Book Summaries History Politics

Ch 2: The Pacification Process (The Better Angels of Our Nature)

In the Leviathan, Hobbes explains the logic of violence in a fewer than a hundred words (as good as any explanation you can find today).

So that in the nature of man, we find three principal causes of quarrel. First, competition; secondly, diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation. The first use violence, to make themselves masters of other men’s persons, wives, children, and cattle; the second, to defend them; the third, for trifles, as a word, a smile, a different opinion, and any other sign of undervalue, either direct in their persons or by reflection in their kindred, their friends, their nation, their profession, or their name.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Hobbes thought that competition is an unavoidable consequence of agents’ pursuing their interests. Today we see that it is built into the evolutionary process. Survival machines that can elbow their competitors away from finite resources like food, water, and desirable territory will reproduce more than those competitors, leaving the world with the survival machines that are best suited for such competition.

The reason why men compete for “wives” is because the female invests more in offspring than the male (especially true for mammals). A male can multiply the number of his offspring by mating with many females, but a female cannot multiply her offspring by mating with several males. That is why female reproductive capacity is a scarce resource that is an object of competition. But Pinker does not think this means that “men are robots controlled by their genes, and are excused for rape and fighting, that women are passive sexual prizes, that people try to have as many babies as possible, or that people are impervious to influences from their culture, to take some of the common misunderstandings of the theory of sexual selection.”

The second cause of conflict is diffidence, a word that meant “fear” in Hobbes’ time, and this cause is a consequence of competition. The threat that your neighbor poses can push you to making a pre-emptive strike.  

The Hobbesian trap or the security dilemma describes the situation where two armed parties are incentivized to neutralize the other first. Shelling, the political scientist, offers the analogy of an armed homeowner who surprises an armed burglar, each being tempted to shoot the other to avoid being shot first.

To survive the Hobbesian trap, the obvious way is through deterrence. Do not strike first, survive the first strike, and retaliate against an aggressor in kind. This kind of policy removes the incentive for a competitor to invade, since your retaliation would create a cost that outweighs his anticipated benefit. And there is no reason for him to strike first out of fear, since your policy is to avoid striking first.

But the key is to have the capacity to retaliate. If your competitor thinks that they can wipe you out from the first strike, then they have no reason to fear retaliation.

In the Cold War, the policy of deterrence was called mutually assured destruction (MAD).

A triangle can explain the logic of the Leviathan. In each act of violence, there are three parties: the aggressor, the victim, and a bystander. Each is motivated to be violent for different reasons. The aggressor wants to prey upon the victim, the victim to retaliate, the bystander, to minimize collateral damage from the fight. Violence between aggressor and victim is war, violence by the bystander is called law.

A state that disintegrates into chaos becomes ruled by tribes and chiefdoms, such as the case in Somalia, Afghanistan, Sudan, and the Congo.

The early state, unlike what Hobbes theorized, was not a centralized authority that was given power by a social contract negotiated by its citizens. The early state was a mafia-like institution where the powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other. Just like a farmer who prevents his animals from killing one another, the ruler wants to maintain peace because any conflict which would merely result in the shuffle of resources would be considered, from his perspective, a dead loss.

Revenge is commonly cited as the motive for warfare.

Was Hobbes right? Partly. The nature of man creates three reasons for conflict: gain (predatory raids), safety (preemptive raids), and reputation (retaliatory raids). And the numbers show that when “men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in a condition which is called war.”

But Hobbes got a lot wrong. People in nonstate societies cooperate extensively with their kind – life for them was intermittently nasty, but far from solitary. They are drawn into raids, but they have plenty of time for foraging, singing, storytelling, and childrearing.

The societies that had no organized state could not enjoy technology, did not have knowledge of the earth, no account of time and culture. It is hard to develop these things when your village is constantly being raided. But the first people who gave up hunting and gathering struck a hard bargain. They spent their days behind a plow and subsisted on cereal grains. they lived among livestock and thousands of people. All these things are hazardous to health. Studies of skeletons show that the first city dwellers were anemic, infected, tooth-decayed, and around two and a half inches shorter compares to hunter gatherers.

Some biblical scholars believe that the story of the fall from the Garden of Eden was a cultural memory of the transition from foraging to agriculture: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Why did our ancestors leave Eden? For many, it was not a choice. They were unable to subsist their growing populations and had to grow their good themselves. The states emerged much later, and the foragers who lived at the frontiers could either join or hold out in their old way of life. For those who did have a choice, some bad cavities and a couple of inches in height were better than living a lifestyle that was five times more fatal.

The improved odds of a natural death came with another price, captured by the Roman historian Tacitus: “Formerly we suffered from crimes; now we suffer from laws.”

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

The Bible stories teach us that totalitarian order and brutal punishments kept early civilizations in order.

Just think of the wrathful deity watching people’s every move, the regulation of daily life by arbitrary laws, the stonings for blasphemy and nonconformity, the kings with the power to expropriate a woman into their harem or cut a baby in half, the crucifixions of thieves and cult leaders.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature

Read The Better Angels of Our Nature

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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