The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

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Israel has taken Ahmadinejad's apparent wish to "wipe Israel off the map" as an existential threat, and in return has threatened war. Do you see any likelihood of Iran using nuclear weapons, if it were to acquire them, against Israel? I think it is extremely unlikely that [President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad will attack Israel with nuclear weapons.

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined |

On the other hand, the Israelis are not crazy to worry about a low-probability yet catastrophic possibility, and Ahmadinejad's destructive fantasy, together with his other reckless statements such as denying the Holocaust , are cause for legitimate worry. Calling for the destruction of a member state of the United Nations is extraordinarily provocative - no member state of the UN has ever gone out of existence through the use of force. Ideologies, particularly ones that demonise some group of people as the only thing standing in the way of utopia heretics, infidels, the bourgeoisie, Jews, Tutsis, rich peasants are the causes of the most murderous events in human history.

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Such belief systems justify violence by a toxic means - ends analysis: If a Messianic Age will be infinitely good, then any amount of violence may be perpetrated to attain it, and those who oppose it are infinitely evil and deserving of arbitrarily harsh punishment.

What is the relation between what you consider a general decline in violence and the increased attention and protection of children, ethnic minorities, women, and homosexuals in some societies? The rights revolutions that have protected these vulnerable groups against lynching, rape, domestic violence, gay-bashing, physical and sexual abuse, harsh physical punishments and cruel practices have been driven, I believe, by the same repugnance to violence, driven by the same humanitarian concerns. In terms of psychology, is there an innate drive towards violence and aggression within us?

Or conversely, an innate drive to be "good"? Neither and both. Humans harbour a number of distinct motives that can result in violence: including greed, vengeance, dominance, sadism and destructive ideologies. They also harbour a number of distinct motives that can inhibit violence - what [US president Abraham] Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature": including self-control, empathy, reason and a sense of fairness.

In general, societies that engage in trade and are open to the world's economy have lower rates of interstate war, civil war and genocide. This is consistent with the Enlightenment theory of "gentle commerce" and the evolutionary theory of "reciprocal altruism" - it's better for both sides if one tries to get ahead by trading things rather than by stealing them.

How would our collective psychology be affected if we knew that we are living in a relatively peaceful era of human history? We could try to identify the causes that brought violence down - including commerce, democracy, cosmopolitanism, education, good government, sound institutions and freedom of speech - and try to implement them widely and robustly. If the history of violence at each level of granularity had an idiosyncratic trajectory, each would belong in a separate book.

But to my repeated astonishment, the global trends in almost all of them, viewed from the vantage point of the present, point downward.

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That calls for documenting the various trends between a single pair of covers, and seeking commonalities in when, how, and why they have occurred. View all New York Times newsletters. Too many kinds of violence, I hope to convince you, have moved in the same direction for it all to be a coincidence, and that calls for an explanation.

It is natural to recount the history of violence as a moral saga—a heroic struggle of justice against evil—but that is not my starting point.

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My approach is scientific in the broad sense of seeking explanations for why things happen. We may discover that a particular advance in peacefulness was brought about by moral entrepreneurs and their movements. But we may also discover that the explanation is more prosaic, like a change in technology, governance, commerce, or knowledge. Nor can we understand the decline of violence as an unstoppable force for progress that is carrying us toward an omega point of perfect peace.

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It is a collection of statistical trends in the behavior of groups of humans in various epochs, and as such it calls for an explanation in terms of psychology and history: how human minds deal with changing circumstances. A large part of the book will explore the psychology of violence and nonviolence. The theory of mind that I will invoke is the synthesis of cognitive science, affective and cognitive neuroscience, social and evolutionary psychology, and other sciences of human nature that I explored in How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate, and The Stuff of Thought.

According to this understanding, the mind is a complex system of cognitive and emotional faculties implemented in the brain which owe their basic design to the processes of evolution. Some of these faculties incline us toward various kinds of violence. The way to explain the decline of violence is to identify the changes in our cultural and material milieu that have given our peaceable motives the upper hand.

Finally, I need to show how our history has engaged our psychology. Everything in human affairs is connected to everything else, and that is especially true of violence.

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Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade. Exogenous forces can originate in the practical realm, such as changes in technology, demographics, and the mechanisms of commerce and governance. But they can also originate in the intellectual realm, as new ideas are conceived and disseminated and take on a life of their own. The most satisfying explanation of a historical change is one that identifies an exogenous trigger.

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