The Enlightenment Is Working, He Says

So, my last post was a bit about gloom and doom, but Steven Pinker in his essay The Enlightenment Is Working disagrees with it and with anyone who says the world is getting worse. He says,

Such gloominess is decidedly un-American. The U.S. was founded on the Enlightenment ideal that human ingenuity and benevolence could be channeled by institutions and result in progress. This concept may feel naive as we confront our biggest predicaments, but we can only understand where we are if we know how far we’ve come.

You can always fool yourself into seeing a decline if you compare rose-tinted images of the past with bleeding headlines of the present. What do the trajectories of the nation and world look like when we measure human well-being over time with a constant yardstick?

He proceeds to talk about the increase in literacy, safety, human rights, governments responsive to their citizens, and environmental awareness.

To what do we owe this progress? … The Enlightenment is working. Our ancestors replaced dogma, tradition and authority with reason, debate and institutions of truth-seeking. They replaced superstition and magic with science. And they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.

The world isn’t perfect, there are plenty of problems to be solved. Shouldn’t activists be talking about them, stirring people up with pessimistic assessments? Yes and no. Yes if it gets us to focus on possible solutions, no if it leads to fatalism or a radicalism that calls “to smash the machine, drain the swamp or empower a charismatic tyrant.” Trump is alarming, he says, but a lot of corporations, governments, people are pushing back, so don’t give up hope. Stay clear-sighted and do what we can to be constructive.

Sounds good to me. There are no guarantees, but at least we can play our part well.


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8 Responses to The Enlightenment Is Working, He Says

  1. tammy j says:

    like that little pebble that is our lives dropped into the water causing ever widening circles of progress? that’s how I like to think of it. only you have put it in such better words!
    I think the problem is still better but not yet… “they shifted their values from the glory of the tribe, nation, race, class or faith toward universal human flourishing.”
    that and greed are the two main things holding us back as a species. IMHO!
    tammy j´s last blog post ..really? who knew!

    • Jean says:

      Progress, if it continues to happen, is bound to be slow. Trump, of course, is trying to shift the values back, but the thing that encourages me is it doesn’t depend on our government or even the U.S. Those values are out there even without us.

  2. nick says:

    I suppose the reason I tend to be gloomy about the world around me is that despite 2018 years or whatever of human progress we still have nothing like an egalitarian society and there are still millions of people living in poverty and deprivation. Though it’s true that compared to a hundred years ago people are generally much better off than they were.
    nick´s last blog post ..Thoroughly endearing

    • Jean says:

      Bertrand Russell says,

      The secret of happiness is to face the fact that the world is horrible, horrible, horrible.”

      That’s no reason not to try to do our little part to make it better.

  3. Rummuser says:

    Stephen Pinker, like other statisticians can produce statistics to justify a pre judged position. Just in the last two days, the situation in the Middle East has hotted up with Israel joining the fray and Saudi Arabia allowing Israel to over fly its territory to help Egypt. Afghanistan is getting worse every day and our border with Pakistan is again heating up. There is no letting up on the Rohingya refugee situation and Maldives is again on the boil.

    Do you want me to continue?

    Right, quite how do I play a part in all these events that are ominous?

    • Jean says:

      Sure, I’m aware of these developments, so what?

      Be of stout heart, the worst is yet to come!
      —Sir Cadogon

      We can’t affect those events, and the other catastrophes to come, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas where we can make the world a better place. One of the places Andy and I put our money and attention is supporting investigative journalism. We don’t take that for granted. And of course, there are many ways of helping individuals and other causes we believe in.

      I liked Pinker’s article because he’s pointing out the ideals of the Enlightenment aren’t dead even though they are under attack here in the U.S. .

  4. I think what makes it better is, as he says, that progress has taken hold, and will continue. What makes it worse is that countries have more and better weaponry with which to hurt each other. That, in the long view of history, is frightening.
    Still the Lucky Few´s last blog post ..New Study—Millennials Speak their Minds!

    • Jean says:

      Humanity is in for a rough ride. It’s not just weaponry, it’s also climate and other environmental changes and the ever-increasing human population. Be of stout heart.

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