements in the status of women the cause or the effect of the decline in violence and cruelty? If we can find out, we may be able to preserve and extend the peaceful and better world in which we live. So in two chapters on human psychology, Pinker does his best to discover what has restrained our inner demons and unleashed our better angels, and then in a final chapter, draws his conclusions.

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Those conclusions are not always what one might expect. Yes, as already noted, the state monopoly on force is important, and the spread of commerce creates incentives for cooperation and against violent conflict. The empowerment of women does, Pinker argues, exercise a pacifying influence, and the world would be more peaceful if women were in charge. Pinker quotes this passage, and then goes on to develop the argument much more thoroughly than I ever did.

View all New York Times newsletters. The average I. If the average teenager today could go back in time and take an I. Nor is it easy to attribute this rise to improved education, because the aspects of the tests on which scores have risen most do not require a good vocabulary or even mathematical ability, but instead test powers of abstract reasoning.

One theory is that we have gotten better at I. Flynn himself thinks that the spread of the scientific mode of reasoning has played a role. Pinker argues that enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence. It is just this kind of reasoning ability that has improved during the 20th century.

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Reason also, Pinker suggests, moves us away from forms of morality more likely to lead to violence, and toward moral advances that, while not eschewing the use of force altogether, restrict it to the uses necessary to improve social welfare, like utilitarian reforms of the savage punishments given to criminals in earlier times.

For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them. It is this kind of moral thinking, Pinker points out, that helps us escape traps like the Cuban missile crisis, which, if the fate of the world had been in the hands of leaders under the sway of a different kind of morality — one dominated by ideas of honor and the importance of not backing down — might have been the end of the human story.

Fortunately Kennedy and Khrushchev understood the trap they were in and did what was necessary to avoid disaster. To have command of so much research, spread across so many different fields, is a masterly achievement. Pinker convincingly demonstrates that there has been a dramatic decline in violence, and he is persuasive about the causes of that decline. But what of the future? Pinker is an optimist, but he knows that there is no guarantee that the trends he has documented will continue. If he had been able to see, before his book went to press, a study published in Nature as recently as August of this year, he might have been less sanguine about maintaining peace despite widespread climate change.

If that finding is correct, then a warming world could mean the end of the relatively peaceful era in which we are now living. Tell us what you think. Please upgrade your browser. See next articles. Newsletter Sign Up Continue reading the main story Please verify you're not a robot by clicking the box. Invalid email address. Please re-enter. You must select a newsletter to subscribe to. Sign Up. Pinker never seems to acknowledge that the decrease in violence and the development of modern forms of exploitation are related.

There are many ways in which modernity has improved material life. For instance, the Special Economic Zones that exist in China, India, and throughout many countries of what used to be called the Third World, employ hundreds of millions of workers in unpleasant conditions and at dismal levels of pay. The existence of such zones should make us worry about whether the material goods we enjoy are worth the cost. Pinker does not allow himself any such worries and this makes me suspicious that he is overly invested in the claim that we have achieved moral progress.

I suppose you can call this progress. But why would you want to? Why not simply call it what it is: deeply ambiguous, morally treacherous, real-world messiness. I brought up the existence of love in order to make this same point from a different angle. You are right to clarify that Pinker does not accept the schoolboy version of Utilitarianism.

Still, I think he does accept a more nuanced version of the doctrine and he does so because of his strong commitments to the same brand of Enlightenment rationalism that he thinks is responsible for the last two centuries of human progress. Factual claims about a decrease in violence are one thing. Value-laden claims about overall human progress are quite another.

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In sum, there are mysteries at the core of the human heart. That is why I speak about love. Those who are reluctant to acknowledge progress in human affairs, whether in the comforts available to us, or in our health and well-being, and especially in our morals, tend to have one or both of the following types of worries: first, there are those usually in rich countries who are terribly concerned about the meaninglessness and alienation of modern life, the loss of solidarity and community within small groups of people that follows giving up tribal existence for the lonely anonymity of urban life.

The resulting existential angst betrays an amnesia about the harsh realities of the past alongside a naive nostalgia. Those of us who grew up in the third world and are only a generation removed from grinding poverty, disease, malnutrition, and backbreaking labor even for children, can perhaps be excused for being less than fully impressed by such effete concerns. My two oldest siblings died in infancy in British India of diseases that were not able to kill me when I was born in Pakistan a couple of decades later, thanks to the availability of much better medical care by that time.

I can hardly be faulted for being somewhat grateful for this and for my lack of preteristic longing. In other words, the very developments that have resulted in what we see as progress no longer burning witches at the stake, a worldwide ban on the institution of slavery, not treating women as chattel but as equals have come through changes in society in our methods of governance, in the rules of untrammeled trade, in technological and scientific advances that have unleashed a whole different set of horrors upon humanity.

This brings us to the essence of our disagreement: unlike you, I do not consider the iniquities of modernity such as the morally repulsive differences in wealth between countries as well as the increasingly shocking and disturbing inequalities within many of them, especially the United States to be necessary byproducts of the kinds of changes that have resulted in the decline of violence. Pinker would surely agree that we need to address these challenges and better regulate some of the forces like trade that have benefited us.

As Pinker says:. Progress is not the zero-sum game you make it out to be. Or maybe you and others find it imprudent to admit, much less celebrate, any hard-won progress lest we become apathetic in the face of much-needed further progress. Your worship at the altar of mystery just appears to be an emotional grudge against science. Nevertheless, you probably have me beat when it comes to street credibility. Pinker certainly seems to think it is a meaningful choice. I find myself responding to your last letter in the same way. The alienation and meaningless of modern life in developed countries is a real worry.

It is true both that modernity contains terrors and that what it replaced was terrible. The fact that these two truths do not resolve nicely into a clear-cut position on modernity strikes me as a consequence of the way the world actually is, not as a failure on our part to come up with the right judgment about whether we are better or worse off. What a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy! Judge of all things, feeble earthworm, repository of truth, sewer of uncertainty and error, the glory and the scum of the universe. I was pleased to see those lines when I began to read.

I suspect, though, that Pinker has not read Pascal very carefully, has not even meditated seriously on the quote that he makes the epigraph of his book. If he had, he surely would have noticed that Pascal, blessed only with the powers of his own observation and none of the tools of contemporary neuroscience, was able to tell us deep truths about the ambiguity of human existence. Humble yourself, powerless reason! It is becoming increasingly clear to me that what you have been expressing throughout our correspondence is an antipathy to the shedding of scientific light on sacred subjects that you wish to keep occulted in a warm steam of sentimental confusion.

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You continually celebrate mystery and denigrate modern psychological understanding of human behavior by saying things like this:. In the end your worship at the altar of mystery just appears to be an emotional grudge against science. That you refuse to be moved by, or even find engaging, such elegant and ingenious empirical studies as well as the more abstract game-theoretic models that Pinker presents, which go a long way in plausibly explaining the decline in violence that he documents in the first six chapters, is frankly quite surprising to me.

It is, however, no surprise at all that I have enjoyed this exchange with you immensely. Thank you. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry.

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The better angels of our nature : why violence has declined (Book, ) []

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Steven Pinker’s War and Peace, Abridged

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