7 February 2014

Reflections on The Better Angels of Our Nature - part 1

Since its publication in 2011, The Better Angels of Our Nature has been thoroughly reviewed, with the reactions ranging from enthusiastic to snarkily dismissive. The Wikipedia page does a good job of summarizing the argument and its reception, so there is not much left to add, apart from some personal impressions:

Almost absent from the reviews1 (although, in my opinion, it is one of the main merits of the book) is the central role played by Norbert Elias and his Civilizing Process.This process is one of the explanations put forward for the spectacular decrease in violence.

The other cause Pinker invokes for the reduction in violence since the Middle Ages (in Europe, at least) is what he calls Enlightenment humanism, or classical liberalism (at the end of Chapter 4). This tradition is not easily defined, as one can see from John Gray's objections that the authors cited by Pinker “are highly disparate thinkers, and it is far from clear that any coherent philosophy could have 'coalesced' from their often incompatible ideas”2 and that some of them, such as the French revolutionaries, advocated the use of violence. However:
  • The historical evolution of an idea cannot involve homogeneous thinkers (otherwise there would be no evolution). Of course Hobbes and Mill have different positions, but nobody would deny their contribution to liberalism.
  • Pinker rejects the idea that the Enlightenment is responsible for the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath (including Napoleon). To prove him wrong, one should at least engage his argument.
  • The intellectual contribution of an author is more important than his having held acceptable morals. For instance, some consider Machiavelli a precursor of liberalism.
The very substantial chapter 5 "The Long Peace" discusses whether the reduction in violence since the end of World War II is a systematic effect. The weakest link here is estimating the effects of ancient conflicts, such as the An Lushan revolt in 8th century China, which purportedly killed 36 million people in eight years. This figure corresponds to the difference in census data before and after the rebellion, but the reduction could also be due to loss of territory, refugees, weakening of the administration (leading to less reliable information) etc. On the technical side, Pinker gives an interesting argument that the magnitude of attrition wars is exponentially distributed, but introducing an escalation component can turn the distribution into a power law. I gave the detailed derivation of this result in a previous post.

(to be continued...)

1. Notable exceptions are Peter Singer and James Q. Wilson.
2. In the next phrase, Gray takes Pinker to task for not adding Marx, Bakunin and Lenin to the list. Apart from the intrinsic incoherence of this argument, the point is addressed three pages later, where Pinker explicitly discusses counter-Enlightenment positions, including that of Marx.

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