Conflict Resolution Paper
Jeff Pierce PS211
March 17th, 2013
Human beings are complicated creatures, capable of both lofty humanitarian and cultural feats as well as horrific atrocities. Attempts have been made all throughout history to try and explain our duality, even to the point that we deify both our good and evil natures almost universally in our various religions. Essentially, humanity is based on this struggle between our “better angels” and “inner demons”, as we’ve been learning about the last few months. Is it more in our nature to be essentially good and kind, or are we only kept in check by the outside influences of society? Scientists and theologians have struggled with these concepts for centuries. We’ve seen Darwin’s “Natural Selection” come into play, as well as the idea of original sin and salvation. Our attempt has been to determine, along with Steven Pinker’s guidance, whether or not humanity has in fact become more peaceful, as well as what forces have been at play throughout the process of civilizing us from tribes of hunter-gatherers to the society we live in today (Pinker) . Along the way, we have studied specific triggers to identify reasons for our shift to a more peaceful society. The most important, I feel, have been the formation of sovereign nations, the rise of gentle commerce, empathy, skepticism and reason, as well as various individual rights movements later in our history.
It would be nice if we could identify one particular reason why we have become more civilized, but that would make life too easy and put many social scientists out of work. Instead, we’ve come to realize that it is a complex and interconnected series of events, which modify our perspectives and change our agents of socialization, and these events have been unfolding for centuries (Pinker xxiv-xxv). One of the civilizing and socializing agents that has led to the reduction of violence is the philosophy of the “Leviathan”, attributed to Thomas Hobbes (Hobbes). In his book Leviathan, Hobbes writes about the nature of mankind, laws of nature, the sovereignty of nations, as well as laws and politics. His writings have become recognized as a blueprint for the development of a more stable society, leading to common language and tradition, which acts as an agent of socialization bringing humanity together in social and economic settings (Hobbes 5-6). One of the primary characteristics of the Leviathan is that it holds a monopoly on the “legitimate use of force” (Pinker 538). Simply put, the citizens of the sovereign nation recognize the government (Leviathan) as being legitimate, and as such, holds the power for the use of force or violence to maintain order. Without the Leviathan to govern over a society by holding the power to use legitimized violence, society would fall into a state of anomie (Croteau/Hoynes). Anomie was defined by Emile Durkheim as chaos and normlessness, comparable to anarchy (Croteau/Hoynes 14).
One of the civilizing aspects that comes with the formation of the sovereign nation is the networks of trade and commerce that develop. For this commerce to stay civilized, it must be both fair and generally viewed as equal, with punishments for theft and dishonesty, as well as granting (or selling) land rights to individuals. When people were allowed to work their own land, and then sell their products for profits, great leaps were made in the advancement of individual human rights as well as for the decline of violence as people realized that they had to rely on others for their livelihood (Pinker 75-81). In Medieval times, commerce was controlled, or outright banned, by church ideology that said profit was sinful. This has been termed a “zero-sum” situation, meaning that in theory individuals were not allowed to profit, only to produce or trade what they needed to survive. As attitudes changed along with the development of new religions, the idea of profit and “gentle commerce” became the dominant ideology (Pinker 77). This new concept of gentle commerce also brought about the idea of positive-sum outcomes, that is, business or personal interaction to where both parties benefit. One of the roles of the Leviathan was to safeguard and regulate these interactions to maintain, or by decree of punishment, attempt to ensure that these interactions remained fair. By implementing punishments whose outcomes were deemed worse that engaging in fair trade to begin with, dishonesty was kept more or less in check (Pinker 77).
A side effect of the rise in gentle commerce was a reduction in unquestioned religious devotion. It was observed that as people made more profits, they desired to spend their profits, which was thought to detour them from church ideology (Weber). This opened the doors to new ways of thinking, a heightened skepticism, and the use of reason rather than religion to explain the natural world. Around this time, published materials and literacy were on the rise, so that knowledge could be freely shared with others who shared the same skepticism. These events led to both the rise of empathy and a movement historian’s call The Enlightenment (Pinker 177-181). Although it is in human nature to feel sympathy and empathy toward others, the ability to empathize with complete strangers didn’t really begin to evolve until the 18th century when books and other printed materials could be easily shared with others, allowing commoners and aristocracy alike to have the opportunity to read about and experience the lives of others that they had no connection to (Pinker 176). Max Weber described this concept as Verstehen, which could be applied to both individual and historic points of view. Weber explained the process as valuable to reconstruction and understanding of past events, as well as the ability to put oneself in the shoes of others to understand their motivations and emotions (Parkin 19-20).
By this point, groups of “enlightened” thinkers began using print as well as other infrastructure such as postal services and ship transportation to begin a process of sharing their thoughts and deductions of the rational world. Key players in the Enlightenment movement included Voltaire, Thomas Hobbes, Isaac Newton, John Locke, as well as a number of other scientists and philosophers from both Europe, and later in the Americas. Enlightenment ideals centered around skepticism and reason as a way of explaining both the natural world as well as to rationalize how people think and act (Pinker 181-182). Both the American and French revolutions used elements of the Enlightenment and rationality as the basis for their movements, and fostered the idea of individual rights. One key aspect of the advancement in the sharing of ideas and philosophies is that it begins to connect the global community, allowing other likeminded thinkers to perpetuate Enlightenment ideas. Later, this would play a larger role in the various human rights movements over the following centuries (Pinker).
One of the difficulties faced in trying to explain our decline in violence over the millennia is how a “culture of honor” can still cause humans to react with acts of violence to avenge a perceived or actual insult (Pinker 21-22). Sociologists and psychologists have spent years trying to explain why people react violently and impulsively when they feel the need for retaliation, and whether or not these are biological responses or due to our socialization (Croteau/Hoynes 153). This carries over even to the Leviathan in regards to crime and punishment. Retribution as a justification for harsher punishment has led to worldwide debates over capital punishment and the philosophy of an eye for an eye that has carried over from biblical times (Croteau/Hoynes 208-210). One sign of progress toward a society becoming more peaceful has been the abolition of capital punishment throughout the world. According to Amnesty International, capital punishment has been abolished in closed to two-thirds of nations, with an average of three more per year following suit (Amnesty International).
Another prevalent hurdle to the advancement of peaceful human relations is radical ideology. When large groups believe in the same radical ideology, they can be capable of horrendous atrocities (Pinker). Ideology can take multiple forms, such as religious, class-based, economic, or political, and due to a human tendency to follow charismatic leadership or a goal of utopian outcomes, they can commit violent acts they otherwise wouldn’t even think of committing otherwise (Pinker 557). Groupthink is a term used to describe those who will blindly follow an ideology, as well as suppress dissent against the ideology. These masses of blind followers have been described as sheep, conforming to the dominant ideology whether or not they truly agree with it (Pinker 560-561).
Overall, it does appear that we have been following a trend to a more peaceful humanity, but we still have a long way to go. We have made amazing advancements in human rights, we’ve worked toward peaceful globalization, global literacy is increasing, and we’ve seen decreases in civil conflict as societies move toward more democratic governments (Pinker 671-696). Unfortunately we are still dealing with sensationalism in the media of violence, which in and of itself can spawn further violent acts and a lack of coverage when human rights violations are involved. We see governments or corporations turning a blind eye to make a profit, exploitation of less advanced cultures, and a modern counter-enlightenment taking place in the United States and other nations. I feel to make truly great strides toward a more peaceful humanity, we need a new enlightenment, as well as transparency of governments and a rise in inter-governmental organizations (Pinker 166-168).
As I began this class, I was skeptical about the truth behind the hypothesis that violence has been declining. The modern era is constantly bombarded with reports and images of violence, making us believe that the current situation is one of an increasingly violent society. We fail to see that wars are declining, crime rates are tied to economy, and we haven’t seen the horrific genocides of past centuries. I fear we may be due for an African genocide given the current political climate and the unwillingness of the Western world to intervene in an advisory capacity. Overall, though, I do agree that our tendency towards violence, interpersonal, institutional, or militaristic, is declining. If we can learn from our past, promote another enlightenment, and lose our biases, then we may become an even more peaceful society. Bias is a social construction, as well as most of the other “justifications” for human violence. Over time, social constructions can be changed, but not until humanity recognizes their shortcomings. As we learn to change our agents of socialization, our “better angels” have a better chance of winning the battle of our duality.
Amnesty International. http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/issues/death-penalty/international-death-penalty. 2012. Internet. 17 March 2013.
Croteau/Hoynes. Experience Sociology. McGraw-Hill Companies, 2013. Print.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Mineola, Ny.: Dover Classics, 1651-2006. Print.
Parkin, Frank. Max Weber Revised Edition. New York: Routledge, 2002. Print.
Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Mineola, Ny.: Dover Classics, 2003. Print.