Thursday, October 4, 2007

Is Violence on the Decline?

Last March, noted psychologist Steven Pinker delivered a talk in which he argued that violence is, and for long has been, declining in human societies. Presenting archaeological, ethnographic, and historical evidence that the "ancestors [of modern humans] were far more violent" than their descendants, Pinker vigorously concluded that "today we are living in one of the most peaceful times in our species' existence."

He offered multiple hypotheses as to how such a situation might have arisen. Notably, Pinker presents the argument set forth by philosopher Peter Singer in his book The Expanding Circle that perhaps, evolution itself has

"bequeath[ed] humans with a sense of empathy - an ability to treat other people's interests as comparable to one's own. Unfortunately, by default we apply it only to a very narrow circle of friends and family. People outside that circle were treated as subhuman and can be exploited with impunity. But over history the circle has expanded . . . from village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to other races to other sexes and . . . other species."

If this line of argument were validated and if the process it describes would continue, surely we might be led to believe that world is a much better place than it was just a couple of centuries ago. Although that observation is probably true, Pinker may be over-stating the case - although severe physical punishment in Medieval Europe could often result from crimes that would in modern times merit no more than an infraction (as Pinker points out,) is it truly the case that such violence was characteristic of day-to-day life in Medieval Europe for the majority of its population? And what about other cultures? Has violence declined in non-Western societies? Pinker does not offer an explicit answer to that question in this talk.

Nevertheless, Pinker is entirely correct in encouraging us to focus not only on what we are "doing wrong but also on what we are doing right." In spite of the seemingly endless series of misfortunes in this world, much is right and for us to ignore what is right is undoubtedly wrong.

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