Pinker on Violence (3)

Angels update. I'm making good progress on Better Angels of Our Nature and starting to be a fan.  One of the very likable things about Steven Pinker is that he cheerfully rebels against political correctness and academic fads.  He's not a true conservative, but doesn't mind sometimes sounding like one.  Why did crime rise in the 60s and fall in the 90s?  He doesn't mind putting some of the blame on the "decivilizing" trends of the 60s--the sexual revolution, drug use, rebellious youth, etc.  He doesn't mind crediting the drop in crime to law and order, "broken windows" programs in crime-ridden neighborhoods, more incarceration, new legislation like California's "three strikes you're out," etc. 

Pinker is an atheist, but cheerfully gives some of the credit for falling crime to black churches and things like the Promise Keeper's rally in Washington and the religiously-tinged Million Man March.  Presumably he's against the death penalty, but he doesn't spin it's continuation in the US as some huge abomination. In fact, he says we barely still really use it.  He asks an interesting question: would advocates still favor the death penalty if it were consistently used in all 50 states, instead of just in a fraction of one percent of murder cases?  How would death penalty advocates feel if there were about 27 executions per day in the US?

One question that comes up throughout the book--does it really make sense to "correct for" total population, equating 1 million murders in a smaller world with the killing of 6 million people during the Holocaust? The reductio ad absurdum of this approach is right there in the funny point Pinker point about Cain killing Abel, at the beginning of the book. At the time, if we are to believe the bible story, that amounted to Cain's wiping out 25% of the world's population.  If you're scoring moral horrors, should you really treat the murder of one man at the dawn of time as equivalent to the murder of a couple of billion people today?  No, surely not.  While the size of massacre, relative to the world's whole population, has some importance, the absolute number of killings and quantity of suffering and death is significant too.  Some of the evidence in the book about declining violence turns on this relative accounting method, so isn't totally convincing.

General reaction:  nobody can read this book and come away still believing platitudes about the basic goodness of humankind.  The cruelty described in this book is completely mind boggling.

1 comment:

ɱʋʒʔʅʠɭɸʒʘɧʦʏʭʃʧɲɗɭʡ said...

I think the "paradox" comes from a discontinuity: it is worse to kill the last 100 specimen of a species than killing 100 specimen when there are still many others to survive.

I think the same reasoning can be done when wiping out countries, cultures, religions, languages, ...

I'm not sure about the adam and eve story (who did Cain reproduce with?) but I see that "we" were close to extinction when he killed his brother, so that should be factored in, somehow ...