11 November 2011

Stephen Pinker's Violent Delusion

Stephen Pinker has made a name for himself of late by arguing that violence is on the decline in the modern world. His latest outing: “The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes” tries to demonstrate his theory via a dubious caricature of modernity that would have us believe we are living in a statist paradise.

I’ve addressed the idea of statism reducing violence previously in my video “Statism and War,” where I showed that statism has simply transformed itself from a more openly brutal feudal system into a neo-feudalistic society where modern serfs have more freedom, much like free range chickens. People are granted liberties on the same premise that chickens become happier and more productive when they are allowed to roam freely. Serfs are given access to credit, resulting in usury through principle plus interest, adding to the serf’s delusion of liberty and creating growth through a consumer driven economic model. Anyone who actually believes the ruling class simply gave up the stranglehold of feudalism without benefiting themselves first and foremost is trapped in a mental snare.

Enlightening the serf is a Herculean task given that they have grown used to imprisonment - institutionalised by their incarceration like a prisoner spending years behind bars. Releasing a prisoner from a cage can be a terrifying, just as Plato describes in the Allegory of the Cave. While this story has numerous metaphors regarding our perceptions of reality it also shows us that those who have tasted truth are a threat to those who feel free in their ignorance. Plato describes how the ignorant may even try to kill those who attempt to lead them from the cave towards the light, so it’s hardly surprising that many will take any positive aspects of modern life and attribute it to the state. Now for Pinker’s stinker:

He starts his interview by stating he used 100 graphs and data sets to demonstrate how violence has declined. It wouldn’t matter if he showed 1000 examples because it still doesn’t justify his conclusions. Why? Because of what Pinker then goes on to discuss: his reasons. Pinker’s first reason is the outsourcing of the justice system to government. While a “disinterested third party” can help to reduce vendettas and blood feuds this is done at the barrel of a gun when the government is involved. The primary reason people obey the state is because it has the most power, so this is not a voluntaryistic process of pacification – quite the opposite. If Pinker feels that a third party resolution system is important in generating peace then there is no reason why he should not agree with dispute resolution organisations to replace government, and there are many already in operation around the world.

Pinker employs a naturalistic fallacy typical of statists, who regularly assume that human beings are inherently brutal. Humans are unique in a natural sense given that they are able to question their actions and realise that living by the sword is a quick way to die by it. Cooperation is always going to be the logical way to resolve any dispute because violence breeds more violence, while the state’s ever present gun in the room only perpetuates a culture of “might is right”. Pinker also fails to note that raising children in this type of society is akin to growing up in an abusive household, where evidence clearly shows this has a terrible effect on development, and passes on to the next generation like a cancer. So let’s put the guns away and start creating a world of mutual interaction, as opposed to bowing to the one with the most firepower.

Pinker then goes on to give his second reason for the decline of violence, ironically reinforcing my point about mutual interaction being the most logical system of human existence. He refers to commerce and “positive sum exchange” as opposed to “zero sum plunder”, describing how it’s become cheaper to buy something than to steal it, and how both sides benefit from this exchange. Much like Thomas Hobbes before him Pinker tries very hard throughout the video to suggest that the state is the reason for this, sounding a lot like Hobbes and his “state of nature” theory. In his enthusiasm Pinker falls foul to his own logic.

To claim that nature is inherently brutal in a sort of “zero sum plunder” is delusional given that nature is a process of desperate and brutal survival only when there is a scarcity of goods and a lack of mutually beneficial interaction. I’ve shown many times in the past that there is no reason we would still need the state to mutually interact via a free market, and modern technology has dramatically improved our ability to avoid the turmoil of nature, like growing food on areas of land that would have proved impossible in the past:

I could also add that superstition doesn’t help the human propensity to avoid violence either. If a dude wearing a robe tells you that the man in the sky wants you to kill someone in His name then most likely you will do it if you lack the information or critical skills to understand why this is irrational. Which leads me onto my belief that our huge steps in modern understanding of the natural world have helped us to realise that the sky will not fall if we don’t “kill the brown people.” In Pinker’s credit however he does go on to talk about the benefits of enlightenment through reason and logic, though once again tries to fit this into his cum hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy affiliated with statist liberalism

Pinker goes on to discuss deadly ideologies, and how people don’t change their minds despite the evidence showing that something doesn’t work. He also has the gall to take a pot hot at Libertarianism, which says a lot about his character and further demonstrates his inability to see that statism is no longer a necessary ideology due to the evolution of human progress. What’s more Pinker glosses over the death toll of the 20th century: over 260 million democides and 160 million war deaths and genocides.

Like Mao and the Great Leap Forward, which Pinker ironically mentions, this exemplifies what statists ignore about objective suffering caused by collectivism. To top it off Pinker also completely ignores the fact that nuclear arms are the major reason states no longer send so many people to war, except of course if you happen to be a country that doesn’t have any atomic bombs, like those in the Middle East. This is perfectly demonstrated by the 21st Century Middle Eastern wars. To conclude I would ask Pinker not to assume when next writing a book that everyone is looking at the shadows on the cave wall.

This is RockingMrE – over and out!


  1. Really late to this, lol.

    I respect Pinker's consideration of genetics and evolutionary psychology, as he displays in his book "The Blank Slate", which has a thesis vehemently opposed to political correctness.

    However, recently he has made it more clear that after writing this book ("The Better Angels of Our Nature") that he has appealed more to progressive and/or collectivist thought.

    Ironically enough when he was younger he did consider himself an anarchist.

    I do however think he is a brilliant guy, but I suppose his brilliance is more pronounced in the field of cognitive and evolutionary psychology rather than social/political commentary.

    1. I agree that Pinker makes some good points, while his whole appeal to popularity regarding the fact that libertarians are a minority, or his suggestions that only the state can provide the solutions to the problems he describes, shows that Pinker is only rational when it doesn't conflict with his statist cognitive dissonance.