The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (Quotes and Excerpts)

Recommended Reads for 2018

Fascinating and challenging quotes on the nature of violence and how it has declined with the advances of civilisation by the Canadian-American linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker, sampled from his influential book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

If you wish to read the book in its entirety, here is a link to amazon



Steven Pinker Quote: As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.
As one becomes aware of the decline of violence, the world begins to look different. The past seems less innocent; the present less sinister.
Steven Pinker
People today think of the world as a uniquely dangerous place. It’s hard to follow the news without a mounting dread of terrorist attacks, a clash of civilizations, and the use of weapons of mass destruction. But we are apt to forget the dangers that filled the news a few decades ago, and to be blasé about the good fortune that so many of them have fizzled out.
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Quote: States are far less violent than traditional bands and tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one.
States are far less violent than traditional bands and tribes. Modern Western countries, even in their most war-torn centuries, suffered no more than around a quarter of the average death rate of nonstate societies, and less than a tenth of that for the most violent one.
Steven Pinker
For most of the history of civilization, the practice of slavery was the rule rather than the exception.
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Quote: The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery..
The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery.
Steven Pinker
If the past is a foreign country, it is a shockingly violent one. It is easy to forget how dangerous life used to be, how deeply brutality was once woven into the fabric of daily existence. Cultural memory pacifies the past, leaving us with pale souvenirs whose bloody origins have been bleached away.
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Quote: The theory that religion is a force for peace, often heard among the religious right and its allies today, does not fit the facts of history.
The theory that religion is a force for peace, often heard among the religious right and its allies today, does not fit the facts of history.
Steven Pinker
Some biblical scholars believe that the story of the fall from the Garden of Eden was a cultural memory of the transition from foraging to agriculture: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.”
Steven Pinker
The doctrine of the sacredness of the soul sounds vaguely uplifting, but in fact is highly malignant. It discounts life on earth as just a temporary phase that people pass through, indeed, an infinitesimal fraction of their existence…the gradual replacement of lives for souls as the locus of moral value was helped along by the ascendency of skepticism and reason
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Quote: Of all the varieties of violence of which our sorry species is capable, genocide stands apart, not only as the most heinous but as the hardest to comprehend
Of all the varieties of violence of which our sorry species is capable, genocide stands apart, not only as the most heinous but as the hardest to comprehend.
Steven Pinker
The whole point of international terrorism is to shock the world with the most horrific spectacle imaginable.
Steven Pinker
Certainly the taste for cruelty clashes with the values of a cooperative society: it must be harder to work with your neighbors if you think they might enjoy seeing you disemboweled.
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Quote: Does it never strike you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?
Does it never strike you as puzzling that it is wicked to kill one person, but glorious to kill ten thousand?
Steven Pinker
A world that is less invigorated by honor, glory, and ideology and more tempted by the pleasures of bourgeois life is a world in which fewer people are killed.
Steven Pinker
The Better Angels of Our Nature Quote: Everything in human affairs is connected to everything else, and that is especially true of violence. Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.
Everything in human affairs is connected to everything else, and that is especially true of violence. Across time and space, the more peaceable societies also tend to be richer, healthier, better educated, better governed, more respectful of their women, and more likely to engage in trade.
Steven Pinker
The decline of violence may owe something to an expansion of empathy, but it also owes much to harder-boiled faculties like prudence, reason, fairness, self-control, norms and taboos, and conceptions of human rights.
Steven Pinker
Why spend money and blood to invade a country and plunder its treasure when you can just buy it from them at less expense and sell them some of your own?
Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker Quote: Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right. Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, it is.
Instead of asking, “Why is there war?” we might ask, “Why is there peace?” We can obsess not just over what we have been doing wrong but also over what we have been doing right. Because we have been doing something right, and it would be good to know what, exactly, it is.
Steven Pinker
The growth of writing and literacy strikes me as the best candidate for an exogenous change that helped set off the Humanitarian Revolution.
Steven Pinker
The word slave comes from Slav, because, as the dictionary informs us, Slavic peoples were widely captured and enslaved during the Middle Ages.
Steven Pinker
Even if you subtract all the killings with firearms and count only the ones with rope, knives, lead pipes, wrenches, candlesticks, and so on, Americans commit murders at a higher rate than Europeans.
Steven Pinker
Scandinavians needed a couple of additional centuries before they thought the better of killing each other, and Italians didn’t get serious about it until the 19th century. But by the 20th century the annual homicide rate of every Western European country had fallen into a narrow band centered on 1 per 100,000.
Steven Pinker
When gentlemen agreed to a duel, they were fighting not for money or land or even women but for honor, the strange commodity that exists because everyone believes that everyone else believes that it exists.
Steven Pinker
An ideology can provide a satisfying narrative that explains chaotic events and collective misfortunes in a way that flatters the virtue and competence of believers, while being vague or conspiratorial enough to withstand skeptical scrutiny.
Steven Pinker
Well before Africans were enslaved by Europeans, they were enslaved by other Africans, as well as by Islamic states in North Africa and the Middle East. Some of those states did not abolish legal slavery until recently: Qatar in 1952; Saudi Arabia and Yemen in 1962; Mauritania in 1980.
Steven Pinker
Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games.
Steven Pinker
The predators may respond to the defensive reprisals of their prey as if they were the ones under attack, and experience a moralized wrath and a thirst for revenge. Thanks to the Moralization Gap, they will minimize their own first strike as necessary and trivial while magnifying the reprisal as unprovoked and devastating. Each side will count the wrongs differently—the perpetrator tallying an even number of strikes and the victim an odd number— and the difference in arithmetic can stoke a spiral of revenge.
Steven Pinker
I am sometimes asked, “How do you know there won’t be a war tomorrow (or a genocide, or an act of terrorism) that will refute your whole thesis?” The question misses the point of this book. The point is not that we have entered an Age of Aquarius in which every last earthling has been pacified forever. It is that substantial reductions in violence have taken place, and it is important to understand them.
Steven Pinker
Challenge a person's beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them--or worse, who credibly rebut them--they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.
Steven Pinker
But any intuition that vegetarianism and humanitarianism go together was shattered in the 20th-century by the treatment of animals under Nazism. Hitler and many of his henchmen were vegetarians, not so much out of compassion for animals as from an obsession with purity, a pagan desire to reconnect to the soil, and a reaction to the anthropocentrism and meat rituals of Judaism. In an unsurpassed display of the human capacity for moral compartmentalization, the Nazis, despite their unspeakable experiments on living humans, instituted the strongest laws for the protection of animals in research that Europe had ever seen. Their laws also mandated humane treatment of animals in farms, movie sets, and restaurants, where fish had to be anesthetized and lobsters killed swiftly before they were cooked. Ever since that bizarre chapter in the history of animal rights, advocates of vegetarianism have had to retire one of their oldest arguments: that eating meat makes people aggressive, and abstaining from it makes them peaceful.
Steven Pinker
God, who is omnipotent, could have softened Pharaoh’s heart, but he hardens it instead, which gives him a reason to afflict every Egyptian with painful boils and other miseries before killing every one of their firstborn sons. (The word Passover alludes to the executioner angel’s passing over the households with Israelite firstborns.) God follows this massacre with another one when he drowns the Egyptian army as they pursue the Israelites across the Red Sea. The Israelites assemble at Mount Sinai and hear the Ten Commandments, the great moral code that outlaws engraved images and the coveting of livestock but gives a pass to slavery, rape, torture, mutilation, and genocide of neighboring tribes. The Israelites become impatient while waiting for Moses to return with an expanded set of laws, which will prescribe the death penalty for blasphemy, homosexuality, adultery, talking back to parents, and working on the Sabbath. To pass the time, they worship a statue of a calf, for which the punishment turns out to be, you guessed it, death. Following orders from God, Moses and his brother Aaron kill three thousand of their companions.
Steven Pinker



The Better Angels of Our Nature Info

Published: 2011

Whe Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined is a book written by the Canadian-American linguist and psychologist Steven Pinker.

The book revolves around the topic of how violence has generally and gradually lessened the more advanced we've become as a society.

Read the whole book