A Philosopher's Blog

A World Less Violent?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on December 28, 2011

Image by Rickydavid via Flickr

Although the Libyan and Iraq wars recently ended, the world still seems like a violent place. After all, the twenty four hour news cycles are awash with stories of crime, war, riots and other violent activities. However, Steven Pinker contends, in his The Better Angels of Our nature: Why Violence Has Declined that we are living in a time in which violence is at an all time low.

Pinker bases his claim on statistical data. For example, the records of 14th century Oxford reveal 110 homicides per 100,000 people while the middle of the 20th century saw London with a murder rate of less than 1 person per 100,000. As another example, even the 20th century (which saw two world wars and multitudes of lesser wars) killed .7% of the population (3% if all war connected deaths are counted).

Not surprisingly, people have pointed to the fact that modern wars have killed millions of people and that the number of people who die violently is fairly large. Pinker, not surprisingly, makes the obvious reply: the number of violent deaths is higher but the percentage is far lower-mainly because there are so many more people today relative to the past.

As the title suggests, Pinker attributes the change, in part, to people being better at impulse control, considering consequences, and also considering others. This view runs contrary to the idea that people today are not very good at such things-but perhaps people are generally better than people in the past. Pinker does also acknowledge that states have far more control now than in the past, which tends to reduce crime.

While Pinker makes a good case, it is also reasonable to consider other explanations that can be added to the mix.

In the case of war, improved medicines and improved weapons have reduced the number of deaths. Wounds that would have been fatal in the past can often be handled by battlefield medicine, thus lower the percentage of soldiers who die as the result of combat.  Weapon technology also has a significant impact. Improvements in defensive technology mean that a lower percentage of combatants are killed and improvements in weapon accuracy mean that less non-combatants are killed. The newer technology has also changed the nature of warfare in terms of civilian involvement. With some notable exceptions, siege warfare is largely a thing of the past because of the changes in technology. So, instead of starving a city into surrendering, soldiers now just take the city using combined arms.

The improved technology also means that modern soldiers are far more effective that soldiers in the past which reduces the percentage of the population that needs to be involved in combat, thus lowering the percentage of people killed.

There is also the fact that the nature of competition between human groups has changed. At one time the conflict was directly over land and resources and these conflicts were settled with violence. While this still occurs, we now have far broader avenues of competition, such as economics, sports, and so on. As such, people might be just as violently inclined as ever, only now we have far more avenues into which to channel that violence. So, for example, back in the day an ambitious man might have as his main option being a noble and achieving his ends by violence. Today a person with ambitions of conquest might start a business or waste away his life in computer games.

In the case of violent crime, people are more distracted, more medicated, and more separated than in the past. This would tend to reduce violent crimes, at least in terms of the percentages.

A rather interesting factor to consider is natural selection. Societies tend to respond to violent crimes with violence, often killing such criminals. Wars also tend to kill the violent. As such, centuries of war and violent crime might be performing natural selection on the human species-the more violent humans would tend to be killed, thus leaving those less prone to crime and violence to reproduce more. Crudely put, perhaps we are killing our way towards peace.

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9 Responses

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  1. Anonymous said, on December 28, 2011 at 7:43 am

    Nuclear weapons have vastly reduced the chances of industrial warfare between powerful nation states.

    This could change in the future as more states considered irrational gain nukes.


  2. Edward Carney said, on December 28, 2011 at 11:48 am

    I don’t think your last comment, regarding natural selection, holds up. War is not like predation or a particular animal’s loss of the competition for resources. The killing in war is fairly random, especially in modern wars where civilians die in aerial bombings and artillery barrages. Even in ancient wars that involved long-term siege, entire populations died of starvation and disease as a direct result of war. In that case, the more aggressive of the two waring communities survives, while the other’s numbers are drastically reduced. If you think of war as an instance of natural selection between specific sub-groups of the species, rather than between specific individuals, one might suppose that the outcome of most wars is that the group that is more prone to violence gains more opportunities to reproduce. Those least prone to violence may stay out of the conflict altogether, but in that case, what is lost is only the populations with moderate tendencies toward or away from violence.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 28, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      You make reasonable points, but wars would still tend to kill more aggressive people than non-aggressive people. Specifically, nations that stayed out of wars would avoid war deaths (naturally, one does not always get to select whether to be involved in a war or not).

      The more violent side also need not be the winning side. In WWII, the Germans seemed more violent (more prone to murder) than the British and Americans. After all, we did not run concentration camps to murder people. Yet the Germans lost. Of course, it could be said that they lost because they got into a meat grinder with Stalin and the Russians did kill a lot of their own people under his rule, thus perhaps making the Russians top in violence.

  3. magus71 said, on December 28, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Murder rates in America and Europe are way up in the last 50 years. England has one of the highest rates of crime in the entire world. So while we may have a lower murder rate than we did in the 14th century, the recent trend is not positive. Simple crime fighting and investigation techniques as well as the advent of what are considered mundane instruments like door locks have done much to reduce all crime.

    It was only 60 odd years ago that war killed 20 million Russians. That’s just Russians. By comparison, the 30 Years War, which supposedly changed much in Western Civilization, killed 8,000,000 total. I do not agree at all that human beings have evolved out of the capacity to kill in massive quantities. Pax Americana is real. Like it or not, American power has led to peace. It is obvious that the world is more peaceful than it has ever been in recorded history. America has a near monopoly on firepower and it keeps a lot of regimes in line. This is one thing that I’ve always found troubling about the left-wing agenda. It refuses to accept that things are better and why they are better. Who believes that the Middle east would not erupt into a massive conflagration, that China would not invade Taiwan (and a couple of other places), that neo-fascist Russia would not grab back its “rightful” heritage, that North Korea would not be even more aggressive. That several African thugs would not begin the process of genocide?

    I note Pinker’s conclusions in this article:


    As I say, the dangers in not recognizing the major factor in world peace (American power) is that we will try to make ourselves less powerful. The world would only suffer.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm

      Pinkerton would probably note that WWII killed more people but that the percentage of people killed was lower. So, more people die, but many more live. It is an interesting statistical argument.

      • magus71 said, on December 28, 2011 at 7:45 pm

        You’re right too about technology. Improvements in battlefield and hospital care increased the rate of survival from battlefield wounds to American troops in Afghanistan, when compared to Vietnam (which wasn’t that long ago), by something on the order of 90%. So almost twice as many service members died from the same wounds in Vietnam.

  4. magus71 said, on December 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    Peace through superior firepower. That’s my theory. But there’s also Francis Fukuyama’s theory of “The End of History”. Basically he says that the world failed to come up with anything better than liberal democracy and the need to fight is vastly reduced as nations are drawn to the inevitability of peaceful democracy. Fukuyama was somewhat maligned after 9-11, but I still think he’s on to something. There are simply fewer and fewer good reasons for war.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 29, 2011 at 3:20 pm

      For now it is more profitable to engage in commerce. However, this could change if the dire predictions about resource shortages prove correct. Then it might be more profitable (or even necessary) to fight for luxuries (or even mere survival).

  5. michelefabbri said, on February 12, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    Viviamo in una pace illusoria, i motivi di conflitto si sono semplicemente spostati in altri campi.

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