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The Rise of Nonviolence

World War I. The Holocaust. The Partition of India. The Khmer Rouge. Rwanda. Darfur. Each is a twentieth century event in which at least 500,000 people were killed based on their race, ethnicity, ideology, or religion. Now what if someone told you that despite these recent atrocities, our world is becoming increasingly nonviolent? That the incidence of major war, homicide, rape, abuse, and intolerance have all precipitously declined since the Middle Ages, and especially within the past 50 years? You might meet that argument with some skepticism. In his latest book, The Better Angles of Our Nature1, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker argues exactly that. Pinker illustrates that historical criminology data overwhelmingly indicate the modern world is far less violent than we conventionally realize. According to Pinker, this is a result of our “better angels” of self-control, empathy, morality, and reasoning, triumphing over our “inner demons,” for four reasons: 1) the Leviathan; 2) gentle commerce; 3) the expanding circle; and 4) the escalator of reason.


 The Leviathan

An idea originally put forth by Thomas Hobbes, the Leviathan2 entails a social contract between the state and the individual in which authority and criminal justice are given over to the sovereign state. Within this contract, subjects no longer have the power to exercise civil or criminal law alone. Sociologist Norbert Elias, in The Civilizing Process, suggested that the rise of modern, centralized governments accelerated European standards regarding violence and self-control. Pinker uses these widely accepted theories to justify his claim that the emergence of nation-states has reduced the individual’s freedom to exercise vengeance and violence without consequence, and that because of this, lynch mobs, pogroms, execution for victimless crimes, rape, spousal abuse, and slavery have been diminishing worldwide.

Gentle Commerce
In Kant’s Perpetual Peace, he asserts that popular governments are best inclined to promote peace and commerce. Robert Wright has argued that our increasingly global economic infrastructure has shifted modern policies away from “zero-sum” plunder, and towards “positive-sum” trade3. In this process, members of one’s “out-group” gain a certain level of economic utility, rendering them more valuable alive than dead. Pinker cites these economic forces as another substrate through which our better angels have thrived in modern times.

The Expanding Circle
Charles Darwin in The Descent of Man argued that evolution has bestowed an innate sense of empathy in humans, a quality now known to exist in non-human primates and other mammals. Steven Pinker argues that the rise of cosmopolitanism, namely our exposure to other cultures and ideologies through history, media, journalism, and travel, has pushed forward our ability to empathize with others, slowly expanding our circle of care and consideration for others’ needs.

The Escalator of Reason
Pinker claims that the rise of literacy has enabled people to expand their ability to empathically relate to individuals outside their “in-group.” For example, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin facilitated a growing awareness of the plight of African American slaves among antediluvian whites through an imaginative, reasoning process made possible through storytelling and the written word. This invariably contributed to the movement to abolish slavery and consequently the United States Civil War. Experimental evidence has also shown that reading a person’s words increases one’s empathy for both that person and the group that person represents4.

I would argue that Pinker’s ambitious synthesis of modern trends in nonviolence and tolerance with the rise of reason, literacy, cosmopolitanism, and democratic nations is compelling, but fails to consider a handful of subtleties, including the distribution of crime and its reporting, the rise in unconventional forms of violence, and the discontents of globalization.

Distribution and Reporting
Pinker’s data are largely limited to countries in Western Europe and North America, which comprise only 15% of the worldwide population. While it is true that all countries have now banned slavery, humanitarian violations remain in the developing world, such as ethnic cleansing, religious warfare, and terrorism. When averaged together, global data may indicate increased humanitarianism, but perhaps crime is now distributed among countries more unevenly than before and/or poorly documented in developing nations. In fact, differences in the law and in crime reporting, both by victims and judicial forces, are well-established complications in cross-country comparisons5. For example, social norms may prevent women from reporting cases of rape or sexual abuse, making an obvious impact on any attempt to report crime levels accurately.

Slow Violence
Violence is not limited to corporeal acts of brutality. Would you consider dumping toxic waste on your neighbor’s property an act of violence? As economic affluence expands worldwide, so does consumer-generated waste. Until our infrastructure develops tools to deal with our toxic waste, the West will continue to export plastics, heavy metals, and non-biodegradable trash to poorer countries unequipped to deal with their health hazards. The demand for consumer goods has also driven deforestation, environmentally damaging resource extraction, and the exploitation of native peoples for use of their natural resources and land. These actions may not immediately lead to death, but as Rob Nixon argues6, they can be considered new innovations in exacting insidious, but slowly emerging violence against others.

Globalization and its Discontents
Pinker uses the concept of “gentle commerce” to support his idea that two nations or individuals engaged in trade are less likely to fight against one another. Nevertheless, wars repeatedly break out between nations involved in active trade, and often motivates the conflict itself. Historically, many military engagements have been prompted by resource conflicts, such as those over surface water, food supplies, minerals, and other natural products. Increasing the number of countries that a sovereign nation depends on for its livelihood may actually accentuate the possible sources for war than mitigate them when access to the resources therein becomes threatened7.

In light of the aforementioned limitations, we must approach Pinker’s argument with a healthy degree of skepticism. While the evidence does seem to support decreasing homicide rates in Western nations over the past five hundred years, it is important to not generalize this trend worldwide, nor to assume that we have completely elucidated the mechanisms for this decline. Recall that correlation is not causation. Most importantly, we Westerners must not take Pinker’s theory as a cause for celebration or for resting on our laurels. Genocide, war, and humanitarian violations still take place everyday in this world, and it is our responsibility as denizens of democratic nations to actively eradicate them, even outside of our own country.

–Jordan Kohn
Neuroscience Graduate Program

Want to cite this post?

Kohn, J. (2011). The Rise of Nonviolence. The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on
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Sources and Additional Reading

1 Pinker, S. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Viking, 2011. Print.

2Hobbes, T. Leviathan: Or the Matter, Forme, and Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civill. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Print.

3Wright, R. Nonzero: The logic of human destiny. New York: Vintage, 2000. Print.

4Batson, C. D., Early, S., & Salvarini, G. Perspective taking: imagining how another feels versus imagining how you would feel. Personality & Social Personality Bulletin. 2007. 23:751-758.

5Shaw, M., van Dijk, J., & Rhomberg, W. Determining trends in global crime and justice: An overview of results from the United Nations surveys of crime trends and operations of criminal justice systems. Forum on Crime and Society. 2003. 3: 35-63.

6Nixon, R. Slow violence and the environmentalism of the poor. Cambridge: Harvard, 2011. Print.

7Le Billon, P. The political ecology of war: natural resources and armed conflicts. Political Geography. 2001. 20: 561-584.


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