The decline of violence as a lens for understanding effective altruism

post by alwhite · 2015-01-07T17:16:14.615Z · score: 4 (8 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 33 comments

Greetings all!  There's a puzzle that I'm working on and I'm interested to see what the members of this community have to say about it.

I am an electrical engineer that is currently working on a master's in counseling.  One of the big questions I keep asking myself in this program is "how effective is this field in making the world a better place"?

To help focus the discussion I want to focus on violence.  This video from Steven Pinker is a great overview of the data http://www.ted.com/talks/steven_pinker_on_the_myth_of_violence.  But for those who don't want to spend the time to watch it, the short version is that violence per capita is at an all time low for human history, and other people will state it as "there has never been a safer time in history".

The question then, why is this so?

My personal belief on this is that our technology advancement has reduced the effort it takes for people to survive so there is less drive to become hostile towards people who have what we need.  This belief applied to effective altruism would suggest that the most effective method of improving all of human life would be to continue to increase our technology level so that there is an abundance of basic needs and no one has a need to become hostile.  I do believe that as a planet, we do not yet have that abundance so I don't believe this is merely a matter of redistribution.  The GWP (gross world product) per capita, as of 2014, was $12,400 USD, which is just barely above the poverty line for an individual.  This is why I say, we're not yet producing enough to truly eliminate need.

From this belief, I wonder if social movements and psychological training are really doing anything in comparison to the need that exists.

Going back to the violence issue, I am thinking if we can understand why violence has been declining we can also understand what is truly effective in bettering the human condition.  I believe the reason is technological advancement.  Does anyone have any good evidence to suggest other reasons?

Are we possibly at a tipping point?  Has our past been dominated by technological advancement but now we're reaching a level where more socially oriented advancements will be more effective?

Thoughts?

33 comments

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comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-01-07T20:38:14.389Z · score: 12 (12 votes) · LW · GW

$12,400 USD, which is just barely above the poverty line for an individual.

This depends very much on you (relative) living standards esp. compared to the surrounding society. I'd guess that with that amount you could live quite comfortably in a south american capital.

comment by polymathwannabe · 2015-01-07T21:31:08.091Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

My personal experience confirms that assertion.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-08T17:29:30.925Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The GWP is the summation of the GDP for each country. The GDP is then converted to USD for comparison sakes. GDP also is not average income, so it's not entirely accurate to assume that GWP per capita is the same as having $12,000 USD. The number is all about comparison and estimation.

I realize that this is a very crude number but I still think it is useful for recognizing that we do not yet produce enough to appease all basic needs equally.

Do you disagree with that statement? Are you suggesting that we do currently produce enough and all we need to do is redistribute?

comment by jkaufman · 2015-01-08T20:16:06.807Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

We do currently produce enough for everyone's basic needs, yes. But "all we need to do is redistribute" isn't it: when the state steps in and massively redistributes you screw up incentives and decrease production. We haven't yet figured out how to meet everyone's basic needs without disrupting the system that gives us the economic productivity that would make this possible.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-01-08T20:33:39.287Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I very much agree with this statement.

comment by Toggle · 2015-01-08T21:42:02.022Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

Going back to the violence issue, I am thinking if we can understand why violence has been declining we can also understand what is truly effective in bettering the human condition. I believe the reason is technological advancement. Does anyone have any good evidence to suggest other reasons?

It is often the case that technology increases with surprising inevitability, or at least regularity- Moore's law is the famous example. Another amusing story has American researchers predicting the timing of the first orbital satellite based on nothing more than extrapolated trends in maximum rocket velocity. They dismissed the prediction, because they didn't think their research project was on track. But sure enough, the first satellite was launched just on time- by the Russians.

Multiple discovery is another interesting phenomenon, in which a previously un-thought idea is simultaneously discovered by multiple people, often without any direct contact between them. It seems that there are a number of technological advancements that are simply 'adjacent', and are extremely likely to be discovered given some current civilization state.

There's an implication here that the categories of 'social forces' and 'technological advancement' are not always carving reality at the joints. Moore's law depend[s|ed] to at least some degree on the economic forces incentivizing chip innovation. Social policies can and will influence those incentives- and contrariwise, a single individual choosing to enter such a saturated field of research is unlikely to cause any kind of inflection point. Similarly, the 'adjacent ideas' are likely to be discovered with or without any given person's input, but may be neglected if social forces empty out a discipline entirely or change its governing ethos.

None of this implies that a conscientious, intelligent person or group couldn't individually make a world-changing technological discovery. But at a minimum, we can say tech is embedded in a network of economic and social forces, and that it has inputs from that network as well as outputs to it. I agree that it's an extremely good choice if you're looking for a career that will create a more awesome world, and if you have the aptitude for it. But public opinion and crime rates are not simple epiphenomena of the underlying technological infrastructure. Someone with great skill in social influence can set up virtuous or catastrophic cycles within the broader pattern of civilization- although perhaps with fewer degrees of freedom, since social problems are really hard.

comment by Jiro · 2015-01-08T22:28:40.938Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Another amusing story has American researchers predicting the timing of the first orbital satellite based on nothing more than extrapolated trends in maximum rocket velocity. They dismissed the prediction, because they didn't think their research project was on track. But sure enough, the first satellite was launched just on time- by the Russians.

There was an article published in Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact around 1960 (after Sputnik, of course) which basically did this. The graph would lead you to conclude that we'd achieve faster than light travel before the year 2000.

Dismissing predictions like the one you describe was perfectly legitimate, even if it turns out to be wrong. Things that increase on a sigmoid growth curve will increase faster up to a point where they slow down again, and the predictor had no reason to assert that the curve would stay steep for long enough to get a satellite launched, any more than the Analog writer had a reason to assert that it would stay steep for long enough to get FTL.

comment by shminux · 2015-01-07T20:07:02.162Z · score: 6 (8 votes) · LW · GW

My personal belief on this is that our technology advancement has reduced the effort it takes for people to survive so there is less drive to become hostile towards people who have what we need.

Human history is full of counterexamples to your belief: those initiating hostilities, often at a great personal peril, are usually the ones enjoying the most comfortable living: kings, presidents, tribal chiefs. Consider updating your map to reflect the territory better.

There is a lot more correlation between hostility/violence levels and the amounts of various substances in your body, such as testosterone, lead or lithium.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-07T20:47:38.119Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I'm not sure your counter-example is that accurate either. This is a report for only recent time and so the historical accuracy is not guaranteed but from 2012 to 2014, individual violence outweighed group violence by about 9 times. http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/sites/default/files/conflict_assessment_-_hoeffler_and_fearon_0.pdf. I think it is safe to assume that historically it's at least similar.

When we look at the total historical view of violence we can not limit ourselves to just "war" or "group violence", and this data was included in Pinker's presentation. Therefore, kings, presidents, and chiefs, (if we consider them the sole source of the conflict, which we shouldn't) only contribute approximately 1/9th of the total global violence.

Sure there's a correlation that increased substances increase violence, but that in no way suggests that historical increased violence is due to increased substances. I don't think we have any kind of data that shows that these substances have been steadily decreasing over the past 10,000 years the same way that violence has been decreasing over the last 10,000 years.

comment by Lalartu · 2015-01-08T09:05:27.146Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

from 2012 to 2014, individual violence outweighed group violence by about 9 times. http://www.copenhagenconsensus.com/sites/default/files/conflict_assessment_-_hoeffler_and_fearon_0.pdf. I think it is safe to assume that historically it's at least similar.

I think it is completely different. Take German or Russian statistics over whole 20 century - it will be much closer to historical average.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-08T17:24:55.115Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Can you provide actual data for this statement? The trend on a global and historical scale has always been downwards, as far as we can tell. And this data spans thousands of years. (see the Pinker video for an overview of that data). This data is suggesting that wars, even the big 2 of the last century, aren't changing the global stats THAT much.

The 2012 - 2014 doesn't perfectly represent history but that just means history isn't exactly 9 to 1 for individual to group violence. It could be 8 to 1 or 6 to 1 or even 3 to 1, I don't know that exact number. But I very strongly doubt the ratio flopped to a 1 to 4 ratio. That's a massive change that I don't believe has happened and I need to see real stats before I'll accept a contrary statement.

Thus, I still contend the majority of violence is individual (Pinker video supports this idea too).

comment by Lumifer · 2015-01-08T17:36:43.637Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Can you define the terms that you're using? The PDF you linked to, for example, takes a rather broad view of "violence" as encompassing, say, corporal punishment of children by parents. Or when you say that the trend "has always been downwards", how large a perturbation are you willing to ignore?

Under a sufficiently wide definition of violence, every person engages in it (some more frequently than others).

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-08T18:08:39.911Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Homicide and assault are what I think most people are referring to. The harming of the physical body through force. Additionally these numbers are referenced per capita and not as raw numbers. If we look at raw numbers, modern times certainly have more. If we look at per capita, the trend is downward.

As far as size of perturbation? That's difficult to really answer. My rough opinion would be to ignore any perturbations that span less than 100 years. So while WW1 and WW2 might cause a spike to the graph, post-WW is still lower than pre-WW and so the trend is still continuing and valid. Could also try reducing it down to 50 year averages as well to help smooth out the variation.

comment by Salemicus · 2015-01-08T12:07:12.659Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I strongly disagree that the reason for the decline in violence is that we are richer now. Being richer, we are able to afford more of the things that we like - and people like violence. The explanation lies elsewhere.

We are less violent because we are more interconnected than ever before. The potential gains from co-operation (trade) have gone up much more than the potential gains from defection (violence) so we see more co-operation and less defection. And so we sate our love of violence through violence substitutes (violent movies, video games, competitive sports, etc).

Indeed, in the resource-unconstrained world suggested by buybuydandavis, I suggest that we would see massive violence. If war isn't going to impoverish, why not invade the neighbouring country in search of honour, glory, religious orthodoxy, etc?

comment by emr · 2015-01-09T20:17:54.748Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Being richer, we are able to afford more of the things that we like - and people like violence.

People like defense. If defense is cheaper than offense, we shouldn't expect more wealth to lead to more violence.

Intra-nationally, wealthier states find it easier to shoulder formidable criminal justice systems.

The potential gains from co-operation (trade) have gone up much more than the potential gains from defection (violence) so we see more co-operation and less defection.

To be more concrete, one dynamic is a relative decrease in the economic returns to military conquest, because conquest tends to destroy everything that is more complicated than resource extraction.

If war isn't going to impoverish, why not invade the neighbouring country in search of honour, glory, religious orthodoxy, etc?

There seem to be contemporary counterexamples: You can easily find national pairings where one country could conquer the other at zero cost to the dominant country (as in, it can use outdated missiles and replace normal military training with the invasion, and still expect to win effortlessly). The largest cost would be disdain from other wealthy countries, but this disdain is exactly what we're interested in explaining: You don't see wealthy nations cooperating to use more than a negligible amount of their potential conquering ability over weaker states.

comment by DanArmak · 2015-01-09T14:36:56.345Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. Most (maybe almost all) wars in history were constrained, ended, or decided by economic limitations, not by the lack of the desire to fight or the shortage of raw manpower.

comment by alienist · 2015-01-09T02:46:40.457Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder how much of the decline is based on improved technology making it harder to get away with it.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-08T17:42:51.186Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The co-operation theory is certainly possible and active in the whole process. Co-operation can also be more than trade too, but increasing empathy as well. But does co-operation or empathy have more impact than our richness?

Your example of movies and video games: These things exist now as part of the latest iteration of technology. Now is also the time in which violence is lowest. You suggest movies and video games have replaced physical violence. This supports my theory that technology is the cause of decreased violence.

But I disagree that people inherently like violence. As I mentioned, I'm studying counseling and most of what I understand from this is that people behave violently when they feel threatened. If you remove the feeling of threat, you most often remove the violence with it. Thus, technology as a great power in reducing violence. When achieving food, shelter, and safety is hard and requires a lot of energy we tend to feel more threatened. When all of these things are easy to attain we feel less threatened. Technology makes all this easier.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-01-08T17:52:15.694Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

people behave violently when they feel threatened

How does this apply to e.g. sexual assault?

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-15T20:42:27.509Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's a really big question. The very short answer is that shame is experienced on a physiological level the same way trauma is experienced. A lot of people who commit sexual assault are operating under beliefs that no one wants them (shame) and so do experience a kind of threat to their psyche.

(disclaimer. This does not excuse sexual assault and is only meant to inform. If you want to decrease sexual assault, look towards the shame triggers of the perpetrator.)

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-01-07T21:29:03.833Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

There is physical violence, and then there is coercion - getting your way through an implicit or explicit threat of violence. Once you've whipped your slave enough, and he knows he can't get away, there is decreasing need to actually whip him. Progress, of a sort.

I'm not really on board with his whole anarchist shtick, but I do like Stefan Molyneux's "The Story of Your Enslavement". Society as the Human Farm, with human farmers extracting value out of human livestock. The evolution of Human Farming over time is particularly interesting. We're now largely a free range herd, relative to historical slaves.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xbp6umQT58A

He probably should update this for all the government enabled rent seeking, instead of just taxes. I think we're way beyond the Mafia model, to a Mafia coop with an increasing number of stakeholders fighting for their cut, where the mechanisms for butchering and dividing the meat consume and destroy increasing amounts of the meat.

When my frustration with the control and rent seeking gets to me, I let out a little "Moo". Frustration is only the result of denying the facts of reality. I am livestock, hear me Moo.

Say it with me now:
Moo.

Now didn't that feel better?

comment by seez · 2015-01-09T01:15:13.553Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Pinker indicates that a number of factors were important. You think technology is the most powerful. Why?

Also, just because technology has had the greatest absolute impact on human wellbeing (hasn't done much for non-humans, yet) doesn't mean it's the most efficient. In fact, I think it's very likely that it isn't the most efficient. Because it's often a win-win, many people will contribute to creating and using it, unlike the sacrifices many EAs advocate for. They might contend that through sacrifice, a given individual can achieve far more that ey could by focusing on technology, although those altruistic individuals may (or may not!) remain rare enough that technology has a great overall impact.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-15T20:34:36.868Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I certainly also recognize there are other factors, but I think they pale when compared against our technological advancements. Technology in terms of general human betterment is unparalleled. This planet can not sustain a population of 7 billion without technological means of food production. Refrigeration another huge boon for food. Advances in medicine mean more people survive childhood and general illness as well. Technology enables most of our sanitation efforts which is also massive towards the betterment of human life.

None of this can be duplicated with non-technological means. We can't pray our way to better sanitation. We can't even sacrifice our way to better sanitation on any meaningful scale. But pumps and plumbing do the job magnificently.

I then think all of this contributes to lower violence and now I'm trying to tease out how much the other factors contribute. One of the possible other factors is cooperation and/or easier empathy. Can either of these do more good for a group of people than improved plumbing? I personally, don't think so but I want to see if anyone has any good data that shows otherwise.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-01-07T20:05:21.288Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Lower income inequality may also contribute to lower crime rates, see paper below.

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=303838

Unfortunately, it is common in social sciences that the complete explanatory model contains a messy stew of variables. I believe it is unlikely that a "silver bullet" such as technological advancement will solve the problem of violence.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-08T17:48:40.086Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Income equality certainly does play a role. This is why I include the GWP stat as well. I don't think we're at a point where income equality fixes the problem. If we made all things equal, I think we'd end up short and more people would suffer. But that is only at the view of right now. If we increased our production output even more so that total equality would put every everyone at 4 times the poverty level, then I think this income equality issue would become the greater force in violence.

comment by DanielLC · 2015-01-07T21:37:00.712Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Technological advancement isn't like a policy. It changes everything. Just because you need to fix tons of problems to fix this doesn't mean technology won't. I don't think it will solve violence, but it will reduce it.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-01-07T22:26:12.453Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

This belief applied to effective altruism would suggest that the most effective method of improving all of human life would be to continue to increase our technology level so that there is an abundance of basic needs and no one has a need to become hostile.

Ozymandias, The Watchmen:

Now, it doesn't take a political scientist to see that our Cold War with the Russians isn't ideological - it's based upon fear. Fear of not having enough. But if we make resources infinite... ah... we make war obsolete.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2015-01-08T14:10:14.011Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I don't know the context of the quote, but even with infinite resources we could have a fear-based society. A society where if you break some rule, you will be denied the resources you need. And the rules themselves could make you suffer if you obey them. Or the rules could be contradictory or otherwise impossible to follow.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2015-01-09T01:08:58.917Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I was just noting the similarity in theory. I don't believe it myself.

In the particular case noted on the Cold War, Ozy is simply wrong, IMO. It was hugely ideological.

I don't think the general case is true either. People fight for a great many things besides "having enough". The resource they can't get enough of is power over their neighbor. There's no way to produce your way out of that.

comment by alwhite · 2015-01-08T17:33:48.693Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I agree that this is possible. I'm questioning whether or not it really is true though. This could even be our future if we're not careful.

Do you have anything that says this is happening or has happened? Something other than "possibility"?

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2015-01-09T09:28:26.983Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Well, I can't give you an example of a society that literally had infinite resources, so all we have are extrapolations from societies with finite resources.

By the way, we should not talk about "infinity" literally. Literal infinity is probably technically impossible. This galaxy only contains a finite amount of matter and energy. So when we say "infinite resources", we really mean something like "1 000 000 000 x more resources than we have today". We do not mean literal infinity. I am emphasising this to prevent possible technical arguments using mathematical properties of the literal infinity (such as: however microscopically tiny nonzero fraction of the infinity is still infinite).

If we look at historical capitalist societies, we see huge differences in access to resources: several magnitudes of order, even among people living in the same country. It seems plausible that in the future it would remain essentially the same. If the society as a whole would have million times more resources, that does not mean that all members of the society would have million times more resources than they have today. It could also mean that the "top 1%" (or maybe top 0.0001%) would have million-plus-epsilon times more resources, while the rest would have just as much as they have today, or maybe ten times more.

On the other hand, if we look at historical communist societies (and for the sake of this debate let's suppose the egalitarian division of resources is a fact, instead of merely a propaganda), there is one important scarce resource: power over people. (Let's assume that the "resources" cannot be used to manufacture synthetic sapient people, because that would be yet another ethical problem.) In a communist society power over people is even more important than property. People can have their lives ruined, and the lives of their relatives ruined, because of things like criticizing the regime or its leaders. So even if resources are not a problem, "who is my boss, what will they make me do, and how will they punish me if I fail?" is a huge factor.

(And those are only the examples of real societies. If we use our imagination we could imagine also some kind of technologically advanced theocracy, where the church has infinite resources, but they are used e.g. to create as much suffering as possible, to bring people closer to Jesus. Also for better brainwashing and better detection and destruction of heresies, so the society is stable.)

comment by polymathwannabe · 2015-01-07T17:36:46.489Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

our technology advancement has reduced the effort it takes for people to survive so there is less drive to become hostile towards people who have what we need

Some theorists argue the gradual pacification of the world is older than that.

comment by satt · 2015-01-09T03:25:05.765Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In fact, in Europe, the general trend of falling homicide rates even predates modern democratic states, ideological antimilitarism and the NAP's codification.