Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Better Angels

This is a feel-good story from someone who sees and knows the darker side of human nature. Nicholas D. Kristof is a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the New York Times who covers things like human trafficking, epidemic violence, child prostitution, war and genocide. He’s a beacon-bearer against injustice, often reporting on the ground from places of horror and neglect.

But Kristof has good news. He’s been reading – and agrees with – a new book by Harvard psychology Steven Pinker professor called The Better Angels of Our Nature. In it Pinker chronicles an improvement in moral progress and points to the conclusion that (in Kristof’s words) we seem to be getting...nicer.

Harsh as the world often seems (and sometimes unquestionably is), we’re on an upwards trajectory. Pinker invites us to look over our shoulders, considering today’s problems in the context of past atrocities. His view that things are getting better is backed by the numbers – for example, tribal warfare was much more deadly than war is today, murder rates were 30 times higher in Mediaeval Europe, and rates for a long list of other crimes are down, down, down.

The question then is, how could this happen if human nature isn’t improving? Why would the world be any different if we hadn’t changed? Pinker suggests, and Kristof repeats, that compassion is on the rise and moral growth is happening, maybe thanks to things like education, trade and the exchange of ideas triumphing over bigotry and intolerance. Whatever the cause of the up tick the lesson is clear: stay restless and enraged about everything that’s wrong with the world, but don’t let it get you down. Imagine what looking back could be like 50 years from now?