Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stephen Pinker's "The Better Angel's Of Our Nature" (2011)

You will be glad, and perhaps a bit surprised, to hear that, for some time now, our world has been in the process of becoming a less violent planet—for human beings at least. That, in short is the message of this very long book (696 pages), not counting references and bibliography which have been placed at the end. The statistical evidence is vast and Professor Pinker has mastered all of it. If the numbers and stats were all that mattered, there'd be nothing more to say; they are not all that matters, and there is something more that needs to be said.

The question that Professor Pinker never manages to answer, to my satisfaction at least, is why did this revolution in our attitudes toward violence occur? Yes, there have been a number of what he calls "rights revolutions"  but that doesn't take us very far. What is a 'right'? What does that word mean? Where do 'rights' come from? How do they acquire legal standing? These are historical (as well as philosophical) questions, and it will not do to say that the answers have something to do with 'modernity'—another term that Professor Pinker does not bother to examine—and with the rule of law which I don't think he even mentions and which, in any case, did not just happen overnight or even during the last two or three hundred years.

The title of this book, "The better angels of our nature," is slightly misleading; not because it might lead the innocent reader to suppose that there are or ever have been good or bad angels watching over us but because it obscures or at least ignores what ought to have been Pinkers' great truth: civilization and the rule of law—each absolutely requires the other—is and always has been a human invention. Every year,  every century, reminds us of the fact that absent the rule of law, civilization in this preposterous pig of world, would count for nothing.

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