Monday, June 03, 2013

The downward trend of violence

Monument for Roland, commander of the rear guard of
Charlemagne’s army in 778 in the Battle of Roncevaux

In my last blog I mentioned Steven Pinker’s thesis that the world is becoming increasingly peaceful. In fact, this remark was only indirectly connected with what I wanted to say there, but at the moment I am reading his The Better Angels of Our Nature. I have almost finished it and I am impressed, so I couldn’t help referring to it. Pinker’s thesis that the world has become safer and less violent through the years is convincing, although this doesn’t imply (and Pinker doesn’t say so) that this tendency is irreversible. The trend of violence goes down even if one takes into account the effects of two world wars and other carnages in the twentieth century, for violence is more than war and revolution. In the past, violence in daily life was by far more important than it is today. For instance, more people were killed by murder, but also on legal grounds. In 1822 an Englishman could be sentenced to death for 222 reasons, including, so Pinker, poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren or cutting down a tree. By 1861 only four capital offenses remained. The downward trend can be seen in other countries as well and gradually many countries have abolished death sentence. Also if violence does not lead to death there has been a downward trend. Moreover, the way people are punished has been humanized. Punishment in the ages before the French Revolution was heart breaking and cruel in due form. Although torture still exists in this world (but has become illegal in most countries) even here you find a “humanizing” trend, how terrible and intolerable it still is. Even if one doesn’t belief that violence is diminishing worldwide, the book is full of facts and insights on the history of its practice and by that on the social history of man and only that is already a good reason for reading it.
An insight that doesn’t come directly from Pinker himself but that he quotes from L.F. Richardson’s Statistics of deadly quarrels (Pittsburgh: Boxwood Press, 1960) runs: “Does it never strikes you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?” (p. 243). This quotation refers to one of the myths of history: the idea that maybe it is not good to kill but killing on order of a higher authority is to be honoured. In this case it says that war is allowed for carrying out state policy if other means fail. Isn’t this a double moral standard? But also here we see a downward trend. Killing on order of a higher authority has become less and less acceptable (see for instance the abolishment of capital punishment, a movement that is still going on). But also war has become an increasingly less palatable solution for political quarrels. International institutions have been established for ending international conflicts, like the United Nations and its institutions or the European Union. It’s one of the merits of the latter that it has made war between its members unthinkable (remember how many bloody wars their member states have fought out against each other till 1945). Gradually war is being held in disrespect. In fact it already is, and maybe once we’ll see the day that a country with an army will be treated as an outcast. As Montaigne said: “N’y avoir qu’une justice”, there is only one justice.


Cathyby said...

Re war, yes it's a double standard morally. But this was pointed out by Aquinas in the 13th century. His criteria of a just war exclude war carried out merely to further state policy. The problem is, I suppose, getting rulers to recognise this. It is probably easier in a democracy where the selectors of the government will be the ones getting killed.

HbdW said...

Thank you for you comment. I didn't know that about Aquinas. But the problem is that politicians are good in giving what they do such a turn that it serves a higher purpose. Now we see a war between democracy and islamists (for instance in Afghanistan), but each side claims that his cause is justified. Who decides?
And if you say: Thy shall not kill, unless... the double moral standard remains.