“Many criminologists believe,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “that the source of the state’s pacifying effect isn’t just its brute coercive power but the trust it commands among the populace.” People do not respect laws and rules simply out of fear. They may obey and follow rules and laws when they know they are being watched, but that is not the same as actually following the laws because they agree with them or understand why the laws exist.
Humans do not follow every law perfectly. There are some laws we will absolutely follow and some to which we will almost always adhere, and some laws that we will generally ignore. Pinker’s quote is getting to the heart of why there are some laws we will always, or almost always follow, relative to others that we may ignore completely. Whether we respect and trust the state is a big factor in whether we follow the laws, even if we don’t suspect there is any consequence for breaking laws.
When we perceive that the state is unjust in its application of the law, then deliberately disobeying a law doesn’t seem to be as big of a problem. When we sense that the state is corrupt, then we have trouble justifying to ourselves that the state’s laws are important to follow. When we see others doing the same then there is a chance of a positive feedback loop with no one following the law. Brute force is not enough to change our behaviors and get us to actually respect and follow laws. When we trust the government and when we believe the government is responsive then we will be more likely to actually follow the law without constantly trying to cut corners.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes about German sociologist Norbert Elias and his theory of civilization. Over time, people became less impulsive, less disgusting, and more civilized, and this trend toward civilization among people corresponded with declines in violence between people. For Elias, a decline in violence was a result of increased civility among human beings.
But Elias was writing in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany, a country controlled by a political power that launched some of the greatest violence the world has ever seen. Elias had to explain how humans became more civil and less violent and how his own country managed to be so awful. Pinker writes, “he documented the persistence of a militaristic culture of honor among its elites, the breakdown of a state monopoly on violence with the rise of communist and fascist militias, and a resulting contraction of empathy for groups perceived to be outsiders…” Pinker goes on to explain that homicide rates and other rates of violence did continue to decline in Nazi Germany while violence toward outsiders and the rest of the world spiked. Pinker affirms that violence and civility continued their inverse relationship through WWII despite German violence and aggression.
I find Pinker’s analysis of the explanations that Elias provides for why Nazi Germany could be so violent at a time of declining violence very interesting. Throughout the book Pinker supports the idea that a militaristic culture of honor can lead to increased violence. When people feel a need to protect their honor via force or equal punishment for slights against their honor, then violence can escalate. When the state loses its control on the use of violence and force, individual vigilantes and armed militias can become dangerously prominent. When people begin to dehumanize other groups and justify violence against them, then pockets of violence can easily erupt. These factors still promote violence in the world today.
Ahmaud Arbery was shot in Georgia, a state in the Southern United States where honor cultures have always persisted to a greater extent than elsewhere in the United States. Perhaps he was in a place he shouldn’t have been, perhaps he had stolen something in the past. But the violence inflicted upon him was a result of a culture of honor that has long persisted and encouraged a sense of vigilantism among Southern Whites. Across 2020 and 2021 in the United States the breakdown of the state monopoly on violence factored into a lot of violence and death. Armed militias killed Black Lives Matter protesters and stormed the Nation’s Capital. These groups certainly appeared to be in part fueled by a lack of empathy for people they perceived as different and other, as somehow wrong and less deserving than themselves. The diagnosis from Elias on why Nazi Germany became so violent seems to be echoed in the recent uptick of violence within the United States.
(Please note that I am not saying the United States today or in the last few years is Nazi Germany. I am simply identifying some factors that explained Nazi Germany violence and asking if they also explain some trends observed today in very different places, times, and settings.)
I will admit, when I was younger I used to pirate music. Even just a few years back I used to pirate unauthorized video streams online for sporting events I wanted to watch. If you don’t mind some questionable audio and video quality and if you don’t mind hunting around on some sketchy websites for links, then pirating media isn’t a huge challenge. However, I eventually decided that there were enough sufficiently easy to use legal alternatives for tv and music to stop pirating. I generally stream everything through either Spotify or Pandora for music and my Smart TV easily connects with streaming services really for what feels like a fair price.
The lesson from my example is that good lawful alternatives are an effective way to fight against illegal music and tv streaming and downloading. This is an idea that Steven Pinker briefly explores in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature when he writes, “it’s easier to deter people from crime if the lawful alternative is more appealing.”
Pinker was not writing about illegal media downloads, rather violent crime in Medieval Europe, but the idea still holds. In my example, tv contracts with cable or satellite that cost well over $100/month for channels I wasn’t going to watch wasn’t wasn’t a good legal alternative for me to watch the sports and occasional cooking shows that I wanted to see. The process for getting services started was cumbersome and the contracts locked me for long terms of service with guaranteed rate increases. Illegal streaming was more appealing even if it had some risk and poor overall quality. In terms of music, my options used to be paying $1 for a song or $10 for an album for a legal download versus illegally downloading songs. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford the music (or the tv contract for that matter) but rather that it wasn’t optimal for how I wanted to consume media. Music streaming services now offer a better service for a reasonable price, and I no longer download music illegally. Good legal alternatives changed the incentive structure and ultimately changed my behavior.
But this doesn’t mean that deterrence is unnecessary. Good deterrence can be paired with good lawful alternatives to further shape people’s behaviors in desired directions. A close example to my media piracy and subsequent changes to legal alternatives comes from the world of gaming. Video games can be illegally uploaded online and played on computers or home consoles without an individual purchasing the game. Video game companies have gotten creative with how they combat piracy. Some developers build their games in a way that allows the game to recognize if it has been stolen or is being played on a computer rather than the console it was intended for. In some instances
, developers will allow players to reach a set point in the game before preventing further play. This gives the illegal players a chance to experience the game and hopefully want to purchase it to play it all the way through. Rather than making extreme efforts to combat the piracy, these developers accept that some piracy will happen, but rely on providing a good enough product and legal alternative model to obtaining the game to reduce the total amount and overall impact of piracy. They pair reasonable forms of deterrence with good legal alternatives.
This idea is interesting because when we think about crime in the United States at least, our primary response tends to be punishment and deterrence. We don’t often seem to think much about legal alternatives and barriers to legal alternatives. We don’t think reasonably about the trade-offs for escalating deterrence versus accepting some negative behavior and making the most of it like video game companies. Costs, incentive structures, and barriers (like red tape) can make illegal activity more appealing, but we don’t always recognize that. This was true in my illegal music and tv streaming and downloading and Pinker argues it has been true at various points of human history with respect to violence. One explanation that Pinker offers for why humans have become less violent is because we have developed better legal alternatives to obtaining things that humans want and desire. Violence is no longer a great way to ensure you have resources and status. Less violent ways of obtaining such things are now good alternatives through institutional and societal design. This is an important lesson to learn and think about when we are trying to shape people’s behaviors and deter criminal activity. Tough on crime sounds great, but deterrence needs to be paired with good legal alternatives.
On a recent episode of the show Solvable
from Pushkin, a guest interviewed about reality TV said that contestants on reality TV shows are rarely as good or as bad as they appear in the series. The shows present narratives which causes us to think about contestants in an extreme way. We seem to fall into this type of thinking very easily, and I think it shapes the way we think about real world actors outside of reality TV settings. I think the same piece of advice can be applied to big businesses, government, and sports. In particular, and the focus of this post, I think we view big business as being much worse than it truly is.
This is a view that Tyler Cowen puts forward in his book Big Business: A Love Letter to an American Anti-Hero. It is also an idea that Steven Pinker shares in The Better Angels of Our Nature. In his book Pinker writes, “though many intellectuals … hold businesspeople in contempt for their selfishness and greed, in fact a free market puts a premium on empathy.” One benefit of global free markets its that customers can chose where they shop. They can spend their money on things that are important to them and they can buy things where they feel respected and supported. We are often critical of big businesses for being uncaring and for having too much power, but big businesses have to listen to political and social trends. They have to try to be responsive to people to provide them with products, services, and narratives that they want.
Pinker continues, “a good businessperson has to keep the customers satisfied or a competitor will woo them away, and the more customers he attracts, the richer he will be.” This is an idea known as doux commerce (gentle commerce), which suggests that free markets and big businesses reduce violence by participating in positive sum games. “If you’re trading favors or surpluses with someone, your trading partner suddenly becomes more valuable to you alive than dead,” writes Pinker.
Businesses encourage us to think about what our customers need, want, and expect. While businesses may be cold, may be greedy, and may have all sorts of problems, they do reduce violence. Many people dislike that big businesses are trying to conform to social pressures today, but the reality is that businesses are always trying to react to the social changes and pressures of the time. Successful businesses empathize with people to win them over. They are not trying to wipe out or alienate any segment of the population, but trying to predict where the market is going and sell to that future market. For all the problems of markets and big businesses, reducing violence is one bright spot. Perhaps big businesses, as Cowen would argue, are not as evil or as bad as we might think they are.
“A zero-sum game … leaves predation as the only way people could add to their wealth,” writes Steven Pinker in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. One argument that Pinker makes in his book is that humans are social creatures because cooperation and living in a group creates more positive-sum scenarios for humans as opposed to zero-sum situations. Basically, when you have a group of people, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. The collective abilities of people is greater than you might expect if you evaluated all the people and their individual skills on their own.
Pinker explains it this way, “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.” If I am not very good at sewing, but have an excess of corn, and you are good at sewing but need food, we can engage in a trade where both of us win. I get new warm clothes for the winter, and you get food to survive the winter. We both are better off, but I now have warm food and can be productive outside by planting winter vegetables and you now have food and can continue to produce more warm clothes. The value we provided to the group we are a part of is greater than the clothes you sewed for me and the corn I gave to you.
Positive-sum games are much more complicated than the little example I just shared and are more common than we might think. We tend to simplify the world when we think about relationships between people and we often fall back on binary ways of thinking. We see the world as zero-sum because it is easier than seeing the complexities of the positive sum situations of our social world. In simplifid ways of thinking, people are either good or bad, you either win or lose, I either survive or a I die. The reality, of course, is that we don’t actually face a lot of zero-sum situations like these in our day to day lives.
“A key insight of evolutionary psychology,” Pinker continues, “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.” We are evolved for positive-sum games as social creatures. We are not evolved for zero-sum games as isolated individuals. We work together as teams, share surpluses, and work toward shared goals because most of our social interactions are positive-sum. Most of the day to day interactions we go through make the world better for everyone when we follow pro-social norms. We flourish in positive-sum games, and we often don’t even recognize how much of our lives are guided by such positive-sum moments.
Who is harmed by a homicide? Certainly the individual who loses their life is harmed, but who else? Any family that is connected to the individual or depends on them is harmed, but beyond that, one can argue that the entire society to which the individual lived is harmed. If you take this broader view, then it makes sense that the crime of homicide could be an offense against the state, and not just an offense against a single individual or their close family.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker thinks about what this shift in perspective regarding the crime of homicide means for violence between and amongst human beings. He writes, “for centuries the legal system had treated homicide as a tort: in lieu of vengeance, the victim’s family would demand a payment from the killer’s family… . King Henry I redefined homicide as an offense against the state and its metonym, the crown.” When murder shifted from an offense against an individual or their family to an offense against the state, the potential rewards from murder dissipated. A single family could only do so much to seek retribution from a murder. And if the killer was big enough, strong enough, and influential enough in the local community, there was no chance that the family could ever seek justice. Murder was a path to riches, to status, and to power when it was only a crime against a single family or person.
The state, however, had more power, resources, and authority than any local individual. There may have been some individuals with extreme power and the ability to get away with murder, but shifting homicide to an offense against the state reduced the number of individuals who could kill without regard for consequences. Murder, for most, no longer existed as a good pathway toward greater riches. Shifting the offense shifted incentives and encouraged greater civility, reducing violence. The state, and its justice system, created an institution to reduce violence where previous institutions encouraged violence.
People today are pretty terrified of living in a totalitarian state. Following the 1900’s, when Nazis rounded up and killed millions of Jews and when dictators in South America like Pinochet in Chile made dissenters “disappear”, people have become concerned about the power of the state and the possibility that the state would use violence against the population in order to maintain power and control. Totalitarian states do exist and are still scary (China’s surveillance is particularly alarming, Russian misinformation is a huge problem, and North Korea’s willingness to live in poverty if awful), but it is possible that people have gone too far in terms of their fears of the state in much of the world.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker argues that states have made people and societies much safer, and that stronger states have done a better job of reducing violence than weaker states. He writes, “Hobbes noted that humans in particular have three reasons for quarrel: gain, safety, and credible deterrence. People in nonstate societies fight about all three.” When you live in a powerful state, you can be relatively sure that you cannot use violence for personal gain. States can provide a feeling of safety by patrolling crime in a fair and competent manner. Through deterrence, states can reduce violence. Without a functioning state with the resources to provide credible deterrence, safety, and prevent people from using violence for gain, then individuals can take these things into their own hands. They are incentivized to perpetuate violence against others for their own gain, safety, and deterrence of future violence.
Totalitarian states may be awful, but well functioning and strong states (short of totalitarian regimes) reduce violence and allow people to interact in meaningful ways. We shouldn’t hate the state and constantly be fearful of the state simply because the possibility of totalitarianism is always there. It is easy to imagine a state that has been continually weakened and reduced by its population to become effectively powerless, incapable of stopping violence for personal gain, incapable of providing safety, and incapable of providing credible deterrence against violence. Such a state could be overwhelmed and taken over by a despot who wishes to impose totalitarian governance. Governments need to be strong and well functioning in order to reduce crime and violence. “The reduction of homicide by government control,” writes Pinker, “is so obvious to anthropologists that they seldom document it with numbers.” Somehow we forget this when we are mad at our government for increasing taxes to try to provide important services, improve public conditions, or to try to promote a more representative bureaucracy.
I don’t want to minimize the danger and threat that totalitarian governments pose to the world. I do however want to highlight the absurdity of claiming that any government action within a democracy is a threat that could lead to a dystopian and totalitarian regime of violence. If violence is our main concern, we might want to consider the dangers of an inept government more than the dangers of a strong government.
An idea from a recent segment of The Naked Scientists
podcast has stuck in my mind the last few days. The idea was that we view the world with a bias toward our present moment and assume that everything within human history happened for a specific reason to get us to our present moment. We assume that our past selves and our ancestors all made specific decisions because they were deliberately working toward our current moment. Our bias assumes that world history unfolded intentionally.
However, this is likely not true. As an example, a guest on The Naked Scientists argued that this bias has shaped the way we view the relationship between humans and dogs. We assume that humans looked at ancestral wolves and saw an opportunity if they partnered with the animals. We assume that humans deliberately bred less aggressive wolves until they ended up with a domesticated creature that more closely resembles modern dogs. This narrative, however, may be a victim of present focused bias. It may have been more random, and in a sense accidental, that humans ended up getting close to dogs. It may have been less of a deliberate action and choice by humans to breed less aggressive wolves for specific protection and assistance purposes, and more of something that developed beyond human effort and control.
This is an interesting perspective and is fun to use when looking at other aspects of humanity. For example, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “early states were more like protection rackets, in which powerful Mafiosi extorted resources from the locals and offered them safety from hostile neighbors and from each other.” This is a framing which suggests that states may have been as accidental in their development as the relationship between humans and dogs. Ancient humans may not have been sitting down in a council to think through the best ways to organize their society. They may not have been deliberately thinking about creating governance structures with the intention of building institutions that would serve humanity for thousands of years. Instead, early states may have been effectively random. They may have been chance agglomerations of people effectively acting as gangs with some better than others.
Accidental states are interesting to think about. When we first start to seriously consider government and governance (sometime in high school for many of us) we are introduced to ideas by Hobbs and Lock. Government is presented as a deliberate and well thought out institution, especially in the United States. We view the formation of American Government through our present moment, constantly looking at each developmental step along the way as if it were an inevitable and deliberate journey to our current political system. But perhaps governance, American and other, is more random. Perhaps there was less long-term planning and forward thinking than what we like to imagine. Perhaps protection rackets slowly morphed and evolved over hundreds of years. Perhaps tribes and kin-based institutions slowly changed though both internal and external influences to become something more like modern government, without any real intention or deliberate planning involved. Perhaps we have more accidental states than deliberate states.
How do we stop arms races? How do we stop people from fearing that they will be attacked by someone else, and prevent them from constantly gearing up to be prepared to kill someone else before someone else kills them? How do we sidestep the mindset that we have to defeat others so that they don’t defeat us?
This is an important question and in the world of international relations is known as the security dilemma. Even if I am non-violent, even if I generally don’t want to inflect any negativity on another person, I don’t know that they will be the same toward me, and I must therefore be prepared to defeat them and survive at all costs. When everyone thinks this way, we end up in a perpetual arms race where even if we know there is no threat, we prepare for it just in case. This creates an inevitable competition for means of destruction, even among allies. That competition can lead to violence. As Steven Pinker writes in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “competition breeds fear. If you have reason to suspect that your neighbor is inclined to eliminate you from the competition by, say, killing you, then you will be inclined to protect yourself by eliminating him first in a preemptive strike.”
Within the world of international relations and national security, the solution to this problem has been MAD. Mutually assured destruction (MAD) is a byproduct of nuclear weapons. By stockpiling arms that would plunge the world into a global apocalypse, we ensure the peace and safety of the world. But this is not really a solution to the problem. Pinker continues, “whatever peace a policy of deterrence may promise is fragile, because a deterrence reduces violence only by a threat of violence.”
Ultimately, I think that we reduce violence by shifting thinking away from zero sum competitions and mindsets. There are certainly, and will very likely always be, some zero sum competitions in life. Capitalism and market economies rely on zero sum competitions to reduce waste, increase efficiency, and promote technological progress. But in many other areas we can eliminate zero sum thinking and focus less on fears of losing things and more on positive sum thinking. Pushing us to think in terms of zero sum competition encourages fear and the impulse to destroy others, but the reality of our world is that less is truly zero sum than we believe. We no longer live in tribal societies where a single male can dominate all the potential female mates. We no longer live in a society where food and resources are so scarce that we need to control as much as we can and build political coalitions to ensure our survival. We no longer live in a world where losing a job means that you will starve on the streets. We have reduced the zero sum nature of many aspects of human lives and can continue to do so in ways that reduce our need to protect ourselves by shooting first or ensuring the mutual destruction of all. Reducing zero sum thinking is just one way to get to this point, and may help reduce our reliance on MAD.
In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker is critical of Christianity for it’s acceptance and use of torture. Modern day Christianity may not encourage torture of the living, but it still holds on to the threat of eternal torture to pressure people into behaving in certain ways. And while the bible has been reimagined and reinterpreted, it still contains many points of serious violence. The heart of Christianity, Pinker argues, Jesus dying on the cross, is emblematic of the eternal torture that awaits those who do not live up to the Christian god’s expectations. Pinker writes, “by sanctifying cruelty early, early Christianity set a precedent for more than a millennium of systematic torture in Christian Europe.”
For Pinker, there is a direct link between the Crucifixion of Jesus and subsequent periods of atrocities committed by the Christian Church. Pinker lists examples of people who were burned at the stake, had bodies and limbs destroyed, and faced agonizing deaths because they challenged church doctrine. Like Jesus, who was violently killed though he didn’t himself commit a violent crime, many non-violent church dissenters faced violent ends.
In his book, Pinker focuses on Christianity’s use of violence to show how much human societies have changed with regard to violence. A religion that today views itself as peaceful was once quite ready to use violence to punish people and to signal to others that they needed to obey church authority. Violence was inflicted upon people openly and publicly.
Violence today cannot be inflicted so publicly or openly, not even by totalitarian rulers. Religious institutions do not go about murdering or torturing non-believers and dissenters in public. And if people find out that violence took place behind closed doors, there is likely to be public outrage about the use of violence to shape people’s behaviors. Even within religious schools the use of corporal punishment is no longer acceptable in large parts of the world.
In human history violence was seen as proper and necessary to keep people in line and punish those who stepped out of line. Today, violence is declining. Even for our most awful criminals we are less likely to seek the death penalty in many parts of the world. And when we do allow the state to end an individual’s life, we do so as peacefully and non-violently as possible, through lethal injection. Jesus was killed in public in a painful and agonizingly slow manner for a petty crime. A punishment we would never accept today as we have moved away from violence and toward more peaceful societies.