Sins of our times: Why do we find it so difficult to be chaste and to be honest?

According to Steven Pinker, humans are a lot less violent than they used to be.  This seems plausible to me.  Maybe it used to be a real burden for a fellow to resist the urge to pick up his sword and start lopping off heads, but this isn’t an issue for me or for my friends.  On the other hand, some virtues have gotten harder and hence less common.  We have a lot of trouble with sex, and we also have a lot of trouble with honesty.

The two cases are separate but analogous.  Our sexual sins are not primarily about being dishonest, and our lies are not primarily about sex (although of course there is plenty of sexual dishonesty).  In both cases, one finds what may be called an ideological impediment to virtue–an official promotion of the opposing vice–and also what may be called a structural impediment to virtue–a way that the social world is rigged, even apart from what anyone desires, to make the practice of that virtue difficult.

With regard to truth, we have the ideology of political correctness, which promotes dishonesty.  It differs from merely false belief systems like Islam which promote untruth sincerely held.  PC is both suicide to deny and suicide to live by.  For example, a person can get into big career trouble very quickly either by saying that women don’t handle criticism as well as men or by acting on the assumption that they do handle it as well.

Even apart from this, though, people naturally have more incentive to lie in a bureaucratic society, or more generally one arranged around organic rather than mechanical solidarity (as Durkheim used these terms).  All men crave status, comfort, and power, but if you’re a subsistence farmer, there’s little reason to lie to other farmers about your harvest.  It may boost your ego, but it won’t mean you have more to eat.  In our world, though, job promotion and security depend entirely on how productive other people perceive you to be.  There’s enormous pressure to “spin” your accomplishments, especially when you’re sure most others against whom you will be judged are doing so.

In academia, dishonesty can be blatant, as in data falsification or plagiarism.  More often, it falls in the more hazy realm of omitting “unrepresentative” data (that one doesn’t like), overstating one’s accomplishments in contexts where this is expected, repeating bureaucratic clap-trap because it’s expected of you and everybody knows it doesn’t mean anything anyway…  These are the more spiritually dangerous cases, because it is so very easy to fool oneself, because the line sometimes can be fuzzy.  It really is true that to successfully convey information, one must de-emphasize anomalies that are likely to distract readers, and it really is true that social contexts do affect what one’s statements mean, and therefore whether those meanings are honest ones.  I abhor dishonesty and cheating and have become ever stricter with myself with age, but it’s disturbing to think that every act from my past I now regard as dishonest seemed quite unproblematic to me at the time.  So although I now arrange checks to try to keep myself honest (e.g. decide which code diagnostics should go into a paper before I look to see which ones look best), I can never know that I’ve removed the spiritual peril of dishonesty, because each soul’s capacity for self-deception is nearly limitless.

Some sins are more given to rationalization than others.  A man never needs to admit that he’s greedy; he can always tell himself that he’s just being a good provider.  And indeed, the spiritual peril cannot be removed; a family man is obliged to be a good provider, and that does require accumulating money.  Lust is a more honest sin, especially in men.  Nobody convinces himself that he’s screwing his girlfriend For The Greater Good.  This is, I think, why “sin” and “sexual sin” are so tied together in the minds of most people.  Greed, dishonesty, pride, and anger seem to exist in a seamless continuum with our official, presumed-legitimate life plans, and so they feel more intrinsic to ourselves.  Sexual desire, by contrast–even for someone I love, even for someone I plan to impregnate–stands on its own as the desire for an immediate pleasure, and so it does feel more like something foreign imposing itself upon my will.  Men and women who give into their sexual urges are called “weak” as if an outside force overpowers them, which is something we do not say of the power-hungry or vengeful.

The virtue of chastity is opposed by the ideology of the sexual revolution.  It’s true that the sexual revolution does not object if I abstain from contraception etc, so long as it is a matter of personal preference, i.e. because I’m not “into” that sort of thing.  But in fact I am “into” a lot of these things but abstain from them because I judge them immoral.  But if I judge them immoral for me, I must judge them immoral for others, which is what the sexual revolution forbids.

Much more serious is the structural problem.  The human sex drive arose in a time of high infant and child mortality.  Also a time when food was scarcer and women probably less fertile.  Having sex as often as possible was important just to keep the population roughly constant.  Today, to give into this urge anything like as often as we’d like would quickly result in more children than most families can afford and a dangerous rate of population growth.  The modern world has given us a trade:  in exchange for persistent sexual frustration, we get to see all our children outlive us.  It’s a good trade, but we should be honest:  the reason very few people practice chastity, more important even than the fact that they’ve been propagandized against it, is that it’s very difficult in the modern world.  Giving up contraception and masturbation means having no sexual outlet most of the time, a prospect which is genuinely terrifying to many.  Not only does the Church fail to give much spiritual support to the multitudes facing this sacrifice; she refuses to even be forthright about what she’s asking.  All “Mercy!  Come as you are!” from the pulpit, with the big surprises waiting for those industrious few who look inside the catechism.

To acknowledge the structural problem is to accept that it won’t go away.  Not even if we change leaders.  Not even if we change the culture.  I suppose a technologically advanced Catholic society might look for chemical means of reducing the libido.  (At least it would prefer to look for pills to “fix” desire rather than to “fix” fertility.)  In our world, though, we should not expect such technical fixes to appear, since those that matter don’t acknowledge the problem.  Hence the post-1968 reticence of the Church on sexual sins that don’t involve abortion (and, maybe, homosexuality, although the latter is more a fight forced on the Church than one of her choosing).  Perhaps they are afraid of engaging a fight they can’t win.  “For heaven’s sake, we can’t get people to stop masturbating and contracepting.”  No, of course you can’t.  A few will find the strength to stop, but most won’t.  But you can inspire the rest to try to stop.  To try and fail, over and over again!  For thus may a continually struggling and repenting soul be saved in the end.  The Devil may win every battle, secure in the weakness of his victim, only to find that he has lost the war.  This, at least, is something we can try for.  In the modern world, the struggle itself, regardless of its outcome, is a sort of spiritual victory.

42 Responses

  1. […] Sins of our times: Why do we find it so difficult to be chaste and to be honest […]

  2. IMO this is a very good post, though I am skeptical of Pinker’s claim on this issue.

  3. I think it may also be worth noting the economic changes over the last several decades that have made chastity more difficult. For many people, it is now more than a decade between the onset of sexual desire in puberty and the age in which one is well-established enough economically that getting married and having children become possible without great financial peril. There are several factors contributing to this. Women entering the workforce led to lower wages and eventually to dual income families becoming the default, making it harder to make enough money to justify having children and placing pressure on marriages– arguments over finances are perhaps the biggest reason couples give for divorcing, depending on which source you read. The invention and widespread distribution of automobiles led to more and more people moving away from their nuclear and extended families (which might have been expected to help with child care and provide emotional support to young couples) in order to find employment. Technological and economic changes have led to a large increase in the number of people living in urban areas, and urban environments provide many more opportunities to indulge in promiscuity– especially now with online dating and hookup apps– while avoiding the fallout that comes from having many partners who are all aware of and talk with each other.

    Of course, none of this makes fornication or contraception any less harmful to one’s soul (although it is not obvious to me exactly how economic pressures interact with the “full consent of the will” condition for mortal sin). It does seem to me though that the Church could do a better job of emphasizing the unity between its teachings on economics and its teachings on sexual morality, and that doing so might provide a way to build bridges between left and right wing Catholics who have remained genuinely committed to orthodoxy despite secular politics having forced them into a choice as to which aspects of Catholic doctrine are more important to defend in the political sphere.

  4. I doubt the millions of people killed in just one of the last century’s many mass murders (to say nothing of the wars) would agree with Pinker’s claim. In fact I doubt any person eith a rudimentary knowledge of history and no ideological blindness would agree with it.

    Also:

    ” Today, to give into this urge anything like as often as we’d like would quickly result in more children than most families can afford and a dangerous rate of population growth”

    We shouldn’t be giving in to the corrupt notions of the modern world. It would be positively good for faithful Catholics to “reproduce like rabbits”, we can thereby supplant the barren hedonists of the modern world to some degree.

  5. I would summarize Pinker as conflating two claims, one true, one false.

    The true claim is that we’ve gotten less violent over the past millennium and more. Pre-civilized people murdered each other a lot. There are some observed hunter-gatherer societies that may not be entirely representative of our own history, but which at least hint at something nasty there, where lifetime risk of death at the hand of one’s fellow man is higher than total lifetime risk of death by all other causes combined: accident, disease, wild animal, etc.

    The false claim is that we’ve gotten less violent over various shorter periods. To this end Pinker engages in sleight of hand such as lumping together “the Crusades” as a unitary period of violence when a man might be born, father children, and watch his children grow to adulthood in the pause between two of them, but carefully splitting the peaceful present apart from that bloody past of “the World Wars” even though a future historian using Pinker’s standard for the former would place us as still living through the latter if ten years hence the third World War were to start. He also steals the results of improved trauma medicine to claim “less violence”, giving little credit to the good doctors who have rendered the same degree of violence less lethal.

    And then there’s the side problem that results from measuring historical intensity of violence as local casualties relative to world population – meaning that the largest influence on your violence measure will probably be the prosperity of China.

  6. Great post – I learned from it. Also from Erik’s comment.

  7. I’m not so sure that we are less violent. We are certainly far better at hiding the bloody and messy side of life from ourselves.

    Instead of violence per se, consider food. How many people personally slaughter and butcher cows? Compare to how many people eat beef.

    Hiding it from ourselves doesn’t make it go away. And there is something to be said for ‘up close and personal’ blood contrasted to mass produced industrial blood.

  8. Good post Erik. Though I’d note that even with advanced medicine and even compared to global population, the twentieth century still has had more lethal violence then any previous one. That’s true even without the world wars.

  9. “people naturally have more incentive to lie in a bureaucratic society, or more generally one arranged around organic rather than mechanical solidarity (as Durkheim used these terms).”

    As a footnote, under organic solidarity there are scant few disincentives *against* lying, since legal obedience and utilitarian economic rationality become the sole ethical standards of human conduct in radical opposition to all others. In traditional society (mechanical solidarity) being called a liar was an especially grave insult, one literally worth killing and being killed over.

    Today, the ethical code that made up masculine honour, along with religion, has been severely eroded or altogether extinguished before the power of the secular State. Since the State recognizes nothing transcendent with respect to temporal power (i.e. God or Reason), it isn’t much interested in Truth at large, but only in seeing to it that determinations made by the State aren’t controverted by those subject to them. This means that as long as you stay away from perjury and/or making commercial claims officially deemed misleading by the State, you’re 100% safe.

    Meanwhile, as far as the utilitarian ethos goes, the only other disincentive against lying would be potential damage to one’s commercial or professional credibility. But where, under mechanical solidarity, the damage to personal honour resulting from a man’s failure to keep his word would assume the form of an indelible stigma, under organic solidarity damaged credibility is rehabilitated quickly and easily. And in every other case, lying is held up as the smart thing to do. Proficiency at lying, in fact, is taken as a sign of personal intelligence, wit, sexual and other prowess, and charisma; it confers as much or more credibility as it potentially damages.

    Mutatis mutandis, since utilitarian instrumental rationality is conceptually interchangeable and isometric with “ego integrity” and other dimensions of psychological “health” as defined by the secular psy-industry, the person who refuses to lie when it would be to his advantage, and where he can away with it, is actually deemed pathological. He is a contemptible fool, naive, pusillanimous, and self-abnegating; he needs some self-help books and/or therapy, stat. (If female, she is not only pathological, but depraved: she is a deserter and traitor to the cause of her sex as long as she refuses to do whatever it takes to attain the summits of worldly success).

    Alternately, and worse, he’s a potentially dangerous subversive. His honesty suggests a sense of pride offensive to egalitarian sensibilities; he may think he’s better than people who lie readily and habitually, such as women and historically servile men. By telling the truth when under no legal obligation to do so, he seems to be following a set of rules other than secular positive law- and a man can’t serve two masters. In other words, he might be some kind of radical or something. He might believe that there is some sort of objective reality that both transcends and trumps temporal power and profit. He might even, and worst of all, actually continue to believe in God.

    In short: today lying is virtuous and honesty vicious. Even where lying is proscribed by law it isn’t really *wrong*, but merely actionable.The transvaluation of traditional morality in this area is complete, even more so than in the case of sexual liberation. The latter is more of a public ritual obeisance than anything else; most people, while they’ll readily concur that consenting adults have an inscrutable right to do whatever makes them feel good, aren’t altogether impudent and don’t themselves feel too good about adultery, serial fornication, onanism/porn, precocity, etc. even if they practice all those things, or at least immediately afterwards. But the American lies without shame, embarrassed only when the lie doesn’t work, and then on grounds of poor public execution alone, the way one might be embarrassed at botching up a diving stunt in front of others at the pool.

  10. Arkansas is correct. While it would produce bad consequences if everyone had large numbers of children, that is the wrong group to consider. Modern western pagans are outside of our group. They are our brothers and those of us who are of the West do owe them special care, but they are not in our group, especialy for planing on how to follow the moral law as it regards the exercise of our generative powers. If faithful catholics had 6 children per women until 80% of Western society was faithfully Catholic, that would require a reduction of living standards, but they would still be incredibly high by historical and even modern world standards. If this were to happen, continence would certainly get easier both for the reasons that you outlined, but also as there would be more supernatural aid as a result of having a pious society.

  11. A very good post, though I reiterate the sentiment of many commenters that Pinker is wrong.

    All the masters of the spiritual life agree, that spiritual progress begins when the person learns humility, begins to see his utter impotence, and begins to rely entirely upon grace. For most people, barring some extraordinary grace, this takes place through routinely failing to avoid sins. It helps to have a spiritual director, or at least some good books on the spiritual life (St. John of the Cross, The Spiritual Combat, etc.). Otherwise, people may spend a long time trying to repent under their own power, as it were, wondering why they always fail, getting emotionally upset in ways that indicate the spiritual struggle is still primarily a struggle of the ego against what vexes it, etc.

    In other words, briefly, the struggle is itself the first step to the real spiritual life, where the soul begins to find God, Who is closer to us than we are to ourselves, truly crucifying the false self with its lusts and enmities and beginning to hand the reigns over to God. Depriving people of the opportunity to fail – to crash and burn repeatedly – is equivalent to depriving them of the spiritual life, since this is the usual catalyst for spiritual growth. It is precisely where people fail repeatedly that the Church should rush to meet them and say, “here, on this hill, you will learn to live or die to God.”

  12. I like your point about the difficulty of rationalizing sexual sin. Of course the whole doctrine of romantic love was an attempt to rationalize adultery and fornication, but it is significant that people found it necessary to construct a doctrine. It’s not like the do-it-yourself rationalizations that we make for our fugitive acts of greed, dishonesty, pride, anger, etc. Maybe this is because there are so few moot cases. No one has ever had an uneasy conscience because he might have committed adultery or hired a harlot. At least there were few moot cases so long as maidenhood and marriage were strict categories, and there were large “Do Not Enter” signs posted over all the other outlets. The ethical hand-wringing over hook-up culture results from a proliferation of moot cases once the category of maiden is subdivided into girlfriend, hook-up, friend, stranger, etc.

  13. I don’t think you can justify the not-having-children unless it’s out of fear. I mean, there really are no material constraints in modern society. They’ll have more food, healthcare, etc. than most families every had – that is, when families had *real* concerns about not having enough food for their kids, they still had kids – and we don’t have that concern at all these days.

    I think Catholic families could safely follow the teachings, have lots of sex, and tons of kids, and most of what they’d be giving up is stuff that isn’t of ultimate or eternal importance anyway.

    Also the worry that not everyone should do it – of course, no one ever will. It’s sort of like worrying that if everyone became an artist no one would bake bread. Of course that will never happen. Eventually society might collapse and mortality will increase and it will be sorrowful and very difficult, but at the moment I don’t think you’ve presented a good argument.

  14. With regard to truth, we have the ideology of political correctness, which promotes dishonesty. It differs from merely false belief systems like Islam which promote untruth sincerely held. PC is both suicide to deny and suicide to live by. For example, a person can get into big career trouble very quickly either by saying that women don’t handle criticism as well as men or by acting on the assumption that they do handle it as well.

    The PC stuff is the sexiest but not the whole story. Large bureaucratic organizations seem to require constant, pervasive dishonesty merely to function. Consider that “work to rule” used to be a kind of labor action in which union members would cease lying about their conformity to various health, safety, and labor regulations—they would refuse to “sign off” on things they had not actually done/checked.

    This is not isolated, so far as I can tell. Every large organization I have observed closely enough to have a somewhat reliable opinion is like this. There are the written-in-a-book rules, and there are the real rules. There are the “normal” employees of the organization, and there are the regulator-facing employees of the organization including management and especially upper management. The normal employees are de facto required and de jure forbidden to lie to the regulator-facing employees. Subordinates are de facto required and de jure forbidden to lie to supervisors. Etc. But only about the things they are supposed to lie about. Plausible deniability is a thing managers and regulator-facing employees appear to spend considerable effort maintaining. It’s kind of funny. An HR person who believes that their job and their ostensible job are the same thing is a disruptive influence on the operation of an organization.

    I thought the funniest thing about the recent wifekerfuffle between rat boy and Trump was rat boy’s insistence that he had nothing whatever to do with his super PAC’s activities. ‘Cause coordination with your own super PACs is illegal, doncha know.

  15. A man never needs to admit that he’s greedy; he can always tell himself that he’s just being a good provider. . . . Today, to give into this urge [to have sex] anything like as often as we’d like would quickly result in more children than most families can afford and a dangerous rate of population growth.

  16. Re: PInker’s claim on violence: If modern medicine makes us underestimate modern man’s murderousness, then we should also remember that modern weapons make us underestimate his forbearance. We don’t know what medieval Europe would have done with nuclear bombs.

    Re: back when families “still had kids”: In pre-modern times, the average couple “had more kids” in the sense of conceived more, but not in the sense of successfully raised more. Exponential growth of the population only stars around the 19th century, I believe.

  17. Looking at wars is besides the point. One third of Americans die violently in abortions. The medievals knew how to perform abortions, but this didn’t happen back then.

  18. The reductions in rates of violence that Pinker documents are too large to deny. It’s not a matter of clustering events, contrary to some claims made here. You simply compare violent death rates century by century.

    But, even so, why should we concede the superiority of modern life?

    It is similar to the widespread dissemination of pornography. Social conservatives used to be very invested in the idea that pornography turns you into a crazed rapist and/or serial killer. I remember the Ted Bundy interviews and such.

    Turns out that pornography doesn’t turn you into a crazed killer or rapist. Instead it makes you lethargic, demotivated, impotent, and unable to form relationships with real women. That’s not as bad as being a rapist, but it hardly seems like a good human life.

    Similarly, modern life may well be more peaceful, but its also meaningless, boring, flat, disgusting, ugly, demotivating. Filled, at best, with empty hedonism.

  19. Pinker on medicine as explanation:

    If you measure violence in terms of homicides or war deaths, couldn’t the decline of violence just be a by-product of advances in lifesaving medical care?

    Unlikely, for a number of reasons. First, before the late 19th and early 20th century, most medicine was quackery, and doctors killed as many patients as they saved, yet many of the declines I document occurred before that time. Second, many forms of violent crime move up and down in tandem—for example, rapes and robberies went up in the 1960s and down in the 1990s, just like homicides—so it’s unlikely that any of these trends simply consist in a constant amount of violence which has been reallocated from deaths to injuries thanks to quick-acting EMTs. Third, while medical technologies have improved, so have weapon technologies. Fourth, advances in medicine can only move the numbers around for the statistical sliver consisting of the victims of violence who are injured so severely that they would have died with even with the primitive medical care in the past, but not so severely that would have died even with the advanced medical care of the present. Yet many of the declines are from scorched-earth campaigns of violence in which no amount of medical care could have reduced the death tolls to current levels—Mongol invasions, deliberate sieges of cities (in which doctors, even if they were around, would not have been allowed in), over-the-top frontal assaults into machine-gun fire, Dresden, Hiroshima, carpet-bombings, the deliberate killing or starvation of prisoners of war.

  20. Commenters at Greg Cochran have been noting that medicine didn’t start actually saving net lives until maybe the 1930s.

  21. 1 in 3 Americans is killed prenatally. That’s hardly a reduction in violence. It’s an increase, actually.

  22. I don’t have any sources on hand, but from what I recall premodern Euroepan societies largely didn’t consider infanticide to be particularly remarkable. (Political and religious authorities strongly disapproved but had limited success in enforcing their views.) However I certainly agree that we’ve taken an enormous step backwards since the 1950s-ish, when the US did a good job of suppressing abortion. We’re certainly more violent in that respect.

    Perhaps you have some sources on hand that would indicate that abortion/infanticide was indeed much less prevalent in past times? Genuinely curious, did some searching and couldn’t find anything germane. It seems data for this for premodern societies is quite limited and contentious.

  23. It should be noted that Pinker’s statistics are questionable at best. He tends to take pre-modern sources at their word on casualty figures, which anyone with even a passing understanding of those sources can tell you is unwise. This results in absurdities like his numbers for the Albigensian Crusade requiring that the Crusaders slaughter basically every person living in southern France at the time. Similarly, he claims that 350,000 were killed by the Inquisition, a ridiculous figure. A colleague working in Chinese history assures me that his numbers for the An Lushan revolt are similarly baseless, ignoring basically all the historical work that’s been done on the subject.

    That’s leaving aside his methodological/theoretical problems. Is using proportional numbers (and how are we getting the population figures for, say, medieval Britain by the way?) really the best way to understand how violent an era is? Does anyone really believe that a battle which kills 300 people in a community of 10,000 was more violent than the US Civil War?

  24. It should be noted that Pinker’s statistics are questionable at best.

    He has so much room for error that it effectively doesn’t matter. That’s how violent people were in the past.

    And as you get closer to our time the stats get better and his trends still hold.

  25. “He has so much room for error that it effectively doesn’t matter. That’s how violent people were in the past.”

    The more I talk to people who believe Pinker, the more it becomes apparent that his room for error comes only from the credulity of people who wish to think poorly of their ancestors, rather than from anything real about pre-modern peoples.

  26. BTW, does anyone have any statistics on abortion/infanticide in the Middle Ages. Even if it’s true that such crimes were as common then as now, they were still better because they did prohibit them. But I’m not one to concede allegations against the medievals without proof. Does anyone have proof that abortion/infanticide were common, or is it basically the same as the claim that abortion was common in the US before Roe v Wade (i.e. Ideologically based supposition)?

  27. If, for example, you take a conservative figure: 13 million vs. Pinker’s 36 million deaths for the An Lushan rebellion, you still get 5 or 6% of the world’s population dying vs. around 2% for WWII.

    Things like the Taiping rebellion in the 19th century have a much better confirmed death toll of around 18 million.

    Most of the numbers used come from census type data. It may or may not be accurate, but this stuff isn’t coming mostly from boasting conquerors.

    So, stop the innuendo about motives.

  28. I don’t think conflating between violent deaths and deaths from starvation due to a war is valid. But aside from that, it’s comparable to the relative (to world population) death tolls of Communism, and is less still than the death tolls from abortion.

    But even that is aside from the point. Conceding that some particular time in the past was more violent than the present doesn’t really mean much. The point I make is that the modern era is one of the most violent in history. If there were a few others that were equally or more violent, that’s not really a rebuttal.

    P.S. The nineteenth century is not pre-modern.

  29. I don’t think conflating between violent deaths and deaths from starvation due to a war is valid

    That’s special pleading of the worst kind. You have to know that destroying farms and crops etc. will starve people.

  30. But even that is aside from the point. Conceding that some particular time in the past was more violent than the present doesn’t really mean much. The point I make is that the modern era is one of the most violent in history. If there were a few others that were equally or more violent, that’s not really a rebuttal.

  31. I’d like to chip-in in support of Thursday’s general points – Pinker’s stats are probably correct qua stats, but stats are just numbers collected in a particular way; and these are being interpreted wrongly using a whole stack of false assumptions.

    Sick patients in a hospital are not violent, but that is not to their credit.

    In many ways we in The West live in a society that is profoundly sick with a generalized demotivation (there are multiple theories as to the cause, but leave that aside for now).

    People aren’t very violent, because they don’t really do *anything* much – they are sick, they have something terribly wrong with them.

    We have lost basic ‘biological’ survival instincts – as can be seen all around (e.g. subfertility, willed population self-replacement, a positive focus on abortion and euthanasia), and in the ideology of PC.

    Think of the mass shootings in the US, and how sometimes multiple healthy, fit young men in the prime of life have allowed themselves to be executed, one at a time, with no physical resistance. That is something astonishing that simply could not have happened in history, or even now in most cultures of the world.

    In other words, the decline in violence is real but not creditable – it is an ominous signal of pathology.

  32. I think we have to go deeper and question modern assumptions: is being violent the worst form of evil?*

    “Sick patients in a hospital are not violent, but that is not to their credit.”

    Brilliant analogy.

    —–

    *Of course, it is evil.

  33. He has so much room for error that it effectively doesn’t matter

    I doubt he left enough room for error to be off by a factor of at around 30 as he is on his stats for the Inquisition (which executed less people per year than the United States does today), or by 10 (and even that is, I think, pushing it) on his numbers for the Albigensian Crusade.

    That’s how violent people were in the past.

    We know this how exactly?

    Most of the numbers used come from census type data

    That simply cannot be true. We don’t have “census type data” for the vast majority of human history. That’s in some sense the whole point. It’s extremely difficult to determine these statistics.

    Pinker’s stats are probably correct qua stats

    Pardon if you feel that I’m belaboring the point, but they’re not. They’re obviously not, and it’s very frustrating as a historian to see bogus information get passed into “common knowledge” via a sort of whisper effect. This happens so often with history, and so often it conveniently happens in service of the progressive narrative. So much of modernity’s creation myth is predicated on the barbarism of our ancestors.

  34. A good number of the civilian deaths from pre modern wars were a result of invading, and sometimes defending armies, living off of the land. When there are not large agricultural surpluses, this causes starvation or at least increased mortality in the civilian population. Better logistics and agriculture take the credit here not better control. Similarly, diseases that resulted from the mass movements of people caused a substantial number of the deaths both for soldiers and civilians. Stereotypically, more soldiers died from disease than combat in pre modern wars. Increased resistance to foreign diseases, and, more recently, medical care should get the credit not lower levels of aggression.

  35. Arkansas Reactionary:

    The determination to ignore your point in this combox seems pretty strong.

    We are not less violent. We are every bit as violent or moreso.

    We are just better – apparently even supposed reactionaries are better – at excluding the actual human beings we are mass slaughtering from the calculation, to beg the statistical question.

  36. I doubt he left enough room for error to be off by a factor of at around 30 as he is on his stats for the Inquisition.

    These are small potatoes. The real dispute RE: Pinker’s data is over things like the An Lushan Rebellion and the conquests of Genghis Khan.

    Also, for those latter we really are looking at census data.

  37. not lower levels of aggression

    Even if true, the problem remains that the aggressors knew the effects that their aggressions would have on civilian populations . . . and did them anyway.

    It always comes down to that kind of special pleading.

  38. Is it true that most of the violence in both periods is organized (warfare/rebellion rather than private murder)? My expectation is that as time goes on, lethal violence has been shifting to larger and larger scales (abortion being the prominent exception)–tribes fighting instead of families, nations fighting instead of tribes, that sort of thing. As time goes on, the state becomes more powerful, and its monopoly on violence (excepting abortion) more absolute.

  39. “Even if true, the problem remains that the aggressors knew the effects that their aggressions would have on civilian populations . . . and did them anyway.”

    Men who’ve traveled more than several days’ journey from their fields at their masters’ behest aren’t maliciously killing off those whom they stole food from. They are meals away from starvation themselves. I’m not excusing them but it’s a far cry from deliberate scorched earth policies that are intended to kill off civilian populations. Like sanctions.

  40. The real dispute RE: Pinker’s data is over things like the An Lushan Rebellion and the conquests of Genghis Khan.

    Where his statistics are also grossly overrated? Note also that he groups under the Mongol Conquests a series of wars which spanned over a century, and which compares in terms of the percentage of world population killed (which is still, incidentally, a dumb way to measure things) to World War II which spanned six years? More evidence of his sloppiness.

    And, building on the point AR made, if we discard the “small potatoes,” then all we’re left with is an argument that there are eras in history which experienced comparable levels of violence to our own.

  41. Where his statistics are also grossly overrated?

    See my comment on the lower estimate for the An Lushan Rebellion.

    BTW, I’m getting the impression you are now just throwing any old random stuff at me. Cherry picking, falsely saying there is no census data etc.

    The % of population measurement is not stupid. Is a world with 2000 people where 1000 of them are killed a less violent place than a world with 1 million people and 2000 killed?

  42. Cherry picking

    I’m not cherry picking, I’m speaking to the statistics which lie in my area of expertise, i.e. medieval history. In these cases, Pinker’s statistics are hugely off base. Experts in other fields have made similar comments, even you concede that his estimates for An Lushan are off by a factor of 3.

    falsely saying there is no census data etc

    There is no census data for the vast majority of human history. If you could show some evidence to the contrary, I would love to see it, it would make my own work considerably easier.

    Yes, we do have data for medieval China. No, simply subtracting one census number from another (as Pinker does) does not give us an accurate picture of the deaths caused by this or that war. Hence why this is not the method that actual historians use.

    The % of population measurement is not stupid. Is a world with 2000 people where 1000 of them are killed a less violent place than a world with 1 million people and 2000 killed?

    There’s a small village in northern Maine which only has 50 inhabitants. Late one night, one of these villagers comes home to find his wife in bed with another man. In a fit of passion, he kills both of them before killing himself. Thus, this small village is significantly “more violent” than World War II.

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