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Flaws in Pinker’s Argument

In his article “Taming the devil within us,” Steven Pinker argues that violence in modern society has decreased over time. He states that there are three main factors propelling this change, empathy, morality, and most importantly, reason.

Pinker begins this discussion by proposing “evidence” to support his claim that violence has decreased over time, especially in the recent years after World War II. He provides anecdotal evidence to support his claims, while never exploring actual statistical numbers or experimental evidence. For example, Pinker states that “If you added up all the homicides…the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes…and… genocides…they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.” When considering the potential causes behind a behavioral phenomena, one must agree that the phenomena exists to begin with. I do not necessarily disagree with Pinker in his assumptions, but I do not see any substantial evidence to indicate that violence is actually decreasing in human society.

In order to investigate this theory, a systematic review of the history of violence would need to be conducted. This study would necessitate not only the number of times an act of violence occurred at a particular time in human history, but what precipitated the act (for example what the social pressures/circumstances were) in addition to the severity of pain inflicted. Moreover, Pinker never clarifies exactly what he means by the use of the term “violence”. In the general sense of the term, many incidences of “violence” could be included that have risen in the last 50 years, such as weapons being brought onto school campuses (1). Additionally, Pinker never clarifies whether he is referring to violence in adults, children, or even people with physical or psychiatric disorders. In order to examine why there has been a decline in human violence over the course of our existence, one must have to provide evidence to support that this phenomenon is actually occurring in the first place.

After this proposal, Pinker states that this decline has occurred because people are more actively inhibiting their violent tendencies. This inhibition comes about through the increase of empathy, morality, and also reason. To be honest I don’t even know where to begin when addressing the problems I have with these arguments! I am not saying that they have no validity whatsoever, but again, Pinker does not provide any conclusive evidence to support his ideas.

Pinker puts the most emphasis on the third explanation, reason, so that is where I will focus. Specifically, Pinker posits that reasoning people will abstain from violence in order to maintain their own well being. History has shown that people will also engage in violent behavior in order to maintain their own well being. Societies, including countries, will risk and sacrifice the lives of their soldiers in order to prevent “worse” violence and/or violence in their home countries, a prime example for which is the most recent Iraq war. “Reasoning” people will also partake in violent activities based on other motivating factors, including social pressure. A social experiment conducted in a high school in 1967 turned normal sophmore students into “aggressive zealots” in only about one week’s time (2). This experiment was conducted in order to better illustrate to students why and how German citizens sided with Nazis in the second World War. Another example of social pressure’s effect on “reasoning” people were the Milgram experiments which showed that individuals will inflict pain on others simply because an authority figure told them to do so (3).

Pinker provides a very simplistic approach, which needs to be subjected to much more scrutiny and detail than what is provided in this article in order for his argument to be taken more seriously.

–Jodi Godfrey

Neuroscience Graduate Program

Want to cite this post?

Godfrey, J. (2011). Flaws in Pinker’s Argument. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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3.) Behavioral Study of obedience. Milgram, Stanley The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 67(4), Oct 1963, 371-378. doi: 10.1037/h0040525


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