Sunday, May 11, 2008

“The Question should not just be why is there war, but also, why is there peace.”


The response to violence is often reactionary. The word vendetta, originally from Italian, describes a situation in which the family of a murdered person seeks vengeance. In law, one is legally allowed to use violence in self-defense. “it is the right for civilians acting on their own behalf to engage in violence for the sake of self-defense of one's own life or the lives of others, including the use of deadly force.” In international law, jus ad bellum describes the circumstances under which a country might legally go to war. This includes the right to react violently to aggression, preemptive war etc. An increase in violent crime is treated with increased police enforcement. The language of violence at every level focuses more on the act itself than the desired state of its resolution. In conflict resolution, one tends to analyze what causes violence, rather than what leads to peace.

There is no fault in focusing primarily on the violent aspects of conflict. In approaching such conflicts as the Rwandan genocide, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the Palestine-Israel dispute, it is critical that the origins of the violence are understood. Any given resolution will be required to deal with the causes as well as the consequences of the wars. There is, however, a void in analysis of the aftermath. Why is there peace?


Despite the prevalence of violence in today’s news coverage, the last 100 years have been the most peaceful in human history. Why is this? Steven Pinker proposes four reasons:


Firstly he says Thomas Hobbes was right, the state of nature is solitary, nasty, brutish and short, and as a result, one is tempted to engage in conflict so as not to have it inflicted upon them by another actor. His solution to this is the Leviathan, one overbearing agent with a monopoly on the use of violence, capable of punishing perpetrators, thus reducing the temptation for smaller actors to engage in such savagery as in the state of nature. This would stem the usage of preemptive invasions and revenge acts. Pinker sites the rise of strong central governments in Europe, which coincided with a decline in violence. Today, he notes, violence is often the product of anarchic circumstances, he sees this as further supporting Hobbes’ logic.

Secondly, Pinker sites political scientist James Pain’s arguments. Pain opines that life is cheap, but with technology, civilization, life-spans have become much longer, resulting in individuals placing more value on their lives. Consequently, one is less likely to inflict violence on someone else, the more they perceive their own life as valuable.

Thirdly, Pinker cites journalist Robert Wright’s insight into game theory. Wright has proposed the accepted benefits of the non zero-sum game. Co-operation is more likely to benefit both parties in a greater way. Trade, globalization, and the interconnection resultant of increased technological means for positive interactions most often exemplify this.

Lastly, Pinker notes Peter Singer’s expanding circle theory. This contends, “Evolution has bequeathed humans with a sense of empathy.” That is, we inherently treat people in a manner comparable to the way we ourselves wish to be treated. (Think golden rule). This empathy is firstly applied to the smaller circle comprising of family and friends. Singer, however, suggests that over time, this has expanded to include the village, city, province, state etc. It is said that this is likely the product of cosmopolitanism, education and the logic of the golden rule.


Steven Pinker asks us not only to think about what we have done wrong, but also what we have done right….