Summary: Discusses human beings and violence focussing on Steven Pinker’s idea that human violence is decreasing and criticism of Pinker’s views. It touches on pacifism and just violence theory as well as the problem of state violence. It explores tension between the principles self -determination and the duty to protect.
Human beings and violence
Human history is filled with war and other acts of violence. The natural world of animals is also a violent place. The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) saw the natural world as containing creatures that were constantly hunting down and eating other creatures in a permanent state of violence. He saw human existence as part of this same world. Human life was filled with violence and injustice and ended in death. Only art, and in particular music, could temporarily transport human beings away from this cruel and meaningless existence. But a recent controversy is whether human violence has become less frequent.
Pinker’s idea that human violence is decreasing
In his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ , psychologist Steven Pinker sets out his argument that the rate of violence has declined over the course of human history.
Pinker accepts that since the development of more modern weapons, when a war breaks out it is easier for larger numbers of people to be killed than when spears and clubs were the only weapons human beings could use against each other. But Pinker argues that when making judgements about the level of violence, we have to take into account the greater number of people who now live on Earth compared to earlier times.
His claim is that the rate of violence is the most important consideration and that this rate has declined over the course of history. The rate of violence is measured by considering the chances a person has of being subject to violence during one period, or in one society, compared to another. Pinker’s claim is that the rate of violence in human societies has declined at every stage of human history. In summary, he argues that:
- The rate of violence first declined when human societies formed states, or governments. Societies with government are far less violent than the hunter-gather societies of tribes;
- The development of cities lessened the rate of violence because living in cities came with the development of more rules;
- The spread in the ability to read lessened the rate of violence by increasing people’s ability to learn about, and feel empathy for, others;
- Increases in trade lessened violence because societies, which may have once been potential enemies, became potential, or actual, customers;
- Violence lessened substantially after the 1700’s when the period of the Enlightenment meant that reason began to replace superstition;
- In the 1900’s, rights movements developed- this included the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and more widespread condemnation of racial violence, violence against women or minorities;
- The spread of democracy also lessened violence because it relied on the idea that differences of opinion could be resolved peacefully through democratic means;
- Violence is mainly committed by men, especially young men. More modern societies have given greater recognition to the rights and interests of women and this has reduced the incidence of war and violence. Societies where women get a better deal, whether modern or traditional, tend to have less organised violence.
Pinker argues that violence was very common among our closest surviving ancestors, the chimpanzees. If a group of male chimps comes across another equally matched group they will make fierce, threatening noises. But they will not usually fight because they are intelligent enough to work out that chances of winning or losing are too equally matched. But if the group comes across a lone female chimp with an infant they will attack her and eat her baby. And if the group comes across a lone male chimp from another group, they will attack him with merciless savagery.
Pinker suggests that hunter-gatherer tribes followed a similar pattern. They did this by conducting raids on other tribes when the other tribes were not expecting attack. This ensured an improved chance of winning a violent encounter.
Pinker bases his argument on the high rate of violence in hunter-gatherer societies on evidence gathered by archaeologists. Nowadays archaeologists have the technology and know how to check pre-historic remains for the kinds of damage known to be left by violent assaults- skulls damaged in a particular way, certain types of fractures on bones etc.
Remains of people from hunter gather times show that there was high chance of bodily harm caused from violence. Pinker argues that there was about a five times greater chance of becoming a victim of violence in pre-historic societies than after the emergence of civilization- cities and states. Pinker also argues that even after the emergence of the first farming societies, the writings of Homer in Greece and stories from the Bible, demonstrate that society was still extremely violent. After the establishment of the first city states and empires, people were less likely to become victims of homicide or war because rulers imposed peace. But, although less violent than hunter gathering tribes, society at this time was still much more violent than modern society.
Pinker says that although the knights of the Middle Ages have reputation for bravery in fact they were little more than brutal warlords. Violence in the Middle Ages settled down somewhat once the knights were brought under the control of kings and queens. But these kings and queens were themselves also very violent compared with modern day rulers.
Pinker argues that during the Enlightenment the view began to spread that all people were made of the “same stuff” and shared the same kinds of goals. The idea that people are better off avoiding violence and giving authority to the state to resolve disputes became more popular. Pinker says that this idea seems obvious to us now. But it was not always the case. Pinker concludes that peace has reached its highest point since the end of the Second World War in 1945. He believes there are a number of reasons for what he describes as this “outbreak of peace”. These include the emergence of science and reason since the period of the Enlightenment, together with increases in wealth and the spread of democracy.
Criticism of Pinker’s views
Gray accepts that from the end of the Second World War there was peace in richer countries in Europe and North America. But he says that, during the Cold War, these counties, particularly the USA and the former Soviet Union exported their conflicts to less developed countries in Indo-China, other parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America. But even after the end of the Cold War, war has continued to be a frequent event.
Gray argues that a number of prominent Enlightenment figures in fact favoured violence as a means of changing society. Gray does not accept that rational belief is anywhere near as widespread as Pinker claims. He says that science itself indicates that the persistence of irrational beliefs is part of human nature. Gray argues that all human societies contain some tendencies that lead to conflict and others that lead to co-operation. He agrees with Pinker that increases in wealth or prosperity can contribute to peace. But he thinks that racist ideas persist and that wealth cannot continue to grow indefinitely. He thinks that when growth in wealth falters, violence will return. He says that “even if humans were not moved by the pursuit of power and glory, scarcity and uncertainty would drive them repeatedly into conflict with one another. Recurrent violence is a result of the normal disorder of human life.”
- Pinker focuses on Western Europe with little attention to rates of violence in Asia, Africa or South America;
- Murder rates in the USA are much higher than in Europe. And in some parts of the USA the current rate of murder is as high as it was in parts of Europe six hundred years ago;
- Pinker is almost silent about the period of European colonialism which involved very high levels of violence towards the peoples in the countries that were colonized. This violence was committed by the same countries in which the Enlightenment had occurred;
- Pinker does not put enough emphasis on the First and Second World Wars or on the development of modern weapons. In terms of the weapons carried, Westerners are more violent than any other group. Further, they have passed on these weapons for use in violent conflicts around the world. In the Second Congo war which began and in 1998, and cost five million lives, many of the participating nations had been trained in the USA and used weapons made in the USA or Europe;
- The main reason for the relative peace in Europe over the last fifty years since the end of World War II in 1945 is the existence of weapons that threaten annihilation. So the risks of widespread casualties have increased for everybody but this does not mean that hate, madness and cruelty have disappeared.
The Enlightenment and Racism
It is clear that the Enlightenment promoted many ideas that characterise modern societies and arguably contribute to a reduction in violence. These include ideas such as religious tolerance, the social contract, the rule of law and the seperation of powers.
However Pinker’s assertion that the Enlightenment led to the view that all people were all made of the “same stuff” is open to challenge. In his book ‘The Undivided Past’, David Carradine asserts that the Enlightenment resulted in racial theories that favoured light skinned people and viewed the racial difference as oth significant and fixed.
The leading lights of the Enlightenment had sought to overthrow religion and superstition and replace these with science and rational thought. But this led to time hallowed Christian doctrines of monogenesis and common roots of humanity being challenged. New doctrines of polygenesis, which held racial differences to be absolute, were adopted by otherwise liberal thinkers like Voltaire. Blatantly racist comments were made by brilliant philosophers such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Other paragons of liberty such as Thomas Jefferson insisted that the differences between blacks and whites were “fixed in nature”. So called “scientific racism” developed, later accompanied by social Darwinist views that the survival of the fittest equated to a struggle for existence between different races.
During the decades before WWI two models of racist social structure developed- the first held that the races could co-exist within the same nation or empire but with enforcement of rigid hierarchies. The second held that inferior races should be expelled or refused entry. Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa proclaimed themselves as “white man’s countries”. By the 1890’s segregation was the law and custom throughout the Southern States of the USA.- with intermarriage being prohibited and an average of 150 black men lynched each year. In Germany in the late nineteenth century anti-Semitism was on the rise and Jews subsequently became scapegoats for Germany’s defeat in WWI. Hitler assimilated these views and the notions of “blood links” and shared racial consciousness- the Holocaust was the result.
For some people violence is never justified- these are the pacifists. Quakers, a Christian religious sect, are pacifists. The Quaker view is that Jesus Christ was himself a pacifist who taught that one should never react violently but should “turn the other cheek” if subjected to assault. In the USA the state of Pennsylvania was formed by William Penn, a Quaker.
Quakers in the USA were prominent in the movement against slavery, initiated movements for reform of prisons in order to make them less harsh and tried to abolish war between nations. Later, Quakers were prominent critics of the First World War in Britain and many refused to fight on religious grounds. Quakers were often branded as”‘cowards” for refusing to fight. But some Quakers worked at sea, performing the dangerous task of removing sea mines, which they argued was consistent with their pacifist views.
Perhaps the most extreme form of pacifism is demonstrated through Jainism. Jains are an Indian religious sect opposed to violence to any living thing. They are vegetarians and even try to avoid killing small insects. They even avoid eating root vegetables because detaching the root kills the plant, so they prefer to eat fruits, leaves or seeds, the taking of which does not kill the plant.
One of the most famous pacifists in history was Mahatma Gandhi who led India’s movement for independence from Great Britain through a campaign of non-violent protest. Gandhi discussed his pacifist views in the context of the persecution and widespread murder of the Jews by the Nazi’s in Hitler’s Germany. He said that if ever a war could be justified in the name of humanity, this would be a war against Germany, so as to prevent the murder of a whole race of people, such as the Jews. Yet Gandhi still came down against the idea of war even under these circumstances. He believed that peaceful resistance was the best option even in these extreme circumstances.
Just violence theory
But most people, including most religions, accept that violence is justified in some circumstances, most usually, in self defence.
Most laws recognize that individuals have the right to use reasonable force to defend against attack and international law recognizes that nations too have a legitimate right to self defence. In some situations violence is regarded as justified in order for people to topple governments that are not democratic or to free a people from foreign domination. These were the justifications for the French and American revolutions and for many revolutions that followed. Others view violence as an unavoidable result of the forces that move history.
Karl Marx for example, believed that different classes within societies inevitably come into conflict. The state represents the interests of the dominant class. When the dominant class is challenged by other classes within society, whether through peaceful protest or otherwise, it will often resort to state violence to protect its political or economic interests. Under these circumstances class conflicts become violent. Marx saw the French Revolution as a revolution carried out by the emergent capitalist class against the monarchy that represented the interests of the old feudal landowners.
For Marx the relevant question was not whether violence was right or wrong from an ethical point of view. The question was simply whether or not historical circumstances meant that it was inevitable that the interests of the dominant class would be challenged by another class and whether the dominant class would inevitably react violently to that challenge.
In most modern states it is widely accepted that the state should be able to use force or violence. In fact it is often accepted that, apart from where individuals are acting in self defence, the state should be the only power within society that should be allowed to use violence. Most people accept that, from time to time, the state will need to use force or violence, or the threat of violence, to ensure justice. The state does this through institutions such as the police force and prison authorities which control, capture, or imprison criminals and through the military which has the job of protecting the country as a whole from attack.
The USA is a modern state where the notion that the state should have exclusive control over violence was rejected in that country’s founding constitution. The US constitution gives all USA citizens the right to carry arms. The idea behind this was that the citizens needed to maintain this right so that if the state ever became too tyrannical the citizens could revolt. But one effect of the law is that the USA has a much higher level of death through violence than countries where there are stricter laws around who can carry arms or the type of arms that ordinary citizens can have. But giving the exclusive right to the state to exercise violence has led to another problem. What happens when the state attacks it own citizens?
State violence, self -determination and the duty to protect
Probably the worst violence committed in modern time has been violence by governments against their own people. What should happen when this occurs? Is there a right for those outside the country to come to the aid of people who are attacked by their own government? When is it right for other countries to take military action to prevent governments slaughtering their own people, or failing to prevent groups within the country that the government supports slaughtering other groups within that country?
These questions are difficult because two principles, both usually regarded as important, come into conflict.
The first of these principles is the right of peoples, or nations, to determine their own affairs free from foreign interference or domination-the principle of self- determination. It is a principle that is recognized under international law and is referred to in article 1 of the charter of the United Nations. The second principle is the principle of human rights. Human Rights are set out in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the most fundamental human right is the right to life and security. This is a right which is violated when governments slaughter their own people, or fail to prevent the slaughter by groups that the government fails to control.
The principle of self determination became especially highly regarded after the period of colonialism during which powerful countries, mostly in Europe, ran the affairs of countries, especially in Asia, Africa and the Americas. The colonizing countries often sought to justify their colonial rule on the basis that it was for the benefit of the people in the colonized countries. So it is understandable that people who have previously been dominated by colonial rule will often be suspicious of the idea that some countries should be able to intervene in the affairs of others in order to protect the people of that country from their own government. The “protection” sounds very similar to the justification that was used for colonization.
The principles of self determination were also boosted due to the military failures experienced by the USA and its allies when it intervened militarily in Vietnam (1965-1973) and the similar failure of the Soviet Union when it intervened in Afghanistan (1979-1989). The USA argued it was intervening in Vietnam at the request of the South Vietnamese Government and the Soviet Union argued its intervention was at the request of the Afghani Government. Nevertheless, in both instances, the interventions resulted in prolonged wars and the great powers were defeated after much loss of life.
There are many governments in the world who violate the human rights of their own people. Nobody suggests that the principle of human rights should override the principle of self-determination in every case where a government violates human rights. However there is an argument that intervention is justified where the violations become so extreme that the lives of thousands of people are threatened. For example, in the African country of Rwanda in 1994 some 800,000 to 1 million people were murdered with some 500,000 killed in the space of just 100 days. The killing was organized by the Government, with armed groups from the Hutu tribe attacking the Tutsi tribe. People were killed for no reason other than that they were Tutsi.
Those who argue in favour of intervention in situations such as those that occurred in Rwanda refer to governments having a responsibility to protect their people. In fact the principle referred to in favour of intervention in these situations has now been shorted to “R2P”- standing for ‘Responsibility to Protect’. Intervention in these circumstances is described as humanitarian intervention. Supporters argue that the following considerations should be taken into account in considering whether humanitarian intervention is justified on the basis of R2P:
- Just cause– there must be large scale loss of life (or threats of such large scale loss) due to either deliberate government action or neglect or inability to act.
- Right intention– The primary purpose of the intervention must be to halt or avert human suffering.
- Last resort: Military intervention can only be justified when every non-military option for the prevention or peaceful resolution of the crisis has been explored.
- Proportional means: The scale, duration and intensity of the planned military intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective.
- Reasonable prospects of success: There must be a reasonable chance of success in halting or averting the suffering which has justified the intervention, with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction.
- Right authority: The intervention should preferably be authorized by the Security Council of the United Nations.
Criticism of R2P
The main criticism of R2P is usually that rich and powerful nations, (especially the USA), will intervene in any conflict that they want to. This intervention will usually be based on the powerful nation’s view of its national interest, including its interest in resources or commercial opportunities and its rivalries with other powers. These interests are always likely to be put ahead of genuine humanitarian concerns. Critics point to the danger that R2P will be used as a cover for intervention that is really based on national interests and will contribute to a weakening of the principles of non-intervention and self-determination under international law and under the charter of the United Nations. Critics of R2P query whether:
- In practice the R2P principle will only be used by strong states against weaker states or to the USA and Britain intervening more often in the affairs of other states?
- R2P will enhance or undermine respect for international law?
- R2P is necessary, and whether it would actually operate to prevent another Rwanda?
- There are still too many instances where the international community fails to intervene to prevent death due to starvation. It would be preferable to increase efforts to intervene to prevent deaths from this cause, rather than focusing on so-called humanitarian military interventions.