Interview with Steven Pinker: Are we getting better?

In "The Better Angels of our Nature," Steven Pinker makes a case for the decreasing violence of the human race.

  • close
    Despite some setbacks, Pinker makes a case in "The Better Angels of Our Nature" that homicide, rape, and the number of wars being fought have all drastically fallen over several centuries.
    View Caption
  • About video ads
    View Caption

In his latest book The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that the world has never been a safer place to live in. Looking back at the history of violence from prehistoric times up the present day, Pinker says it became far more beneficial for human beings to be less violent.

Despite some setbacks (mainly in the first half of the 20th century), Pinker says that – with the help of factors such as the rise of commerce, mass education, and the rule of law – homicide, rape, and the number of wars being fought have all drastically fallen over several centuries.

Using a substantial amount of empirical data, scientific reasoning, and enthusiastic praise for the ideas of the Enlightenment, Pinker argues that although violence will probably never be eradicated, in the modern world we are far more in touch with the "better angels of our nature."

Pinker is the Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University and this is his 13th book published to date. His other famous books include: "The Blank Slate" (2002), which postulates that that human behaviour is substantially shaped by evolutionary psychological adaptations; "How the Mind Works" (1997), which draws heavily on the paradigm of evolutionary psychology and helps to explain some of the mind’s poorly understood functions and quirks; and "The Language Instinct" (1994), where he argues that humans are born with an innate capacity for language.

I recently had a chance to talk with Pinker about "The Better Angels of Our Nature."

What made you want to write a book exploring the subject of violence?

It was an interest in human nature. I had written two books previously on human nature, and I faced criticism that any acknowledgment of human nature is fatalistic. I always thought this objection was nonsense. For one thing, even in theory, human nature comprises many motives and even if we have some motives that incline us to violence, we also have some motives that inhibit us from violence, and so just positing human nature doesn’t force you to claim that one side or another must prevail.

You equate Marxist ideology with violence in the book. Do you think that capitalist values have contributed to the decline of violence?

I think that communism was a major force for violence for more than a 100 years, because it was built into its ideology: mainly that progress comes through class struggle, often violent, and it lead to the widespread belief that the only way to achieve justice was to hurry this dialectical process along, and allow the oppressed working classes to carry out their struggle against their bourgeois oppressors. However much we might deplore the profit motive, or consumerist values, if everyone just wants i-Pods we would probably be better off than if they wanted class revolution.

How do you view democracy in terms of how much violence it creates?

Democracy is an imperfect way of steering between the violence of anarchy and the violence of tyranny, with the least violence you can get away with. So I don’t think it’s a triumph, but it’s the best option we have found. As far as we know there doesn’t seem to be a better one on the horizon.

How much has religion contributed to violence throughout history and should we see a correlation between the two?

Yes, violence and religion have often gone together, but it’s not a perfect correlation, and it doesn’t have to be a permanent connection, because religions themselves change. They are not completely independent of behavior and respond to the very currents that drive violence down. Religions have become more liberal in response to these currents.

You cite ideology as the main cause for violence in the 20th century. Why is that?

Well, there are a number of things that make particular ideologies dangerous. One of them is the prospect of a utopia, since utopias are infinitely good forever, and can justify any amount of violence to pursue that utopia, where the costs are still outweighed by the benefits. Utopias also tend to demonize certain people as obstacles to a perfect world, whether they are the ruling classes, the bourgeois, the Jews, the infidels, the heretics, or whoever. As long as your ideology identifies the main source of the world’s ills as a definable group, it opens the world up to genocide.

Is there any evidence to suggest that violence actually statistically doesn’t work in trying to invoke political change?

A study that was published too late to include in my book by two political scientists: Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen, looked at the success rate of violent and non-violent resistance movements, and it found that the non-violent ones succeeded 75 percent and the violent ones succeeded 25 percent. So it’s not a case that violence never works, nor that non-violence always works, but non-violence seems to have a better success rate.

In your book you talk about understanding abortion in terms of consciousness and morality. Why is there so much misunderstanding about this topic in your opinion?

Consciousness is increasingly seen as the origin of moral worth, and also empirically, the huge increase in abortions has not accompanied an increase in the neglect or abuse of children. A common prediction in the 1970s before Roe vs. Wade is that abortion would inevitably lead to legalized infanticide. We can say with confidence that prediction was incorrect, which supports the idea that people’s intuition doesn’t equate abortion with murder, that legalized abortion did not place people on a slippery slope. The slope actually has a fair amount of traction and I think what gives it traction is the equation of moral values with consciousness.

You describe the concept of pure evil as a myth in the book. Why so?

I suspect that the dynamic is part of human nature, that we do have a concept of evil that we project onto those that harm us.... [I]t is part of the brief of the prosecution in the implicit trial to which we subject our adversaries in the court of public opinion. The myth of “pure evil” is a debating tactic. We don’t think of it that way because that very awareness would undermine the credibility of our brief, but I believe that is its ultimate function. If the myth of pure evil is that evil is committed with the intention of causing harm, and an absence of moral considerations, then it applies to very few acts ... because most evil doers believe what they are doing is forgivable or justifiable.

Should we be worried that violence on a mass scale as seen in the last century will make a comeback?

I think we should worry. I don’t think we will necessarily see it on the same scale, but the violence that did take place was due to features that were found in human nature. They haven’t gone away and it’s possible that they could re-emerge, all the more reason why we should fortify the institutions that are designed to prevent that from happening, like free speech, rule of law, and human rights.

J.P. O'Malley is a freelance writer based in London.

Join the Monitor's book discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

10 banned books that may surprise you

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.