The Progress of Human Morality

Steven Pinker has an interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal arguing that violence has declined precipitously in the human race in recent decades and centuries. He recognizes that there is still far too much violence in the world and also that his claim will be greeted with skepticism, but he presents compelling arguments for why violence in modern nation-states is much lower than in earlier epochs:

Believe it or not, the world of the past was much worse. Violence has been in decline for thousands of years, and today we may be living in the most peaceable era in the existence of our species.

The decline, to be sure, has not been smooth. It has not brought violence down to zero, and it is not guaranteed to continue. But it is a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars to the spanking of children.

he pinpoints six major transitions and transformations that helped achieve this decline in violence. I’m not going to rehash all of his arguments for this. In fact, I’m going to grant them as accurate and move on to his explanation:

Why has violence declined so dramatically for so long? Is it because violence has literally been bred out of us, leaving us more peaceful by nature?

This seems unlikely. Evolution has a speed limit measured in generations, and many of these declines have unfolded over decades or even years. Toddlers continue to kick, bite and hit; little boys continue to play-fight; people of all ages continue to snipe and bicker, and most of them continue to harbor violent fantasies and to enjoy violent entertainment.

It’s more likely that human nature has always comprised inclinations toward violence and inclinations that counteract them—such as self-control, empathy, fairness and reason—what Abraham Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Violence has declined because historical circumstances have increasingly favored our better angels.

The most obvious of these pacifying forces has been the state, with its monopoly on the legitimate use of force. A disinterested judiciary and police can defuse the temptation of exploitative attack, inhibit the impulse for revenge and circumvent the self-serving biases that make all parties to a dispute believe that they are on the side of the angels.

We see evidence of the pacifying effects of government in the way that rates of killing declined following the expansion and consolidation of states in tribal societies and in medieval Europe. And we can watch the movie in reverse when violence erupts in zones of anarchy, such as the Wild West, failed states and neighborhoods controlled by mafias and street gangs, who can’t call 911 or file a lawsuit to resolve their disputes but have to administer their own rough justice.

Another pacifying force has been commerce, a game in which everybody can win. As technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead. They switch from being targets of demonization and dehumanization to potential partners in reciprocal altruism.

For example, though the relationship today between America and China is far from warm, we are unlikely to declare war on them or vice versa. Morality aside, they make too much of our stuff, and we owe them too much money.

A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

These technologies have also powered an expansion of rationality and objectivity in human affairs. People are now less likely to privilege their own interests over those of others. They reflect more on the way they live and consider how they could be better off. Violence is often reframed as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won. We devote ever more of our brainpower to guiding our better angels. It is probably no coincidence that the Humanitarian Revolution came on the heels of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, that the Long Peace and rights revolutions coincided with the electronic global village.

I agree with pretty much all of that. In short, we are progressing morally as a species. There is still far too much tribalism and violence in the world, of course, but the Enlightenment really did have a huge impact. And as bad as things are today, they were far worse in the past. Only 200 years ago it was almost universally accepted that slavery was not only okay, it was normal and natural and God-endorsed; today almost no one believes that.

Within the lifetimes of many of my readers, the majority of Americans saw nothing at all wrong with whites-only lunch counters and outright discrimination against entire races of people. The natural inferiority of women was assumed for centuries. And though we are still in the trenches fighting for equal rights for gay people all over the world, there is no question that enormous progress has been made.

That doesn’t mean we should stop fighting for the continued progression and broader application of those ideals. And it doesn’t mean we should be any less outraged when we do see bigotry and violence. What it does mean is that we should recognize the astonishing power of the ideals of freedom and equality and wield them as weapons in those battles. And we should have confidence that the inexorable pattern of history is on our side. In the end, human beings really do improve as a group, we really do overcome our worst natures, one step at a time, and make the world a better place.

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  • I see a lot of theists who claim that ‘the idea of progress is dead’ and, of course, only their religion offers any hope. I’ve been pointing them to Pinker for a while.

  • Shermer had a good review of Pinker’s book on Skepticblog

    (warning: movie spoiler alert)

    He notes how Pinker ties his thesis into contemporary political debate, which I thought was spot on:

    Pinker notes that “in every issue touched by the Rights Revolutions—interracial marriage, the empowerment of women, the tolerance of homosexuality, the punishment of children, and the treatment of animals—the attitudes of conservatives have followed the trajectory of liberals, with the result that today’s conservatives are more liberal than yesterday’s liberals.”

  • harold

    Interpersonal violence is certainly at a relatively low historical level in the western world. Almost any decent social history of any pre-modern period of history will demonstrate that. Beating of spouses, children, and employees, armed and unarmed fights, violent fights between urban street gangs whose members were ordinary working men or students, not career criminals, in cities that today would be considered small towns, animal abuse on a wide scale, etc, used to be the rule.

    Even in the US, where violence is considerably higher than it was at its lowest point circa 1960, the nature of violence has changed. Much of today’s severe violence is related to drug prohibition, and takes place between committed criminals. Things like fistfights and violence toward women and children may have been higher in 1960. (For full disclosure I oppose the “war on drugs”.)

    However, we should not overlook the facts that 1) violence is lower in terms of number of incidents, but incidents now carry a much, much higher lethality and 2) much of the world still has a pre-modern patter.

  • slc1

    In support of Prof. Pinker’s thesis is the fact that the percentage of the population of Europe that died in the 30 Years War was much greater then that which died in WW1 and WW2, despite the tremendous escalation in weapon deadliness. One can only thank the flying spaghetti monster that Tilly Wallenstein, and Adolphus didn’t have 20th century weapons at their disposal or Europe might have been depopulated.

  • bananacat

    I agree mostly with the commerce idea, where everyone can win. This is of course related to control over reproduction and the ability to transport food over long distances.

    We don’t have to fight over resources as much anymore. The biggest one that the West is fighting for is energy, which is why we need to develop new technologies faster. But for food, we rarely have large geographical areas of famine in Western places. Even when we have natural disasters, people can access food from much farther away so they don’t have to go to war with the next town over to steal their meager resources.

    When third world places face famine, they too now have other options besides warring with a slightly less-famined neighboring community. They can reach out for aid from other places, and we have the technology to send food faster than ever before.

    In a prosperous world where few people have to watch their children die, there’s just not as much reason to fight others. This why welfare, food stamps, and free education will always go farther than the same amount of money spent on police.

  • jamessweet

    Steven Pinker has an interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal

    Um, and a book coming out… seems odd to mention the essay but not the book it is promoting/summarizing…

  • It’s an interesting essay, but Pinker doesn’t really support his idea of a steady decline. It is just as easy to look at the same events and see a number of changes the human race has had to learn to deal with, with violence peaking during the adjustment periods.

    Commerce? Yes, it led to police forces and rules of the road that shut down things like (literal) highway robbery. However, the advent of trade across distance is why there was highway robbery to begin with. Before that, people weren’t moving anything of value very far.

    The same thing goes for government on the large scale. It is now mostly a force for peace, but the process of consolidating governments was what led to much of the bloodshed Pinker points to as now having been resolved. The existence of two countries side by side, didn’t lead to war. The dispute between two rulers over who should control more territory did. If the Kaiser had been allowed to wander at will, peace would have come to Europe much more quickly.

    It isn’t any less hopeful to suggest that our species has found ways to adapt to major upheavals of our way of life (law as a response to the requirements of agriculture, Enlightenment as a response to urbanization and industrialization). It is, however, a more complicated picture, and one that fits the data better.

  • JustaTech

    @slc1: Have you read the 1632 series by Eric Flint? Basic idea: take a town in West Virginia in ~2000, and dump it in the middle of Germany during the 30 Years War. It’s a fascinating series.

    I think that one of the other conclusions that can be drawn from this essay is, essentially, that all the effort that so many people have put into peace over history is having an affect. It is working, which brings hope that it can keep working, and that our struggles as a global community are not in vain.

  • abb3w

    Stephanie Zvan: It’s an interesting essay, but Pinker doesn’t really support his idea of a steady decline.

    Steady in the sense of evolutionary development. There’s some back and forth, because the underlying process is a random walk, but the probabilities are non-uniform (though the low selection pressure suggests relatively close), and thus the long term trend as steady as pebbles bouncing downhill.

    Stephanie Zvan: The same thing goes for government on the large scale. It is now mostly a force for peace, but the process of consolidating governments was what led to much of the bloodshed Pinker points to as now having been resolved.

    Except that Pinker’s thesis (apparently supported by his data) suggests that even including the bloodshed of the transition, the decrease in steady smaller scale violence post-transition more than counterbalances the transient larger scale violence of the transition on historically rapid timescales.

  • I’m aware that his “steady decline” invovles some variability. However, the data as he presents it in the essay is cherry picked. The declines he mentions requires starting at a point that, like highway robbery, ignores that the violence itself developed as part of the social change he credits with decreasing the violence.

    He argues from vivid events (stories of war and genocide that have survived because they cement a group’s identity, morality tales that would be expected to contain exaggerated consequences of actions just as modern urban legends do, the relatively few archaeological findings that show violence) rather than from data sets that would demonstrate rates of violence. He also only moves forward from moments of peak violence rather than both backward and forward in order to place the violence in its proper context.

    However, this is just an essay. He may support his thesis with data in the book. He doesn’t here, and I’m not willing to make the same generous assumption about his data that you are. He’s more a pretty, shiny idea guy than one who deals with complex questions with any nuance. We’ll see when the book comes out. For now, though, I don’t find the essay very satisfying.

  • Kiwi Sauce

    The datasets would also need to be demographically adjusted too, as factors such as a higher percentage of elderly will serve to artificially deflate the violence level.

  • slc1

    Re Stephenie Zvan @ #7

    The existence of two countries side by side, didn’t lead to war. The dispute between two rulers over who should control more territory did. If the Kaiser had been allowed to wander at will, peace would have come to Europe much more quickly.

    Excuse me, Ms. Zvan neglects the fact that the German Empire had confiscated Alsace and Lorianne after the 1871 Franco/Prussian War and France wanted it back! The real cause of WW1 was the Dreadnaught competition between Great Britain and Germany, which eventually drove the British to sign a mutual defense treaty with France. Without the support of Great Britain, France stood no chance of defeating Germany in a war as it was greatly inferior both on land and at sea having long since been surpassed by the latter industrially. With the mutual defense treaty, France was assured of British support in the event of war with Germany and thus could react aggressively against the latter after the events of July, 1914.

    Great Britain could not allow Germany to gain naval parity as it would endanger it’s ties with it’s colonies such as Canada, Australia and India and thus could not allow the Kaiser to wander at will.

  • slc1, what you just said in no way contradicts my statement. If the rulers of France and Britain had not also wanted large areas of influence, there would have been no war. The existence of empires does not cause war. The competition between those empires for influence does. It’s obvious to the point of being trite, but Pinker doesn’t seem to be acknowledging it in this essay.

    Kiwi Sauce, I’d also hope to see some kind of factoring in the data for the medical advances that came out of WWI and are responsible for lower death counts in subsequent wars.

  • Kiwi Sauce

    Hi Stephanie,

    I had a look at some data for New Zealand military deaths from wars, since the Boer War, and found that the percentage of deaths stayed about the same up to around Vietnam. In earlier wars, accidents (e.g. drownings when ships sank) and infections accounted for most of the deaths, very few occurred as a direct result of battle. In later wars, there were few accidents/infections but much higher rates of deaths due to battlefield injuries. I was surprised to see such a consistent overall pattern over time.

    However, those are just military deaths. I didn’t examine civilian deaths, which have probably increased over time due to area effects such as bombings.

  • juice

    I believe one day our species will have progressed to the point where government will be an evil that is no longer necessary and interact almost exclusively through voluntary means. That is the day that humanity will truly be civilized.

  • juice

    Woops, stick a “people will” in between “and … interact” up there. I even previewed.