Friday, 18 May 2007

are people getting better?

It's a topic most of us have discussed at some time or other - is the world getting to be a better place or are we going downhill?

Maybe it depends on our basis for judging. But one good way to judge is surely how people treat each other. So, are we treating each other better or worse than people did generations, or even centuries ago?

In an article in the Sydney Morning Herald recently, Steven Pinker pulls together some evidence that suggests that, overall, we're less violent than we used to be.

  • It seems we murder each other much less than we used to centuries ago - in European countries at least. For example, the homicide rate in England has fallen from 24 per 100,000 in the 14th century to 0.6 in the mid 20th century, an enormous change.
  • The twentieth century, which included the regimes of Stalin, Hitler, Mao Xedong and Pol Pot plus two World Wars, certainly led to more deaths (perhaps 130 million) than in any previous century (for details, see this reference). However it isn't clear whether this is true if the calculation is done as a percentage of the world's population at the time. Certainly Pinker claims that the death rates from conflict were much higher in tribal societies than in the 20th century.

In other ways, Pinker argues we have become much more humane worldwide, especially in western societies. He lists cruelty for entertainment, human sacrifice, slavery, conquest, genocide, torture, political assassination and rape in war as examples of behaviours that are much less prevalent than they were centuries ago.

It isn't clear what is happening here. Are we becoming more humane? Do stable nations create conditions where people are safer and better off, and so peace is simply advantageous? Or is it just a matter of the "global village" enlarging our perspective of who is "one of us"?

It would nice to think we are becoming more ethical, but I can't help feeling that while there is a welcome improvement in aggressive behaviour, we have become more selfish in other ways (e.g. see my previous post, personal peace and affluence).

1 comment:

  1. I noted in a radio broadcast yesterday the quite surprising claim that our era is the first one to have the phenomenon of "serial killing". Earlier societies and civilisations were apparently spared this form of ill behaviour (although they still seemed to find many other ways and reasons to indulge in serious massacres and other slaughters). I wondered, if this were true, what the reasons for this relatively modern phenomenon might be - a change in social outlook or perception, copy-cat crimes, the anonymity of today's large cities or what ? This is perhaps only peripheral to the subject in hand but it does appear to be one matter in which we have collectively "slipped backwards" in modern times.


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