Thursday, November 24, 2011

Asking the Angels "Why?"

I dislike the fact that my presentation of Steven Pinker's The Angels of Our Better Nature so far has focused only on deaths (from war, atrocities, and homicides). It's important to note that he also discusses declines in rape and domestic assault.

Rape in the U.S. declined by 80 percent from 1973 to 2008, despite increased reporting and the relatively recent recognition of date rape. For comparison, homicide is at 57% of its 1973 level; rape is at 20% of its 1973 level. Domestic assaults also decreased more than 50 percent from 1993 to 2005 (although the number is still quite high, about 400 per 100,000 women and about 100 per 100,000 men). Between 1975 and 2005, homicides of intimate partners decreased almost 50 percent for women victims and nearly 80 percent for men; both were under 1 per 100,000 in 2005.

Why has all of this violence declined? You'll have to read the book to get the full answer to that question, but I'll do my best to convey a summary.

The Pacifist's Dilemma: A Way of Organizing Strategies

In the final chapter, Pinker introduces what he calls the Pacifist's Dilemma. It's a twist on the classic Prisoner's Dilemma from Game Theory, in which two prisoners are set up to either compete or cooperate. If Prisoner A sells out Prisoner B, A goes free while B serves a year (and vice versa). If both confess, they each serve three months. If both stay silent, they each only serve one month. So clearly, they would be best off if both stayed silent, but the temptation to defect is strong. The dilemma is usually shown as a four-quadrant table like this.

In the Pacifist's Dilemma, the four comparable quadrants are labeled as follows:

Pacifist's Dilemma four quadrant box

As you can see, the penalty for pacifism in the face of aggression is extreme (-100), much less than the one for meeting aggression with aggression (-50). And the "costs to the victim (-100) are vastly disproportionate to the benefits to the aggressor (10)" (p. 679).

The question is, How can the basic assumptions of the Pacifist's Dilemma be changed or reweighted to make peace a more likely outcome? This is what Pinker argues has been happening over the course of history, resulting in the decline in violence.

Causes of the Decline of Violence

Government -- Starting from Hobbes's Leviathan, it has been theorized that government, with its monopoly on force, is key to reducing violence. "If a government imposes a cost on an aggressor that is large enough to cancel out his gains -- say, a penalty that is three times the advantage of aggressing over being peaceful -- it flips the appeal of the two choices of the potential aggressor, making peace more attractive than war" (p. 680). So if you add penalties into the three nonpeaceful quadrants, suddenly Victory and War no longer look so attractive.

Pinker describes different phases of the Leviathan effect, which he calls Pacification and the Civilizing Process. Pacification involves a ruler (not necessarily a benevolent one) using a whip to get order out of chaos to protect his investment. As Pinker puts it, "…early states were more like protection rackets… Any ensuing reduction in violence benefited the overlords as much as the protectees. Just as a farmer tries to prevent his animals from killing one another, so a ruler will try to keep his subjects from cycles of raiding and feuding that just shuffle resources or settle scores among them but from his point of view are a dead loss" (p. 42).

The Civilizing Process followed Pacification as fiefdoms consolidated into countries. In Europe, for instance, 5,000 political units in the 1400s gave way to 500 in the early 1600s, then 200 in the early 1800s, to fewer than 30 in 1953. Justice was nationalized, as when Henry I of England "redefined homicide as an offense against the state" (p. 74) so that the wergild payments "went to the king instead of to the family of the victim" (p. 75, which includes one of my favorite unrealized facts: The word coroner comes from the Latin corona, crown!). As the rulers consolidated power, the way to become a winner was to curry favor with the king, not by being a knave who killed and took what he wanted. "The nobles had to change their marketing." Hence the rise of learning manners and courtesy.

Gentle Commerce -- The exchange of goods in trade turns "zero-sum warfare into positive-sum mutual profit" (p. 682). If you want wealth and land is the only wealth, all you can do is fight to take the land; but when goods are exchanged, wealth is not limited in the same way. Gentle Commerce affects the Pacifist's Dilemma by vastly improving the outcome of the peaceable upper left quadrant with mutual gains. Governments supported increasing trade by developing infrastructure, such as currency and legal systems for enforcing contracts. Throw in a few roads and other social changes like the beginnings of division of labor "and as a result merchants, craftsmen, and bureaucrats displaced knightly warriors" (page 683).

In the post-World War II era, which Pinker calls the Long Peace, and the most recent years of the New Peace, international trade has increased incredibly, and countries that trade heavily are unlikely to go to war. "If you're trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead" (p. 76) and you have an incentive to anticipate what they want so you can supply it (which leads to empathy).

Feminization -- Essentially, this is victory without glory, defeat without humiliation, which again changes the weighting of the Pacifist's Dilemma quadrants. "Societies in which women get a better deal, both traditional and modern, tend to be societies that have less organized violence" (p. 686). This can be from external forces unrelated to violence: "In traditional societies, one of these forces is living arrangements: women are better off in societies in which they stay with their birth family under the wing of their fathers and brothers, and their husbands are visitors, than in societies in which they move in with their husband's clan and are dominated by their husband and his kin…. In modern societies, the exogenous forces include technological and economic advances that freed women from chronic child-rearing and domestic duties, such as store-bought food, labor-saving devices, contraception, longer life spans, and the shift to an information economy" (p. 686).

Key to the values of feminization is its move away from manly honor. Honor is way overrated, as Pinker demonstrates in his discussions of honor cultures. "A world that is less invigorated by honor, glory, and ideology and more tempted by the pleasures of bourgeois life is a world in which fewer people are killed" (p. 309).

Monogamous marriage is part of this; as in the American Wild West, the scarcity of women was one major reason why violence was so pronounced as men fell into what biologists call the "cads vs. dads" phenomenon. "The ecosystem that selects for the 'dad' setting is one with an equal number of men and women and monogamous matchups between them. In those circumstances, violent competition offers the men no reproductive advantages, but it does threaten them with a big disadvantage: a man cannot support his children if he is dead" (p. 105).

The Expanding Circle -- Probably my favorite concept, since it serves my biases so well. Cosmopolitanism, literacy, mobility, mass media -- all these were essential to decreasing violence. Cities are safer than rural areas, historically. The rise of literacy, and especially the spread of fiction with its ability to put the reader in the shoes of someone entirely different, was important.

"Adopting other people's vantage points can alter one's convictions in other ways. Exposure to worlds that can be seen only through the eyes of a foreigner, an explorer, or a historian can turn an unquestioned norm ('That's the way it's done') into an explicit observation ('That's what our tribe happens to do now'). This self-consciousness is the first step toward asking whether the practice could be done some other way" (p. 175). When novels like Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1748) spread among the reading public, "Grown men burst into tears while experiencing the forbidden loves, intolerable arranged marriages, and cruel twists of fate in the lives of undistinguished women (including servants) with whom they had nothing in common" (p. 176).

Increasing mobility over the past few centuries has only added to that exposure, and the mass media of the past hundred years even more so.

The Escalator of Reason This is probably Pinker's favorite concept. He is a child of the Enlightenment, and believes that improved abstract thinking abilities (as demonstrated in IQ tests over the past century) and a humanistic, rational world view that privileges objective facts over ideology together lead to a positive outcome for the Pacifist's Dilemma.

"A humanistic value system, which privileges human flourishing as the ultimate good, is a product of reason because it can be justified: it can be mutually agreed upon by any community of thinkers who value their own interests and are engaged in reasoned negotiation, whereas communal and authoritarian values are parochial to a tribe or a hierarchy" (p. 692).

That's a lot to absorb, and I know I've glossed over topics that covered whole chapters in the book. But I think I've done some justice to the main points. Somehow I forgot to include the part about the role of democracies and Immanuel Kant....kind of like that joke about putting a motorcycle engine back together only to find yourself left with a bunch of parts that don't go on the outside.

Oh, well. Happy Thanksgiving in this, one of the least violent years in history.


Part 4 of Steven Pinker Week at Daughter Number Three.

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