Categories
Book Summaries

Ch 4: The Humanitarian Revolution (The Better Angels Of Our Nature)

A remarkable transformation in history happened in most of the world – capital punishment was abolished, and governments used less violence against its subjects. Slavery was outlawed and people lost their thirst for cruelty. This occurred between the 17th and 18th Centuries, beginning in the Age of Reason, and ending with the Enlightenment.

Some this progress was due to changes in institutions, and some of it was due to the changes in people’s sensibilities. Humanism was the new ideology, and due its incredible impact, it’s called the Humanitarian Revolution.

But the Enlightenment has many disparagers, from the left and the right. Some blame the terrors of the 20th century on the Enlightenment (the worship of reason), while others, mostly on the right, prefer the moral clarity of medieval Catholicism. But this is all the result of colossal amnesia according to Pinker.

Human Sacrifice

After leaving Babylon, the Jews abandoned the practice of human sacrifice, but It carried on with Christianity. Human sacrifice appears in the mythology of all the major civilizations. In addition to the Hebrew and Christian Bibles, we have it in Greek myth (Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for the hope of fair wind for his war fleet), Roman history (four slaves buried alive to keep Hannibal safe), the Hindu goddess Kali, and the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

Human sacrifice was just not a captivating story. It is a universal practice that has killed millions of people around the world. The Aztecs alone were estimated to have killed about 1.2 million people in 84 years. Usually, sacrifice is preceded by torture.

The act of war was also far more common in the past. Only a few called for peace.

The occasional Western seer too paid homage to the ideal of peace. The prophet Isaiah expressed the hope that “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” Jesus preached, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone strikes you on one cheek, turn to him the other also.”106 Though Christianity began as a pacifist movement, things went downhill in 312 CE when the Roman ruler Constantine had a vision of a flaming cross in the sky with the words “In this sign thou shalt conquer” and converted the Roman Empire to this militant version of the faith.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

War was the basic state of international relations among independent Christian communities in the Middle Ages.

There are many good moral arguments against war, but for most of history, people did not care for them. Pinker cites two reasons.

One is the other-guy problem. If a nation decides not to learn war anymore, but its neighbor continues to do so, its pruning hooks will be no match for the neighbor’s spears, and it may find itself at the wrong end of an invading army. This was the fate of Carthage against the Romans, India against Muslim invaders, the Cathars against the French and the Catholic Church, and the various countries stuck between Germany and Russia at many times in their history.

Pacifism is also vulnerable to militaristic forces within a country. When a country is embroiled in a war or on the verge of one, its leaders have trouble distinguishing a pacifist from a coward or a traitor. The Anabaptists are one of many pacifist sects that have been persecuted throughout history.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Satire was one of the tools that was used effectively to show the futility of war. A moralizer or a polemicist can be ignored, but a satirist can get the same point across through stealth. By taking the perspective of the outsider, he can make an audience appreciate the hypocrisy of their own society, ad the flaws in human nature that foster it.

Shakespeare’s Falstaff, for example, delivers the finest analysis ever expressed of the concept of honor, the source of so much violence over the course of human history. Prince Hal has urged him into battle, saying “Thou owest God a death.” Falstaff muses: ’Tis not due yet: I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me? Well, ’tis no matter; honour pricks me on. Yea, but how if honour prick me off when I come on? How then? Can honour set to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery then? No. What is honour? A word. What is that word honour? Air—a trim reckoning! Who hath it? He that died a Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ’Tis insensible then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore I’ll none of it. Honour is a mere scutcheon—and so ends my catechism.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Satires were also common in France. Pascal once imagined the following dialogue: “Why are you killing me for your own benefit? I am unarmed.” “Why, do you not live on the other side of the water? My friend, if you lived on this side, I should be a murderer, but since you live on the other side, I am a hero, and it is just.”

In Candide, Voltaire defines war: “A million assassins in uniform, roaming from one end of Europe to the other, murder and pillage with discipline in order to earn their daily bread.”

In addition to the satires that condemned war, the 18th century saw theories that viewed war as irrational and avoidable. Gentle commerce was one factor. Game theory had not yet developed but the logic applied, “why plunder another country’s treasure when you can buy it from them more cheaply, and sell them some of your own?”

Kant said, “The spirit of commerce sooner or later takes hold of every people, and it cannot exist side by side with war… Thus states find themselves compelled to promote the noble cause of peace, though not exactly from motives of morality.”

Kant was not a dreamer, but in an essay he wrote in 1795, “Perpetual Peace” – he outlined six steps towards perpetual peace, followed by three principles.

The preliminary steps were that peace treaties should not leave open the option of war; that states should not absorb other states; that standing armies should be abolished; that governments should not borrow to finance wars; that a state should not interfere in the internal governance of another state; and that in war, states should avoid tactics that would undermine confidence in a future peace, such as assassinations, poisonings, and incitements to treason.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Kant understood human nature, and elsewhere wrote, “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made.” He began from a Hobbesian premise: The state of peace among men living side by side is not the natural state; the natural state is one of war. This does not always mean open hostilities, but at least an unceasing threat of war.

The decline of major war in the last sixty years may be a delayed vindication of the ivory-tower theories of Immanuel Kant—if not “perpetual peace,” then certainly a “long peace,” and one that keeps getting longer. As the great thinkers of the Enlightenment predicted, we owe this peace not just to the belittling of war but to the spread of democracy, the expansion of trade and commerce, and the growth of international organizations.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

It is hard to draw a causal arrow between the Civilizing Process and the Humanitarian Revolution.

Government, commerce, and the reduction in homicide that spurred the Civilizing Process had been underway for many centuries without any attention given to barbarism, kingly power, or the violent suppression of heresy. As states became stronger, they became more cruel. They used torture more frequently. Something else must have brought about the humanitarian sentiments in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Pinker suggests that increased disgust sensitivity may be a culprit. Others have suggested that increase in standards of living made people value their lives and the lives of others more highly. But one could easily argue the opposite, that a cushy life creates apathy in individuals.

Another explanation could be the printing press.

One technology that did show a precocious increase in productivity before the Industrial Revolution was book production. Before Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1452, every copy of a book had to be written out by hand. Not only was the process time-consuming—it took thirty-seven persondays to produce the equivalent of a 250-page book—but it was inefficient in materials and energy. Handwriting is harder to read than type is, and so handwritten books had to be larger, using up more paper and making the book more expensive to bind, store, and ship. In the two centuries after Gutenberg, publishing became a high-tech venture, and productivity in printing and papermaking grew more than twentyfold, faster than the growth rate of the entire British economy during the Industrial Revolution.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

And there was more to read about, after the Scientific Revolution. There was also a rise in human compassion. As Peter Singer argued, the empathy circle of human beings was expanded. The expansion of literacy may have caused this, since it allows the individual to take the perspective of other people, to observe the world from a different lens.

The Republic of Letters and Enlightenment Humanism


In David Lodge’s 1988 novel Small World, a professor explains why he believes that the elite university has become obsolete: Information is much more portable in the modern world than it used to be. So are people…. There are three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years… : jet travel, direct-dialing telephones and the Xerox machine…. As long as you have access to a telephone, a Xerox machine, and a conference grant fund, you’re OK, you’re plugged into the only university that really matters—the global campus.

Morris Zapp had a point, but he overemphasized the technologies of the 1980s. Two decades after his words were written, they have been superseded by e-mail, digital documents, Web sites, blogs, teleconferencing, Skype, and smartphones. And two centuries before they were written, the technologies of the day—the sailing ship, the printed book, and the postal service—had already made information and people portable. The result was the same: a global campus, a public sphere, or as it was called in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Republic of Letters.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Another development was the cosmopolitan city where the educated discussed ideas in coffee houses. But the Republic of Letters and the Cosmopolitan city are not sufficient to explain the rise of humanitarian ethics. Yet the two developments are linked.

When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases—given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else—we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Intellectual Conservatism

Burke, the father of intellectualism conservatism, shared Thomas Sowell’s tragic view of human natire. According to this vision, humans are plagued with limitations of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. People are selfish and shortsighted, and if left alone, will wage war on each other (The Hobbesian prediction). The habits of self-control and social harmony hold things together.

Social customs, religious traditions, sexual mores, family structures, and long-standing political institutions, even if no one can articulate their rationale, are time-tested work-arounds for the shortcomings of an unchanging human nature and are as indispensable today as when they lifted us out of barbarism.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Burke thought that no person was intelligent enough to design a society from first principles. A society is an organic system that grows spontaneously and is dictated by complex interactions that no individual can understand. But this is no reason to scrap it and invent something that we can articulate better.

Such ham-fisted tinkering will only lead to unintended consequences, culminating in violent chaos.

Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature

Burke went too far, because clearly, the need to revise immoral practices like slavery and torture is necessary. But he had a point. Unspoken norms of civilized behavior, that cannot easily be articulated, are prerequisites to a functional liberal democracy – which is why it is difficult to impose such as system on many countries in the developing world that have not outgrown their superstitions, warlords, and feuding tribes.

Toynbee was an erudite historian who thought that the future was very bleak as he wrote during the Cold War. But the physicist, Richardson, was more cautious and yet more optimistic in his predictions. His statistical data at the same time predicted that following the two World Wars in the previous century, a long period of peace would ensue.

Suppose that World War 2 was the most destructive event in history. Does this tell us anything about the long-term trends of war and peace? According to Pinker, it does not.

Read The Better Angels Of Our Nature

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.