The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is finally out. I can’t read it in the near future because of time constraint, but I’m heartened that a public intellectual of Steven Pinker’s stature is finally making people more aware of the fact that in some ways the world is better than it has ever been! This being Pinker the media has responded in force. Peter Singer has given it a thumbs up in The New York Times, as you’d expect. But John Gray has one of the more disgusting responses I’ve seen in The Prospect, Delusions of peace: Stephen Pinker argues that we are becoming less violent. Nonsense, says John Gray. The comments notice what I did: Gray’s attack on Pinker is rhetorical sophistry, making no pretense at engaging the data which Pinker reports. This is particularly interesting coming from me because in terms of political philosophy I share many sympathies with Gray. I worry a great deal that the progressive liberal Whig moment in human history is a transient, and that the medium term future may be less than cheery. Nor do I have much faith in a utopian “End of History.” But whatever my concerns about the present and future are, they need to engage what we know about reality. That is one reason I revel in data and analysis which go against my intuition and falsify my own preconceptions.
The data that Pinker reports on the decline of violence are real, and responding to it by citing a handful of horrible genocides and sneering elegantly are low tactics which degrade intellectual discourse. Pessimism can’t be based on sentiment alone, one has to draw upon facts and robust theory. If those of us who who are wary of an arrow of history have only bluster and rhetoric, then the prophets of progress have won the day.