Menu Close

The world has never been as safe and peaceful as it is now

An anti-Gaddafi fighter holds human remains from a mass grave. Despite this, overall violence among humans has been dropping. AAP/Mohamed Messara

Hard though it may be to believe, there has been a long-term, very significant decline in all kinds of violence around the world.

In his most recent book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, Harvard evolutionary psychologist and cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, enforces this conclusion with a battery of statistic evidence.

This might seem like achievement enough. But Pinker’s real contribution lies not so much in making this case as in the way he answers the crucial question: why has this happened? What have we been getting right?

His starting point is this. In the long course of human evolution, we emerged as creatures who would naturally be much more violent than is considered acceptable today. Our ultimate interests are distinct: I want what’s best for me; you want what’s best for you.

Nasty, brutish and short

We are physically vulnerable – which means we can be coerced by violent threats “and the enticements of being the exploiter rather than the exploited will sentence all sides to punishing conflict.”

The homicide rate was high in the state of nature, he argues, because violence made sense. We were born into “the pacifists dilemma”. It might be nice in theory to cooperate. But you can’t count on the other person giving up a little of the potential advantage they would gain from successful aggression. And they can’t rely on you doing this either. In which case, preemptive violence is the best option – though a depressing one.

So, Pinker tends to agree with Hobbes’ famous dictum that in the state of nature life was “nasty, brutish and short.”

We didn’t choose to be nicer

Pinker follows a path that is intellectually unfashionable – almost taboo. He argues that the reduction in violence has been cased not by overtly moral development, but as a by-product of rather unromantic achievements.

Commerce, policing, accountable government, technology that enables travel and communication: these unromantic achievements have established a cultural environment in which we can pursue our selfish ends more successfully when we co-operate with strangers, than by relying upon the hazardous opportunities afforded by aggression.

And “the erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science” has been a central cause of this millennial achievement. The drama of Pinker’s work lies in his willingness to argue in great detail for attitudes that run counter to “large swathes of our intellectual culture” which are “loathe to admit that there could be anything good about civilisation, modernity and Western culture.”

Or, more intimately and even more controversially, that the generic attributes of the professional, educated middle class – affluence, interest in commerce and management, secularism, global outlook, cultural liberalism, personal ambition, rational problem-solving – are precisely the qualities that benefit the entire world and need to be spread as widely and fast as possible.

The old days were better … weren’t they?

This is immensely challenging because it contravenes an argument that goes back to the early romantic thinkers of the late 18th century. Herder, for instance, hated just this kind of cosmopolitan civilisation that – he predicted – would engulf local cultures. It would sweep away local customs, traditional habits, tribal beliefs. Pinker would agree, but add that we should welcome, rather than lament, this development. His great achievement is to make this debate into a rational, evidence based discussion rather than a trading of attitudes.

Three major sources of violence are closely connected to intelligence. Firstly violence deployed in pursuit of a goal (which is a function of means ends reasoning). Secondly, dominance – which depends on what is counted as a sing of superiority; and thirdly, ideology – which is a set of claims about the future which may entail violent action.

These three can be understood as factually and rationally inadequate. The more intelligent a society is (that is the more accurate its factual knowledge and the more careful its reasoning) the less it will suffer from these kinds of violence.

The end of violence?

Commerce is the antithesis of violence. Because commerce works on the principle that all parties benefit from a transaction, even though they may not benefit to the same degree. Whereas in violence one party benefits entirely at the expense of another. Policing is more important than punishment – we want an environment in which wrong-doers know they are likely to be apprehended, rather than one in which they are unlikely to be caught (but if caught will be dealt with harshly).

The weird thing is that this sounds quite like the consensus of the Western elite. And that’s Pinker’s whole point. The West is basically getting things right.

A reduction in violence of all kinds is highly desirable, of course. But in a curious way it is only the beginning. Peaceful societies can devote their resources to other things. Reason and freedom do not tell us much about what these other things should be. They are enablers, not goals.

The huge challenge, then, will be to integrate the dividend of peace attained by freedom and reason with the quite different capacities and qualities that are, in addition, required for individual and collective flourishing.

We will move on to the next vast phase of human development. We will have to confront the less intense but even more subtle problems of loneliness, meaninglessness and boredom.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 181,700 academics and researchers from 4,933 institutions.

Register now