In his monumental 2011 study, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, psychologist Steven Pinker marshaled an enormous array of historical and psychological evidence chronicling the human struggle to emerge from savagery, barbarism, and a blinkered focus on survival and security to enlightened civilization, democratic social organization, and global concern for all people. The persuasive insights and sheer volume of Pinker’s evidence overwhelms the popular but shallow notion that people in general are now more selfish, more corrupt, and more violent than ever before.

This popular but misguided notion has been fed by a constant and increasingly alarming stream of imagery, sound, and fury in the 24-hour cable television news cycle and in popular entertainment media, both of which exploit the human mind’s instinctive tendency to focus on violence, danger, and dramatic action – all in the pursuit of corporate profits. Meanwhile, the reality of everyday human behavior in virtually all walks of life nowadays is that most people, most of the time, under reasonably favorable conditions, trust each other and cooperate with each other day in and day out.

The parade of violence and mayhem displayed on television news showcases the spectacular exceptions to the norm (that’s why it’s called “news”) – yet watching this parade for very long creates an illusion that it represents the norm of human behavior. Meanwhile, filling one’s brain circuits with crime dramas, violent video games, and images that glorify conflict, spectacular explosions, and various forms of psychotic behavior tends to obliterate recognition of what Abraham Lincoln and Steven Pinker both called “the better angels of our nature.” In some cynical circles, in fact, faith in human virtue itself has come to be mocked as the province of naïve idealists, bleeding hearts, do-gooders, and goody two-shoes.

Pinker, however, demonstrates that human behavior before the twentieth century much more commonly included homicide, rape, murderous sports and entertainment, beheadings, witch burnings, torture, and cruelty to animals that we can barely imagine nowadays, let alone tolerate. According to Pinker, among the most important developments that have led to the decline of violence and the growth of civility within the human family over several millennia are:

  • The intervention of ancient states that monopolized legitimate violence and thus curtailed it among private individuals and families. The Roman Empire was a slave state that sponsored considerable violence, but the Pax Romana was a big improvement over the chaos and terror that gripped much of the ancient world.
  • The rise of trade and commerce, which required cooperation among merchants and communities from distant locations. In turn, trade and commerce required travel, communication, and security provided largely by the states that had already monopolized the legitimate application of violence.
  • The rise of large-scale religions based on sacred texts. All the world’s religions include basic moral principles applicable to all members, and potentially to all human beings in general. During what has been called the “Axial Age” (the age of values), philosophers and moral prophets from Socrates through Mohamed inspired followers to improve their lives through the practice of compassion and justice. Written language facilitated consistent moral codes and shared stories over large expanses of time and place. Though most religions initially stressed compassion for its own members and rejection of other religions, their recognition of compassion and justice as principles of behavior laid the foundation for universal compassion and justice as the millennia unfolded.
  • The rise of democratic forms of social organization, based on widespread literacy, education, and the rise of scientific observation and analysis in the seventeenth and eighteenth century “Enlightenment.” The more we know about people and things, the less we rely on instinctive fear and anger as coping mechanisms. And the more we rely on each other to govern our communities and collaborate for mutual benefit, the more we learn to appreciate and respect each other.
  • The widening circle of empathy. The progress of human awareness from self-centered egoism to family-centered tribalism to other-centered altruism has characterized all postmodern cultures and societies. Perhaps the most dramatic example of the emerging global circle of empathy is in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948.
  • The escalator of reason, a product of the scientific revolution and the so-called Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Once we learn how to deal with experience through reason and verifiable evidence rather than through superstitions and inherited ideologies, we are almost automatically lifted to higher and higher levels of understanding and wisdom as if by an escalator.