Violence Has Dramatically Declined — Why?

by Greg Mackie

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It is a truism that we live in violent times. With the daily reports of crime, war, and terrorism screaming from our newspaper headlines, television sets, and Internet news sites, who could possibly suggest otherwise? Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker does suggest otherwise. In his new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he uses statistical and historical analysis to demonstrate that, contrary to conventional wisdom, worldwide violence has in fact declined dramatically over time — so dramatically that we may well be living in the most peaceful period in human history. I find his arguments largely convincing, and naturally my thoughts turn to how this good news might be viewed from the perspective of A Course in Miracles.

Pinker's argument for the decline of violence and the causes of that decline

Pinker lays out an exhaustive argument for his contention that violence has declined. (I have not yet read his book; this piece is based on a class linked above, entitled "A History of Violence," in which he summarizes his argument.) He begins by laying his controversial thesis right on the table:

Believe it or not — and I know most people do not — violence has been in decline over long stretches of time, and we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species' existence. The decline of violence, to be sure, has not been steady; it has not brought violence down to zero (to put it mildly); and it is not guaranteed to continue. But I hope to convince you that it's a persistent historical development, visible on scales from millennia to years, from the waging of wars and perpetration of genocides to the spanking of children and the treatment of animals.

As you can see, Pinker is not claiming that we're living in a world that is anywhere close to being free of violence. Nor is he denying that violence can increase in certain areas of the world in the short term (as it has here in Mexico in the last decade). And the actual number of people killed in more recent wars is higher, because we have both a larger population and greater firepower. What Pinker is claiming is that over time, violence worldwide has declined dramatically — a far lower percentage of the world's population is victimized by violence than before, and humanity's desire to find alternatives to violence is higher than it has ever been.

Six major historical declines of violence

Pinker then presents "six major historical declines of violence," in each case offering historical and statistical evidence for the decline and possible historical causes for the decline. I'll summarize the six here (lumping the two "Peace" categories together):

  • The "Pacification Process": War declined as people moved from small groups (like hunter-gather and horticulturalist cultures) to societies governed by large nation-states/empires. In Pinker's view, the reason war declined was probably because such large states had a vested interest in minimizing tribal feuds within their borders, so they kept such feuds under control.
  • The "Civilizing Process": Homicide rates declined in Europe from about 1300 (the furthest back most records go) to the present day. In Pinker's view, this was probably because of the development of national criminal justice systems and the expansion of trade and commerce — developments which reduced feuding, brigandage, blood revenge, etc.
  • The "Humanitarian Revolution": Institutionalized violence such as state-sponsored torture and the death penalty decreased as states gradually abolished such practices — a movement which accelerated during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment and continues to this day. Other barbaric practices such as "witch hunts, religious persecution, dueling, blood sports, debtors prisons, and…slavery" were greatly reduced or abolished in this humanitarian revolution. In Pinker's view, this was probably because of the rise of literacy and with it cosmopolitanism (the idea that we are all a single community), which gave people a broader view of life: "It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples' minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing."
  • The "Long Peace"/"New Peace": Wars and instances of genocide have decreased worldwide since World War II (the "Long Peace") and since the end of the Cold War (the "New Peace"). In Pinker's view, this is probably because the pacifying forces of democracy, trade, and an international community grew in the second half of the twentieth century. And the dominance of superpowers — first the Soviet Union and the United States, then the United States alone — was a contributing factor as well.
  • The "Rights Revolutions": Systemic violence against vulnerable groups (racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, animals, etc.) has decreased worldwide, due both to laws protecting such groups and shifts in attitudes toward these groups.

Inclinations toward violence and inclinations against violence

Pinker then speculates on larger causes for the decline of violence, based on his conception of human nature. He contends that there are within us both inclinations toward violence and inclinations against violence — the latter of which, quoting Abraham Lincoln, he calls "the better angels of our nature." In a nutshell, Pinker contends that violence has declined because "historical circumstances have increasingly favored these peaceable inclinations."

What are the inclinations toward violence? Pinker names four:

  • Exploitation: taking advantage of other living things to acquire what you want. "Examples include rape, plunder, conquest, and the elimination of rivals."
  • Dominance: the drive to be the top dog, number one, which leads to "competition among groups for ethnic, racial, national or religious supremacy or pre-eminence."
  • Revenge: getting back at someone or some group for what they have supposedly done to you, "the kind of moralistic violence that inspires vendettas, rough justice, and cruel punishments."
  • Ideology: violence in the service of a utopian goal so worthwhile that (supposedly) the end justifies any means; for example, "militant religions, nationalism, fascism, Nazism, and communism."

What are the inclinations against violence, the "better angels"? Pinker again names four:

  • Self-control: "the ability to anticipate the consequences of behavior, and inhibit violent impulses."
  • Empathy: "the ability to feel others' pain."
  • The moral sense: "a variety of intuitions including tribalism, authority, purity, and fairness." (To me, this seems to be essentially a sense of ethics and justice.)
  • Reason: "the cognitive faculties that allow us to engage in objective, detached analysis."

The historical circumstances that have favored the inclinations against violence

What are the historical circumstances that, in Pinker's view, have increasingly favored the "better angels"? One more time, Pinker names four (I've changed the order of the last two for the purposes of my comparison with the Course below):

  • The state: As more people have come to live in nation-states that make and enforce laws against violence, violence within these states has decreased.
  • "Gentle commerce": As more people have come to trade with one another, they have come to realize that they are more valuable to each other alive than dead, and violence between them has decreased.
  • The "escalator of reason": As more people have become better educated and have learned to think outside of their parochial boxes, violence between them has decreased.
  • Cosmopolitanism/the "Expanding Circle": As more people have become aware of and interacted with others in the larger world, their "circle of empathy" has gradually expanded to include more people and other living things, and violence has therefore decreased.

Viewing the decline of violence from the perspective of A Course in Miracles

I want to spend the rest of this piece taking a look at the decline of violence from the perspective of A Course in Miracles. But first, let me address a question that may be on your mind: How can it be that violence has declined when we seem to see so much of it every day?

I agree with Pinker's contention that violence has declined dramatically over the course of human history. As a student of history myself, I've long thought the same thing, and I find Pinker's statistical analysis of that decline illuminating. It's an impressive case. (I highly recommend looking at that "History of Violence" class I've linked to above.)

It is difficult for us in the modern age to imagine the kinds of violence that people in earlier ages used to take for granted. For instance, in a review of Pinker's book, Nicholas Kristof mentions a medieval "game" where they would nail a live cat to a post and men would head-butt the cat (at the risk of having their eyes clawed out), the winner being the one whose head-butt killed the cat. While cruel animal sports like dog fighting do still exist, they are almost universally looked down upon (and legally prohibited), and are no longer a ubiquitous part of everyday life.

I think the virtually universal feeling that violence has increased is an interesting example of what the Course would call selective attention and selective perception. Of course, there's still plenty of violence out there; Pinker is not suggesting otherwise. But we pay a lot more attention to violence (as does the news) than we do to nonviolence. We lack historical perspective. And we're quick to interpret events in a way that leads to the conclusion that violence is increasing, which gives us a convenient "justification" for fear and counterviolence.

That being said, there's a good side to our perception too: Pinker makes the interesting point that one reason we see the world as more violent is precisely because we are more sensitive to violence (in the positive sense of having compassion for victims of violence) than we used to be. It's not that violence is increasing; it's that our willingness to accept violence is decreasing. For me, both the actual decrease in violence and our decreasing willingness to accept it as the norm are very good news.

Why has violence declined?

Why has violence declined? I want to reflect on this question from a Course perspective, using Pinker's argument as a jumping-off point. I think there is much merit in Pinker's argument, but I think the Course can shed even further light on the matter. In what follows, I will first discuss Pinker's view of human nature, and then discuss the four factors that Pinker regards as the main factors that have favored our inclinations against violence: the state, commerce, reason, and cosmopolitanism. Finally, I'll suggest a Course-based answer to the question of why violence is declining, an answer rooted in a factor that Pinker does not believe in: our loving Father's Call to us, and our increasing willingness to hear and answer His call.

The inclinations toward and against violence revisited

First off, I think that broadly speaking, Pinker's picture of human nature as containing both inclinations toward violence and inclinations against violence is paralleled by the Course's division of human nature into the (violent) ego and the (nonviolent) spirit. In fact, Pinker's view reminds me somewhat of the split human nature I described in my recent piece on Unleashing Extraordinary Goodness.

Of course, there are differences as well. I'm pretty sure Pinker doesn't regard the inclinations toward and against violence in the absolute black-and-white terms the Course does. I can easily imagine him saying that the quest for dominance, for instance, may have been an evolutionary advantage at some point in our history, even if it is less useful now. And of course, he doesn't agree with the Course's central claim about these starkly contrasting inclinations: that the dark side, the ego side, the inclination toward violence, is entirely unreal.

That being said, I find three of Pinker's specific inclinations toward violence — the drives for exploitation, dominance, and revenge — to be excellent descriptions of the Course's ego. The ego loves to use others, dominate others, and take revenge against them for their many "sins" against it. Its whole agenda is to serve itself at the expense of everyone and everything around it, and it is quite happy to use any kind of violence to achieve its goals. The Course speaks frequently of "the ego's savage wish to kill" (T-19.IV.C.8:1), and says in fact that the ego's ultimate goal is to kill God's Son in you and everyone else. Violence is the very heart of the ego, its lifeblood.

What about Pinker's fourth inclination toward violence: ideology? I don't think the Course has any problem with ideology per se. True, we are all aware of the violence that has been perpetrated in the service of various dark ideologies and utopian goals. But while the term "ideology" has acquired a connotation of rigid, aggressive orthodoxy, it really just means, as my dictionary puts it, "a system of ideas and ideals" — what the Course would call a thought system.

A thought system, of course, can lead to violence or nonviolence, depending on what the thought system says. The ideologies of the Amish and of the Jains in India, for instance, lead to nonviolence by definition, since they are radically nonviolent thought systems. And of course, the thought system of the Course, which definitely points toward a utopian goal, is entirely nonviolent. For the Course, a nonviolent end can only be achieved through nonviolent means.

As for Pinker's inclinations against violence, the "better angels," while it's true they could all be twisted by the ego to serve its goals, in the service of the Holy Spirit I think they are all qualities the Course would smile upon. Take self-control, for instance. It could be used simply to discipline oneself for war, like a Samurai swordsman. But at its best it is the mental discipline and vigilance the Course extols as essential for training the mind to serve the goal of God. The Course material even smiles upon behavioral self-discipline, as when Jesus speaks to Helen and Bill about controlling their sex drives: "Self-control is not the whole answer to this problem, though I am by no means discouraging its use" (italic in last phrase mine).

I think the situation is similar with the other "better angels." Empathy could be the false empathy of identifying with another's weakness, but at its best it is the noble impulse to look upon our suffering brothers "with pity and compassion" (T-19.IV.D.11:2) and be truly helpful to them. The moral sense could degenerate into the ego's vengeful "justice," but at its best it is the cultivation of the profoundly ethical and loving characteristics of God's teachers (M-4), and the sublime recognition that "justice means no one can lose" (T-25.IX.5:4). And while our cognitive faculties can be used for all sorts of egoic purposes, reason at its best is the light that leads us out of darkness. I'll write more about that below.

The historical circumstances that have favored the inclinations against violence revisited

Now I want to look at the historical circumstances that Pinker says have increasingly favored the "better angels." The first is the rise of the state, and I think this one is a mixed bag. On the one hand, there is nothing inherently wrong with a strong nation-state. I do think that a democratic state rooted in just laws and committed to upholding the rule of law in humane and compassionate ways can be used by the Holy Spirit to serve His plan for salvation. I believe that some of our best nation-states are making genuine progress toward that ideal.

On the other hand (and I'm sure Pinker would agree with this), a strong state can easily become despotic. And even if it does manage to reduce physical violence within its borders, that reduction is often only skin deep. You can see this in cases like the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, when longstanding old conflicts immediately resumed once the repressive state that had kept them temporarily in check collapsed. Making the state the only "legitimate" instrument of violence is not the end of violence. Mere absence of external conflict is not real peace. I think from the Course's standpoint, a strong nation-state is akin to self-discipline regarding sex: useful, but "not the whole answer to the problem."

I feel much the same about Pinker's second circumstance, the rise of commerce. As with the nation-state, there is certainly nothing inherently wrong with commerce. I do agree that people trading with one another are less likely to kill each other. And trade partnerships have the potential, in the Holy Spirit's hands, to facilitate the "Expanding Circle" I'll talk about below.

But on the other hand, commerce can be and I think often is just a way for egos to fill their own coffers: "Egos do join together in temporary allegiance, but always for what each one can get separately" (T-6.V.A.5:9). Bargaining is not real joining. And as we've seen with everything from the current financial crisis to sweatshops in third-world countries to human trafficking to drug cartels in Mexico, commerce is often anything but "gentle." It can be as exploitative and as violent as any war. So, I find commerce to be a mixed bag as well.

When we come to Pinker's third circumstance (in my reordering), the rise of reason, I think we are getting closer to the Course's heart. True, if "reason" is understood as merely "cognitive ability," then it is something that can easily be used by the ego. Nazi gas chambers were ingenious intellectual achievements used for an evil purpose. The Course says the ego uses impeccable logic (see T-5.V.1:4), even though its logic is based on insane premises and therefore leads to insane conclusions.

But if "reason" is understood in its deepest and most sublime sense — the honest search for truth, based on an unbiased assessment of evidence and on logic proceeding from sound premises — then from the Course's perspective, it is an essential tool for awakening, a tool that paves the way for salvation (see T-22.III.3:1). The Course, in fact, says that the ego is incapable of reason (see T-21.V.4:1-4); true reason is the gift of the spirit.

All Course students are familiar with just how brilliantly the Course uses reason and logic to teach and persuade us to see things in a whole new way. Indeed, one could say that, among other things, the entire Course is a long rational argument for forgiveness. When we are truly convinced of that argument on the deepest level of our being, we awaken to God. As the Course says after presenting a logical syllogism demonstrating that only perfect love truly exists: "Believe this and you will be free" (T-1.VI.5:9).

I think the Course would applaud Pinker's wonderful paean to the power of reason:

As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.

I think Pinker's words here get to the heart of why the Course is so high on reason: Reason in its essence represents a move from a narrow, parochial, and biased perspective to a broader, more universal, more fair perspective. Reason is a means by which self-serving deceptions are overruled by the authority of unbiased, universal truth. In short, it is a means of transcending ego, the very goal of the Course. As the author of the Course once said to Helen and Bill, "Whenever anyone can listen fairly to both sides of any issue, he will make the right decision. This is because he has the answer" (Urtext). And of course, to bring things back to our present topic, this answer enables us to recognize the utter absurdity of violence.

Finally, we turn to the rise of cosmopolitanism, the idea that we are all part of a single community, the "Expanded Circle." I think there can be ego versions of this too, like the false empathy that says "We are all weak, unworthy sinners" (see S-2.II.3:3). But in its deepest form, this recognition that we are all part of a single community — a direct outgrowth of the power of reason to transcend parochial, self-serving boundaries – can set the stage for the recognition that we have common interests.

The Course never tires of singing the praises of recognizing common interests. When one person sees common interests with another, that person becomes a teacher of God (see M-1.1:2). When two pupil mutually see common interests with each other, that is the birth of a holy relationship (see M-2.5.3:4). Indeed, the Course itself was birthed in the joining of Helen and Bill in the common goal of finding a "better way" to handle interpersonal conflict. This joining, this seeing of truly common interests, is crucial: "Only by doing this is it possible to transcend the narrow boundaries the ego would impose upon the self" (P-2.2.8:5). It is thus absolutely essential to salvation, "the same requirement salvation asks of anyone" (P-II.2.8:3).

I'm especially taken by the "Expanding Circle" idea (a term that comes from Peter Singer). Pinker describes it this way:

According to this theory, evolution bequeathed us with a sense of empathy. That's the good news; the bad news is that by default, we apply it only to a narrow circle of allies and family. But over history, one can see the circle of empathy expanding: from the village to the clan to the tribe to the nation to more recently to other races, both sexes, children, and even other species.

I see the Course's vision as a kind of absolute cosmopolitanism, in which that expanding circle grows and grows until it encompasses literally everyone and everything.

The Course, in fact, has a very similar image: the "circle of Atonement." The circle of Atonement is the circle of everyone who is embraced by God's Love. God, of course, loves everyone, so His circle already encompasses everyone. But we are prone to exclude people from our love. Therefore, our mission is to expand our own circle, to invite those we have excluded into the circle of Atonement until our own circle is as all-encompassing as God's. This enables us to recognize that we too are in the circle of God's Love:

The circle of Atonement has no end. And you will find ever-increasing confidence in your safe inclusion in the circle with everyone you bring within its safety and its perfect peace.

…The power of God draws everyone to its safe embrace of love and union. Stand quietly within this circle, and attract all tortured minds to join with you in the safety of its peace and holiness. (T-14.V.7:6-7, 8:5-6)

As we do this more and more, as we bring more and more people into the limitless circle of God's Love, how could any violence long remain?

A Course-based theory for the decline of violence: our increasing willingness to hear and answer the Call of our loving Father

I would like to conclude by presenting a Course-based theory for the decline of violence. This theory brings in a factor that is completely absent from Pinker's argument: the God factor. Pinker is a strong atheist, but even if he were a believer like me, I can understand him leaving God out of his analysis. How can you quantify the effects of God on human history? For the Course, however, God is the Alpha and Omega of everything, so here I would like to present a theory based on the Course's vision of the history of the universe, a history in which our relationship with God plays a central role.

As every Course student knows, "the world was made as an attack on God" (W-pII.3.2:1). We who are God's Sons made this illusory world out of our mad desire to separate from Him, to push His Love away. Because it was made to be a loveless place, this world was and still is incredibly violent, "a slaughterhouse" (M-13.4:4) where "devouring is nature's 'law of life'" (M-27.3:7), a battleground where we engage in "endless war" (M-27.2:7). The whole sad history of violence in this world came about because we wanted it that way.

God in His Love for us did not allow this to happen in truth; it was only an illusion in our tortured minds. Not wanting His Sons to suffer in any way, the instant our minds departed from Him, He called us back: "His Love has called to us unceasingly since time began" (W-pII.In.8:5). The Course says that in truth, we answered that call immediately; the separation was over the instant it began. But part of our minds was unwilling to accept that the separation was over. And so we still linger in this violent world, dodging bullets in the battleground. And we tell ourselves, "Violence is worse than it has ever been."

But this is not so. For though in the beginning God's Voice was difficult to hear, He never gave up. He kept calling us home. And slowly but surely, some of us became willing to hear and answer His Call. Those who have heard and answered are the teachers of God:

They come from all over the world. They come from all religions and from no religion. They are the ones who have answered. The Call is universal. It goes on all the time everywhere. It calls for teachers to speak for It and redeem the world. (M-1.2:1-6)

One of those teachers was Jesus. In the Course's view, Jesus' resurrection and awakening to Heaven was a watershed event in human history, in part because it made us better able "to accept [the Holy Spirit] and to hear His Voice" (C-6.I:3). The Call had become even easier to hear and answer. So, since then, more and more teachers of God have arisen, speaking for that Call and taking their part in redeeming the world.

I think that, in broad terms, this is the answer to the question of why violence has decreased: our increasing willingness to hear and answer the Call of our loving Father. This hearing and answering has taken many forms, including forms that make no reference at all to God; as the above passage says, teachers of God can come "from all religions and from no religion." I think this hearing and answering has been evident in the great lights of nonviolence, from Fox to Tolstoy to Gandhi to King. I think it has also been evident in many of the trends Pinker discusses, especially the rise of reason and the "Expanding Circle." Whatever form it takes, more and more of us are hearing the Call of God and answering it. More and more of us are taking up our roles as teachers of God. And among the happy results of this is the decline of violence.

The good news from the Course's standpoint is that this overall trend will continue, even if there are some bumps along the way. For in answer to the question of how many of us will answer God's Call, we are told, "It is all a matter of time. Everyone will answer in the end" (M-1.2:8-9). The end might be a long way off, but it will come. And when it comes, violence will be brought down to zero.

May we each do our part to bring that end nearer by hearing and answering the Call ourselves. May we all fulfill our function of "loving in a loveless place" (T-14.IV.4:10). As we do, we will rejoice together as all violence is shined away by the boundless Love of the God Who wants nothing more than for His beloved children to come home to Him.

One Comment

  1. John
    Posted October 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, again, for your very helpful thoughts on another subject that we of the earth surely need to face together.
    Very sincerely, —john

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