Michael On Everything Else

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker

Updated March 15, 2019: “The Chronicle of Higher Education has assembled The New Canon, a list of the most influential books written by academics in the past 20 years or so. The books were chosen by a panel that included sociologist Eric Klinenberg, classics professor Johanna Hanink, and professor of business Sheena Iyengar.

“Their picks included Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”


It may not seem so, especially if you are a news-junky, but violence is in decline, especially when you look at a long enough timeline. That’s the premise of Steven Pinker’s book titled The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined: when looking back as far in history as we have documentation, we can see that violence has declined in both the nature of the violence as well as the number of victims to violence.

What do I mean by the nature of violence? One example the author gives is the ancient practice of using crucifiction as a common method of punishment. At the time, it was widely accepted but in modern times it is considered barbaric and in many countries, an illegal form of punishment (crule and unusual).

So what is the cause of this long and slow decline in violence? The author attributes it to two things:

  1. The Leviathan
  2. Gentle commerce (free trade)

The leviathan is a check on violence for a basic reason; a state monopoly on violence. It was King Henry I who first defined homicide as an offense against the state, which was a game-changer. It was no longer acceptable to settle dissputes by murdering your rival, which was quite common.

Gentle commerce forces both sides of a transaction to have a degree of empathy for the other. Without this empathy, they would never agree on a fair price (monopolies not-withstanding).

There is a lot to unpack in this book and my review won’t do it justice. But I will say; it’s well worth a read plus a re-read. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone interested in masculinity and/or the Second Amendment.

Below are some of my Kindle highlights of the book: (Pinker, 2011)

On the Leviathan

“King Henry I redefined homicide as an offense against the state and its metonym, the crown.”

“The centralization of state control and its monopolization of violence, the growth of craft guilds and bureaucracies, the replacement of barter with money, the development of technology, the enhancement of trade, the growing webs of dependency among far-flung individuals, all fit into an organic whole.”

But it’s not just a simple monopoly on violence:

“Many criminologists believe that the source of the state’s pacifying effect isn’t just its brute coercive power but the trust it commands among the populace.”

“A Leviathan can civilize a society only when the citizens feel that its laws, law enforcement, and other social arrangements are legitimate, so that they don’t fall back on their worst impulses as soon as Leviathan’s back is turned.”

On free trade

“A positive-sum game is a scenario in which agents have choices that can improve the lots of both of them at the same time.”

“a key insight of evolutionary psychology is that human cooperation and the social emotions that support it, such as sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, and anger, were selected because they allow people to flourish in positive-sum games.”

“A fundamental insight of modern economics is that the key to the creation of wealth is a division of labor, in which specialists learn to produce a commodity with increasing cost-effectiveness and have the means to exchange their specialized products efficiently.”

“Though many intellectuals, following in the footsteps of Saints Augustine and Jerome, hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy.”

“Today statistics from every Western country show that the overwhelming majority of homicides and other violent crimes are committed by people in the lowest socioeconomic classes.”

“The main reason that violence correlates with low socioeconomic status today is that the elites and the middle class pursue justice with the legal system while the lower classes resort to what scholars of violence call “self-help.””

“The most common motives for homicide are moralistic: retaliation after an insult, escalation of a domestic quarrel, punishing an unfaithful or deserting romantic partner, and other acts of jealousy, revenge, and self-defense.”

“Most homicides, Black notes, are really instances of capital punishment, with a private citizen as the judge, jury, and executioner.”

“In an article inspired by Black called “The Decline of Elite Homicide,” the criminologist Mark Cooney shows that many lower-status people—the poor, the uneducated, the unmarried, and members of minority groups—are effectively stateless.”

“The historical Civilizing Process, in other words, did not eliminate violence, but it did relegate it to the socioeconomic margins.”

On masculinity

“Play fighting is common among juvenile primate males, and rough-and-tumble play is one of the most robust sex differences in humans.”

“Every human society is faced with a conflict of interest between the younger men, who seek dominance (and ultimately mating opportunities) for themselves, and the older men, who seek to minimize internecine damage within their extended families and clans.”

“at various times in history communities have gotten so fed up with the bloodshed that they have launched what criminologists call a civilizing offensive.”

“a civilizing offensive is a deliberate effort by sectors of a community (often women, elders, or clergy) to tame the Rambos and Raskols and restore civilized life.”

“Self-help justice depends on the credibility of one’s prowess and resolve, and to this day the American South is marked by an obsession with credible deterrence, otherwise known as a culture of honor.”

“The laws of the southern states sanction this morality. They give a person wide latitude to kill in defense of self or property, put fewer restrictions on gun purchases, allow corporal punishment (“paddling”) in schools, and specify the death penalty for murder, which their judicial systems are happy to carry out.”

  1. Pinker, S. (2011). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin Books.