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73 of 82 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Dazzling Tour de Force, 16 Oct 2011
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This review is from: The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (Hardcover)
Good news, folks. Violence has been declining. We are getting kinder and gentler as a species. That doesn't just go for us in the West. Critics who have accused Pinker of only focusing on advanced countries are mistaken. He shows the decline of violence is across the board: war, genocide, terrorism, riots, and homicide. The trend was and is led by Western Europe but wasn't and isn't confined there. It is not a uniform progress and regression has, can and will happen but just because journalists have missed it, that doesn't mean it isn't so.

Pinker has noticed it and others have, too. But for the first time we have a book that has compiled and interpreted the works of anthropologists, political scientists, historians, neuroscientists, psychologists and many others to tell a story that is as gripping as a murder-mystery, albeit one in which the mystery is why the bodies are not piling up.

It is impossible to do this book justice in a review. The argument is nuanced and works on many levels. A variety of factors account for this decline, but to summarise: humans living in a state of nature (i.e. before the state) were not necessarily brutish, but led lives that short, and led lives far likelier to be cut short by war or homicide. The rise of the state, Hobbes' Leviathan, begins a pacification process, which is achieved by imposing an impersonal system of justice on its subjects. The law of the state may be an ass, but it is a disinterested ass. It curbs vigilantism and imposes peace. Hence murder rates in England have dropped from 100 in 100,000 of the population in the 14th Century to 1 in 100,000 in the 20th. Similar drops extended to most of Western Europe and gradually to the United States. This trend, despite the current Great Recession, continues to drive violence down.

The rise of the Leviathan is a necessary but not sufficient condition. The state itself perpetrated numerous horrors, burning heretics and witches at the stake, slavery, genocide, capital punishment and torture of the grisliest kind, and in public. The state itself had to be pacified.

Pacification is complemented by a normative shift: the humanitarian and rights revolutions. The humanitarian revolutions arose out of the rationalist and Enlightenment philosophies that inspected established practices in the light of reason, and demanded justifications for the supposed goods these practices were supposed to serve. The rights revolutions of the second half of the 20th Century, with campaigns for sexual and racial equality, to curb violence against women and children and even animals, cemented earlier accomplishments.

So the decline of violence is two fold. It's down to institutions in part but it's also down to moral progress, a widening of the circle of empathy and sympathy. Empathy alone is not enough. One can have plenty of empathy and sympathy for those of one's own tribe, but still embark on a dawn raid against the neighbouring tribe on the other side of the river and think oneself no worse for it. The testimonies of former slaves did much to turn opinion against the institution in the 18th and 19th Centuries for example. But for this to happen, reason needs to make the bridge and subject oppressive and violent practices to critical scrutiny.

It is fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. If you are one of those people, then ask yourself these questions: would you justify the reestablishment of slavery? Which is the better way to establish guilt or innocence - trial by jury or trial by fire? If someone told you that a child's epileptic fit was the devil's work, would you be appalled? If you are appalled, and you wouldn't dream of justifying slavery or trial by fire, then you are a child of the Enlightenment as much as I am. And the fact that you are partially accounts for the decline of violence, for it demonstrates that both you and I can be reasoned with.

We humans share a common nature, and that nature is partially given to violence. Pinker does not say that we walk around seething with a murderous rage like the zombies in the film `28 Days Later'. It's a lot more complicated than that. Violence can be predatory or sadistic but in certain circumstances it can be rational. A preemptive strike to neutralise a perceived aggressor is a case in point. Violence can be motivated for moral reasons, because a taboo has been violated, or to exact revenge for an injustice suffered. Epithets like the `Killer Ape' with all its connotations of mindless bloodlust are too crude.

But that is not the entire story, as you can infer from the title of the book. We have the power of reason, of sympathy, of being able to transcend our parochial tribal perspective and see things from a disinterested point of view, from the viewpoint of others, to assess and predict the consequences of our actions and reflect accordingly. The evidence Pinker presents is that this aspect of our nature has strengthened over time and this is a result of both the development of institutions and the rise of progressive ideas.

But this is a simplified summary that I fear does little justice to the richness of this book. There is much, much more that can be said. The discussions of the long peace, the decline of genocide, riots and terrorism, fascinating discussions about what actually occurs in the brain when we are in thrall to both our better and our worse angels, discussions as to why it is considered rude to eat off a knife at the dinner table, discussions of why democracies do not go to war with each other, discussions of how trade fosters peace. There is a scarcely a dull sentence in this book.

You may think that this is Whiggish nonsense. You may well recoil from a claim that violence is in decline. It certainly has not vanished. But, over the long term, it has declined. Whether this will carry on is, of course a moot point. This book tells us what has happened, but cannot tell us whether it will continue to happen. But, in the last analysis, the fundamental point of the book is to show that, despite our inherent propensity for violence, our better angels can and do get the upper hand over our inner demons. This is good news, is it not?
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Showing 1-10 of 15 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 19 Oct 2011 19:15:09 BDT
<<So the decline of violence is two fold. It's down to institutions in part but it's also down to moral progress, a widening of the circle of empathy and sympathy.>>

It sounds like I will have to read the book, but is there anything there about the importance of economic/technological progress in this process? Without the vast progress in these areas I doubt much of the moral progress would either have been possible or tenable. Also these factors seem to underpin a lot of the institutional development.

<<It is fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. If you are one of those people, then ask yourself these questions: would you justify the reestablishment of slavery? Which is the better way to establish guilt or innocence - trial by jury or trial by fire? If someone told you that a child's epileptic fit was the devil's work, would you be appalled? If you are appalled, and you wouldn't dream of justifying slavery or trial by fire, then you are a child of the Enlightenment as much as I am. And the fact that you are partially accounts for the decline of violence, for it demonstrates that both you and I can be reasoned with.>>

On one hand it seems quite fashionable to claim that it is fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments of the Enlightenment. On the other, it is possible to argue against slavery but think little of allowing 'free' people to live in conditions that are materially worse than some types of slavery (but more economically productive and flexible) and to consider that people understood the limitations of things like trial by fire for establishing guilt in a criminal trial maybe millenia before the enlightenment.

In reply to an earlier post on 20 Oct 2011 07:18:33 BDT
F Henwood says:
Dear Viva David Toro
Thanks for the interesting comments - I will get back to you as soon as I have got a job interview out of the way later!
Cheers
Franco

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Oct 2011 16:01:07 BDT
Last edited by the author on 24 Oct 2011 07:09:14 BDT
F Henwood says:
There is some discussion on the role of technology, namely the development of printing and book publishing, whereby progressive ideas were disseminated. The abolitionists of the late 18th and 19th Centuries were for example were prolific pamphleteers and publishers. This together with sociological changes such as the rise of the city eroded parochialism because cities encouraged the cross-fertilisation of ideas. Again this is not a process that can easily be demonstrated - why should such changes have led to a change in attitude that Pinker describes? But in historical terms, as a description of what actually happened, this seems defensible enough. The realisation that we humans share common features on account of our humanity, that can be apprehended by the application of reason, stimulated humanitarian movements which assumed the perspective of those, like slaves, who were literally not thought to be fully human - 'am I not a man and a brother?'

If you want an example of a myopia that was once widely accepted, the notorious three-fifths compromise devised by the framers of the US Constitution might provide you one (whereby when determining the number of representatives slave states could send to the legislature, slaves were considered to be 'three-fifths' of a man for the purposes of calculating this). It is inconceivable that anyone could devise a modern constitution by using such formulae now perhaps because the idea that other races are somehow lesser than us on account of natural differences is abhorrent. It's abhorrent because there is no way this can be rationally defended. Perhaps the last example of an attempt to formally define moral inequality as a foundational principle was South Africa's constitution of 1948, which provided a constitutional foundation for apartheid. But we all know what the result of that was.

Technology itself does not make people better although through it we can learn more and improve - modern brain surgery and anaesthetic dentistry are two examples of technological process that can relieve pain. Surgery in the 17th Century would have been damned painful, not on account of the sadism of the Doctor but due to the limitations of the technology. The development of technology obviates the need to make painful medical interventions but it does not in itself make people better morally.

When people believed in things like witches, and not just believed in them in an ontological sense (i.e. as actual things that existed in the world) but actually attributed to them malign powers, then perhaps it did make sense to burn them at the stake. To do so was to fight evil. Likewise to torture heretics was considered justifiable to save their eternal souls from damnation. But once the idea that old women could sink ships or turn people into frogs was exposed in the light of reason to be absurd, then the practice of burning them became indefensible.

Naturally there are forms of 'free' labour whereby people can be exploited every bit as much as a slave but slavery was an idea and a precept as well as a practice. It was thought perfectly natural that a social order rested on the ownership of some human beings by others. No slavery, no civilisation. The basic difference I think between slavery and free labour is the absolute nature of the former, whereby there is no escape from the definition of yourself as the property of someone else. You may well have a decent master or work in conditions less than onerous but you are in the last analysis a thing, not a person. Free labour allows the possibility of escape or dignification. For instance, trade unions arose not to abolish but to dignify forms of free labour that were exploitative. And of course reform movements, of which trade unions were a part, did not stop at abolishing slavery but also improving the status of free labour.

As for your contention that 'it seems quite fashionable to claim that it is fashionable to denigrate the accomplishments of the Enlightenment' then I must say that I disagree with you. Having said that, I do hope that this does come to pass. People like John Gray get way too much credit for the sort of jeremiads they produce (his review of Pinker's book in Prospectus magazine being a good example of persistent obtuseness to refuse to consider that yes, things might well have got better, even at Oxford University).

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Dec 2011 16:40:25 GMT
Triestino says:
If I may say so, yours is an excellent review, Franco, and I enjoyed the above comment, too. If Pinker writes as well as you do, I'll go out and buy the book!

In reply to an earlier post on 11 Dec 2011 16:49:55 GMT
F Henwood says:
Thank you for your kind comment. I am sure you will enjoy the book if you decide to buy it.

Posted on 23 Dec 2011 15:37:17 GMT
Does Pinker give enough credit to Robert Wright as an intellectual forbear for some of his ideas in this book? I am thinking in particular of Wright's book Nonzero. Sometimes Wright does not get sufficient credit since he is "just a journalist." I am only on page 500 of Pinker's book so perhaps I am complaining too soon. So far Pinker has never mentioned Wright. Your review reflects ideas similar to those in Wright's book Nonzero.

In reply to an earlier post on 23 Dec 2011 16:21:45 GMT
Last edited by the author on 23 Dec 2011 17:34:49 GMT
Triestino says:
"So far Pinker has never mentioned Wright". Having just started the book, I'm 475 pages behind you, Mr Connor, but I see that Robert Wright's "Nonzero" is mentioned on pages 78 and 284 (the latter a mention with approbation) and also in the conclusion, on page 694. But admittedly Pinker's book is an ultra-large one, and it takes iron willpower not to skim read at times. The page numbers I give are for the hardback edition.

And yes, Franco, I'm really enjoying this book. Thanks for having helped me to decide to buy it!

In reply to an earlier post on 26 Dec 2011 18:14:14 GMT
F Henwood says:
Gregory, I haven't read Wright so I can't say. If my review seems to give prominence to one set of ideas, then this is inevitably selective, given the wide range of ideas touched upon in the book.

Triestino, I am glad you think your money was well spent on this book!

By the way, the one reviewer who has managed to capture the nuances of this book brilliantly on this forum is 'sphex.' I commend his/her review to you both. And, finally, if you guys are really up for a challenge, I also recommend you read Azar Gat's 'War in Human Civilization' which was given to me as a Christmas present. I've just started reading it and it's a great, a big-picture sort of book, in the same vein as this one.

Posted on 21 Feb 2012 08:22:50 GMT
Thank you for such an excellent review, a friend of mine has also recommended this book.

For me, poverty, - material as well as emotional, is associated with violence. This can be seen today, for the most part violence occurs more often in families with fewer material resources than those who can settle their differences through expensive holidays, and give gifts, than those struggling on the breadline.

Does the book look at the role of material wealth with respect of violence and to what extent does Pinker attribute the reduction in violence to our increased material. In material terms, I am richer than most pharaohs or slave owners. I can travel where I choose, I can have my illnesses treated, I am likely to live longer and I have an iPad with more technology at my finger tips than Apollo took to the moon. Is that the reason I am less violent?

In reply to an earlier post on 22 Feb 2012 18:53:45 GMT
Last edited by the author on 22 Feb 2012 18:54:21 GMT
F Henwood says:
Dear Liz
Thanks for the thought-provoking post. If you look at for example homicide rates around the world, then the poorer a country is, the more violent it is likely to be. But there is no neat relationship to allow one to predict, with absolute certainty, that more poverty = greater violence. The Great Depression in the United States in the 1930s did not see a renewed American civil war, and in fact rates of violent crime went down in the US during this time but there was a spike in the 1960s, a time of unprecedented prosperity. The murder rate in Greece is the same as Norway's despite the latter's greater wealth and this remains the case, despite the on-going economic crisis in the former. Within our own country, pensioners in poverty are not known to go out and mug people or hold up banks because they struggle to make ends meet.

You and I are indeed better off than any Pharaoh was in terms of what material benefits are available to us but so arguably were many of the rioters in English cities last year, which did not stop them from rioting. Anecdotally, I can add that my family's home was repossessed in the 1980s after my dad got into financial difficulties, but that did not lead to my brother and I, as then young males, to turn to violent crime. We both ended up in university instead (we didn't have much money for years before we ended up losing our home). I know this is anecdotal evidence but my hunch would be that hard data would back this up, at least in part. Anyway, the point I am making is that the relationship between violence and material advance is not as straightforward as it first appears.

It's not so much material advance per se but the rise of trade, ending a zero-sum competition for goods and resources. Why fight and kill for something when you can buy, barter or sell? Pinker brings in democratic peace theory here (which I think is convincing), namely the observation that the more dependent a state is on trade, the more democratic it is (and if it's a member of an international organisation) the less likely it is to fight. I think the pacifying effect of the EU is well attested, and vindicates this observation, which is not to say that the EU is not without its flaws, as the Greek crisis shows. But if Greece leaves the Euro, World War III will not break out. Nor will Germany and France invade it to make sure it pays back the debts it owes to its banks. Having said that, if this happy combination breaks down for any reason, then I doubt whether the future would be all that bright.

So the short answer to your question is that yes, material advance is a necessary. but not sufficient condition, to achieve a reduction in violence.

Franco
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