The Roots of Progress

The most peaceful time in history

I recently finished reading The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker. I wholeheartedly recommend it.

Most of The Roots of Progress so far has been about technology, with a bit here and there on science and perhaps philosophy. But as I stated at the beginning, I am interested in progress of all kinds: technological, scientific, and political/moral. Pinker’s book was about political and moral progress throughout human history, specifically from the standpoint of the decline of force and violence.

It is the kind of book I would be proud to have written: a fascinating, important topic; rigorous analysis integrating tons of empirical data within a broad philosophical framework; clear and even entertaining exposition.

It is a long book: thorough and dense (although very readable). As such it will be difficult to summarize. But let me try to recount what I’ve learned.

The first major step in the decline of violence was the establishment of government: the transition from tribal existence to life under a king or other local ruler. Life in tribes was a life of constant warfare. Pinker estimates that government alone, any functioning government, reduces the rate of violent death fivefold compared to pre-state society. He calls this the Pacification Process.

The second major step is what he calls the Civilizing Process: a process by which, over centuries, individuals living within state societies became less violent towards each other. He documents a long downwards trend in homicide rates: In England, for instance, from a peak of somewhere between 10 and 100 murders per 100,000 people per year in the 1300s, the rate declined steadily over the centuries to less than 1. Similar declines are seen all over the civilized world, and they are accompanied by similar declines in violent crime in general. (Pinker also addresses why crime rates have not fallen as far in America as they have in Western Europe (short answer: the South), and why crime rates actually rose in the ’60s and then fell again in the ’90s (short answer: the Counterculture).)

With the Enlightenment came what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution. Slavery, a practice older then civilization, was outlawed around the world. Cruel and unusual punishments were abandoned, especially the use of torture: in medieval times, torture was applied even for minor crimes (or what today are non-crimes, such as blasphemy), and far from abhorring it, the public enjoyed it as a spectacle, even as entertainment. (!) War, previously seen as noble and glorious, came to be seen as a form of hell that civilized people should avoid at all costs. Pinker documents the overall decrease in deaths from war, despite the outliers of the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century. He notes that the great powers have not gone to war for for 70 years, that the Cold War ended without erupting, and that the threat of nuclear war has been kept at bay, all of which would have seemed like a ridiculously optimistic prediction to an observer circa 1950.

Finally, there were the Rights Revolutions of the twentieth century—civil rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, gay rights, and even animal rights—in which the “circle of sympathy” was expanded and the principles underlying the previous centuries of progress were universalized to include people of all races, ages, genders, etc.

The sum of all of this: a consistent downward trend in virtually all forms of violence, over the long term, pretty much everywhere.

What caused this? And, as I asked in another context, how do we keep it going? Pinker rigorously examines many hypotheses for each decline, and the causes he finds are many and complex. However, there are some broad themes. The ones that stand out to me (Pinker summarizes it somewhat differently) are:

In other words, we get less violent as we get smarter, richer and freeer (indicating, as I have suggested elsewhere, that these three stories are intertwined into a single story of human progress).

I must include a word on Pinker’s methodology. For me, Better Angels sets a new standard for what social/political/philosophic writing can be:

I’ve been a fan of Pinker ever since I read his essay on the decline of war in the WSJ (which caused me to completely rewrite a Quora answer) and his incisive takedown of Malcolm Gladwell in the NYT (years later, I’m still chuckling about “igon values”). Now, I’m very much looking forward to his forthcoming book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

For me personally, there were a few interesting takeaways from the book. The biggest is that it gives an overview of the government/morality row in the overview chart I presented in “Charting progress”. This book is close to a summary of exactly what I had in mind for that row, and now I have a lot more substance to it and a framework for thinking about these issues.

It also gave me an even stronger appreciation for the excellence of the times we live in. The safest and most peaceful time in history is right now.

The book also made me more sympathetic to arguments for gun control and against torture and the death penalty. (It didn’t make me any more sympathetic to the animal rights movement, although for what it’s worth I don’t think Pinker is necessarily very sympathetic to animal rights; he and I agree, though, that burning cats alive as public sport, as they did in the Middle Ages, is disgusting and it’s a good thing we don’t do that anymore.)

But the most intriguing idea to me is the notion of the expanding circle of sympathy: the realization that until recently, most people, even the most enlightened intellectual leaders, simply didn’t see all of humanity as fully human.

From our modern standpoint this is simply bizarre, and I’m still struggling to comprehend it. Furthermore, I can’t analyze it with any of the moral philosophy that I’ve studied. I’m used to thinking about things like duty- vs. value-based morality, subjective vs. objective morality, or reason- vs. faith-based morality. I’m used to asking questions like “what does this ethical code hold as its ultimate good or standard of value?” and “what does this morality hold as the essence of virtue?” But none of these ideas help me understand why someone could think deeply about the universal rights of mankind and not comprehend that these apply to women or blacks. When I began this project, I suspected that there was a story here that devleoped in parallel with the progression in government from anarchy to tyranny to liberty. Now I’m sure of it, and I want to learn more.

Relevant books

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

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