Peace on Earth: will we ever have it? With Peter Singer and Gary Francione discussing Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature”

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Peace on Earth?

This season of peace and goodwill, in our special Christmas show, we ask whether there will ever be peace on Earth.  Steven Pinker, author of “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, says that human violence has decreased over the centuries – but does that include violence to other animals? Diana asks him. What does “peace on Earth” mean to Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation and grandfather of the modern animal movement? What does animal rights iconoclast Gary Francione think of Steven Pinker’s theory? Listen to find out.

Steven Pinker and “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined”

Professor Pinker’s book has gathered a lot of media coverage, including a review by Peter Singer in the New York Times where he calls it “supremely important”, as well as a more skeptical one in Scientific American. There’s more about Steven Pinker’s core thesis, about human intraspecies violence, here:

You can find him on the web at:

Although were not able to get him on the show directly, he did exchange email with us. We didn’t have time to quote his answers about violence towards other animals in full on the show, so here they are, interspersed with Diana’s questions in precis:

Q: It’s not clear from the section in “Better Angels …” how you might or might not engage with animal ethics personally. Can I ask if you boycott any animal products or any products tested on animals? (i.e. are you vegan, vegetarian, pescetarian, totally omnivorous or do not eat things like veal or foie gras).

Q: How would you respond to the criticism that improvements in animal welfare have only taken place insofar as they are economically advantageous for producers and thus do not really represent a decrease in violence toward animals? (e.g. under the US Humane label animals are still castrated without anesthetic, male chicks who cannot lay eggs are routinely ground up alive and numerous other welfare changes that would increase cost are not being suggested even in Western Europe). 

I think I’ll keep my own practices out of the discussion, and respond only to the other questions. With any humanitarian advance, there are always cynics who insist that no one (or at least, no one in some demonized group that the cynic has in mind, in this case, evil corporations)ever acts out of true morality, that there always must be some self-serving interest (the Quakers opposes slavery because they were bankers who financed the industrial revolution; the British stopped the slave trade because their French rivals were getting rich from their Caribbean plantations, and so on). These always strike me as far-fetched, not just because we know (both from evolutionary psychology and experimental game theory) that people often incur costs for moralistic reasons, but because the particular explanations often seem more strained than the moralistic one, which is more parsimonious. I sense a dogmatic attitude in which it is simply inconceivable that any human (or any Western power, or any corporation, etc.) could act morally, so any deflating explanation, however conspiratorial, is accepted.

But the more important point is that I don’t care. My book is about the decline of violence, not a putative increase in virtue. I don’t think the chickens (or the slaves) care about whether their better treatment was motivated by an altruism that is pure in the eyes of God or other moralistic judges, as long as they suffer less. And if we set up institutions that allow people to be less cruel and destructive as they pursue their interests, that is a sign of progress–God help us if every advance in human welfare depended on Christ-like levels of moral purity.

Regarding your answer of whether we are “better humans,” again, that is not my question, if you’re asking a moral question. If you’re asking the biological question of whether our genomes have changed in a way that makes our nonviolent motives more powerful, I consider this question in chapter 9, but end up rejecting it. So yes, we need to teach it to each new generation so our progress doesn’t go away–that is why education, and socialization, are important.

Q: I am interested in an evolutionary perspective on why the animal movement has progressed slowly compared to other movements advocating nonviolence. You mentioned “meat hunger” and the fact that animals are not our kin and cannot negotiate social contracts with us. Do you have any other ideas why, from an evolutionary perspective, rational understanding of animal sentience (at least the vertebrates we eat) has been so slow to change human behavior?

I think you’ve identified the main reasons that animal rights have progressed more slowly than other rights. A more basic reason is that animals lack language (which influenced Descartes). Our sympathies tend to lie with animals like dogs (and to a lesser extent cats) that respond nonverbally but positively to human interaction.

Gary Francione

What Pinker doesn’t understand is most of the advances towards supposed more humane exploitation of non-human animals – he doesn’t appreciate that for the most part, most of those efforts result in the more efficient exploitation of animals.

Gary Francione  (@GaryLFrancione)  is a distinguished professor of law and scholar of law & philosophy at Rutgers Law School, New Jersey, USA. More information from and about Professor Francione is available here:

We spoke for much longer than I had time to include in the show. Here is my full conversation with Gary Francione.
(Player for the Gary Francione interview removed from post because it interfered with the podcast feed, but you can still listen on – Ian 12.01.27)

Peter Singer

Ultimately one day we would stop using animals for food …

Professor Peter Singer (@PeterSinger) is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, New Jersey, USA, and Laureate Professor at the University of Melbourne, Australia. He’s best known as the author of Animal Liberation. More information is at:

He recently appeared in the hundredth episode of “Our Hen House“, where Jasmin Singer also asked him about “Better Angels of Our Nature”.

Here is Diana’s full conversation with Peter Singer.

(Audio player for this conversation removed from post because it interfered with the podcast feed, but you can still listen on – Ian 12.01.27)


Stephen Pinker’s audio answer is an excerpt from ‘The Better Angels of our Nature: The Decline of Violence in World History and Its Causes’ by Professor Steven Pinker. Recorded October 2011, courtesy of the London School of Economics. That work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License on the common understanding that this show is a collection, and it is non-commercial by being offered for free. Our thanks to LSE for permission, and Stephen Emmott for helping us clear rights.

Our theme is written by digital media artist Robb Masters (@idiotech).

We used Skype for VoIP conversations. Diana gathered the vox pops at the Animal Aid Christmas Fair.

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About Ian McDonald

I'm a British new media person with a passion for radio, and interested in the kind of stories best told when we see humans as part of the world of animal minds. I blogged about why I'm producing The Vegan Option.

3 responses to “Peace on Earth: will we ever have it? With Peter Singer and Gary Francione discussing Steven Pinker’s “The Better Angels of our Nature””

  1. an unethical vegan says :

    Yuki Yoshida of Tokyo Vegefood Festa, a vegan festival in Japan which attracts 30 to 40,000 people, made an extended point about the violence inherent in animal based food industry. She portrays it as a war against other species carried out by the same people both at an elite level; the capitalistic and bureaucratic, and on the ground, that elite abusing a marginal or working class men being as a soldiers or slaughtermen. Individuals largely trapped by society and without other options.

    Singer raises an issue which I have been thinking about recently, humanity’s apparently sub-conscious collective desire to eradicate all the other top predators from this planet, e.g. large feline carnivores in Africa or dolphins in Asia.

    For me, the latter underlines for areas where the ‘vegan theory’ has not been completely developed into a practical proposal for evolution towards a plant based future, and raises a difficult anomalies, e.g. why sympathy for carnivores over other herbivore like ourselves!

    I find that many vegans become very defensive when issues are raise that cross the boundaries of simplistic vegan rhetoric, especially into areas where “being vegan” might not be the solution or simply dry up where no stock answer exists, e.g. where the vegan MP Kerry McCarthy was challenged over the use of pastural land not suitable for plant farming and did not have a prepared answer.

    Of course, there may be environmental reasons why predators are good for environmental system. I just question the inconsistencies of why, say, dolphins which are total predators given to gang rape and infanticide, receive so much more consideration than, say, the far less sexy dugong which are total herbivores.

    In our role as the stewards of this planet, should our expanding circle of ethics also not apply, in some form, as a code to judge the virtue and value of other species and their behaviour, in the same way as we apply it to human beings, i.e. punishment and rewards, incarceration for dangerous elements etc.

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