In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker lays out five root causes of violence. Four of which I believe we can directly address through better institutions. The remaining form we have dealt with using institutions, but not in a very effective way. Ultimately, my takeaway is that institutions are crucial for reducing violence by addressing root causes, but that poorly designed and poorly functioning institutions can play into these same root causes of violence.
To introduce the causes of violence Pinker writes, “the first category of violence may be called practical, instrumental, exploitative, or predatory. It is the simplest kind of violence: the use of force as a means to an end. The violence is deployed in pursuit of a goal.” Violence can be a tool to force people to do something or to obtain something we want. We can use violence to force people to act in a certain way, to prevent people from taking something we have, and to try to achieve a specific outcome. Violence in this way is unfair and unequal. It favors the physically dominant and the socially connected who can employ others to do harm for them or prevent them from facing consequences. Institutions to address this kind of violence include the rule of law, state monopolies on violence, and the extension of law enforcement to all citizens, even the most powerful people in a society. When institutions exist that prevent violence from being employed as a means to an end, then the temptation to use violence to get what we want diminishes.
“The second root cause of violence is dominance – the drive for supremacy over one’s rivals.” This form of violence is connected to the first, because through dominance we are achieving a certain outcome that we want. Again, when violence is employed the outcome is unfair and unequal. Worse, it is not limited to individuals, “groups compete for dominance too.” We use violence in this way to maintain a status quo or ensure that the status quo will favor people like us over others who could take something from us. Institutions are harder to develop to address the dominance use of violence, but meaningful elections and representation has helped. Modern institutions may downplay the role of violence, but modern political systems have not downplayed the importance of dominance.
“The third root of violence is revenge – the drive to pay back a harm in kind.” What comes to mind when I think of this form of violence is the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. I will admit I am not 100% sure of the details of what happened, but what appears to have happened is that Arbery was going for a jog in a neighborhood that had recently experienced some theft. Arbery was poking around a constructions site, a place he probably shouldn’t have been, when two white men saw him and chased him. The chase ended with Arbery being shot and killed. The killing was in a sense a revenge killing. The white men used violence to correct what they perceived as a wrong – perceiving Arbery as being a criminal who had stolen from a construction site. In the end, the revenge killing of Arbery was ruled a murder, our justice system’s institutions holding that such a use of violence was not acceptable. The rule of law is a powerful institution in deterring the revenge root cause of violence.
“The fourth root is sadism, the joy of hurting.” This root cause of violence is part of why America has more people in prison than any other nation. We respond to violence as if people are evil and need to be locked away from society. We act as if the other causes don’t exist, and as if people do bad things because they are all sadists. The only problem is that we cannot predict who is a sadist and who isn’t. Just as we can’t predict who is going to be a great employee, who is going to be the best NBA draft prospect, and who is going to steal everyone’s retirement savings in a Ponzi Scheme, we cannot predict who is going to employ violence for sadistic motives. I am not sure we are at a point where we can effectively control this motivation with institutions. Our fear of this motive has lead to our costly incarceration problem, which may not be effective.
“The fifth and most consequential cause of violence is ideology, in which true believers weave a collection of motives into a creed and recruit other people to carry out its destructive goals.” In the United States we are terrified of Arabic terrorists, however, the most dangerous ideology, in terms of people killed in the United States each year, is white nationalism. We see the danger of this form of violence repeatedly – from grocery store shootings to school shootings, the danger has been clear. But we have failed to fully address the beliefs and ideologies which drive people to commit white nationalist violence. Throughout human history, ideology has been protected and institutions have enabled and supported ideological violence. The Crusades, Jim Crow laws and the KKK, and modern failure to use institutions to control firearms are examples of ideological violence being protected or at the very least not being deterred through institutions.
My argument is that these causes of violence, with the exception of sadistic violence, can be controlled and shaped by institutions. We can develop institutions which reduce violence, but sometimes we fail to do so. It is our responsibility to think about our institutions, how they function, and to take steps to improve them to continue to reduce human violence.