We are becoming less violent as a species, argues Steven Pinker in his new book, yet that only serves to make the violence of enlightened peoples worse

Another car journey; another Radio 4 programme: this time it was Thinking Aloud yesterday afternoon. Laurie Taylor was chairing a discussion between Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University and Anthony O’Hear, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham. The subject, whether human violence has declined in the world, was chosen because Pinker has recently published a book entitled, The Better Angels of our Nature: the Decline of Violence in History and its Causes.

Professor Pinker is an internationally acclaimed intellectual heavyweight and enthusiast for the Enlightenment. His view is that as we have gradually evolved into more reasonable beings under its influence there has been a marked decrease in violence worldwide. In the radio discussion he cited examples such as the collapse of the Soviet Union without violence, the decline in corporal and capital punishment, a decrease in instances of child abuse and falling statistics of homicide in Europe.

For him, the kind of rational debate conducted between individuals and begun in the Enlightenment does eventually lead to its universal application. Even if it is too early to describe this as an evolutionary shift in human behaviour, rational discourse has affected the social behaviour of peoples since the 18th century for the better. He cited more examples in evidence of this: the abolition of slavery, the equality of women and the decriminalisation of homosexuality.

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Professor O’Hear took a less optimistic line. Quoting Evelyn Waugh’s remark, “Quantitative judgements do not apply”, he observed that a numerical or statistical decline in violence is “not much of a consolation if I am one of the 100 million killed as a result of Communism” in China, Cambodia, the USSR and other places. For O’Hear Enlightenment thinking would have to include the Marxist-Communist ideology: the attempt to apply reason and science to human affairs “and to spread benevolence everywhere”.

Pinker demurred: he favoured Enlightenment humanism of the Scottish rather than the European variety, aimed at maximising the flourishing of “individual sentient beings”. He saw Marxism as about conflict, class struggle and not about benevolence at all. O’Hear became more pessimistic in his response: “This nature has demons” he declared. What if Pinker’s “Better Angels” were vanquished by these demons rather than the other way round? He quoted a line from Pascal: “Strength of reason/infirmity of reason.” Reason, he thought, could help us to be sceptical but it was putting too great a burden on it to ask it to sustain the values of humanitarianism and human rights all on its own.

Finally O’Hear said what I had been thinking throughout this debate, that he believed in “original sin.” Laurie Taylor intervened here to ask if he meant this phrase in a religious sense or just as “the intrinsic malevolence of human beings.” O’Hear agreed it was the latter. He added that he felt the great “scandal” in Pinker’s book was the omission of any mention of the New Testament: it was Christianity that had provided “the passion for compassion” that had made men more humane. Pinker brushed this to one side: “Christianity doesn’t figure.” He listed the Crusades, wars of religion and the persecution of homosexuals to bolster his point and said that the Old Testament God had delighted in genocide, rape and slavery.

I found this a much more interesting debate than the one in my last blog about women priests. Unlike that subject, it is of continuing relevance and the arguments go to the core of what it means to be human. As a believer in Original Sin – as a religious belief rather than as a pessimistic observation about human nature – I think the battle between our better angels (interesting that Pinker, an atheist, should have chosen this metaphor, taken from Lincoln) and our demons, both in individuals and in society, is continuous. It isn’t true that Enlightenment values are enabling us to evolve into more peaceable creatures.

Reading Pinker’s list of statistics in his book makes me agree with Evelyn Waugh: is the Mongol conquest of the 13th century, in which 40 million people died – its death toll in 20th century equivalence would be 278 million – worse than Chairman Mao’s 40 million deaths? Or is Timurlane’s death toll of 17 million (100 million in 20th century equivalence) in the 14th/15th century worse than the Second World War, in which a “mere” 55 million people died? Quantitative judgements do not apply. And somehow the scientific slaughter of the concentrations camps, or the ongoing clinical death toll in worldwide abortion strike me as more repugnant even than the bloodthirsty barbarism of Genghis Khan. They are worse because they are contemporary and closer to home – and because (according to Pinker) aren’t we all supposed to be more enlightened?

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