After her critique of Stephen Pinker's theories in our debate The Decline of Violence, we invited Judith Marquand to give her final word on how we should model the changing world of human conflict.
In my comments on Pinker’s presentation at the HowTheLightGetsIn, I made the point that the social dimensions of the decline in violence seemed under-developed.
Pinker gave four possible reasons for the decline in violence. Firstly, there was the Hobbesian reason – the rise of disinterested third parties like the state. Secondly, there was ‘gentle commerce’ – the consequences of trade. Third, there was Singer’s ‘expanding circle’ – the growth of empathy as a consequence of literacy, of travel, of increased cosmopolitanism. Fourthly, there was the ‘escalator of reason’ – again through literacy and through public discourse so that people were enabled to stand back and recognise violence as a problem.
These four categories stand reasonably well as a description of what has happened. But they are not adequately presented as reasons in any causal sense. How did it happen that states and, more recently, effective international bodies, came about? Why did trading relationships replace gift relationships? How did the ‘expanding circle’ and the ‘escalator of reason’ manage to offset the deeply-embedded fear of the ‘other’ which is encouraged by a panoply of ideologies?
It is the stuff of history and the social sciences to answer questions such as these. But I want only to point to one set of psychological concepts which seems to me to simplify and clarify the account of what has been going on. Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow (Penguin, 2012), distinguishes ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’. System 1 is the whole collection of mental processes which allows us to respond rapidly to stimuli. System 1 is easy to use; its responses are not carefully thought through. We fall back on System 1 whenever we can; it saves us from the slow, painful process of challenging our assumptions and examining carefully what are the options before us and what they imply. This is the task of System 2, a different collection of mental processes. The use of System 2 requires time and effort; we have to be prompted and challenged before we make use of it.
It is through the use of System 2 that we learn to build the possibility of non-violent solutions to our problems into our intuitive responses. We do this, as Pinker suggests, through extended ratiocination, through extended empathy, through public discourse. The extension of peaceful trade and the development of political institutions for peaceful resolution of conflict are consequences, rather than causes, of development of reasoned means of resolution of potentially violent situations. Gradually these gentler responses become habitual. They become sufficiently embedded in enough people for them to become the dominant way in which society is organised.
All Pinker’s reasons have a role. But I think that Kahneman’s ‘Systems’ provide a clear way of relating them to each other and to the declines in violence which Pinker graphically depicts.