Are modern wars really worse, and what does it mean if they’re not?

Below is a very interesting short lecture by a scholar who argues that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, war and violence are in dramatic decline in modern times. He contends that the historical evidence is overwhelmingly against the axiomatic notion that modern wars are worse in quality or frequency than those of premodern times.

From the website:

Steven Pinker charts the decline of violence from Biblical times to the present, and argues that, though it may seem illogical and even obscene, given Iraq and Darfur, we are living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence.

This thesis is especially interesting from a religious standpoint, given how it is customarily charged that modern secularism and contemporary "disenchantment" have resulted in hitherto unknown levels of carnage and extremism. (I happen to broadly share this basic premise, even if I do not idealize the past.)

Don't know enough to judge the significance or reliability of the statistics he lays out, but I do think that there's a kernel of truth to his ancillary contention that the widespread, conscious awareness of the shared humanity of the Other–with its concomitant discomfort with dehumanization, even if this has too often been drowned out by other, more atavistic impulses–is a very modern development. It may well have always been present for more spiritual and/or reflective of believers in various philosophical works and religious scriptures –Terence declared in the 2nd century BCE, "Humo sum: Humani nihil a me alienum puto;" Jesus Christ's message of love needs little introduction; the Talmud teaches the value of all human life; the humanistic implications of the account of Adam and Eve within the Abrahamic traditions are obvious; and I certainly find humanism to be a constant and very moving refrain in the Quran–but I think secular critics of organized religion are fair in point out that a full-blown ethic of humanism that unreservedly transcends race, creed, gender, and class  only emerged recently in human history, and after the advent of secularism.

Things didn't necessarily need to play out that way–i.e.,  I don't feel that the good to be found among modern values is inherently in conflict with traditional religious faith–but that's how it turned out, and I don't think that this psychosociological fact can be overlooked when assessing traditional teachings about other religions.

I don' t think one can reasonably expect premodern religious texts  to be unaffected by until-recently-ironclad constraints of human psychology and social thought. It seems to me that this dynamic in the historical evolution of human consciousness on certain issues even merits inclusion in the Asbāb al-nuzūl upon which Quranic exegesis itself depends, as few things differ as vastly from the conditions that prevailed in 7th century Arabia–or any other part of the world at that time–as the humanistic premises that inform mature thinking about the Other today. 

Simply put, it used to be a lot harder, cognitively speaking, for most people to be consistently universalistic in outlook towards other human beings; values that are almost universally professed (if all too rarely practiced)  today seemed utterly counterintuitive and downright subversive for most of human history. 

  • Yursil

    Pinker’s statements are representative of a almost delusional state.
    Most of his examples fall to the victim of a logical fallacy involving linear scaling.
    How can one apply the rate of death of tiny tribes in New Guniea and apply that same percentage to WWII participants?
    Modernity in itself has enabled conflicts of a scale which would be unsustainable in a pre-modern environments, since the tribes themselves would be unsustainable.
    Whenever and whereever the population has coagulated so as to support pre-modern cities, such death rates were unheard of.
    But the key point that he misses is that modernity is not only criticized for the enabling of new forms of mass slaughter, sustained damages, new grotesque ways of ruining a land and a people, but redefinition of morality itself.
    His citing of Peter Singer (15:50) is a perfect example of the problem.
    Peter Singer’s ethical philosophy supports the remoralization of infanticide (to Muslims, a very poignant example). If this isn’t self-defeating argument, I’m not sure what is.
    In a similar manner, John Gray accurately predicted the remoralization of torture with terrorist suspects.
    Collatoral damage is a well accepted moral facts in today’s fact.
    While pre-modern Europeans may have had their cat killing ceremonies, it’s a far cry from the huge shift of mindset that has occurred today to allow us to consume news of the deaths of millions without shedding a tear.
    Yes, premodern societies realized (in more ways than one), the fragility of life… But they applied those lessons to their own selves in a way that modern societies have forgotten.
    To not even allow us to be accountable for our own transgressions against Allah’s moral code, is the best example of modernity’s sin.

  • Yursil

    correction: Collateral damage is a well accepted moral fact in today’s society. Few people question the very idea whether a weapon that can yield collateral damage is evil or not.