Violence and Moral Progress - III

Steven Pinker, Decreased Violence, Moral Progress - III

Happily, as Grim has shown, Prof. Pinker's New Republic article is now in the clear. Thus, I am saved the trouble of trying to summarize it. It's good reading.

In comments to this post of Eric's, Grim argued that there is no such thing as "moral progress," and that it hasn't happened. This article, to me, looks like a good counter. Towards the beginning, Prof. Pinker lists some of the commonplace cruelties of the past:

"Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution..." (He was talking about violence rather than moral progress in general; that, I believe, is why the subjection of women is not on the list, though in some cases - I cited the Yanomamo before - the two go hand in hand.)

...things that, in our time and place, are not tolerated. That looks like progress to me; and since it's progress in the realm of how we treat our fellowman, what better name for it than "moral progress"? But the main thrust of the article is about decreasing violence. In particular, he is looking at a long-term downward trend in murder rates as documented by Manuel Eisner. He's talking about murder, not justifiable or necessary violence. Again, all over the west, it's been dropping for centuries. We still want to do each other harm, that's clear enough, but we don't act on that desire as often.

On foreign policy, his case is a little weaker; he cites the Human Security Brief a little selectively (war death rates are way down; terrorist death rates are up). But Grim himself has just made a better case for moral progress in the sphere of international violence, with his Blackfive post, particularly Part IV. When the Scots fought each other, Edward I intervened - to increase his own dominion. When the inhabitants of Yugoslavia fought each other, Europe and the US intervened - to try to make peace between them without taking a square inch. A moral improvement? How could it not be? I am honestly at a loss to see how these developments could be called morally neutral.

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