Declining Violence and Constant Evil

James Banks: We’re not more enlightened than the ancients. We’re just richer.

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Whig historians are like Druids: Pagan priests with a creed outworn. But there will always be some contingent of them unwilling to give up hope that the world continues to progress on its inevitable trek toward greater liberty and righteousness. Steven Pinker is the latest to argue resolutely—and, as David Bentley Hart has noted, somewhat touchingly—for the salvific gospel of the Empire of Light and Reason, except for the parts about the Reign of Terror, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

Readers who follow current intellectual debates probably know by now that I am writing of Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature. Before I go further, I just want to take a moment to note that this is not a review. That can be found elsewhere. More interesting to me is the central claim of the work that violent death has declined as a result of a “rights” revolution (the “Better Angels” of the title).

The main problem with this argument—that the proportional decline of violent deaths are due to a demographic explosion rather than less carnage—has already been addressed. As reviewers have already demonstrated, Pinker’s premises are easy to contradict. But I don’t want to contradict them. While the statistics the book presents are diluted, it is still possible that violent death has decreased significantly.

Though I have not uncovered any new statistics to back up this claim, I wouldn’t expect anything else. My reasons for expecting a decline in violence are different from those that Pinker presents. It is true that a theory of human rights developed from the late 18th Century (though this was as much due to the development of the novel during the Age of Sensibility as it was to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Pufendorf’s The Whole Duty of Man or Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species).

The ideology of human rights is not as strong as one might hope, though. Totalitarian regimes have confiscated family farms in failed agrarian reforms, causing massive famine, and have made nose-length or hair color qualifications for what it means to be “truly” human. Berthold Brecht’s demand for “grub first, then ethics” might be a moral atrocity, but it accurately describes the relation of moderns to human rights. They are precisely as moral as individuals from the ancient, classical and medieval eras were—capable of feeling sympathy until food runs out. Even democratic societies like the United States have seen fit to limit basic rights during times of war (and, interestingly, one of the few 20th Century presidents to support both segregation and censorship was also the most immersed in modern thought.)

Society has not made ethical progress, but it has made technological progress. This has not straightened humanity’s crooked timber; rather, it has changed the world into which the crooked shape is to be fitted. Only forty years ago, muggings were a common form of violent crime, but such crimes have decreased as pedestrians have filled their wallets with debit cards rather than cash. The decrease in violence is not due to good will, but self-interest: The risks of the crime have remained the same, but the rewards have diminished.

So it is with the rest of the world, though on a much larger scale: imperial warfare has declined because the economic value of people and equipment has grown significantly more than the value of any raw resource. Life expectancy has nearly doubled since the Early Modern period, making courage a more economically costly virtue. A culture in which individuals routinely seek to maximize their lifespans will also be one in which those individuals routinely avoid situations which might shorten them.

The human will to power has also, ironically, made what were once commonplace warrior skills—such as swordsmanship or archery—all but redundant. Those who are not inclined toward warfare create its most deadly weapons to avoid enslavement—he who cannot kill with his hands will bind together a slingshot and the first bow was probably strung by one who could not fling a stone. The city was not built by those who were at home in the jungle’s state of nature. The nuclear bomb wasn’t invented by people who subscribed to a warrior ethos.

Violence within society has become unprofitable and between societies it has become tamer. But less violence has not led to fewer cases of wrongdoing in contexts which are more permissible to the modern sensibility: Theft probably happens as much as ever, but the computer has become a more effective tool for it than the cudgel. Eventually, we will find new, creative ways to prevent these wrongdoings but this will only lead to new methods of cheating, stealing, killing—perhaps even legally sometimes. As Dostoyevsky wrote, the line that separates good from evil cuts through every human heart, and, no matter how much it is buried beneath ideology, law or government, evil always finds a way to the surface.


James Banks is a doctoral student at the University of Rochester where he is pursuing studies in English Renaissance and Restoration Literature.  Previously, he worked in nonprofit administration in the District of Columbia and northern Virginia. He is also a contributor at Via Meadia and has written for “The Intercollegiate Review,””First Principles,” “The Foundry,” and other publications. He is an alumnus of the University of Idaho (B.A. 2008) and the University of Rochester (M.A. 2010) and lives in upstate New York where he serves in the NY Army National Guard (though the views he expresses on this blog are his alone).

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