The Humanitarian Revolution

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Review of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, Chapter 4

(Credit: All block quotes are excerpts from the book.)

Chapter 4: The Humanitarian Revolution

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” ~ Voltaire

Iron Maiden. Breaking on the Wheel. Drawn and Quartered. Burned at the Stake. Crucifixion. Impalement. Disembowelment. Put in Stocks. Beheading. These are not pleasant images to think about, but they were common punishments in Europe for centuries, even in response to such tame crimes as working on the Sabbath or insulting the crown. Why do these punishments no longer exist in modern times? If your answer is along the lines of “those were unenlightened times” and “we have a constitutional amendment protecting us from cruel and unusual punishment,” then you already know about the Enlightenment. But what caused the Enlightenment? For that matter, what caused human beings to be so cruel in the first place?

One attempt to answer the latter question is the “life is cheap” hypothesis. The idea is that life expectancy was so low, natural death and disease so common and horrific, and nature so forbidding, that primitive peoples were violent by default, because life did not carry with it particularly high premiums:

“Their primitive world was full of dangers, suffering, and nasty surprises, including plagues, famines, and wars. It would be natural for them to ask, ‘What kind of god would create such a world?’ A plausible answer was: a sadistic god, a god who liked to see people bleed and suffer.” So, they might think, if these gods have a minimum daily requirement of human gore, why not be proactive about it? Better him than me. (p 211)

This is an interesting theory, and seems to jive with the quantitative trend. As medical science advanced, quality of life improved, the valuation of life increased, so people were less likely to destroy each other. It’s a cute theory, but still a bit circular: Did medical science cause a humanitarian revolution, or did an appreciation for human life spur on medical science?

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, several prominent movements began, spearheaded and recorded by the likes of Adam Smith, Locke, Hobbes, Voltaire, Kant, Spinoza, Rousseau, and Newton. You probably recognize every name on that list without ever having read their books, and that’s okay! Reading their books now is a very academic exercise, because the kinds of concepts they advanced are so ingrained in our modern worldviews that they seem almost silly and self-obvious. This was not the case in medieval Europe. Daring to pose that a witch being burned at the stake was in full possession of a soul, a sense of pain, a feeling of fear, and the love of her family was not only revolutionary, it was blasphemous.

Here are just a few of the moral issues tackled during this time period, culminating in several full-on abolition movements: slavery, dueling, cruel and unusual punishment (torture), debtors’ prisons, separation of church and state, animal cruelty, capital punishment, corporal punishment, witch-hunting, women’s rights, the scientific revolution, democracy, free market economy. Because of the timing, several of these issues (with one very notable exception) were explicitly dealt with in the American Constitution.

So, what caused such a sudden explosion of moral and reasoned social change? Most of us remember from our schooling that it was a time of “rediscovery” of the ancient classical thinkers and a renunciation of the crooked, oppressive Catholic Church. While there are many complex and interconnected causal threads to this intellectual awakening, there is one “exogenous” cause that Pinker discusses at length in this chapter: books.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, dramatically reducing the production cost of books. Over the next century, its efficiency improved even more. Suddenly books became big business as swaths of people from lower and lower socioeconomic strata could afford them. Literacy rates skyrocketed. But what exactly is the connection between reading and humanism? The most notable emotional change is empathy. Books teach us to see the world through different sets of eyes, effectively lifting us from our own bodies and placing us in others’ temporarily. Once this concept passed from spooky to commonplace, people began to empathize with the burning witch, by asking for the first time in history what that person must be feeling, and how would I feel in their place.

So, if the enlightenment was so overwhelming, how can one explain the atrocious violence of the 19th and 20th centuries? First of all, as the next chapter demonstrates, the 19th and 20th centuries were nowhere near as violent as the middle ages. Secondly, history does not obey neat, tidy physics equations. Trends ebb and flow. Humanitarianism rose and tended to erode some of the disgusting practices of times past, but there were other trends at work in the world too. The one historians most often blame for the two world wars: Nationalism. There was a time when borders changed so frequently that peasants never thought of themselves as a national or ethnic group. Once those borders stabilized, people began to take pride in their “blood and soil,” their common languages, religions, and values. This culminated, unfortunately, into interstate wars at unimaginable scales. No longer were two rival princes recruiting knights to battle over a barony. Now, generals were conscripting entire male populations to battle neighboring countries for dominance.

Despite these setbacks, the point is that attitudes about government change over time. The differences are stark between tribal leaders, noblemen, kings, and senators, and the attitudes of their corresponding flocks. Historically, we elide these differences and innately assume that the power dynamic between rulers and people has stayed more or less the same. Although each development added or subtracted from the overall bloodthirstiness, the landscape we see today was shaped by the thinkers who were considered radical in their time.

Instead of taking government for granted as an organic part of the society, or as the local franchise of God’s rule over his kingdom, people began to think of a government as a gadget—a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare. (p 245)

If all of this sounds intriguing, even counter-intuitive, watch Pinker’s TED Talk for a wonderful summary of the book.

Victor A. Davis has always loved reading and writing short stories. He is an avid hiker and even when away from the world of laptops and wifi, keeps a pocket paperback and a handwritten journal to keep him company on trail. He is the author of two short story collections, Grains of Sand and The Gingerbread Collection. Join his Mailing List for special announcements about upcoming works.