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Pinker: A Correlation Between Ability to Reason and Levels of Violence?

Violence, as Pinker suggests in his article “Taming the devil within us,” is something that has percolated through the eons of mankind when one considers what it is to be human. But—what exactly is violence? When one takes a closer look at what it means to be violent, one will encounter varying definitions even within a given culture. For instance, while some people love to hunt and animal research is ubiquitous in scientific research, there are those that abhor such things and find them extremely violent. Moving between cultures exponentially confounds the issue, as in many cultures it is perfectly acceptable and common practice to beat your spouse—something which those of us in the United States would find quite alarming and violent.

Reason—the ability to employ rational thought in evaluative decision making, Pinker suggests, is responsible for the decrease in violence seen in human culture over time when compared to ancient Rome, for instance. While reason, in and of itself, is important if it is only a vehicle of action. In other words: the reasoner wants what the reasoner gets. This is perfectly evident in such cases as the fatal shootings in Norway this past summer of 2011. Norway, normally one of the most peaceful cultures in the world, still fostered this mass murderer who—quite rationally—took it upon himself to engage in a violent shooting spree. Thus, is it really an increase in our innate capacity to reason that is leading to the decrease in violence Pinker suggests, or could it instead be a more commonplace, peaceful managing of our reason guided by something such as empathy as Pinker also hints at?

During the course of his article he attempts to make the assertion that violence has decreased quantitatively during the course of our growth as humans, yet he offers up no working definition as to what constitutes violence. This is quite problematic, as he cannot effectively make the quantitative argument that he attempts. Not only is this lack of a working definition problematic, but the assumptions that violence is a bad thing carries great ethical implications. There are those whole would consider lethal injection for murderers, killing animals for food, going to war with those who have wronged their nation, and corporal punishment for family and as a means of education all as good things. On the other hand, a great deal of people would find these same things terrible. Thus, how do we separate “good” violence from “bad” violence and how does this differ among cultures? Pinker would do well to address these issues to better determine quantitatively exactly how much violence is at play and since eradicating all forms of violence may not be a good thing.

Subsequently, Pinker then goes on to suggest that increased reason is responsible for the observed decline in violence that accompanies human development throughout history. In my opinion, this argument is an ethically-flawed one. In making the sweeping claim that reason is the main driving force at play behind this reduction in violence, he relies heavily upon IQ scores to define abstract reasoning as the same across cultures. This doesn’t seem like it can ethically be done, as performance on an IQ test may very well fluctuate as a function of culture, irrespective of the intrinsic ability of individuals of that given culture to reason. Furthermore, what about cultures where illiteracy is rampant or those cultures are not amenable to being assessed with an IQ test? Does this mean those cultures are automatically less-rational? Thus, a more objective assessment of reason needs to be employed on a wider basis to better capture the innate ability to reason across cultures. Only then can a more ethical and truly quantitative argument be put forth as to the impact of reason on properly-defined violence

The role of the neuroscientist in decreasing violence is several-fold, but largely distills down to the essence of 1) promoting a society in which rational thinking is encouraged and which we can all understand one another’s reasoning (as Pinker suggests) and 2) helping to better define violence such that it might be more appropriately quantitated. In service of the first point, I return to the concept that reason is only a vehicle and the reasoner wants what the reasoner gets. Here, the neuroscientist needs to take a more active approach in being the outspoken voice of reason and helping to lead society by example. We need to proactively encourage people to engage in critical thinking and, importantly, work on communicating this critical thinking effectively and openly with one another. Pinker refers to a “collective rationality” that has been “honed over the ages [to]…clamp down on short-sighted and hot-blooded impulses towards violence, and force us to treat a greater number of agents as we would have them treat us.” I believe he is spot-on with this assertation, however he is a bit misguided in what he refers to as “collective rationality.” This collective rationality is taken to be globally-representative when, in reality, I believe it is more appropriately culturally-specific. By more proactively engaging society in a common process of critical thinking, we as neuroscientists can help shift the culturally-specific “collective rationality” to a truly globablly-representative collective rationality.

Secondly, we as neuroscientists can work to come up with better, more objective measures of rationality to help supplant IQ tests. As pinker points out, the brain circuitry behind abstract reasoning and decision-making is becoming increasingly well-illuminated, so why not capitalize on this? More objective assessments of reasoning ability should be designed and intentionally employed across as many cultures as possible in order to truly capture our ability as a species to reason. Only then can correlations be appropriately drawn between the ability to reason and levels of (more precisely-defined) violence.

–Evan Lebois

Neuroscience Graduate Program

Want to cite this post?

Lebois , E. (2011). Pinker: A Correlation Between Ability to Reason and Levels of Violence? The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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Pinker, S. Taming the devil within us. (2011). Nature. 478: 309.


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