Better Angels of Our Nature

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by Neil Godfrey

angelsReflections on having completed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. . . .

By the time I had completed the seventh chapter of Better Angels I began to feel my existence was somehow in a surreal place. Compared with most lives throughout human history mine has been fantastically lucky and overwhelmingly privileged. The pain that follows reminders and expanded awareness of just how cruel so much of human existence has been inevitably leaves some sense of guilt and a need to to do more to justify or repay the privilege of my life to date.

Pinker helps readers appreciate just how fortunate we are to be living in the ongoing momentum of the Enlightenment where the seeds of our humanistic and scientific values were planted. (Those who argue that the Enlightenment gave birth to Hitler and the Holocaust and other modern degradations are flat ignorant — Pinker describes the charges as “ludicrous, if not obscene” — since such movements were in fact a reaction against Enlightenment values.) Our moral and rights revolutions, the growth of “liberal” values, humanistic concerns and reactions against cruelty to slaves, children, other races and classes, democratic movements, human rights of liberty and equality, workers’ rights, children’s rights, civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, animal rights, care for the environment — it’s been an incredible moment of history.

All of this has been accompanied by scientific and technological understanding, burgeoning education and even advances in our collective ability to reason and understand — all without the would-be diversions and false-leads of dogma and religion.

Pinker does not mention it, but what we witnessed early this century when millions of people came out into the streets all around the world to protest against the threat of an imminent invasion of Iraq was surely a most significant milestone in human history. Today there is even international outrage over the single killing of a lion for sport. We do live in the most amazing times. 

Pinker argues that one of the reasons we have it so “good” (compared with the past) is Leviathan — the growth of State power as a third party with the function of keeping the peace among its citizens by acting as the arbiter in disputes and enforcing the rules that are preferably modified by democratic pressures. The long tail of human history before urban and agricultural communities, or before the beginnings of state power, was the most fragile. The studies of remains of early humans are believed by some scholars to indicate that deaths from the violence of human against human was at a higher ratio than anything since we organized into settled and strongly governed communities.

I was surprised to read this claim. There is a YouTube video clip of an interview with Noam Chomsky discussing Pinker’s book where the opposing view is presented.


Chomsky mentions the work of Brian Ferguson that apparently disputes the evidence of other scholars cited by Pinker. I’d like to follow up Ferguson’s arguments to check this one out for myself. Chomsky can be classified as a Romantic in the tradition of Rousseau with respect to his views of human nature. (That explains his often mystifying optimism about humanity, I guess.)

Pinker explains his disagreement with Chomsky on human nature:

What I found especially rewarding in Better Angels was Pinker’s discussion of the neurological and psychological insights researchers have been gaining into the fundamentals of what makes us “moral animals” and why and how we have a certain range of differences across cultures of what is and is not moral.

But before I get into that, I felt there was something missing in Pinker’s explanations for the relatively peaceful state of the world today. Pinker spoke much of modern democratic states and the changes the come with “gentle commerce” yet never mentioned the fact that since World War 2, and even more so since 1991, one of the unique conditions we have witnessed is the overwhelming military dominance of the entire world by a single state.

Nor did he give much attention (I can’t recall any at all) to the way a number of the major democratic states have really evolved into effective oligarchies in which power elites play and manipulate the system for their own interests, and the way the mass media has enabled this state of affairs to arise and continue.

So in failing to address these surely highly significant features of our modern civilization it seemed somewhat ironic when he pointed to research that indicated that people of higher intelligence tend to support the values underpinning our Liberal Democratic states. Rightly or wrongly memories of Julien Benda come pounding back to mind. (Benda was famous for analysing the way intellectuals of his day fell into line as supporters of the violent State that gave them their privileged social and economic status. Chomsky would be his successor today.)

But back to the fundamentals of what makes us moral animals. I learned something of the way different modules in our brains take care of the different aspects of our emotional and mental states, but in particular I was fascinated by the theories of a “grammar of social and moral norms”. Those ideas have led me to taking fresh looks at some of the debates that engage us today: over terrorism, Islam, religion and science, fundamentalist (and even “scholarly”) bigotry, tribalism in some sectors of modern Western societies, and just trying to lead people into new challenges and getting along with colleagues at work.

I look forward to posting up an outline of the “grammars” proposed for my own benefit as much as for the interest of anyone else since it’s very new to me and it would be a step towards thinking it through more and seeing if it can help gain a better understanding of the nature of debates and relationships that we find ourselves negotiating.



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Neil Godfrey

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24 thoughts on “Better Angels of Our Nature”

  1. I dislike comments of a personal kind in these discussions, and I still have yet to reply to some remarks made many weeks ago on this site regarding my views on “race” &c. But I am interested to know why the relative benefits of our humane society, in time and space, should prompt any sense of “guilt”. Is this an individual response, or possibly a residual survival of “Christian ethical indoctrination”? Should we not simply feel gratitude for our good fortune and try to spread it whenever and wherever practicable?

    1. Good question. Trying to think it through I suspect it’s the result of acute awareness that my own good fortune has come at such horrible costs to so many others. Or perhaps there’s also an element of a sense of undeserving, that I should have such a good life (by comparison) when so many others have had to suffer in the ways they did. Perhaps it’s a little like the soldier who returns alive and unscathed while his mates have been killed — I hear them express feelings of guilt over their survival even though outsiders know they have nothing to be “guilty” about in a purely rational sense.

      I suspect it derives from a feeling or identity of being part of the whole of humanity and all life, really — which is what I have certainly felt and how I have identified since leaving religious beliefs.

      That’s not to say it is the dominant emotion. But it does urge me to feel a sense of responsibility to do my part to make my existence worthwhile — even if it only serves to make one or two other person’s (or any living creature’s) lives a little better.

    2. Even quite apart from anything in Pinker’s latest book, like many others I know I do sometimes feel a sense of shame or guilt over simply being Australian and part of a nation-state and system that accrues the good life for a few at the (often cruel and inhumane) expense of so many. When traveling in developing countries I find it very easy to be a generous tourist. In another age the lucky few lived in safe and luxurious palaces with too little thought of those outside who made their status possible. I don’t see that as a negative emotion, but as a motivator to support actions for change and influencing national policies.

      1. Statistics based on classifying humans/things can be manipulated because classifying means to define—and definitions can include/exclude depending on agendas. —a good example is the casualties of U.S. wars….and how they are “classified” in order to promote agendas….in the drone warfare, how deaths are classified skews the numbers…..often, numbers on “the ground” do not match official U.S. military numbers because of how human beings are classified…..

        Then there are the after-effects—failed states, refugees, lawlessness and violence—stats that are not counted. There may also be hidden factors—for example statistics that show that 57% of Americans approve the use of torture….or the large number of people killed by vehicular accidents is not “classified” as violence….

        …and Commerce has not been “gentle”—it has been exploitative and corrupt in most parts of the world creating large income gaps and socio-economic injustice…..”Capitalism” began by Europeans taking their “Gunships” to force open markets….There are still notions of privilege/entitlements that we need to work on….

        On the other hand—it is also true that we human beings have found many new ways of expressing and implementing our moral values from actual protests, to BDS, to twitter humor, to artworks—pictures, documentaries, etc creatively funded—as well as building alliances across groups—such as interfaith and other groups coming together to tackle Islamophobia, injustice,
        violence….etc. Material progress has also contributed to comfort and health to many people around the world

        I am not a Westerner…so I don’t view history through a linear lens of evolution/progress on a line from simple to complex….rather…it is a series of hills and valleys where civilizations come and go…all contributing in myriad ways and dimensions to human progress….So, to me, history is not only a feel-good exercise to pat ourselves on the back and say “look how far we have
        come”….it is a complex narrative of human endeavors that offer lessons of wisdom and mistakes that we can learn from.

        Our positive narratives are important—particularly those that re-enforce positive values…but we must do so carefully and compassionately—so that others (different)efforts are also celebrated and respected—not destroyed. Maimonides (Jewish scholar,philosopher) said “The only divine plan is that which allows humankind to shape its own destiny”. IMO, this notion that humanity is empowered to shape their own destiny is an energizing idea that creates force for positive change….?….but we must also take responsibility for choosing our destiny—that means we need to repair the damages we have caused in pursuit of destiny….

        Christianity emphasizes guilt—and if this emotion is used for positive change it is beneficial to humanity—but gratitude can also work instead of guilt—especially for non-Christians. In Islam, Ramadan, the month of fasting, builds gratitude so that there is a strong desire to share our blessings and fortune….Our positive narratives may promote in us gratitude(or guilt) for the fortune of our times and if this propels us to continue the positive change for the future and to solve the problems in our present…it will bring much benefit.

        1. Just by the way and not for any one person in particular . . . . I should perhaps clarify that I don’t slog through each day wracked with guilt feelings. It’s when I’ve just read the first seven chapters of “Better Angels” and when the reminders of the sufferings of others are fresh and graphic that the guilt-response, or twinge, such as it is, is likely to kick in. I don’t want to make a big thing about it: there is also an enormous amount of sorrow, pain, outrage, horror….

          But to respond to just one point above — it’s been a long time since “Westerners” viewed history as a linear or evolutionary line of progress. At least where I am in Australia believe history has not generally been taught that way for a long time, at least uniformly, in public schools, much to the chagrin of conservatives. Historians themselves long left such views of history behind.

          1. Societies all over the world are similar in some ways and different in others. As with religions the dissimilarities are not all “homologous”. There are multiple causes for the differences many of which add to the beauty and interest of the life of humanity as a whole. They do not deserve to be mangled up together within a spiritless universal “consumerism”.

            The careful exploration of causes, and of values, is requisite, especially if any “improvements” are to be made anywhere on a big scale. This is a huge requirement, further complicated by special interests and their influence on events.

            There are problems also with the new western imperialism, the globalism of “human rights” instead of “colonial exploitation”. As for past and present misbehavior, many societies have faults which are not the result of the “wicked white man” but which remain less “enlightened” than “ours”.

            We bring to any reasonable discussion table our own experiences, preferences and prejudices.

            Mine differ from Neil Godfrey’s and hundreds of thousands of others, and they from one another. For example, I inherited from my parents a love and affection for my English homeland, while being well aware of the pros and cons of its history. They were persuaded to emigrate to Australia, at private expense which enabled their return, unlike the subsidized commitment, but were unable to find affordable accommodation, and returned before their money ran out completely, starting from scratch back home, both working hard without “benefits”. Alone of the then white immigrants (from communist countries or Indonesia) in my Australian school, I was bullied – as a “bloody pom”! I have no ill-feelings for Australians, quite the reverse, and do not think an open-door immigration policy, for Javanese or Bangladeshis, or any other Asians, would be desirable. I have seen the downside of Afro-Asian immigration in English towns, and believe there are better ways to “make up” for any cruelties in our past.

            Gradual meliorism is better than “utopianism”, the “perennial heresy” (Molnar).

            1. Sorry, but I don’t understand how these views and experiences of yours connect with the point about guilt feelings I thought we were exploring. We seem to be at cross purposes somehow.

              1. Just making the point about diversity of private experience and public situations. I feel no guilt whatever about my relative fortune or misfortune, but I do not lack compassion for the maltreated. There are however practical limits to what can or should be done, by me or others, about the apparently less fortunate.

                My own family has been affected by severe health problems affecting one otherwise remarkably gifted member, which has prevented me and my wife from our own career development, and there is no much time or energy or money for us left to invest in the population of Timbuctoo. If anyone should feel “guilty” about the poverty of their numerous children, it is not us.

              2. One point about “guilt” you may think relevant. The ostensible range of demands of Jesus for moral perfection, from no mere thoughts of adultery to loving all your enemies, whether he said them, or whatever they really meant, impose impossible targets, and therefore leave a continual sense of guilt in those who cannot live up to them. It is not just a matter of responsibility and reparation for actual wrong actions like theft or murder. The Golden Rule (singularly not prominent in the religion of Muhammad) is reasonable enough, but failure to give all to the poor, whom we still “have with us”, from Calais to the Outback, instils guilt. “We have not done those things we ought to have done, and there is no health in us.”

  2. Please post about it if you follow up and read Ferguson. (I’ll feel guilty not doing it myself, but I’ll live.) I’m inclined to take Pinker’s side in this one, probably the only political/historical issue I would over Chomsky’s views. Thanks again for sure great reading, thinking, and writing. You too Tim.

  3. I picked up Pinker’s Better Angels when it was first published, but I have yet to open it. I bought the book because the press on it at the time painted a picture of Pinker as painting a crabbed, neoliberal pro-Statist point of view that wholly ignores the violence that our “liberal democratic” states visit upon their enemies in war and on its individual citizens daily. Leaving aside Ferguson’s criticism’s of Pinker’s data, my guess is that Pinker completely ignores violence inflicted by the police on citizens. Did he bother to consider the rise in the number of prisons in the U.S. and the increasing militarization of U.S. police forces and how those phenomena affect his conclusion.

    1. I agree to some extent (not totally — it misses some important points) with the criticism and in my post I referred to a huge gap in Pinker’s commentary. However Pinker does present an important framing of these questions that is well-worth understanding if we are going to be engaged constructively in future debates.

      The broad point that the extent of today’s violence is “minimal” when compared with what was lived through in the past is surely sound.

      The violence perpetrated by the United States (and other Western powers but I focus on the US because of its status as the sole world-dominant power) cannot be wielded as freely as other state powers in the past went to war, incarcerated citizens, etc. Public opinion must be won over and public values by and large have made leaps towards “enlightened values” since the Enlightenment. I’m not saying that this has happened solely because of benign ideas floating around: of course there have been real and painful events, conflicts, along the way, but the “benign” values are now a mix where they rarely surfaced before and they have won out in significant areas. (Even Chomsky acknowledges these developments.)

      What interested me about Pinker’s analysis of violence in (and by) the United States was the historical role of the “culture of honor” there (esp in the South) — which is comparatively vestigial in many other Western states — dating back to early patterns of colonization. (The culture of honor is closely related to many forms of violence throughout history.)

      1. “I agree to some extent (not totally — it misses some important points) with the criticism and in my post I referred to a huge gap in Pinker’s commentary.”

        Given that I haven’t actually read the book, I’d call it more an impression than true criticism.

        “The violence perpetrated by the United States (and other Western powers but I focus on the US because of its status as the sole world-dominant power) cannot be wielded as freely as other state powers in the past went to war, incarcerated citizens, etc. Public opinion must be won over and public values by and large have made leaps towards “enlightened values” since the Enlightenment. I’m not saying that this has happened solely because of benign ideas floating around: of course there have been real and painful events, conflicts, along the way, but the “benign” values are now a mix where they rarely surfaced before and they have won out in significant areas. (Even Chomsky acknowledges these developments.)”

        I’d argue that we reached “peak enlightenment” just prior to the ascension of the neoliberals, that things have become worse in the last 30-40 years as we dumb everything down and focus on consumerism instead of education and enlightenment. More and more people are being left behind as the State becomes content truly serving fewer and fewer people. Pinker seems to be taking a victory lap for the foes his ideology vanquished. Chomsky’s acknowledgement that people have successfully wrested “rights” away from a state that supposedly serves them is not an endorsement of Pinker’s point of view.

        1. I’m not sure that’s a fair comment about Pinker’s argument which is much broader than simply saying a certain ideology has won out. He makes no predictions about the future. His point is to understand what has brought us to the present point in hopes of understanding what is best required for the gains to continue. That limitations have been put on State power is very much fundamental to Pinker’s point and there is no disagreement in that respect with Chomsky’s view.

          His argument is addressing the sweep of history and in the “progress” of the three centuries since the Enlightenment there have been ups and downs. It is by no means all one uniform downward slide. There is a real tension between “liberals” and “conservatives” that Pinker addresses, but over the decades the long-term trend (through ups and downs) has been for the conservatives to be dragged along in the direction of the liberal values. In one passage he writes, for example:

          Though both liberals and conservatives may deny that any such a trend has taken place, consider the fact that no mainstream conservative politician today would invoke tradition, authority, cohesion, or religion to justify racial segregation, keeping women out of the workforce, or criminalizing homosexuality, arguments they made just a few decades ago.

          Pinker, Steven (2011-10-06). The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence In History And Its Causes (p. 636). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

          I agree that in recent decades we have been facing reversals on several fronts, but the hopeful fact remains that these reversals face resistance and opposition from large sectors of society. State powers (e.g. US, Australia) swing to values that polls show are in fact opposed by the majority of their constituents.

          My own reading is that Pinker is largely right as far as he goes but I don’t believe he has gone far enough in his analysis and there are real gaps in his discussion of explanations for the decline of violence. It’s the gaps in Pinker’s analysis that make me worry about the future.

          What Pinker fails to do, I think, is take into account the significance of America’s power since WW2 and especially since 1991, and to weigh this against the previous two centuries when there was a more realistic balance of powers “maintaining order”. As Chomsky reminds us, this period of comparative well-being is only a very small slice of history. From a future perspective we will have a clearer idea of what was really underpinning it and how real it was. The neoliberals today could indeed drag us back into a new dark age, or even human extinction.

          1. “I’m not sure that’s a fair comment about Pinker’s argument which is much broader than simply saying a certain ideology has won out. ”

            Remember, the comment is based on an initial impression and, therefore, fact-free and manifestly unfair. 🙂

            On the other hand, I am very much attuned to neoliberal apologetics, and I am inclined to believe that Pinker is a practitioner.

            1. Agreed. I chose not to write a full review of the book, by the way, because of the time it would have taken. There is much I dismayed at in what he wrote. But I kept reading nonetheless and did find much of interest and value despite the abundant chaff.

  4. Read the Pinker book a while back. Didn’t ring true on a gut level. Felt like I was being spun. Did a little looking into the other side. Suggest others do the same. Here’s a couple of places to start.



    My litmus test these days for people worth paying attention to is simply this: Did they oppose the invasion of Iraq BEFORE it occurred? Anyone know whether Pinker took a position on this?

    1. I am on the side of the values of the critics of Pinker but at the same time I cannot accept our criticisms missing Pinker’s point and overstating the opposing case. Pinker’s point that Edward Herman quotes stands: The US and UK did not justify the takeover of Iraq according to the old values that made light of wars of the past. They had to reframe the justifications to accommodate the public values. This is totally new. They need to win (or manufacture) public support.

      They did not persuade millions as we saw. But even Chomsky acknowledges that no president today could get away with the sorts of war-initiatives that we saw in the past.

      So there are today limitations on the use of violence that did not exist in earlier times.

      That does not mean the powers that be cannot frame causes in new ways to carry out violence. We know they do.

      My point is that Pinker has missed the significance of a single superpower dominating the world. That means there is less need for direct violence given that the fear or threat of attack is sufficient to carry the day. The threatened powers know they have no real defence (e.g. powerful allies) unless they themselves acquire nuclear weapons. So the market and resource exploitation can be carried out without actual war. If a country resists, as Serbia resisted the ultimatum demanding it open up its economy to free markets and neoliberal interests of the West, then pretexts are found to invade and overthrow that state. Pinker appears to be oblivious to this state of affairs. I’m not sure if technically it actually argues in favour of his point, though.

      It’s no refutation to simply count the number of wars since WW2. That’s a non-sequitur with respect to Pinker’s actual argument.

      It is certainly correct, though, to criticize Pinker’s claim that “democracies” avoid wars. But this is not quite the argument against his larger thesis that we want, however, since any serious analysis of the US, UK and similar demonstrates that “democracy” is a very problematic term to describe their power-structures. But even where we have a whole nation avidly supporting a “democratic” government’s war-intentions, we also find a culture of “communal values” or a form of modern-day “tribalism” — the relationship model that Pinker elsewhere says potentially opens the gates to genocide and wars of aggression.

      Pinker’s own data, therefore, can be used to counter his claims about “Democracies”.

      1. Pinker likes to “shock” a bit – e.g. his “Blank Slate”.

        The thesis that liberal democracy is tied into non-violence at home and abroad was strongly pushed by the late Professor Rudy Rummel, whose statistics (exaggerated, in my provisional judgement, in both the Soviet and Nazi cases, not in the Maoist case to judge from recent research) are still available on website.

        Problems looming on the horizon are (1) the Zionism v Islamism conflict, (2) the struggle for food and resources in an overpopulating world, and (3) WMD spread, technologically and spatially.

      2. I’m no war historian, and it’s been quite a while since I read “Better Angels,” but wasn’t a huge government propaganda effort necessary to curry public support both for WWI and WWII, at least here in America? Wasn’t the Gulf of Tonkin incident drummed up to justify the Vietnam war to the public, much like the weapons of mass destruction pretext was created so that the public could embrace the Iraq invasion?

        Indeed, this appeal for public support has preceded virtually every major war that my country has fought. This goes back to the Civil War (where there was voluminous and vicious competing propaganda, mobilizing the masses) and even all the way back to the Revolutionary War, which would never have garnered sufficient public endorsement without the immortal propaganda of Thomas Paine. “Had Paine not lifted his pen, Washington would not have lifted his sword.”

        I’ll have to go back and skim Pinker’s book to refresh my recollection about this distinction he tries to make about how the public selling of the Iraq War was significantly different than how all of the others have been sold. Either I’ve simply forgotten the distinction, which is my bad, or it didn’t make enough of a commonsense impression to stay with me, which is his.

        1. There is so often, and still, “competing propaganda”, before, during and after conflicts. Sorting out the facts, the origins, the top-level motivations, the transmission belts, and the effects, is a major task, more important in our nuclear and cyber times than in (say) 70 “AD”. Take one example: 9/11 – were three towers also prepared for controlled demolition, or not? What are the actual forensics? What are the implications if the answer turns out to be Yes?

          1. 9/11 is still the hidden lever that can move the world. It can bring out the pitchforks in a way that global warming, wealth inequality, and perpetual never can, because the truth that would emerge from a new and exhaustive investigation would cause a SPECTACULAR SENSATION, like the event itself. In a world that’s become sensate beyond Spengler’s wildest dreams, it’s the only thing left with the riveting, mind blowing power to grab attention away from the vacuous, virtual reality on video screens.

            And given the scale of the operation, there was no way to destroy all of the incriminating evidence. There’s a wonderful scene in the great old movie “The Hustler.” Fats makes an almost perfect break and says to Eddie, “Didn’t leave you much.” Eddie examines the table and responds, “You left enough.”

            1. Most of the 9/11 quality “debate” is on the internet for anyone with a logical mind and a patient temperament. I would not recommend any of the better known print volumes, especially those who claim certainty that the Pentagon was never hit by a hijacked airliner. The collapse of the three WTC towers is sufficient unto the day thereof. However, any war-provocation conspiracy to which the evidence might lead is only one, albeit important, aspect of international affairs. As for Islamism v Zionism, both ideologies present problems, especially in their collision, for the rest of us.

              Spengler was a brilliant thinker, especially if we consider when – and how – he wrote his masterwork. The term “sensate” seems more appropriate to Sorokin, one of his “successors” and critics.

        2. Pinker’s primary contrast is with the years preceding the Enlightenment era when rulers so often went to wars on “whims” to settle personal scores, pride, and so forth. What their subjects thought or felt about it was scarcely an issue.

          Here is Chomsky’s response to the question of “changing time” today:

          . . . at the beginning of his administration, Reagan tried set the basis for American military intervention in El Salvador — which is about what Kennedy did when he came into office in regard to Vietnam. Well, when Kennedy tried it in Vietnam, it just worked like a dream. Virtually nobody opposed American bombing of South Vietnam in 1962. It was not an issue. But when Reagan began to talk of involving American forces in El Salvador there was a huge popular uproar. And he had to choose a much more indirect way of supporting the collection of gangsters in power there. He had to back off. And what that must indicate is a tremendous shift in public opinion over the past 20 years as a result of the participation in the real opposition to the war in Indochina — which has lasted and was resurrected when a similar circumstance began to arise.

          (From interview with Paul Shannon)

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