Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Decline of Violence and Moral Psychology

I finished off Steven Pinker's vast book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declinedon the plane to our vacation a week ago. 

It is dazzlingly comprehensive, endlessly interesting and provocative, and it has taken me a week just to let it sink in and turn over in my mind. The book has a constellation of interesting observations about its central theme -  the decline of violence over time, contrary to many pessimistic jeremiads.

I just hope he had the help of a dozen Harvard research assistants. Otherwise it seems just too much ground for any one person to cover, especially outside his immediate field, without superhuman ability. 

I think he proves his overall case, namely that violence on most levels has declined over the course of human history. Pinker produces dozens of graphs and statistical surveys, and illuminates the dry statistics with bloodcurdling examples of cruelty from past ages which shock modern expectations and sensibilities. 

He argues the decline in violence has come about in response to the invention of the state, "gentle commerce" and a wider perspective and sympathy for others since the enlightenment. 

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world

If there is one major weakness in his argument, it is he dismisses the counter -examples of the "hemoclasms" of the twentieth century a little too quickly. They were comparable or, indeed less bad than many past events like the Mongol Conquests, he says, in terms of proportion of the population killed, if not in absolute numbers. And they were a product of the unfortunate appearance of three murderous indivduals, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, rather than a reversal of a broader tendency towards non-violence.

From the vantage point of almost seven decades after the world wars and genocides of the first half of the 20th century, we see that they were not harbingers of worse to come, nor a new normal to which the world would grow inured, but a local high from which it would bumpily descend. 


Still, he does put forward persuasive evidence that argues permanent progressive change is indeed possible in human affairs. This runs contrary to those who, in International Relations for example, argue little has changed since the 'Melian Dialogue' in Thucydides'  History of the Peloponnesian War, when Athens intimidated the small island of Melos. "The strong do what they can; the weak suffer what they must." 

Pinker ruefully concedes how previous predictions of pacification, like Norman Angell's The Great Illusion, turned out to be wrong. (In Angell's case, the First World War broke out soon after.)And Pinker notes there is no scientific reason why the process may not go into reverse. 

But he persuasively argues the overall trend has been remarkably pacific. Hunter-gatherer societies were brutal, medieval murder rates could be ten to a hundred times worse than today, and people used to accept cruelties such as torture or slavery without question. That has changed. 

The Escalator of Reason

I am going to look at just two aspects of this huge work. The first is the idea of the escalator of reason, as distinct from a broadening of perspective.  As Pinker explains it, reason naturally has a momentum, once you concede that there is no universal reason to distinguish between people. 

I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it. 

Nor can reason distinguish between Mike and Dave, or Lisa and Amy, or any other set of individuals, because as far as logic is concerned, they’re just a bunch of x’s and y’s. So as soon as you try to persuade someone to avoid harming you by appealing to reasons why he shouldn’t, you’re sucked into a commitment to the avoidance of harm as a general goal. And to the extent that you pride yourself on the quality of your reason, work to apply it far and wide, and use it to persuade others, you will be forced to deploy that reason in pursuit of universal interests, including an avoidance of violence.


Pinker discusses the argument orginally advanced by Peter Singer. 

 For Singer, it is hardheaded reason more than softhearted empathy that expands the ethical circle ever outward: Beginning to reason is like stepping onto an escalator that leads upward and out of sight. Once we take the first step, the distance to be traveled is independent of our will and we cannot know in advance where we shall end.... If we do not understand what an escalator is, we might get on it intending to go a few meters, only to find that once we are on, it is difficult to avoid going all the way to the end. Similarly, once reasoning has got started it is hard to tell where it will stop. The idea of a disinterested defense of one’s conduct emerges because of the social nature of human beings and the requirements of group living, but in the thought of reasoning beings, it takes on a logic of its own which leads to its extension beyond the bounds of the group.

I think this is highly naive and dangerous. As others have pointed out, the enlightenment did not just produce Kant and Hume and Beethoven and later John Stuart Mill. It also produced the Jacobins and Napoleon and Marx and the dictatorship of the proletariat and Leninism. 

Indeed, I'm reminded of the French Revolutionaries turning Notre Dame into a "Temple of Reason" for several years. Europe drowned in blood in the following decades, as war swept across the continent. 

There is no sense of proportion or restraint to the escalator. Reasoning within a particular framework can lead to some very dark places. 

And the argument is just wrong. It does not defy reason to argue, for example, that the American government should disproportionately favor American citizens. Indeed, it is almost required for a viable democracy. The argument simply ignores membership and group dynamics. 

The downside to morality

Indeed, Pinker effectively concedes the downside of an overdeveloped moral sense without restraints. Most murders, for example, he says are committed not for immediate advantage but out of misplaced outrage at perceived injury. The human moral sense can go seriously awry, particularly when it is turbocharged by a utopian ideology. 

The world has far too much morality. If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

Moral Psychology versus Ethics

Pinker also has very interesting discussions about the evolution of cooperation. 

However, I found the penultimate chapter the most fascinating of all. It has the best discussion I have yet read about the psychology of morality.  

The starting point is to distinguish morality per se, a topic in philosophy (in particular, normative ethics), from the human moral sense, a topic in psychology. 

This is something I've been very interested in before, such as in discussion of Jonathan Haidt's studies of moral intutions. 

Pinker discusses Haidt at length, but also covers other researchers as well that I had not come across. 

 For all their differences in lumping and splitting, the theories of Shweder, Haidt, and Fiske agree on how the moral sense works. No society defines everyday virtue and wrongdoing by the Golden Rule or the Categorical Imperative. Instead, morality consists in respecting or violating one of the relational models (or ethics or foundations): betraying, exploiting, or subverting a coalition; contaminating oneself or one’s community; defying or insulting a legitimate authority; harming someone without provocation; taking a benefit without paying the cost; peculating funds or abusing prerogatives. The point of these taxonomies is not to pigeonhole entire societies but to provide a grammar for social norms.

I've ordered Fiske's book and will tackle it soon. 

As I said, I find these relational model perspectives very interesting, as they give a great deal of insight into why different people perceive the world and politcal choices so differently.  They seem to have somewhat different mental toolkits. 

It explains much of the difference between conservatives and liberals, for one thing. Haidt finds liberals tend to perceive a narrower scope for moral imperatives, seeing just two moral dimensions instead of five.  

Pinker notes other researchers like Fiske find the same thing. 

In judging the importance of moral concerns, recall, social liberals place little weight on In-group Loyalty and Purity/Sanctity (which Fiske lumps under Communal Sharing), and they place little weight on Authority/Respect. Instead they invest all their moral concern in Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity. Social conservatives spread their moral portfolio over all five.

Changes in Moral Intutions

One way Pinker extends the discussion is he argues that the reliance on different moral senses is actually changing in a liberal direction, with steadily less emphasis on community, authority or sacred models and more on depersonalized automomy and exchange. 

 The direction of the change in prevailing models is clear enough. “Over the last three centuries throughout the world,” Fiske and Tetlock observe, “there has been a rapidly accelerating tendency of social systems as a whole to move from Communal Sharing to Authority Ranking to Equality Matching to Market Pricing.”

Europe and the coastal US and Canada are most pronounced in this tendency, with the interior and southern US, Japan and other developed countries lagging behind  - and little evidence of it at all in most of the developing world.


 What exogenous causes are shifting the allocation of moral intuitions away from community, authority, and purity and toward fairness, autonomy, and rationality? .. the  micro-geography of liberalism suggests that the moral trend away from community, authority, and purity is indeed an effect of mobility and cosmopolitanism.

Cosmopolitan perspective and the escalator of reason are more likely to apply in the great advanced cosmopolitan centers than more traditional nationalist places. But even more traditional societies are likely to see a shift in moraliy.  

Another subverter of community, authority, and purity is the objective study of history. The mindset of Communality, Fiske notes, conceives of the group as eternal: the group is held together by an immutable essence, and its traditions stretch back to the dawn of time.

That is increasingly less likely to apply, as the whole world shrinks to the size of a jet schedule or an app update. 

The sources of authority and legitimacy are also under attack.

Authority Rankings too are naturally portrayed as everlasting. They were ordained by the gods, or are inherent in a great chain of being that organizes the universe. And both models boast an abiding nobility and purity as part of their essential nature. In this tissue of rationalizations, a real historian is about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. 

The problem is that the state needs legitimacy. In fact, another fascinating history I read a few years ago, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History by Phillip Bobitt, explains the outbreak of major wars by the breakdown of one kind of state legitimacy (such as monarchical succession) with another (such as the "state-nation" or later "nation-state"). The decline of a particular form of legitimacy tends to lead to epochal wars. 

So in fact the shrinking of the grounds of legitimacy may yet arguably undermine the decline in violence Pinker identifies. Most of the language of the postwar UN settlement is virtually unintelligible now - such as national sovereignty, self-determination, decolonization, international human rights.  Market exchange can be too thin a basis for legitimacy. Nobody puts their life on the line to defend NASDAQ or the Nikkei. 

These issues of moral psychology are simply fasincating, however, and I will have to return to this issue many times. 


  1. Nicely reviewed. I too had trouble with Pinker' discussion of hemoclasms. Unfortunate for mankind is that they occur at all. Fortunate I suppose, is that there are not more of them.

    I was intrigued with the proposition that warfare is a random occurrence, not withstanding each has its roots in the Hobsian dilemma.

  2. Thank you for perceptive comment. Much appreciated.