Thomas Hobbes’ idea of a social contract arising from a state of nature, Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection, and Adam Smith's idea that people concerned primarily with their own personal interests will cater to the needs of others in a way that is highly beneficial for all, are surely three of the most important ideas of all time. In more recent times these ideas have been refined and enhanced by applications of results from game theory, genetics and economics. Steven Pinker makes heavy use of all three of these powerful ideas in this massive new treatise on violence.
Over some 800 pages, Pinker explains the historical and psychological origins of violent behavior tracing it back to its evolutionary roots in our pre-human ancestors and follows it up to the present day. He covers everything from cruelty to animals and the spanking of children to genocide and nuclear wars. His main claim is that violence has declined significantly over millennia, centuries and decades and that, contrary to common opinion, we now live in the most peaceful time so far in all of history. The reason why many people today tend to think differently is also given a compelling psychological explanation, the gist of which is that we are much more sensitive to violence now than we ever were in the past. Also, the media naturally tends to report violent crimes rather than their absence.
But while the overt agenda of the book is to explain violence (how it is rooted in our human nature and how it has been possible for us to decrease it as much as we have given that human nature has not changed fundamentally), the covert agenda is to make a case for peace. Specifically, Pinker makes an excellent case for civilisation in general and liberal humanism and (scientific, technical, economic, social and moral) progress in particular. It might seem strange to call such a large book covering such a vast topic and time period modest, but Pinker is indeed very careful and humble in his claims and even more so in his predictions for the future.
Today violence might be thought of as only one among many important aspects of social life, but it is actually central to human coexistence. It is the very core of politics and the central subject matter of social and political philosophy. This is however not a work in political philosophy as such, but it is an excellent overview of the empirical background of which any reasonable political theory must take note.
In many ways, The Better Angels of Our Nature is a continuation and expansion of the chapter on violence in Pinker’s previous book, The Blank Slate, and it also revisits several other themes from that earlier work including, of course, further debunking of the myth of the noble savage. But here also the myth of "pure evil" is debunked: human nature contains both “inner demons” that incline us toward violence and “better angels” that incline us toward peace. Given that human nature has not changed fundamentally, something in our environment must be the primary cause of the decline of violence. Candidates include the rise of governments, the emergence of “gentle commerce” (aka trade), the greater influence of women (men are biologically more prone to violence than women), Peter Singer’s idea of “the expanding circle” and a general increase in abstract reasoning.
Civilization, modernity and the spreading of the ideas of enlightenment humanism (which Pinker associates with Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Kant, Smith, Mill among others and notes that it is “also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well”) is praised. Among the culprits, on the other hand, one sticks out: ideology. Utopian ideologies that promise a future paradise (like Marxism, Nazism, Christianity and Islam) have been major forces for violence and led to many mass killings throughout history. Pinker notes that religion also can be a force for peace, but this has been so only when the religion in question has been influenced by humanist ideas.
While he does not take that many explicit stances in the book, it becomes clear that Pinker is more of a liberal than a conservative; more of a classical liberal than a contemporary liberal; more of a democrat than an authoritarian; more of a "progressive" than a reactionary; more of an atheist (or possibly deist) than a "man of god"; more of a sceptic than a dogmatic; more of an empiricist than a rationalist; more of an optimist than an alarmist; more of a Humean than a Kantian (even if some parts are heavily influenced by the latter). It remains unclear though, whether he is more of a social contract theorist than a utilitarian. He relies heavily on Hobbes in major parts of the book, but he does also occasionally speak positively about "the greatest happiness for the greatest number".
There are simply too many interesting points in this book to comment on them all, so let me focus on what he says about government and democracy. Pinker follows Hobbes in thinking that organised government – the establishment of a Leviathan – was a major force for peace. But Pinker would not support a sovereign with absolute power like Hobbes did. He acknowledges that
When it came to violence, then, the first Leviathans solved one problem but created another. People were less likely to become victims of homicide or casualties of war, but they were now under the thumbs of tyrants, clerics, and kleptocrats. This gives a sinister sense of the word pacification: not just the bringing about of peace but the imposition of absolute control by a coercive government. Solving this second problem would have to wait another few millennia, and in much of the world it remains unsolved to this day.
That government is generally more conducive to peace than anarchy in the pejorative sense of that term (meaning disorder) is rather trivial. But whether order is possible without government is an open debate. Pinker notes that
Libertarians, anarchists, and other sceptics of the Leviathan point out that when communities are left to their own devices, they often develop norms of cooperation that allow them to settle their disputes non-violently, without laws, police, courts, or the other trappings of government.
He goes on to cite the legal scholar Robert Ellickson’s work Order Without Law: How Neighbours Settle Disputes and concludes that
As important as tacit norms are, it would be a mistake to think that they obviate a role for government. The Shasta County ranchers [one of Ellickson’s objects of study] may not have called in Leviathan when a cow knocked over a fence, but they were living in its shadow and knew it would step in if their informal sanctions escalated or if something bigger were at stake, such as a fight, a killing, or a dispute over women.
It is admirable that Pinker acknowledges the existence of anarchist perspectives (as they are often unfairly ignored), but he does not further acknowledge the growing literature on individualist and libertarian anarchism. For an excellent introduction to this overlooked literature, see Edward P. Stringham’s Anarchy and the Law - an impressive volume that compiles essays and excerpts from books by major thinkers on the topic of ordered anarchy (including an excerpt from Ellickson’s work). If you want a more strictly philosophical treatment of the subject, try John T. Sanders' and Jan Narveson's anthology For and Against the State.
Pinker sometimes uses laws (against slavery, public executions, etc.) as examples of progress, but perhaps he should have pointed out more clearly that changes in general attitude came first and the new laws came after. Let me quote David Friedman emphasising this point:
The modern liberal will claim that it was state legislation, limiting hours, preventing child labor, imposing safety regulations, and otherwise violating the principle of laissez faire, that brought progress. But the evidence indicates that the legislation consistently followed progress rather than preceding it. It was only when most workers were already down to a ten-hour day that it became politically possible to legislate one.
Furthermore, as Robert Sugden says in his The Economics of Rights, Cooperation and Welfare on the subject:
Wise governments do not risk losing credibility by passing laws that cannot be enforced; and when such laws are passed, wise police forces turn a blind eye to violations of them. […] One implication of this is that governments must, if only as a matter of prudence, take some account of the possibility that the laws they might wish to pass may be unenforceable. The willingness or unwillingness of individuals to obey the law is a constraint on the government’s freedom of action. […] it may be that some important aspects of the law merely formalize and codify conventions of behaviour that have evolved out of essentially anarchic situations […] the law may reflect codes of behaviour that most individuals impose on themselves.
The historical processes that Pinker calls "the civilizing process", "the humanitarian revolution" and "the rights revolutions" cannot possibly have been driven by laws. Instead, laws are symptoms of these processes. I’m sure Pinker would agree, and he does indeed identify independent causes for all of these processes.
The “solution” that Pinker hinted at to the problem of government tyranny is (not surprisingly) democracy. But it is highly questionable whether democracy really solves anything at all as was noted long ago by Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and many others. Pinker extensively quotes Kant’s essay Perpetual Peace and rightly notes that Kant associated the word 'democracy' with mob rule. In this essay, Kant said that
... democracy is, properly speaking, necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power in which "all" decide for or even against one who does not agree; that is, "all," who are not quite all, decide, and this is a contradiction of the general will with itself and with freedom.
That liberal democratic government is more conducible to peace than authoritarian dictatorship is one thing, but as Bryan Caplan argues in his The Myth of the Rational Voter this sets the bar too low. Caplan says further that
In the minds of many, one of Winston Churchill’s most famous aphorisms cuts the conversation short: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. But this saying overlooks the fact that governments vary in scope as well as form. In democracies the main alternative to majority rule is not dictatorship, but markets.
Pinker is well aware of this and supports both what he calls “the democratic peace” and the “capitalist peace” that together make up “the liberal peace”.
The Better Angels of Our Nature is simply an excellent synthesis of the current state of knowledge in a very wide range of relevant disciplines, presented in a way that make these results accessible despite the book's considerable length.