Calling On “The Better Angels Of Our Nature”

“…You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors…We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Those were the words from the last paragraph of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, delivered amidst the grim reality of a national upheaval of secession.

“The Better Angels of our Nature” is also the title of the book by Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard, published in 2011, that argues violence has decreased in modern times and the world has become more humane. It is Microsoft founder Bill Gates’ “favorite book of the last decade” and recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made it his next book club pick after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.

I started reading it in October last year and I am now still in the last few chapters. It is about 800 pages long, you see, and even though it is really an engrossing read, it is not something you can read in just one sitting. Gates said: “As a guy who is pretty rigorous about how he spends his time, I think this book is completely worth the time to read it.” Zuckerberg said it may take him a month to finish reading it. Well, good luck, Mark!

I highly recommend the book for Filipinos now to read as we all try to make sense of what happened in Mamasapano, Maguindanao that claimed the lives of 44 SAF commandos. After hearing about the brutal killing of 44 lives in their prime, we may start rethinking about the point of engaging in the peace process and end up considering an all-out war. That peace is not possible and violence is inevitable.

Before reading Pinker’s book, I really thought that the world now is more violent. It’s all I ever see and hear in the news, after all. So I started questioning if my peacebuilding work is a futile exercise. But after reading it, I have been convinced by the overwhelming amount of evidence based on years of research and the author’s brilliant arguments that we now, indeed, live in a less violent time. It is our awareness and sensitivity to violence that have increased, not violence itself. Ah, my idealism, positive outlook, and determined belief that what I am doing is making a difference have been affirmed!

Pinker helped me understand the nature of violence. He said that “aggression is not a single motive, let alone a mounting urge. It is the output of several psychological systems that differ in their environmental triggers, their internal, their neurological basis, and their social distribution.” He rejects the idea that humans harbor an inner drive towards aggression; that we are inherently prone to violence. Instead, he argues that all humans have “inner demons” and “better angels” within us. Our material circumstances, along with cultural inputs, determine whether the demons or the angels have the upper hand.

He identified five “inner demons” that cause humans to be aggressive: (1) Predatory or Practical Violence – deployed as a practical means to an end; (2) Dominance – the urge for authority, prestige, glory and power; (3) Revenge – the moralistic urge towards retribution, punishment, and justice; (4) Sadism – the deliberate infliction of pain for no purpose but to enjoy a person’s suffering; and (5) Ideology – a shared belief system, usually involving a vision of utopia, that “justifies unlimited violence in pursuit of unlimited good.”

One of the things that struck me (and there were many, many things) is learning that most murders were not motivated by economics (desperation due to poverty or insatiable greed and lust for more power). Most killings were usually driven by a sense of injustice or desire for revenge. Perpetrators taking matters into their own hands because they do not trust social institutions to enforce laws or deliver justice. I think this is an “inner demon” that is very familiar to Davaoeños.

Pinker also gave four “better angels” that can cause humans to behave non-violently and “move towards cooperation and altruism”: (1) Empathy – the capacity to feel the pain of others and to align their interests with our own; (2) Self-control – which allows us “to anticipate the consequences of acting on our impulses and to inhibit them accordingly”; (3) The Moral Sense – which “sanctifies a set of norms and taboos that govern the interactions among people in a culture” (“Thou shalt not kill,” for example); and (4) Reason – which “allows us to extract ourselves from our parochial vantage points.”

According to Pinker, our enhanced powers of reasoning give us the ability to detach ourselves from our immediate experience and from our personal or parochial perspective, and frame our ideas in more abstract, universal terms. This in turn leads to better moral commitments, including avoiding violence.

Peter Singer, in his review of Pinker’s book in the New York Times, wrote: “For reason does, Pinker holds, point to a particular kind of morality. We prefer life to death, and happiness to suffering, and we understand that we live in a world in which others can make a difference to whether we live well or die miserably. Therefore we will want to tell others that they should not hurt us, and in doing so we commit ourselves to the idea that we should not hurt them.”

And that is why we must remain reasonable at this time of confusion and uncertainty. Let us not allow our “inner demons” to rule us and call for an all-out war (for those Manila-based decision-makers and opinion leaders who want this option, I strongly suggest to have this war in Metro Manila and not in Mindanao). Instead, let us call on “the better angels of our nature” — empathy, self-control, the moral sense, and reason — and continue on our path to peace. I don’t know about you, but I sure prefer living well to dying miserably.

First appeared on Mindanao Times, February 5, 2015