The Better Angels Of Our Nature (BAHN) is a book by Peter Singer which was published in 1982. The book discusses the evolution of human behavior from savagery to civilization. According to Singer, humans are not naturally violent, but rather they have evolved into peaceful beings through social cooperation and moral education. However, some individuals still exhibit aggressive tendencies such as warring or killing others for personal gain or pleasure. These individuals are called “bad” and “unfit” for civilized society.
Singer argues that these bad individuals must be eliminated from the gene pool through selective breeding. He suggests that if all men were like Adam and Eve, then there would be no need for government because everyone could cooperate and produce just enough offspring to maintain a population.
In the book, Singer uses the example of how hunter-gatherers live in harmony with each other and their environment. They do not engage in warfare against one another nor do they kill children for food.
Singer believes that if we follow this path, we will eventually reach a state where all men are like these hunter-gatherer tribesmen. To reach this goal, the bad individuals must be eliminated from society through eugenics.
In Chapter 7: The Long Peace: Why the World is Not a Battlefield, Singer reveals that world warfare has declined since 1945. He believes that the reason why countries have stopped fighting each other is because people have learned to settle their disputes in a civilized manner rather than resorting to violence.
He states that with the invention of nuclear weapons, the only way to stop a country’s aggression is by threatening its leader with extinction.
” If someone threatens to kill you unless you let them take your wallet, you are not justified in shooting them. But if they say they will kill your child if you do not do what they say, then you have good reason to shoot them “
He goes on to explain that though we have the capacity to destroy nations, we are not engaging in mass killing like we did during World War II because of mutually assured destruction. Nations realize that if they engage in warfare, then they too will suffer the effects of a nuclear holocaust.
As a result, countries have learned to settle their disputes in a civilized manner rather than resorting to violence.
Singer ends the chapter by stating that nuclear weapons have not made us safe from total destruction. Even though a nuclear war would result in many deaths on both sides, it cannot be avoided and must be dealt with so that these weapons are never used.
He says that we are at an advantage right now because our enemies do not have this power and it is up to us whether or not we use it against them.
Chapter 8: A Dearth of War: Why Some Men Fight
In this chapter, Singer moves on to discuss why soldiers fight in wars. He begins by stating that most of the time men fight for honor and their country rather than for ideology or religion.
He gives the examples of the French Foreign Legion and ist volunteers, both of which consist of a diverse population of soldiers who all share one common denominator: they are all fighting for France.
He then goes into a discussion about the mindset of a soldier and how they are different from civilians. He states that soldiers are taught to obey orders without questioning them, whether they are legal or not.
He also explains that the training that soldiers receive condition them to be violent and to kill without hesitation. They are also rewarded for engaging in acts of bravery or violence. All of these factors lead soldiers to become killers and make killing a part of their everyday life.
“Men do not learn to kill by nature…but through training and the experience of battle”.
The chapter then goes on to discuss atrocities committed in war. He states that war doesn’t just bring out the worst in people, it brings out the worst in everything, whether that be a person, an animal or inanimate object.
The stress and horrors of war often push soldiers to do things they wouldn’t normally do. He uses the example of several planes dropping bombs over Vietnam. He states that the bombs were originally aimed at hospitals and schools but due to technological malfunctions, dropped them in places they weren’t supposed to. He also states that there is a difference between killing someone on the battle field and killing someone who isn’t prepared to die for a cause.
The chapter closes with another argument against capital punishment. He states that the reasons used to justify the death penalty are often contradicted by the reasons used to justify war.
He uses the example of how people often say that if the victim’s family were in danger they would want the perpetrator to be killed, but when these same family members have a loved one drafted into the army and sent to war they are against the death penalty for the soldiers. He states that this is a double standard and mirrors what is seen in society, which values a soldier’s life more than that of a criminal.
Chapter 9: The Warrior Culture and It’s Origins: Where Some Men Come From
In this chapter, Singer goes into the history of the warrior culture and where it comes from. He states that many cultures have a warrior culture.
They may not all be as prominent as that of the Zulu or American Indians but they are there. He mentions a few such as the Cossacks, aristocracy and the middle class.
The Zulus are brought up again and this time it is to discuss their warrior culture. He goes into how the Zulu were a very militant society, especially under their ruler, Shaka.
He states that their tactics and constant aggression was what made them so powerful. He also mentions how much of an effect Shaka had on the Zulu people. Not just on their military tactics but also on their outlook on life. The Zulu, before Shaka’s reign, were a people that relied on trade and agriculture. Shaka instilled a warrior mindset into them, which allowed them to fight without fear.
He then goes into a subsection about war in general and why humans engage in it. As with previous topics, he states that it can be blamed on many different factors such as religion, politics or just cultural beliefs.
He states that humans aren’t innately violent but retain a streak of aggressiveness due to our primate ancestry.
Chapter 10: The Warrior Culture and It’s Justification: Why Some Men Are That Way
In this chapter, Singer states that humans are aggressive creatures, but the level of aggressiveness varies from person to person. He suggests other factors such as environment and upbringing affect how violent someone is going to be.
He states that a person’s level of aggressiveness does not excuse them from violent behavior. He gives the example of two men who are walking along and they both see $1000 on the ground.
Person A decides to pick it up, while person B continues walking, never realizing there was $1000 on the ground. Even though person B was not aggressive, he still did not help his fellow man who was in dire need of money by picking up the $1000. He then goes on to say that even the person who picked up the money solely for himself is less of an evil than the one who walked away, because he showed a charitable nature, even if it was a selfish one.
The next subsection is about how violence can either be proactive or reactive. Proactive violence is when you attack someone or something that poses an immediate threat to you.
Reactive violence is when you attack someone in response to them attacking you or someone/something else. The subsection goes on to say that proactive violence is less of a moral crime because it is serving a necessary purpose: protecting the innocent and stopping evil. Reactive violence is almost never justifiable because it is serving no purpose other than vengeance.
The next subsection goes on to say that defensive force, unlike reactive violence, can be an act of heroism if the situation warrants it.
Sources & references used in this article:
The better angels of our nature: Group stability and the evolution of moral tension by DC Lahti, BS Weinstein – Evolution and Human Behavior, 2005 – Elsevier
The darker angels of our nature: Do social worldviews mediate the associations that dark personality features have with ideological attitudes? by V Zeigler-Hill, JL Martinez, JK Vrabel… – Personality and …, 2020 – Elsevier
Does evolutionary cognitive psychology crowd out the better angels of our nature? by CD Kam – Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2018 – search.proquest.com
Make Money, Not War: Steven Pinker’s” The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” by A De Wolf – The Independent Review, 2012 – JSTOR
Disabling the ADA: essences, better angels, and unprincipled neutrality claims by A Soifer – Wm. & Mary L. Rev., 2002 – HeinOnline
Imagining the Better Angels of Our Nature by WE Powell – 2010 – journals.sagepub.com
BOOK REVIEW OF STEVEN PINKER’S:“THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: WHY VIOLENCE HAS DECLINED” by WE Block – researchgate.net
Does Better Angels of Our Nature Hold Up as History? by R Roth – Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques, 2018 – berghahnjournals.com