Is violence in decline?

Steven Pinker has just published a book on the long-term decline of violence in human society. It’s a fascinating thesis he’s been developing for the past several years. Here’s a review plus interview on the Guardian; a rebuttal by John Gray; and more in-depth charts and analysis on

I must admit, I have a lot of sympathy for his ideas. In the early Buddhist texts, there are casual descriptions of tortures and brutal punishments that would horrify anyone today. For adultery, for example, a woman has her hands and feet cut off and she is left to bleed to death on the charnel ground. This cultural background makes the Buddha’s non-violence and compassionate approach to discipline seem all the more extraordinary.


9 thoughts on “Is violence in decline?

  1. “This cultural background makes the Buddha’s non-violence and compassionate approach to discipline seem all the more extraordinary.”

    I completely agree. I often hear people say things like “what good is religion? its obvious killing, racism, and sexism is bad.” When people say this they are taking their cultural capital for granted. these values are not obvious, our values and beliefs and what we perceive as ethical and normal are enormously shaped by our culture and surroundings. it took 400 years for America to realize that enslaving human beings is evil, we are still working on racism.

    The great intellectual and political philosopher Noam Chomsky points out that the protest movement during the Vietnam war had a tremendous effect on civilizing American culture. Prior to that protest movement Americans just assumed that America’s military was always just and that invading another country and killings countless civilians was accepted. It was after Vietnam that there occurred an explosion of clandestine CIA operations involving dozens of US mercenary states(which are much more complex and costly than simply sending in the marines)

    When I first read “In The Buddhas Words” it was the Buddhas enormous compassion, his views on society, and the egalitarian way he treated women, that really convinced me that what he taught was not only immensely valuable but necessary for the survival of the human species.

    • Thanks, that’s very lovely. I remember for me, reading the same book, the story of Ashoka was very powerful. At the time I didn’t really understand the Buddha’s spiritual teachings, but the notion that a religion could actually result in a genuine force for compassion and forgiveness in the world was a most powerful one, one without parallels in Western history.

    • Buddhist are always claiming to be forces of peace and compassion but what evidence is there that they are? I mean it all sounds great, in theory but to be honest most of the Buddhist I have met are really not at all compassionate but seem to have a smug sense of superiority and self-righteousness rather than any sense of compassionate understanding or tolerance, most seem to be more like control freaks than compassionate understanding beings?

  2. I think violence may be on the decline but does that mean happiness and other qualities are on the rise?

    I ask this question because lately I have had the experience of rather ambitious people “taking over” or doing things through lies and deception but apparently this is OK.. but any reaction to their obvious power trips is wrong because it is not inline with Buddhist “peace” and whatever.. any objection to their obvious narcissitic tendiences are met with accusations of well you shouldn’t be angry etc, as if that is disturbing the peace .. uhh what peace is that; the peace on the surface while resentment builds underneath and people loose their jobs and happiness to “peaceful” people with narcissictic tendences.

    Is forcing people to be peaceful really peace?

    So it is still ok for dictators to take over towns and countries and workplaces and use them for their own gain and power trip but apparently it is “angry” or disturbing the peace to make any protest about any wrong doing.

    Hopefully violence is on the decline and NOT just being repressed by the the righteousness of do-gooders enforcing peace onto others for their own ego and power trips…

  3. ..I mean real evidence not the mamby pamby June-Dally Watkins niceness that they “model” to others to set a good example to forceable make others behave in a way that makes them yet again feel superior and under control; which can border on being so must so childish and superficial it makes one want to be ill.

  4. Violence certainly isn’t in decline globally, but Pinker’s own world might be ordered and comfortable. The root causes of violence are greed, hatred, and delusion and why should those be less than previously? No reason whatsoever. Pinker’s statistics are dubious too — he doesn’t seem to count those outside his own western, overdeveloped neighborhood.

    The notion that the descriptions of torture in the Buddhist texts are so extreme as to “horrify anyone today” certainly doesn’t apply to someone paying attention. Perhaps purusing reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, or Physicians for Human Rights. Reading accounts of some of the appalling tortures applied to renditioned captives or inmates in Guantanamo should help –many prisoners have been destroyed both mentally and physically, yet prevented from even refusing food in order to die.

    • Hi Visakha,

      You’re right, I was hasty in implying that the tortures listed in the Pali scriptures were worse than today. Still, I can’t help feeling that they are mentioned in an offhand way, as if everyone knew this stuff and thought it was normal. Perhaps the difference is that today we try to hide it because we know that it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, normal.

      But I don’t think Pinker’s overall argument can be dismissed so easily. I haven’t read his book, but I have followed his presentations of the idea over the last couple of years, and it seems to me that he uses the most broad and deep base of data that is accessible. You can’t criticize him for using European records for deaths, he is just using what is available. I’ve never heard of anything comparable in the Asian histories – please correct me if I’m wrong. His analysis is based on fractal principles: he sees the same trends when looking at scales of 1000s, 100s, or 10s of years. I think this is a very powerful argument and needs to be taken seriously.

      I also don’t agree that violence can be reduced to greed, hatred, and delusion. I think this is a simplistic way of seeing things. Sure, if there were no greed, hatred, and delusion, there would be no violence; but if there was no oxygen in the atmosphere there also would be no violence. This is not a trivial point, it is crucial: greed hatred and delusion are necessary but not sufficient conditions for violence. All of us have greed hatred and delusion, but not all of us are violent. Why then do we sometimes give vent to violent tendencies? Why, for example, are there such widely varying murder rates between countries?


      Is this because there is so much more greed hatred and delusion in some places? I think not. Surely it is because of historical and social conditions that have allowed greed hatred and delusion to manifest in different ways.

      I’m really not comfortable with talking about greed, hatred, and delusion as causes of social problems. The Buddha taught us to overcome these things so that we can find liberation. He never, so far as I know, advocated reducing greed hatred and delusion as a means of social improvement. For good reasons – it will never work. We’re never going to change human nature – that’s why the Buddha said the only real solution is Awakening. Meanwhile, however, we have to live together on this world, so we should try to do it as best we can, for all the greed hatred and delusion that there is. This can’t be eliminated by social means, but it can be managed in more or less effective ways.

      In Suttas like the Agganna and the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta he pointed to changing environmental and social conditions and behaviors as the crucial point. For example, the Cakkavatti Sutta tells of how the good kings of old kept their ancient traditions of sharing with the poor and the like, and so the realm was stable. But one king failed in these duties and as the people experienced poverty, they resorted to theft. Now, the king’s bad conduct was, no doubt, motivated by greed and delusion. But the crucial factor is not the king’s motivations, but the change in his behavior. He acted differently, and this caused the people to act differently.

      In another situation the king might be full of greed and delusion, but he still acts the same – maybe he has a narcissistic need to be loved, or maybe he’s constrained by law, or maybe there are strong rivals ready to pounce on any weakness. For whatever reason, he gives to the poor and maintains all the good traditions, even though inwardly he wishes he didn’t have to. Still, the end result for the people is the same: they have enough to eat, and don’t resort to theft. Of course, the result in terms of the king’s personal kamma will be different, but the social result is the same.

      This is just one example, but I hope you see the general principle I am aiming at here. There is an indirect relationship between individuals and society; they are relatively independent. A good society is not just a bunch of good individuals. In fact, many social structures are developed precisely to manage as best as possible the dangerous tendencies of individuals. What Pinker is measuring, therefore, is not the levels of greed hatred and delusion, but the relative success of different societies in different times and places to manage greed, hatred, and delusion so as to minimize violence. And that, according to his analysis, is what has changed.

      If he’s right, this should be welcomed. It means we can make a difference. It means that, for all our folly and evil, we still find ways that work to help us live together more peacefully. And I think this is a beautiful thing.

    • Venerable, and everyone else who is interested,

      Here is a link To Bob Altemeyers research which is available through the University of Manitoba’s website.
      Its entitled “The Authoritarians” and its available in PDF form. He intentionally wrote it as a condensation of his research for the layman and released it after the Bush presidency.

      For over 30 years he has been studying the social mechanisms that enable the most egregious forms of human evil. Much of his work is also dedicated to identifying the psychological profiles that tend to be authoritarian followers and those who tend to leaders.

      Reading his research really impressed me with how the Buddha crafted the monastic community and his approach to his teachings.

  5. Dear Bhante,

    As an American, I have to shake my head sadly when I read “… I can’t help feeling that they (techniques of physical torture) are mentioned in an offhand way (in the Pali scriptures), as if everyone knew this stuff and thought it was normal. Perhaps the difference is that today we try to hide it because we know that it really isn’t, or shouldn’t be, normal.” In the US we have entire TV programs dedicated to the subject, e.g. the Fox Network TV series 24 is the best (worst) example–because it justifies the misuse of government authority and extols the use of extreme torture, both physical and psychological. In the first 5 seasons there were 67 sessions of torture, more than any other TV show.

    As for the scope of Pinker’s study, it is almost entirely limited to Western Europe with almost no attention to Asia, Africa or South America. North America, especially the US and Mexico, poses difficulties for him too. I don’t see how it is possible to talk about “our nature” while confining one’s considerations it a small area, which, it might be argued, is actually exporting a great deal of its violence, through the state and transnational corporations, to the Middle East, Africa, and beyond.

    Your point about statistics raises some good questions. A fascinating study shows something of the difficulty of finding statistics where the powers in control do not want statistics kept. The American administration realized that it had made a serious mistake in Vietnam by emphasizing body counts of the “enemy.” Nobody can know what the real civilian death toll is in Iraq. In the past five years estimates vary between an absurdly low toll of 100,000 to well over a million and a half.

    Pinker wrote in Violence Vanquished in the WSJ: “For all the tribulations in our lives, for all the troubles that remain in the world, the decline of violence is an accomplishment that we can savor—and an impetus to cherish the forces of civilization and enlightenment that made it possible.”

    That, I’m afraid is delusion speaking.

    For a stimulating discussion of violence and conflict, please consider Elizabeth Harris’ Violence and Disruption in Society, A Study of the Early Buddhist Texts

    I believe that Elizabeth Harris is correct in observing:
    “Similar injustices exist today as are mentioned in the Kutadanta Sutta, but their scope has altered and widened to include relationships between blocks of countries as well as within countries. In most countries of the world, the poor are becoming poorer. Between countries, the richer nations are becoming richer at the expense of the poorer. The warning which the Buddhist texts give is that such conditions breed violence and that the arm of the law or the gun will not curb it. Only change at the level of the root causes will create more peaceful conditions. This is one of the gravest challenges which the world faces, since it points to a complete re-drawing of the world economic system. The formidable obstacle in the way of such change is tanha in those with power or economic might — for profit, influence and a luxurious lifestyle.”

    Nowadays it’s political. Much violence is. My sense of what is going on in the world, from unbearable austerities in Greece to Occupy Wall Street (and Oakland and everywhere else) is that violence is going to get a lot worse, especially institutionalized violence, unless we are very united and very lucky.

    Isn’t samsara always going to be samsara? Realistically, there is no utopia in our future anywhere (including Northern Europe). Some places may be much more comfortable and safe at the moment, but overall, given the scarcity of resources, water, rice, jobs, oil, money – you name it, violence might just escalate until we, as a species, do ourselves in. That seems to me to be more likely, given climate change and the possible collapse of the world economy, than any marvelous evolutionary advances in the human species.

    In the Attadanda Sutta (Sutta Nipata), the Buddha tells of his despair over violence when he was a Bodhisatta:

    “Fear results from resorting to violence — just look at how people quarrel and fight. But let me tell you now of the kind of dismay and terror that I have felt. Seeing people struggling like fish, writhing in shallow water, with enmity against one another, I became afraid. At one time, I had wanted to find some place where I could take shelter, but I never saw such a place. There is nothing in this world that is solid at base and not a part of it that is changeless.
    I had seen them all trapped in mutual conflict and that is why I had felt so repelled. But then I noticed something buried deep in their hearts. It was — I could just make it out — a dart.”

    That dart should be identified as tanha or craving and lobha or greed. That of course is in full harmony with the Four Noble Truths. Violence arises because the right nourishment is present.

    As for your optimistic conclusion, “In fact, many social structures are developed precisely to manage as best as possible the dangerous tendencies of individuals. What Pinker is measuring, therefore, is not the levels of greed hatred and delusion, but the relative success of different societies in different times and places to manage greed, hatred, and delusion so as to minimize violence. And that, according to his analysis, is what has changed.”

    I cannot concur. I disagree because when I look around me I see that those structures that have been developed in recent years are not intended to manage the dangerous tendencies of individuals but to exploit the 99% and weaken their mutual cooperation, via unions and other institutions, so as to make that exploitation more complete. Until there is justice and fairness in a society, there is just another kind of violence.

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