Norms Precede Governance

Norms Precede Governance

“A gradual shift in sensibilities is often incapable of changing actual practices until the change is implemented by the stroke of a pen,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. What Pinker explains is that governance, at least in WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, relies on feedback from the people. Support for a given policy or position must build before a policy or position will be enacted into law or change existing law.
Pinker’s view is similar to a punctuated equilibrium theory of public policy (or of any change). Slowly, our attitudes, views, and opinions change and we then see sudden shifts in the law. For a few decades in the United States, views toward marijuana slowly shifted until sufficient support enabled a rapid change in laws around marijuana. Over a few decades people’s fear of gay people and gay marriage changed until the point where many states suddenly began to approve gay marriage. Opinions slowly shift and build until sudden large shifts in policy occur to align laws with our new views.
Pinker argues that this theory can also be seen on a global scale in the way that humans relate to and think about violence. Moral agitators and debates changed people’s sensibilities around slavery, public hangings, and head first football tackles. The first two were outlawed as public sensibilities changed and now are unthinkable in the United States. What once was common place is now seen as barbaric. Head fist football tackles are moving in the same direction. No one alive today remembers the effects and the violence of American chattel slavery first hand, nor does anyone remember witnessing public hangings first hand (this a broad generalization – someone may still be living who attended a public lynching). As a result, we couldn’t even imagine living in a world with chattel slavery or public hangings. The argument is that head first football tackles will also eventually be unimaginable once no one playing the game remembers a time when they were the norm.
Pinker’s argument is a good way to look at our changing views, opinions, and laws surrounding violence. His thoughts on people forgetting about violent practices and having those practices become unimaginable is also a helpful way to look at historical shifts in our relationships and understandings of violence. But they are not the only public policy theories that can be applied to the use and opinions of violence in our country. This view doesn’t factor in windows of opportunity for changing our relationships and views toward violence. His views don’t address the multiple streams of public opinion that include policies, problems, and politics. For each specific violent issue that could make its way to the agenda, there is a host of reasons why society may focus on that one area, why our sensibilities may change, and why policy may change to reflect those sensibilities. Pinker does seem to be correct in saying that all of these factors are moving us in a less violent direction, with periods of equilibrium punctuated by changes followed by periods where we forget that violent practices used to be common place.
Democracies & Peace

Peace & Democracies

Democracies are less likely to go to war than autocracies. In recent years it has felt as though the United States is continually at war, continually bombing someone, and continually in an armed conflict somewhere in the world, but data do show that democracies are more peaceful than other forms of government. As the United States demonstrates, democracies are not entirely peaceful, but they are much less likely to be in an armed conflict at any time and it is rare to see two democracies fight against one another as opposed to fight against non-democracies.
Steven Pinker writes about this phenomenon in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature in order to show how and why the world is becoming a less violent place to live within. Describing the peaceful incentives for a democracy, Pinker writes, “democracies tend to avoid wars because the benefits of war go to a country’s leaders, whereas the costs are paid by its citizens.” Leaders who will not suffer the consequences as directly or as direly as their citizens are less likely to be hesitant to go to war. If their position and status are not dependent upon the support of the population who will suffer, then they have few disincentives to war. “But if the citizens are in charge,” writes Pinker, “they will think twice about wasting their own money and blood on a foolish foreign adventure.”
This concept seems to be playing out right now in Ukraine. Many people have suggested that Russia’s autocratic leader has had some sort of mental breakdown and that his decision to invade Ukraine is the result of an undiagnosed mental illness. What is more likely is that Putin didn’t expect to face many direct costs in this conflict himself. He may have known people would suffer, but thought he could win quickly and not pay any major consequences himself. He was not the one who would be on the front lines and in the corrupt Russian system, he did not have to worry about losing power.
In the United States and Europe, however, countries have been hesitant to get involved directly with the conflict. Directly challenging Russia could lead to a much larger conflict, and public leaders would certainly be ousted from office if they chose a path toward the next world war before making less aggressive actions to try to stem the tide of autocratic violence taking place in Ukraine. Democracies better reflect the experiences of the people, and as a result are less likely to pursue war or violence relative to autocracies.
Polemic Comedy vs Satire

Polemic Comedy VS Satire

I’ve seen a lot of criticism over political correctness and comedy in the last few years. People are unhappy that they cannot make the same kinds of jokes today that worked ten years ago. Jokes about women, jokes about ethnic and racial groups, and jokes about sexual orientation all seem to be largely off limits, and people are bemoaning that comedy is effectively dead. I think that such criticisms are shallow and fail to recognize the important power that good satire can have and how crafty and useful comedy can be without deliberately poking fun of people whose identities have been longtime punchlines.
Comedy which picks on minority groups, racial and ethnic groups, non-typical gender and sexuality groups, or women are often described as “punching down” – meaning that they take easy shots at groups that are less politically powerful or socially influential. The jokes may be funny and may poke fun at real double standards, behaviors, or factors of a group, but they are also intended to make fun of people and groups with marginalized political and social capital. They give a more powerful group a laugh at the expense of the less powerful group. This can then be dangerous for the individuals in that less powerful group.
Good satire manages not to pick on just a single group. It doesn’t make fun of the individuals within the joke, but hits broader points among humanity. Steven Pinker describes it by writing, “a moralizer can be mocked, a polemicist can be silenced, but a satirist can get the same point across through stealth. By luring an audience into taking the perspective of an outsider – a fool, a foreigner, a traveler – a satirist can make them appreciate the hypocrisy of their own society and the flaws in human nature that foster it.” Satirists don’t pick on a single individual or group. They don’t create something funny purely at the expense of another. Instead, they invite audiences in to share in the humor of larger social experiences. I think that many of the comedians we have found funny over the years have actually been polemicists and not satirists, and they are now finding that we no longer appreciate their brand of humor.
As Pinker’s quote notes, a satirists is stealthy in their comedy. They can still be just as funny, but their humor is not directly polemic. It is subtle, questioning, and gets the audience to adopt a new perspective. I think that much of the humor in recent Marvel movies, like in Shang Chi, achieve their comedic effect through satire more than through polemic jokes that we now find so troublesome. Comedy is not dead, but polemic comedy is perhaps no longer viable. Satire, however, continues to be a strong and influential comedic force.
Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Anti-War Sentiments & Institutions

Over time human beings have become more peaceful. In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explains that much of the reduction of violence between humans has been influenced by the institutions we create to govern, organize, and structure our societies, relationships, and human to human interactions. Without institutions to help pacify humans, violence would be an easy and convenient solution to many of our problems.
Pinker uses anti-war sentiment to show how important institutions are in making people less violent. He writes, “to gain traction, antiwar sentiments have to infect many constituencies at the same time. And they have to be grounded in economic and political institutions, so that the war-averse outlook doesn’t depend on everyone’s deciding to become and stay virtuous.” We can praise virtuous monks, we can admire peaceful protestors, and we can hold conscientious war objectors in high regard, but if political and economic institutions do not align with peace, then anti-war sentiment won’t grow beyond these few groups. It is easy to say that humans should all be kind, peaceful, and considerate of others, but without the right institutions, virtues don’t matter much.
People don’t like admitting that their behaviors are driven by large structural and institutional factors. We like to imagine that we are good individuals and that our conscious choices and decisions are what drive our behaviors. We see ourselves as deserving of good things and criminals and deviants as deserving of bad things because of individual choices in life. When we think about the world becoming a less violent place (if we think about that at all) we imagine it is because we are part of a new breed of humans who are more civilized, smarter, less impulsive, and more valuing of human life. Some of that may be true, but if so, it is not something special about humans today but likely something about the institutions we have built which have changed us and our social worlds.
Pinker’s anti-war sentiment quote shows how that is true. It is hard for a population to become overwhelmingly peaceful and anti-war when their neighbor has invaded their country (as we see in Ukraine now). It is hard to favor peace when your own economy is a train wreck and invading your neighbor will give your economy a boost through natural resources (perhaps as we see with Russia). If violence is a quick and easy way to boost your economy and the institutions surrounding you don’t punish you for violence, then you have fewer incentives to be peaceful and anti-war. Institutions, incentives, and larger political and economic structural factors matter – often more than individual virtuosity.
Reducing Government Violence

Reducing Government Violence

Human governance has been violent and bloody throughout much of our history. Whether we think about modern government violence, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, somewhat older violence like the Holocaust, or much older violence like medieval kings using violence against peasants, images of government sponsored violence are easy to think of. Reducing government violence is one way to make the world a much less violent place overall.
Steven Pinker explains that reductions in state sponsored violence have been a major contributing factor to global pacification over human history. Despite the atrocities of WWII and other odious events in the 1900’s, Pinker demonstrates that we are gradually becoming less violent as a global population over time in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Part of the explanation for why violence has decreased is related to how we view government and what we expect from it. Changing our relationship to government has reduced government violence.
Pinker describes changing  views of government during the enlightenment by writing, “people began to think of a government as a gadget – a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare.” Government, or governance institutions, Pinker explains, had existed long before thinkers of the enlightenment began to reimagine them. People had long organized themselves in collective groups that held power, directed scarce resources, established rules, and had the capacity for sanctioning violence. Seeing these institutions as tools for collective welfare was a new jump, and changed the state from an extension of a powerful group or individual’s influence to an institution responsive to the population.
This shift began to make governments less violent. Obviously it did not take violence out of the equation entirely, as the 1900s demonstrated, but it did mean that kings and lords couldn’t direct government to use violence against people to maintain order and power to the same extent. It changed the mandate under which governance institutions operated, reducing government violence.
As Russia is demonstrating with its war in Ukraine, as China is demonstrating with its possible genocide of Uyghur Muslims, and as the Untied States has demonstrated through police use of deadly force, governments still do commit a lot of violence. But the general trend across the globe is toward more peaceful governments. This is a good trend and something we should continue to work toward to continue to reduce overall global violence.
Challenging Beliefs

Challenging Beliefs

In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker argues that tying our beliefs to empirical data and information makes us less violent. When our beliefs are verifiable or falsifiable by clear, measurable, and independent facts and information we can be more secure and better justified in holding our beliefs. When our beliefs are not tied to empirical data, they are tied to some aspect of our identity, and as Pinker writes, “a broad danger of unverifiable beliefs is the temptation to defend them by violent means.”
Whether it is religious beliefs, public policy beliefs, or even just beliefs tied to personal tastes, unsupported and unverifiable beliefs become dangerous. Pinker describes why by writing, “people become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power.”
When you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are challenging more than just the veracity of those beliefs. You challenge the individual’s identity, intelligence, and a whole set of factors that contribute to the individual’s overall social status. Challenging something core to their identity and their status puts them in a defensive position. If the thing you are challenging is not based on anything tangible, such as unverifiable beliefs that one holds based on faith or pure desire, then there is no way for the individual to back down. Violence is often the result of such challenges.
Moving to a point where fewer of our beliefs are unverifiable can therefore help make us less violent. If we make efforts to only stick to beliefs that can be demonstrated to be accurate empirically, then we change our identity and how people understand us. We no longer cling to unverifiable beliefs as part of our identity and can update our beliefs as facts and information change. We have an easier to access non-violent avenue to updating beliefs. It is hard to always know what is true and what is not, but basing our beliefs on evidence helps us hold better positions that we can defend without resorting to violence.
An End to Institutionalized Superstitious Killings & A Bumper Sticker

An End to Institutionalized Superstitious Killings & A Bumper Sticker

Very few peoples and cultures today participate in some form of ritual killing of other people or hold any beliefs that human sacrifices are necessary to appease a deity and ensure good fortunes for the future. Very few people have to worry about being killed for possessing magical powers or for having somehow been in contact with an evil mystical being. However, throughout much of human history, these were legitimate concerns and fears for many human beings.
In his book The Better Angel of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “in most of the world, institutionalized superstitious killing, whether in human sacrifice, blood libel, or witch persecution has succumbed to two pressures. One is intellectual: the realization that some events, even those with profound personal significance, must be attributed to impersonal physical forces and raw chance rather than the designs of other conscious beings.”
This is a major step for humans and the societies we build and live within. At least within WEIRD countries, we have moved to a place where the institutionalized killing of a human being can only be carried out if there is empirical evidence to demonstrate that the human being committed a crime. This trend is constantly being advanced, as we now require stronger evidence, such as clear DNA evidence, in order to convict an individual. We are increasingly uncomfortable with state police forces using deadly force when apprehending dangerous criminals. Further, we accept institutionalized killings in fewer circumstances. Even murder isn’t always a guarantee that some form of state endorsed violence or killing will be used as a valid punishment. 
Pinker continues, “a great principal of moral advancement, on par with love thy neighbor and all men are created equal is the one on the bumper sticker: shit happens.” Humans today recognize that physical forces are beyond the control of an individual. We also don’t accept (in legal settings at least) that terrible natural phenomena like floods and landslides, are not retributive acts of a deity angry at people for their sins. We can accept that good things may happen to bad people, and that bad things may happen to good people without another human or advanced deity interfering through some form of mysticism or divine punishment/reward.
The bumper sticker view of life has combined with a greater increase in the value of human life and happiness in recent human history. We don’t punish people with violence for crimes that humans could not possibly have committed, and we resort to less violence when punishing humans for crimes that we have strong evidence that they did commit. We resort to incarceration, fines, and community service for most forms of punishment today, not scarring, whipping, or burning at the stake. Even in the rare instances where we do still support institutionalized killings, we do so in the most peaceful and nonviolent manner possible (at least in countries where lethal injection is the method used for capital punishment). These are just two high level explanations that Pinker offers for a global decline in violence in his book. We are less mystical and less likely to support institutionalized violence. 
Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Violence and Convenient Mysticism

Mysticism in the United States doesn’t really feel like it lends itself to violence. When we think of mystics, we probably think of someone close to a shaman, or maybe a modern mystic whose aesthetic is very homeopathic. Mystics don’t seem like they would be the most violent people today, but in the past, mysticism was a convenient motivating factor for violence.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker describes the way that mysticism lends itself to violence by writing, “the brain has evolved to ferret out hidden powers in nature, including those that no one can see. Once you start rummaging around in the realm of the unverifiable there is considerable room for creativity, and accusations of sorcery are often blended with self-serving motives.”
There are two important factors to recognize in this quote from Pinker, and both are often overlooked and misunderstood. First, our brains look for causal links between events. They are very good and very natural at thinking causally and pinpointing causation, however, as Daniel Kahneman wrote in Thinking Fast and Slow, the brain can often fall into cognitive fallacies and misattribute causation. Mystical thinking is a result of misplaced causal reasoning. It is important that we recognize that our brains can see causation that doesn’t truly exist and lead us to wrong conclusions.
The second important factor that we often manage to overlook is our own self-interest. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in The Elephant in the Brain, our self-interest plays a much larger role in much of our decision-making and behavior than we like to admit. When combined with mysticism, self-interest can be dangerous.
If you have an enemy who boasts that they are special and offers mystical explanations for their special powers, then it suddenly becomes convenient to justify violence against your enemy. You don’t need actual proof of any wrong doing, you don’t need actual proof of their danger to society, you just need to convince others that their mystical powers could be dangerous, and you now have a convenient excuse for disposing of those who you dislike. You can promote your own self-interest without regard to reality if you can harness the power of mystical thinking.
Pinker explains that the world is becoming a more peaceful place in part because mystical thinking is moving to smaller and smaller corners of the world. Legal systems don’t recognize mystical explanations and justifications for behaviors and crimes. Empirical facts and verifiable evidence has superseded mysticism in our evaluations and judgments of crime and the use of violence. By moving beyond mysticism we have created systems, structures, and institutions that foster more peace and less violence among groups of people.

Cultural Third Nature

Our culture and world has been shifting dramatically in the last few decades. The internet has opened huge amounts of communication and information to anyone who wants to spend time focusing on any particular topic. We can see ourselves, others, what we like, what others like, and how it all fits together in a way that has never before been possible. We can live as we like and find a similar community online to share our lives with, find acceptance from, and explore what is possible.
The internet, along with many other factors, has created the space for what has been called our third nature. Steven Pinker explains it this way in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, “our third nature consists of a conscious reflection on these habits [motives that govern life and ingrained habits of a civilized society], in which we evaluate which aspects of a culture’s norms are worth adhering to and which have outlived their usefulness.”
This can be seen in the United States today with how quickly prohibitions against gay marriage and marijuana have been demolished. It can be seen in the demise of men’s suits. It can be seen when high school students turn the idea of a prom king or queen into a joke (or even turn prom itself into a joke). Across our culture we are deciding which formal traditions can be upended, and which should stick around. A major part of this is a major informalization across many aspects of our culture. It is leading to new possibilities, new opportunities for many, but also a great number of difficulties. Many people have trouble accepting the changes and the cultural stances which are sometimes quickly abandoned. While many have welcomed these changes, others have found them disconcerting. Hopefully, these changes will in the long run lead to a continued decrease in violence.
Diminishing Returns to Incarceration

Diminishing Returns to Incarceration

Prison is often thought of as an important crime deterrent and tool against crime. Prison sentences discourage the bad guys from committing crimes, because they know there is a possible lengthy stay in jail waiting for them if they get caught. Additionally, when individuals are incarcerated they are not out on the streets committing more crimes. The deterrence and lock-up benefits of incarceration are part of what make incarceration such an appealing option for those who wish to be seen as tough on crime in the United States.
But there also seem to be diminishing returns to incarceration, and at a certain point incarceration can begin to be counter productive and even harmful. Specifically thinking about diminishing returns to incarceration in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker writes, “once the most violent individuals have been locked up, imprisoning more of them rapidly reaches a point of diminishing returns.” Each prisoner you lock-up after you have locked up the worst offenders, is marginally less bad. Their crimes, or potential crimes, become marginally less serious, and as a response, the benefit of locking them up is decreased. The crimes they may be deterred from may be less severe to begin with, and the time for which they are incarcerated is doesn’t equate to more serious crimes being avoided, but more marginally less bad crimes being averted.
Pinker continues, “since people tend to get less violent as they get older, keeping men in prison beyond a certain point does little to reduce crime.” We can boast about how long we lock up the bad guys, but if that term extends beyond the point at which that individual may be a threat to society, then it is fair to ask whether their continued punishment is worthwhile. Perhaps an exceptionally long prison sentence, beyond the point at which an individual is likely to still be a threat, is a good deterrent before any crimes are committed, but if it is not, then we use important resources to incarcerate a person who otherwise could be a productive member of society or at least otherwise not drain resources while incarcerated.
The diminishing returns to incarceration are not discussed as much as the idea of tough on crime prison sentences is. We like locking people up, we like having a major deterrent in the form of incarceration, and we like the sense of justice we receive from imprisoning a bad guy for a long time. But we don’t like knowing that our criminal justice system in the United States has more people incarcerated that almost any other country on earth. We don’t like knowing that our prisons are costing society and that individuals released from prison may not have any avenue back into productive society as a result of being locked up for such lengthy times. It is important to consider the diminishing returns to incarceration to determine whether it is truly the best form of punishment to pursue and whether we would be better served by alternatives means of deterring sever crime.