I read Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist (2010) two years ago and found it very provocative and encouraging. The point Ridley made, and substantiated it with considerable evidence, was that humanity has progressed over the millennia and that, regardless of the apocalyptic pronouncements of the media and some of today’s politicians, the world is getting better.
Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018) confirms the same prognosis for the future of humanity as Ridley. The difference between the two books is that, while Pinker similarly provides ample evidence for his assertions of hope, he built his argument around the belief that the “Enlightenment” era that began in the 19thcentury has had great influence on the progress of humanity and that its principles are worth defending and pushing forward.
“History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.” (Part 1: Enlightenment) This assertion is based on the Enlightenment principle that human flourishing is often, if not almost always, the result of applying reason in a sympathetic way in a cosmopolitan and classically liberal tradition. The principles of Enlightenment offer a contrast to the qualities of human nature of loyalty to tribe, deference to authority, magical thinking, and blaming misfortune on evildoers. Reason, science, humanism, and progress replace the irrationality and illiberalism of this tribalism and assumed need for individualistic competition.
How did Enlightenment come to be? Once humanity was more effective in agriculture and had established exchange through barter or economics, the surge in human thriving allowed for the creation of larger settlements (cities), it offered the chance to establish a class of intellectuals and sages, and it allowed men and women to move from short to longer-term harmony and mutual work. There have always been those who did not embrace Enlightenment ideas but, most importantly to the current issues we face in the Western world, the 1960s brought a decline in trust for our public and private institutions and the 21stcentury has now seen the rise of populist movements that contradict Enlightenment’s core ideals. This populism is based on beliefs that fundamentally challenge reason, science, humanism, and progress. First among these is religious faith that proposes mystical causes for what humanity experiences. The second belief is that “people are the expendable cells of a superorganism – a clan, tribe, ethnic group, religion, race, class or nation.” (Chapter 3: Counter-Enlightenment) The final challenge to Enlightenment is the rejection of science and the scientific discovery and refinement of knowledge.
The entirety of Part II of Enlightenment Nowincludes chapter after chapter documenting that progress has been, and is being, made. Areas included are; health, life expectancy, food, wealth, inequality, the environment, peace, safety, terrorism, and civil rights. The assertion is not that all of these areas are resolved and perfect – far from it. The point is that substantial progress has been made which offers all humans a better quality and longer life compared with the past. Pinker acknowledges that good news doesn’t sell books and papers nor does it play well on the nightly news. Thus, professing panic, condemnation, and disillusionment are the currency of media and this over-attention to what isn’t going well is largely responsible for the fear that many people feel. Yet, the fact is, the successes far out-number the failures and we continue to make progress.
Pinker minces no words in warning that the principles of Enlightenment are under attack. He does not blame Donald Trump’s bid and success in his election as President of the U.S.A. Instead, he proposes that Trump has simply exploited the illiberal, evidence-free, and stark individualism that has emerged in response to the real progress that was made over the last 200 years of Enlightenment. The “mobilization of an aggrieved and shrinking demographic in a polarized political landscape” (Chapter 15: Equality) is a symptom of success rather than evidence that a “century-long movement toward equal rights” is being undone.
Education is, as one might expect, a central pillar of the Enlightenment. By becoming more educated, “you unlearn dangerous superstitions such as that leaders rule by divine right, or that people who don’t look like you are less than human.” Education also teaches that “charismatic saviors have led their countries to disaster.” (Chapter 16: Knowledge) For whatever reason, Enlightenment, and education that supports it, does not necessarily result in greater happiness, at least in the context of the U.S.A. The antidotes to this disillusionment are most likely to be found in the level of freedom citizens believe they have and in the degree of meaning they see in their lives – connected to others, feeling productive, and not being alone. The good news in that young people in the U.S.A. today appear to be happier than their baby-boomer parents. There is a reality to the disappointment of the baby-boomers – more progress is needed on important human issues. However, as Pinker proposes, “progress is not utopia, and that there is room – indeed, an imperative – for us to strive to continue that progress.” (Chapter 20: The Future of Enlightenment) The “challenge of our era is how to foster an intellectual and political culture that is driven by reason rather than tribalism and mutual reaction.” (Chapter 21: Reason)