Thursday, August 23, 2012

Getting better

Things are getting better is a regular refrain around here.  Not that everything is perfect, of course, as I certainly subscribe to the theories that everything sucks and people especially suck (even more so than you would expect of something that is part of everything) but it is hard to deny how much better and safer life is now than it was in the past.  Recently I have been reading a book by Stephen Pinker called The Better Angels of Our Nature:  Why Violence Has Declined that talks all about this topic.

I have a bit of a dilemma.  On one hand I want to call this a feel good book that tries and succeeds at convincing the reader that the world is a wonderful place.  On the other hand it is really hard coming from a life with modern sensibilities to read graphic accounts of just how awful things were for humanity for nearly all of history.  Whether it be medieval torture methods, rape, or infanticide Pinker pulls no punches.

It's not just that we try to rehabilitate criminals these days instead of simply imprisoning them; it is that tormenting criminals to death used to be a fun public activity for the whole family.  Did you steal something and end up imprisoned in the stocks?  Mobs are likely to show up and torture and mutilate you to death just for entertainment.  The difference between how people act now and how they acted a century ago are incredible; go back five centuries and it is hard to recognize humanity at all.

This book isn't just a list of statistics about how much less often we murder each other than in times long past (it is a LOT less) but also an examination of why we think murdering each other isn't okay anymore.  The decline of violence has accompanied changes in human attitudes towards violence and Pinker does a fantastic job of explaining not just that things are safer now but also why.

The thing that I find most remarkable about this book is that Pinker is extremely thorough about admitting what we know for sure, what is reasonable to assume and what he thinks is true without proof.  The book has lots of graphs and data but often, especially when dealing with events far in the past, it is extremely difficult to be sure what the numbers really are.  Lots of books out there draw conclusions from nothing or use flimsy statistical justifications for their beliefs but Pinker is willing to admit it when he is just making his best guess.  I respect that a lot and it lends a huge amount of credibility when he does say that something is certainly true.

I also very much like Pinker's treatment of religion.  Obviously plenty of violence has been done in the name of religion in the past but much of it we can't realistically blame on religion since it was more culture vs. culture than anything else.  It is true though that religion can exacerbate violence in two specific ways that are really interesting.  In particular it can make ending wars extremely difficult because the enemies are not just jerks but are also heathens and heretics which makes peace negotiation unacceptable.  This made ending wars much more difficult and caused much additional suffering.  The other major effect of religion was basing morality around souls rather than people.  This belief gives people an excuse for utterly horrific treatment of others on the basis that protecting their souls justifies any treatment of their bodies.  The idea that suffering and death are totally secondary to other goals warps morality and gave rise all kinds of terrible abuses.

I really recommend this book.  It is long and dense so you won't get through it quickly but I very much approve of the message.  Violence will never vanish completely but it is very much on the wane and we can and should continue to work to reinforce that trend.

Picture from wikipedia:

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