The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

PinkerBetterAngelsThis book should be required reading in any number of college courses, and probably for every member of the Ethical Society.  It’s big, but much more readable than all those charts and tables would suggest.  And it provides ample evidence for something very important:  not only are we becoming nicer, but we are learning how to become nicer still.

The subtitle, “Why Violence Has Declined”, is indeed demonstrated in a variety of fronts:  war, homicide, rape, cruelty to children and animals, among others.  It’s not just a set of statistics, but a great deal of information on how those statistics are compiled, what is correlated and, to the extent possible, what changes caused what.

Summing it all up in the last chapter, some complex concepts are worth quoting:

“THE LEVIATHAN: A state that uses a monopoly on force to protect its citizens from one another may be the most consistent violence=reducer that we have encountered in this book.”

“GENTLE COMMERCE:  The idea that an exchange of benefits can turn zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit was one of the key ideas of the Enlightenment, and it was revived in modern biology as an explanation of how cooperation among non-relatives evolved.”

“FEMINIZATION:  . . . the most fundamental empirical generalization about violence, that it is mainly committed by men. . . . Female-friendly values may be expected to reduce violence because of the psychological legacy of the basic biological difference between the sexes, namely that males have more of an incentive to compete for sexual access to females, while females have more of an incentive to stay away from risks that would make their children orphans.”

“THE EXPANDING CIRCLE:  Beginning in the 17th century . . . [m]ore people read books, including fiction that led them to inhabit the minds of other people, and satire that led them to question their society’s norms.  Vivid depictions of the suffering wrought by slavery, sadistic punishments, war and cruelty to children and animals preceded the reforms that outlawed or reduced these practices.”

“THE ESCALATOR OF REASON:  A humanistic value system, which privileges human flourishing as the ultimate good, is a product of reason because it can be justified: it can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation, whereas communal and authoritarian values are parochial to a tribe or or hierarchy.”

Since this is a big and pretty densely packed book, it may be that only the conclusions will take hold.  Still, we have here both reason for optimism and a call to promote those better angels of our nature.

Statements in this review do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.