Enlighten Me How?
Sometimes a book is so good so that I really want to write a review, but I’m not sure I have anything substantial to add. That was the case for me reading Steven Pinker’s new book “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress”. There’s very little in his chain of argumentation that I could attack. Very frequently, I thought, “But how about X?” and that X was usually what Pinker addressed next.
In the book, Pinker argues that humanity has made progress in almost any measurable way. In his previous book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature”, he showed that the prevalence of violence in human lives has fallen strongly over the course of history and that this trend continues.1 In the new book, he widens his argument to include all areas of what he often calls “human flourishing”: Poverty has fallen and people live longer, healthier and happier lives. Wars have become more rare, existential risks are manageable, the world is becoming more democratic and we can handle risks to our ecological system. The coverage of civil rights has kept expanding to include women and minorities.
The book is dense in data and well argued. I really enjoyed it and agree with most of what the author writes. Most of the trends I was aware of, but I found his discussions of some issues (inequality, ecology, nuclear energy) refreshingly different from the takes I usually read (in particular in Germany) and well-founded. I hope this disclaimer removes the negativity bias (also discussed in the book) from the rest of this review.
In a book that covers almost everything, it’s easy to attack something that’s missing.2 I want to focus my review on the core of Pinker’s argument which is (all the keywords are in the subtitle to his book):
- Things have gotten better (progress!) for humanity in almost all measurable ways.
- That’s because humans use reason and science to accumulate more knowledge and solve problems.
- Associated with the increase of rational thought in our lives is a rise in atheist internationalist altruism (humanism).
- Because this system of belief of reason/science with humanism has yielded the best results for humanity, we we should celebrate it and promote it further.
The twist in his argument is that there’s a divine coincidence: The institutions and the belief system that we like best (rational thought, a reduction of the role of religion in our lives) just happen to be what achieves the best outcomes.
But that’s a shallow defense of democracy and civil liberties.3 Aren’t there values and principles that we hold dear, even if they did not lead to the best economic outcomes?
Henry Kissinger defended the West’s personal freedom, democracy and free markets during the Cold War by arguing that this is the better system of belief, even if it hadn’t led to better economic outcomes than communism (Ferguson, 2016). At the time, the alternative that communist countries might grow more than free-market economies was taken seriously. Even leading economists expected the communist countries to overtake the Western countries in economic terms eventually.
A striking twist is then the rise of China. This is a country without democracy that has pulled off an incredible reduction of human poverty for a huge number of people. Using Pinker’s line of argument that should lead us to take authoritarianism seriously as a morally correct system.4
The problem is that China introduced economic liberties, but not political liberties. On the other side of the spectrum is Soviet Russia under Gorbatshev. William Taubmann’s “Gorbachev: His Life and Times” chronicles well how Gorbachev worked hard to introduce political freedom in the Soviet Union, but didn’t recognize the importance of economic freedom. The communist leadership was well aware of the shortage of consumption goods and the massive inefficiencies in the Soviet economy, but Gorbachev considered political freedom more important and didn’t trust free markets. It’s not that Gorbachev was ignorant of the economic troubles, but that the solution didn’t seem to be a liberalization of economic life.
Sadly, neither China or Russia delivered real freedom. So what do we conclude? People in China and Russia are better off than they were some decades ago and that’s something to applaude.
But I think the West’s model of democracy and personal freedom are superior, if they didn’t yield the best outcomes. Milton Friedman discusses this in depth in “Capitalism and Freedom”. He argues that economic and political freedom go together, that only if you are economically free you can hold views that are different to those of the government. He gives the example of a dissident who – in a centralized system – couldn’t even finance his daily life or his campaigning. This would suggest that economic freedom might beget political freedom. But as the case of China shows, that’s not always the case.
In the end, Friedman does not argue from economic or material grounds, but in terms of ideology:
The heart of the liberal philosophy is a belief in the dignity of the individual, […]. This implies a belief in the equality of men in one sense; in their inequality in another. […] The liberal will therefore distinguish sharply between equality of rights and equality of opportunity, on the one hand, and material equality or equality of outcome on the other. He may welcome the fact that a free society in fact tends toward greater material equality than any other yet tried. But he will regard this as a desirable by-product of a free society, not its major justification. (“Capitalism and Freedom”, Chapter 12: “Alleviation of Poverty”)
And Pinker falls into exactly that trap in this book.
Pinker likes to cite internationalism as a goal, that obviously it’s irrational to weight people’s well-being less than that of people in your country. But that’s not obvious to most people and that’s not how most people act.
Pinker writes (my emphasis):
Ideologies that justify violence against innocents, such as militant religions, nationalism, and Marxism, can be countered with better systems of value and belief. (Chapter 23)
But it’s just the problem of belief systems that they determine what’s good and bad. It’s a circular argument to use evidence that there’s lot of progress according to and due to that value system to make a case for exactly that value system.
Say, your value system tells you that you want to maximize the number of paper clips in existence on earth. So if the number of paperclips in existence has increased: Voilá - that belief system is great!
But what is the right value system – “that is exactly the question”.
A response to my criticism might be the following: Reason and science are critically not a belief system, but the correct way of learning about the world.
OK, granted. But humanism is a belief and value system. And scoring humanity’s achievements yields very different assessments through the lens of humanism than it would through alternative world views. If your religion tells you that life starts with the inception, then the increase in pregnancy terminations is an incredible disaster. If you’re a nationalist who believes that people’s and races are a thing and should be kept separate, then globalization, intermarriage and the rise in cosmopolitanism are a big problem.
Pinker singles out those two world views (religion and romantic-nationalism) and takes them apart one by one. He writes that there is “probably no god”, so basing our morality on religion leads us to the wrong place. He writes that romantic-nationalist inspired by Nietzsche misunderstand human nature.
And maybe he finally wins that way, because we can reason about our value systems and test the premises they are built on.
This book is a clear-sighted summary of the achievements of economic growth. It synthesizes vast amounts of data and research and makes a much more grand case than comparable books.5
Sometimes a book is so good so that I really want to write a review, but I’m not sure I have anything substantial to add. Arguing for humanism on materialistic grounds bothers me, but it might be our best argument for it. Let’s be happy about the divine coincidence.
Carroll, Sean (2016). The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Dutton.
Ferguson, Niall (2016). Kissinger: 1923-1968: The Idealist. Penguin.
Friedman, Milton (1962). Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press.
Pinker, Steven (2012). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Penguin.
Pinker, Steven (2018). Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking.
Taubmann, William (2017). Gorbachev: His Life and Times. Simon & Schuster.
For example, why isn’t the extinction of species covered? Isn’t that a case where there’s clearly no progress, but instead our economic expansion has done harm? ↩
Pinker also makes another case for democracy which is that it smooths out errors by individuals well. But that argument feels tacked on to his main point and is not supported by the same level of data and explanation as the main thrust of his argument. ↩
Pinker being Pinker he obviously also covers that case and writes that China today is already quite a more liberal and open society compared to some decades ago. But China is not a free, democratic country (Freedom House, for example, classifies it as “not Free”). ↩
In particular, I find it a great complement to Sean Carroll’s “The Big Picture”. ↩