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Favourite Reads: Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature” #1

Immanuel Kant argued that war and hostility is the natural state of man and so peaceful relations have to be established and not assumed. Democracies don’t fight each other since they are instituted to protect their citizens and war benefits rulers and not citizens; when the people are in charge, they wish not to spend their money and blood on war with another nation. This is known as The Democratic Peace. But wars do occur between democracies.

Nations, according to Kant, ought to belong to a League of Nations whereby an objective voice can be heard and individual nation-states are dissuaded from thinking that they are always in the right. Kant links the benefits of this super-state coalition to democratic values since a democracy will see that another democracy shares its values and sees the same solutions to common problems. Furthermore, Kant argued that citizens should be allowed to cross borders unmolested to live and work in other countries  as long as they do so peacefully; this would ensure that what is considered right or wrong in one place will also be seen as such everywhere else.

Governance results from a pre-existing set of assumptions or principles. The assumption that political murder is wrong led to the rise of democracy: the differences between some Islamic States, for instance, and Western European ones can be explained largely by attitudes to violence. Some practices that were once everyday are now unconscionable, from smoking in classrooms to public hangings.

The Civilising Process has ensured that we no longer enjoy the practices or fantasies of our forbears. For instance, the unrestrained violence of burning cats and hanging people in public is truly out of step with today’s sensibilities; Pinker’s argument is that a greater appreciation of the individual, an explosion of unavoidable networks between people in commerce and services generally, and an acceptance of basic standards of hygiene and politeness have all meant that violence has decreased and, at the very least, our instinctive drive to resort to force is curbed. There is also the possibility that people simply value life more now than before. As economic and political freedoms have increased, so too has self-esteem, and what people may want for themselves can be easily wished for others too. But this theory has problems too for Imperial Rome, though affluent, was nonetheless cruel and barbaric in some respects; rich nations like Saudi Arabia still execute people and stoning isn’t unheard of. What’s more, perhaps poverty and not affluence is the context in which people can learn to be most compassionate, understanding as they might what real suffering is.

Education must be a factor. Think of the explosion in reading and writing in the decades after the invention of the printing press: what we were reading was changing too, coinciding with advances in knowledge of science and geography and other cultures. Pinker puts it like this: “The expansion of people’s minds could have added a dose of humanitarianism to their emotions and their beliefs.”

R.H.