Steven Pinker: ‘We Can Be Optimistic as Long as We Don’t Lean Back’
Almost whenever violence can be quantified, the trend shows a decline. Martin Eiermann sat down with Steven Pinker to discuss the spread of reason, human nature, and the importance of empirical analysis.
The European: Your current book addresses the question of violence. What is the focus of your argument?
Pinker: That violence has declined over the course of history on multiple scales of magnitude and time. Homicide, war, genocide, rape, corporal and capital punishments, and the harsh treatment of children and animals have all become less frequent. It’s not that human nature has changed during these transitions. But human nature is a complex system with many parts. Some tempt us towards violence - exploitation, dominance, revenge - and others can inhibit us from being violent - self-control, empathy, moral norms and reason. My goal was to identify the historical forces that have increasingly favored “the better angles of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln called them.
The European: What historical forces can be causally linked to a decline in violence?
Pinker: A major one is the rise of effective government, which helped to pacify society, just as Thomas Hobbes had predicted in his theory of the “Leviathan.” Governments removed the incentives for exploitative violence on one side, and thereby reduced the temptation for pre-emptive attack and for violent retaliation on the other. Another force was the expansion of trade and commerce, which made it cheaper to buy things than to steal them, and meant that other people were worth more alive than dead. A third was the rise of cosmopolitan forces like literacy and travel, which expanded people’s circle of empathy. At the same time, reason and free speech were enhanced, which encouraged people to become cleverer to treat violence as a problem to be solved.
The European: Did you expect the seeming prevalence of these trends?
Pinker: I was surprised to see how many domains of human violence show declines. I knew that homicide rates had been declining since the Middle Ages, that cruel corporal punishments had been eliminated in most of the world, and that violence had declined during the transition from tribal anarchy to the first states. But I had not realized that deaths in warfare had plummeted since 1945, or that rates of child abuse, domestic violence, and rape were way down. Pretty much whenever violence can be quantified, the trend is one of decline.
The European: It’s a bit surprising to see a psychologist write about historical trends. How is the psychology of violence linked to the history of violence?
Pinker: As a cognitive psychologist, I was delighted to discover that reason is one of the psychological faculties most responsible for the decline of violence. I had started the book thinking that three parts of human nature had driven violence down - self-control, empathy and fairness. But I discovered that the spread of reasoned arguments had a role as well. Moral entrepreneurs used reason and persuasion to argue that some practices of the day were barbaric. The arguments went viral and caused a change in practices. I can’t deny the importance of emotion and empathy, but it was often the use of reason which spearheaded those changes.