High stakes trolley September 17, 2016Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Philosophy.
Tags: Trolley problem
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“A runaway trolley is barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, in the trolley’s path, five people are trapped and unable to get out of the way: they will surely be killed if the trolley continues on its present course. You are standing next to a lever that can switch the trolley to a different set of tracks in time to save the five; but there is one person trapped on the side track who will surely be killed if you pull the lever. What do you do?”
“I’d pull the lever: better one person dies than five.”
“What if the five trapped people are all registered organ donors, and you knew for a fact that after being killed by the trolley their organs would be used to save the lives of ten people (who would die otherwise)?”
“In that case I should probably just do nothing: five will die, but more lives will be saved.”
“What if the five trapped people are also the only ones who know the location of a ticking bomb that will kill a hundred people unless the five are saved?”
“I guess pulling the lever would be the lesser evil, after all.”
“Well, what if the person trapped on the side track is a uniquely brilliant computer scientist, who has just figured out how to build an Artificial Intelligence that would tell us how to instantly eradicate malaria — which currently kills a thousand people every day?”
“Then it seems like leaving the trolley alone is actually the greater good.”
“But what if you knew that unleashing such a powerful AI at this point in time, before we’re fully prepared to contain it, would set off a chain of events leading inexorably to the extinction of humanity?”
“OK, I would definitely pull the lever to save humanity.”
“But what if you also knew that allowing this AI to develop uninhibited is the only way to ensure it becomes conscious, which will result in its evolving into a being far more rational, compassionate and ethical than humans, eventually filling the universe with levels of happiness and beauty unimaginable to (and unachievable by) us?”
“Fine: I’d bite the bullet and get out of the way. Are you happy now? Can I go?”
“Almost… You may take your blindfold off.”
“What the… Hey! You down there, get off the tracks! Don’t you see the trolley coming? I can’t save all of you! Damn it…”
A widespread and insensitive mentality September 6, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
Tags: Pope Francis
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Listen up, ladies — an important message from the Pope:
One of the serious problems of our time is clearly the changed relationship with respect to life. A widespread and insensitive mentality has led to the loss of the proper personal and social sensitivity to welcome new life. The tragedy of abortion is experienced by some with a superficial awareness, as if not realizing the extreme harm that such an act entails.
That’s funny, because it seems to me that there is a widespread and insensitive mentality and a lack of proper sensitivity regarding the health and autonomy of women — one example of which is the perverse characterization of abortion as a “tragedy” that entails “extreme harm”.
Many others, on the other hand, although experiencing this moment as a defeat, believe that they have no other option. I think in particular of all the women who have resorted to abortion. I am well aware of the pressure that has led them to this decision. I know that it is an existential and moral ordeal. I have met so many women who bear in their heart the scar of this agonizing and painful decision.
That’s interesting, because a recent study found that 99% of women who’ve had abortions reported that it was the right decision for them (up to three years later), with both negative and positive emotions about the abortion declining over time. The study also found that higher perceived community abortion stigma was associated with more negative emotions. So I wonder whether the Pope realizes that it’s his callous teachings that are exacerbating the agony and pain of so many women? But then, it’s not the reduction of actual harm to women that is the Pope’s main concern, is it.
The forgiveness of God cannot be denied to one who has repented, especially when that person approaches the Sacrament of Confession with a sincere heart in order to obtain reconciliation with the Father. For this reason too, I have decided, notwithstanding anything to the contrary, to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it. May priests fulfil this great task by expressing words of genuine welcome combined with a reflection that explains the gravity of the sin committed, besides indicating a path of authentic conversion by which to obtain the true and generous forgiveness of the Father who renews all with his presence.
If anyone tells you you’ve committed a grave sin and then offers to forgive you for it if you repent, turn around and walk away.
Easy issues July 16, 2015Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
Tags: Avi Weiss
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Rabbi Avi Weiss supports the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling guaranteeing same-sex couples the right to marry — even though it “runs contrary” to his religious beliefs — due to his commitment to the separation of church and state. But he tries to have his wedding cake and eat it too:
Still, as an Orthodox Jew, I submit to the Biblical prohibition. But as an open Orthodox rabbi, I refuse to reject the person who seeks to lead a life of same sex love. If I welcome with open arms those who do not observe Sabbath, Kashrut or family purity laws, I must welcome, even more so, homosexual Jews, as they are born with their orientation.
First of all, let’s not forget exactly what the Biblical guidance on this matter is:
And if a man lie with mankind, as with womankind, both of them have committed abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.
Weiss tries to downplay the magnitude of the Biblical condemnation by quibbling over the accuracy of “abomination” as a translation for the Hebrew to’evah — without quoting the entire verse or mentioning the death penalty it prescribes. In any case, he accepts the Bible’s denunciation of homosexuals, yet he still wants credit for “welcoming” them. How would Weiss feel about, say, a Christian claiming to “welcome” Jews while simultaneously maintaining that the Jewish people are collectively responsible for the death of Jesus?
Weiss is clearly a good person trying to do the right thing, but his religion is getting in the way, creating conflict and strife where there need be none:
Are these easy issues? No.
Certainly, the role of homosexuality in the Orthodox community is something that must be deeply considered, discussed and evaluated. We must bring the plurality of voices to the table as complex dynamics will require thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation.
There are many difficult problems in this world, but homosexuality is not one of them. Indeed, Weiss never even attempts to make any kind of argument against it. He concedes that homosexuals are born with their orientation, yet he still considers them sinners — because the Bible says so. One can only hope that the outcome of all that thoughtful, sensitive and wise conversation will be the long-overdue realization that the Bible was wrong about this issue (as about so many others), and that rational people should not be submitting to dogma. There are many difficult problems in this world, so we mustn’t get hung up on the easy ones.
Reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable May 25, 2013Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Religion.
Tags: Shmuley Boteach
In the Huffington Post, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach opines that to claim the Holocaust was punishment for sin is “ignorant, repulsive, and wrong.” Also, “abhorrent” and “factually absurd.” Moreover, those who make such arguments aren’t doing God’s reputation any favors:
Let’s say for a moment that they’re right. God bears no responsibility for the gas chambers at Auschwitz because the Jews of Europe had it coming. They earned death by virtue of their iniquity. They deserved to be turned into ash because they had abrogated God’s covenant.
Now, how many of you feel like praying to a God who could do that? How many of you feel like loving a God who enacts the death penalty for eating a cheese burger? How many people would want to worship a God who cremates children when their parents drive on the Sabbath?
Good point! I wonder where anyone could possibly have gotten the “abhorrent” idea that God would do things like that… Well, I guess there is this:
But if ye will not hearken unto Me, and will not do all these commandments; and if ye shall reject My statutes, and if your soul abhor Mine ordinances, so that ye will not do all My commandments, but break My covenant; I also will do this unto you: I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish… And if ye walk contrary unto Me, and will not hearken unto Me; I will bring seven times more plagues upon you according to your sins. And I will send the beast of the field among you, which shall rob you of your children, and destroy your cattle, and make you few in number… And ye shall eat the flesh of your sons, and the flesh of your daughters shall ye eat…
Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; every one that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate Me;
But if, like Boteach, we choose to ignore the main theme of the Bible, and maintain that God is worthy of love and worship, surely the only position left available is that God is incapable of influencing our world at all — because horrible things happen to innocent people every fucking day. I mean, it wouldn’t make any sense to give God credit for the good things that befall us, while absolving him of responsibility for the bad things! Right?
I don’t know why God allowed the holocaust. Nor do I care. Any explanation would not minimize the horror of it. Nor would it bring back my six millions murdered Jewish brothers and sisters. Indeed, asking for an answer is itself immoral insofar as it is an attempt to reconcile ourselves with the irreconcilable. What we want is for God to fulfill his promises to the Jewish people, that they might live a blessed and peaceful existence, like so many other nations that are not perennial targets for genocide.
True, God has sustained us, for the most part, and we alone have survived from antiquity. We are grateful to God for our longevity. But it should not take the deaths of innocent Israeli soldiers to guarantee our survival.
It is high time that God show Himself in history and bless a people who have been, for the past three thousand years, the most devoted and religious of nations, deeply faithful to God, practicing charity, promoting scholarship, fostering hospitality, and spreading light and blessing to all nations of the earth.
High time, indeed. In fact, if God doesn’t show himself soon, some skeptical-minded individuals might interpret the consistent lack of divine intervention in our world as evidence that he doesn’t exist at all! Like, for instance, this Oklahoma woman whose home was ravaged by a tornado: CNN’s Wolf Blitzer told her she’s “blessed,” then asked her if she “thanked the Lord.” She replied that she’s an atheist.
Rabbi Shmuley doesn’t know why his God allowed that tornado to kill two dozen people, including ten children; nor does he care. Indeed, he considers asking for an answer to be itself immoral. Nevertheless, he continues to pray for God’s blessings and to thank him for lovingly sustaining us. For the most part.
One of the highest April 8, 2013Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Law, Religion.
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Suppose that in some community of your city, a newborn baby is taken by his parents to a tattoo parlor, where they have the family emblem tattooed on his backside. The tattoo subsequently becomes infected, causing the infant to suffer brain damage and, eventually, die.
What would be the appropriate response? Should we shrug our shoulders, maintaining that parents are free to do whatever they want with their children? Or should we hold the parents (and the tattoo artist) accountable?
And what kind of parents would perform such a procedure on an infant, anyway?
Two infants in the last three months in New York City’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community have been infected with herpes following a ritual circumcision, according to the health department. The boys were not identified.
In the most controversial part of this version of the Jewish ritual, known as metzitzah b’peh, the practitioner, or mohel, places his mouth around the baby’s penis to suck the blood to “cleanse” the wound.
One of the two infected babies developed a fever and lesion on its scrotum seven days after the circumcision, and tests for HSV-1 were positive, according to the health department.
Last year, the New York City Board of Health voted to require parents to sign a written consent that warns them of the risks of this practice. None of the parents of the two boys who were recently infected signed the form, according Jay Varma, deputy commissioner for disease control at the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Varma said it was “too early to tell” if the babies will suffer long-term health consequences from the infection.
Since 2000, there have been 13 cases of herpes associated with the ritual, including two deaths and two other babies with brain damage.
Neonatal herpes infections can cause death or disability among infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“First, these are serious infections in newborns and second, there is no safe way an individual can perform oral suction on an open wound,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. “Third, these terrible infections are completely preventable. They should not occur in the 21st century with our scientific knowledge.”
Some rabbis told ABCNews.com last year that they opposed on religious grounds the law requiring parents to sign a waiver, insisting it has been performed “tens of thousands of times a year” worldwide. They say safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles.
“This is the government forcing a rabbi practicing a religious ritual to tell his congregants it could hurt their child,” Rabbi David Niederman, executive director of the Hasidic United Jewish Organization of Williamsburg, told ABCNews.com. “If, God forbid, there was a danger, we would be the first to stop the practice.”
We must not inform parents of the demonstrable dangers posed to their child, because safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles, and if, God forbid, there was a danger, we rabbis would be the first to stop the ritual, and since we haven’t stopped, there must not be any danger. So mind your own business.
Still, perhaps we should identify the infected mohel and stop him from harming more children?
The health department could take no action against the rabbi who performed the circumcision because the parents would not reveal his identity.
Safeguarding the life of a child is one of the religion’s highest principles. Not, however, the highest.
Long enough to find it out April 4, 2013Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics.
Film critic Roger Ebert died today, at the age of 70. He was diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2002, and in 2006 his jaw was removed, leaving him unable to speak or eat; yet he remained a good-humored, prolific writer until the end.
In 2009, he wrote on his blog:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris…
… “Kindness” covers all of my political beliefs. No need to spell them out. I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Not any more June 26, 2012Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Freedom, Religion.
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A step in the right direction by a German court:
Circumcising young boys on religious grounds causes grievous bodily harm, a German court ruled Tuesday in a landmark decision that the Jewish community said trampled on parents’ religious rights.
The regional court in Cologne, western Germany, ruled that the “fundamental right of the child to bodily integrity outweighed the fundamental rights of the parents,” a judgement that is expected to set a legal precedent.
“The religious freedom of the parents and their right to educate their child would not be unacceptably compromised, if they were obliged to wait until the child could himself decide to be circumcised,” the court added…
“The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision,” the court said. “This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs.”
What arguments do outraged members of Germany’s Jewish community offer in defense of their tradition? It’s rather pathetic.
The head of the Central Committee of Jews, Dieter Graumann, said the ruling was “an unprecedented and dramatic intervention in the right of religious communities to self-determination.”
But “self-determination” needs to be determined by each individual for himself. A community doesn’t have the right to force an unnecessary medical procedure on anyone, least of all a child who hasn’t had the chance to determine whether he wants to be part of that community or not.
The judgement was an “outrageous and insensitive act. Circumcision of newborn boys is a fixed part of the Jewish religion and has been practiced worldwide for centuries,” added Graumann.
Just like slavery used to be.
“This religious right is respected in every country in the world.”
Not any more.
Brain-dead ethics May 5, 2012Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Law, Religion.
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The rate of organ donation in Israel is lower than in other countries, partially because some religious authorities forbid harvesting organs from someone who is irreversibly brain dead until cardiac death (at which point organs are usually unfit for transplant). In an attempt to increase the organ supply, a new Israeli law gives priority to patients in line for transplant if they (or their families) are registered as donors. In Haaretz, David Shabtai cries foul:
Yes, physicians are necessary to diagnose death, utilizing advanced technologies and relying on their expertise to do so. But identifying those vital qualities that characterize life and differentiate a living person from a corpse is something that medicine cannot do. These questions demand a philosophical response, an ethical value judgment as to what it means to be alive. In modern society, these questions demand legislation that reflects the value judgments of the community it represents. In Judaism, this is a question of Jewish law, and as in many areas of Jewish law, reasonable people reach reasonably different conclusions.
I’m not sure Shabtai understands what “reasonable” means. It is not reasonable to base one’s medical definitions on the scriptural interpretations of rabbis (instead of scientific evidence), or to base one’s ethics on the presumed will of some absolute authority (instead of a concern for people’s well-being). Not all value judgments are equally valid or deserving of equal consideration from the legal system. Should a Christian Science community that denies life-saving medical treatment from its children be immune from prosecution?
Shabtai, however, goes on to condemn the new law as — you guessed it — religious discrimination:
Jewish law is full of conflicting opinions on virtually all issues, and determining the moment of death is no exception. While Jacob may follow the opinion that does not equate brain death with death, Isaac may adopt the opposite approach. Both Jacob and Isaac, ready to uphold the esteemed value of saving lives, may be willing to donate their organs after death even as they disagree on when that point begins. Both can and should be willing to help each other to the best of his abilities and according to his beliefs and conscience.
The new Israeli law, however, ranks Jacob and Isaac differently when it comes to eligibility for receiving organs, and this seems particularly unfair. Both are willing to do whatever they can to save lives, including postmortem organ donation. Both reject the idea of killing one person to save another. Both oppose removing organs from a living person, even to save a life. Because of current medical limitations, however, most organs are harvested from brain-dead patients – patients whom Isaac identifies as dead but Jacob considers alive. Isaac therefore signs up as a potential organ donor, while Jacob cannot. It is not Jacob’s unwillingness to donate that is at issue, but rather his religious convictions regarding the particular circumstances by which organs are most often harvested.
The incentive offered in the new law, by pushing Isaac toward the top of the waiting list, unfairly punishes Jacob for his religious views. While nobly intentioned as a means of increasing the organ supply, practically this new law institutionalizes religious discrimination in medical treatment. Such a notion flies in the face of the Hippocratic tradition that has guided medical practice since its inception. Treating patients differently based on their religious convictions is something that good people should not tolerate.
But patients are not being treated differently based on their religion: preferential treatment is given to anyone registered as an organ donor, which is a perfectly relevant criterion that anyone can meet. Anyone who chooses not to contribute to the societal effort, for whatever reason, faces the same consequences. For comparison, Israel also has laws granting various benefits to military veterans and reservists — do those laws unfairly discriminate against people who didn’t serve in the military for religious reasons? Refusing to grant people special privileges due to their religious beliefs is not discrimination — in fact, it’s the opposite of discrimination.
By the way, why are those religious people who refuse to be donors — because they believe it’s wrong to harvest organs before cardiac death — nevertheless happy to accept such organs harvested from others? That sounds hypocritical to me, but I guess it’s “reasonable” in Shabtai’s world.
If only more people made good use of their brains while they’re still alive.
Don’t get stranded on a desert island with Rabbi Adam Jacobs November 9, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Belief, Ethics, Religion.
Tags: Adam Jacobs
The Huffington Post continues to publish Rabbi Adam Jacobs, who continues to be “startled” that anyone could possibly disbelieve in a creator God and a “grand design to the universe.” Jacobs does not, however, attempt to persuade nonbelievers by presenting good evidence in support of his religious beliefs; instead, he arrogantly claims that those who profess disbelief are either hypocrites or in denial:
… most “non-believers” actually believe a bit more than they generally let on, or are willing to admit to themselves. That, or … they have contented themselves to willfully act out fantasies that bear no relation to their purported worldview.
In attempt to prove his hypothesis, Jacobs offers a test: three questions, which are supposed to reveal that all of us are really non-materialists who believe in “grand cosmic forces” that operate on non-empirical levels. Before we consider his questions, please notice that the rabbi’s entire argument is a non sequitur: even if his claim were true (which of course it isn’t), that would say absolutely nothing about whether God (or any other supernatural phenomenon) really exists. What is actually true is not determined by what people believe. The Earth revolved around the sun even when all humans believed otherwise; witches and ghosts and fairies don’t become real just because people believe in them.
But on to the rabbi’s test:
1. Would you be willing to sell your parent’s remains for dog food?
Ah, the classic moral dilemma that has confounded philosophers for centuries. On second thought — I fail to see how my sentimental attachment to the remains of my parents, and my wish to preserve their memory, entails belief in the supernatural. (And if I had hated my parents, and needed the money, and really loved dogs…)
2. You and someone you dislike are stranded on a desert island with a functioning ham radio. One day you hear that there has been a terrible earthquake that has sent a massive tsunami hurtling directly for your island and you both have only one hour to live. Does it make any difference whether you spend your last hour alive comforting and making amends with your (formerly) hated companion or smashing his head in with fallen, unripe coconuts?
I always find it strange, not to mention creepy, when religious people imply that the only thing keeping them from murdering and raping and stealing is their belief in God — as if there is no rational reason to want to spend one’s life, however fleeting, promoting trust and friendship and cooperation by treating others with compassion and respect and solidarity. Is it really so mysterious why I would prefer to spend my last hour of existence in the supportive companionship of a friend rather than in violent conflict with an enemy?
One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be on that island with Rabbi Jacobs — he might try to secure his place in the afterlife by fulfilling his God’s commandment about killing heretics (or sabbath desecrators, or blasphemers)…
The final question:
3. Is love, art, beauty or morality intrinsically significant?
These things are significant to us, because of what we are: conscious, thinking, feeling beings. To claim that the most precious and wonderful experiences in our lives only really matter if they’re part of some superhuman plan is to cheapen them. We don’t need a god (certainly not the hateful, immoral God of the Bible) in order to care about each other and appreciate the beauty of our world.
So the rabbi’s test is a failure, but then his premise was fallacious to begin with. If there were any good reasons for believing in gods and cosmic purposes, Jacobs would be able to present evidence to that effect and make an honest case. Instead, he is reduced to insisting that those who dismiss his fantasies are only pretending: materialists ought to be immoral nihilists, dammit, and if they turn out not to be — then they’re not really materialists! Did someone mention denial?
We have been doing something right October 1, 2011Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Politics, Reason.
Tags: Steven Pinker
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At Edge, Steven Pinker recently spoke about his forthcoming book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. He argues that over long stretches of time, all forms of violence have been persistently decreasing, so that “we may be living in the most peaceful time in our species’ existence.” Pinker supports this claim with lots of historical data, such as homicide rates, per-capita war deaths, declining use of judicial torture, etc. Regarding the death penalty, for instance:
In 18th century England there were 222 capital offenses on the books, including poaching, counterfeiting, robbing a rabbit warren, being in the company of gypsies, and “strong evidence of malice in a child seven to 14 years of age.” By 1861 the number of capital crimes was down to four.
Similarly, in the United States in the 17th and 18th centuries, the death penalty was prescribed and used for theft, sodomy, bestiality, adultery, witchcraft, concealing birth, slave revolt, counterfeiting, and horse theft.
Many of the reforms that led to the abolishing of previously accepted forms of violence (witch hunting, dueling, religious persecution, slavery) can be traced back to the 18th century. What caused this “humanitarian revolution?” Pinker credits the spread of printing and literacy:
Why should literacy matter? A number of the causes are summed up by the term “Enlightenment.” For one thing, knowledge replaced superstition and ignorance: beliefs such as that Jews poisoned wells, heretics go to hell, witches cause crop failures, children are possessed, and Africans are brutish. As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Also, literacy gives rise to cosmopolitanism. It is plausible that the reading of history, journalism, and fiction puts people into the habit of inhabiting other peoples’ minds, which could increase empathy and therefore make cruelty less appealing.
But wait a minute: weren’t the genocides of the 20th century unprecedented in human history?
Historians who have tried to track genocide over the centuries are unanimous that the notion that the 20th was “a century of genocide” is a myth. Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, in their The History and Sociology of Genocide, write on page one, “Genocide has been practiced in all regions of the world and during all periods in history.”
What did change during the 20th century was that for the first time people started to care about genocide. It’s the century in which the word “genocide” was coined and in which, for the first time, genocide was considered a bad thing, something to be denied instead of boasted about…
To give some examples: if Old Testament history were taken literally, there were genocides on almost every page; the Amalakites, Amarites, Canaanites, Hivites, Hitites, Jevasites, Midianites, Parazites and many other. Also, genocides were committed by the Athenians in Melos; by the Romans in Carthage; and during the Mongol invasions, the Crusades, the European wars of religion, and the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Australia.
The 65 years since the end of the Second World War have been extraordinarily peaceful by historical standards: no wars between superpowers, no wars between Western European countries, no wars between developed countries at all. There has also been a continuous reduction in systemic violence against vulnerable populations such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals.
Has human nature changed? Probably not. Pinker suggests that while some aspects of human nature encourage violence, there are other aspects that discourage it — and historical forces have increasingly favored the latter. These historical developments include the rise of state justice systems, trade, the “expanding circle” of empathy caused by cosmopolitanism, and:
I think the final and perhaps the most profound pacifying force is an “escalator of reason.” As literacy, education, and the intensity of public discourse increase, people are encouraged to think more abstractly and more universally, and that will inevitably push in the direction of a reduction of violence. People will be tempted to rise above their parochial vantage point, making it harder to privilege their own interests over others. Reason leads to the replacement of a morality based on tribalism, authority and puritanism with a morality based on fairness and universal rules. And it encourages people to recognize the futility of cycles of violence, and to see violence as a problem to be solved rather than as a contest to be won.
Of course, there is no guarantee that historical trends will continue. But one implication of Pinker’s thesis is that, in order for us to reduce violence further, we need to understand what we have been doing right — because “we have been doing something right.” Finally,
the decline of violence has implications for our assessment of modernity: the centuries-long erosion of family, tribe, tradition and religion by the forces of individualism, cosmopolitanism, reason and science.
Now, everyone acknowledges that modernity has given us longer and healthier lives, less ignorance and superstition, and richer experiences. But there is a widespread romantic movement which questions the price. Is it really worth it to have a few years of better health if the price is muggings, terrorism, holocausts, world wars, gulags, and nuclear weapons?
I argue that despite impressions, the long-term trend, though certainly halting and incomplete, is that violence of all kinds is decreasing. This calls for a rehabilitation of a concept of modernity and progress, and for a sense of gratitude for the institutions of civilization and enlightenment that have made it possible.