Libertarianism and the History of Violence

I have read several recent articles by Steven Pinker related to his upcoming book concerning the reduced rates of violence in human history. The title is a mouthful that no writer in his right mind would saddle a book with; I suspect that when you achieve the status of one Steven Pinker, though, the author’s name will always enjoy a larger font than anything else on the cover, and you can get away with the kind of heavy-handed titles that would embarrass the more obscure. Leaving aside the particulars of the steady reduction in rates of violence in human history, I would argue that modern libertarianism–the zero-tolerance-to-unnecessary-violence, anti-force branch of liberalism that insists on peaceful cohabitation and free trade–is a direct result of this trend.

When Cartesian dualism was in vogue in the courts, it was popular to imagine that animals were nothing more than sophisticated machines, animate matter without the benefit of the soul and the first-person intimacies that accompany it. Unsurprisingly, this school was used to justify the public torture of animals for amusement, the line of reasoning apparently being that organic machines that act as though they feel pain are 1) moral fair game and 2) more amusing to torment than those that don’t. Although soul/body dualism was an exciting development for the courts, the torture and mistreatment of domestic animals was not, as animals had always been viewed as brutes to be subdued according to the the will of man and the edicts of Genesis. It was not, in fact, until issues of inequality and injustice among humans were confronted that injustice toward animals became a point of popular concern in the 20th century. It is no coincidence that women’s suffrage preceded animal rights by several decades.

Cutting a potentially long post short, that is to say that relatively minor societal injustices such as the torture of animals become the subject of outrage only when more salient societal injustices have been dealt with and marginalized. Priorities are always paramount to human behavior, and it’s easy for us to understand why the hoi polloi of medieval Japan weren’t too upset about the exploitation of livestock when samurai possessed the legal right to test their swords on the less privileged classes. Moving up a philosophical step, modern libertarianism, well-known for its outrage toward police abuses and violations of limited-government philosophies, could never have existed in a world suffused with violence from top to bottom, violence that would have made the abuses of taser-happy police seem minor in comparison. It is the absence of widespread violence in the post-Enlightenment world and the security it has afforded us that have given rise to libertarianism/minarchism and its cousin, anarchism.

More to come when Pinker’s book hits shelves and when the clock doesn’t read 1:15 AM.

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