Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Better Angels of Our Nature

I recently finished reading "The Better Angels of Our Nature" by Steven Pinker, and I highly recommend it. It's just short of 700 pages, so it took me a while to get through, but it was never boring and was packed full of fascinating insights into why people are violent - and why they are less violent now than in the past.

The thesis of the book is that violence has declined steadily over the history of civilizations. Despite the widespread belief that we are living in exceptionally violent times, we are in fact living in exceptionally peaceful times. Wars today kill more people (in whole numbers) than did wars in the past, but there are far more people and far fewer wars than there used to be. As a percentage of the population killed, even the cataclysms of the 20th century, the world wars, barely make the list of the greatest episodes of violence in history. The author documents how violence has declined across the board, from warfare to the justice system (we no longer have public executions or break people's arms and legs, thread them through a wagon wheel, and leave them to die) to the way we discipline our children, to our recognition of the rights of other people.

When people decry the abysmal morality of our society, they are usually talking about sex. (They're completely wrong about that, but that's a different post.) Pinker has convincingly shown that in terms of violence and recognizing the rights of others not to be harmed, there has never been a more moral time.

If I were motivated, I could have written a dozen posts inspired by this book. Instead, I'll just write about a couple of things I bookmarked.

The first speaks to the often-heard idea that morality comes from religion. For most of history, it was the norm for heretics and apostates to be tortured and killed. This wasn't cruelty for its own sake,  but was the logical result of the belief that heretics would suffer an eternity in Hell, and could be saved from this fate by confessing their sins and recanting their heresy. As terrible as torture was, it was better to make the heretic suffer for a few days or weeks now and so motivate him to repent than it was for him to suffer even worse torment for all of eternity. As for someone who spread heresy, he had to die to prevent him from causing others to be damned. Pinker makes the point that this logic still holds today, yet people in the West are horrified at the idea of torturing or killing heretics. While there is some cross influence between religious and moral beliefs, it is for the most part their morals that inform their religious beliefs, not the other way around.

The second is a group of studies about violent offenders. It was found that these people's brains are different from typical people. The area of the brain that controls impulses and modulates behavior is smaller in criminally violent people than it is in typical people. If a typical person was involved in an accident that damaged his brain so that he was no longer able to control his impulses, would we hold him morally responsible for his violent actions? I don't think we would. Then what about people whose brains naturally develop that way? How can we hold them morally responsible? And yet, the American justice system is  structured to be punitive rather than rehabilitative.

Similarly, it was found that people's capacity for self-control could be boosted by feeding them sugar. The pre-frontal cortex, which is responsible for higher functions like self control, burns a lot of energy. Controlling yourself literally requires energy, and the more you do it, the less energy you have available and the more difficult it becomes. Add energy, and you're ability to control yourself shoots up. In other words, you're best prepared to resist eating a chocolate bar after you've eaten it. As I've said many times before, if there is a God, He's a practical joker with a nasty sense of humor.

The last piece I'll mention is a study that, "looked at twenty-five civilizations in Asia and Europe and found that the ones that were stratified into hereditary classes favored myth, legend, and hagiography and discouraged history, social science, natural science, [and] biography." Does that sound familiar?  The study's author suggests that this is because it is not in the interest of those in the controlling classes to have scholars uncover the truth about the past (or present) and cast doubt on their descent from heroes and gods. Or in the case of the frum world, pious holy men and superhumanly adept scholars.

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