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.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.