Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Reading Materials: The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined


The latest book I've finished had violence as its central focus.  Not the recitation of it, but the explanation as to why Violence has declined over the last three hundred years.  Steven Pinker presents the case for this, then attempts to come up with a theory or two to explain the why violence has fallen.

Its a rather optimistic revelation to learn that humans have consistently gotten less violent over time.  We aren't cruel to animals as much as we used to be.  We treat children far better than we used to.  Our major nations try to avoid war out of social norm.  In every category we seem to have become less violent.  Pinker makes a great case for this, especially shattering the idea that the modern notion that the current era is more violent than the past.

As a Humanist I already knew most of that part of the book.  Its a keen observation to make that humans in the 21st century live in a era of unprecedented peace and that most people avoid violence if they can.  It takes recognition of perception bias in your own day-to-day life, as well as recognizing that violence just doesn't happen as often as it used to.  There is a nostalgia bias where a lot of people tend to think of the past as being part of a more golden era.  The past was never as bad as now, is the gut feeling.  But once you realize that isn't true and take the scientific view of things, you come to realize the truth.  People are getting better, and living better lives.

Things get better with time.  Modernity is a clear boon to humanity.  This optimistic humanism is one of the things I try to strive for, but Pinker does a better job of being a realist about it.  The book tries to maintain perspective without losing its scientific focus on the data.  Pinkner presents data, and his theories as to why are based on data.

I'm not going to go into all of it.  I've taken some good bits and pieces from Better Angels.  The neuroscience of violence, for example, is very handy.  Humans in violent conflicts see themselves as the victims in almost all cases, even if from a higher view things are different.  Its psychological, for a violent thug to complain about being victimized.  Its a scientific set of symptoms to go along with a conceit I knew about stories, in that everyone thinks of themselves as their own hero, not as the villain of their own story.

Note that this doesn't make one a relativist.  Its a good note to remember to make villains and characters who use violence who have some justification for it.

Another fact is that a lot of violent crimes are committed as a sort of vigilante justice on part of the one committing the crime.  They think its the only way to create justice, and it takes a especially specific set of conditions to bring them to being violent.

It also makes sense.  It ties into what I understood about some philosophers before, the idea of the Leviathan.  The state that has a monopoly on violence so that its people don't act violently against one another.

Perhaps even better though, this is the sort of book that helps me to understand why I want to be a pacifist.  That is what I want to be, and its good to have reasons to help explain when and why I deviate from it.