Steven Pinker And The Enlightenment Paradox

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, not even the most devout Marxist could make a case against the material conditions produced by the 500-year miracle we call The Enlightenment.

“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? Let’s look at the numbers (most of which can be found on websites such as OurWorldinData, HumanProgress and Gapminder).

Consider the U.S. just three decades ago. Our annual homicide rate was 8.5 per 100,000. Eleven percent of us fell below the poverty line (as measured by consumption). And we spewed 20 million tons of sulfur dioxide and 34.5 million tons of particulate matter into the atmosphere.”

“The Enlightenment Is Working” | The Wall Street Journal | Steven Pinker |02/09/2018

Our most compelling spokesman for the marvels of The Enlightenment, Pinker’s case for its continued success is formidable. Anyone living in a nation that’s adopted Enlightenment values as its operating system has been safer, cleaner, and more prosperous over the last 30 years. There are fewer wars and nuclear weapons than there were in 1988. And there are considerably more democracies (103) than there were then (45). Life expectancy and infant mortality have improved steadily. Rates of extreme poverty could near 0% in my lifetime. There certainly are exceptions, but for just about anyone who lives in an “Enlightenment nation” It’s hard to deny that over time “people are getting healthier, richer, safer and freer.”

However, just one problem with Pinker’s case is that the choice between living in America, Canada, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, or New Zealand versus just about anywhere else is quite easy made if the continuous improvement of material conditions is the only standard.

The deeper, more robust debate is also about the ideological success and sustainability of Enlightenment ideas and values.

The crux of that debate would be whether The Enlightenment project, while producing unrivaled progress and prosperity, also creates or exposes its own weaknesses, and becomes more susceptible to them as we get ever more modern, even as it improves life chances and living conditions wherever it is the dominant ideology.

This is a more difficult position for someone on Pinker’s side to affirm—particularly at this historical moment. There’s reason to believe that the political and intellectual framework that not only survived the Holocaust and  “the end of history,” but championed itself as the only option for any nation that wanted to provide “the good life” for its citizens is fraying at the edges. Modernity may even be in one if not several kinds of crisis.

Living in an Enlightenment nation means feeling this way at some point. We sense that something has gone wrong, that our way of doing things has been disrupted by its own rules. That everything we’ve built over all this time is more fragile than it should be. We may even feel some low-frequency trauma that we might not have it as well as our parents or grandparents. What Pinker might dismiss as “un American gloominess” shouldn’t dissuade us from thinking through to some clarity about whether Enlightenment values are still sustainable, even though Enlightenment institutions are still going strong.

The values I’m thinking of in particular are individual rights, tolerance, free markets, elections, progress, rule of law, representational government, institutions governed by principles instead of naked power and arbitrary edicts, and rationality as the faculty through which one learns truths about both the material and immaterial world.

I’d argue from a post-Cold War, post-9/11, post-Financial Crisis, maybe even post-American perspective that the sphere of individual rights, particularly privacy rights, is shrinking. That the staggering tech advances that were supposed to liberate us have enslaved us to our phones and, worse, have made it easier to trade privacy for security and convenience. That as prosperous as we’ve become, we’re not as prosperous as we should be, and we’re certainly less tolerant than we think we are. That rigged, sometimes dark markets only make things better for corporations and the wealthy. That the election apparatus in an open society that adheres to Enlightenment values can so easily be subverted by foreign powers or domestic political parties. That the rule of law can come under threat  when its guarantors become corrupt. That our representatives carry out the agendas of the rich an overwhelming percentage of the time. That even scientific research presents challenges of replication and diminishing returns that we rarely if ever consider.

While America is 18th on the World Happiness Report, marriage rates are declining, as are birth rates and life expectancy. Meanwhile, suicide rates, opioid addiction, and loneliness are all trending upward.

Considering this, we’d be tempted to push further and ask the ultimate question of the Enlightenment in the 21st century—are we happy? Are we as happy as we should be? Are we fulfilled? Do we believe our lives have meaning? Do we think our lives matter? If we took time away from maximizing our own value and examined our lives in terms of meaning, would we find that our lives are worth living? Why is suicide a viable option for so many in a time of unparalleled abundance?

By now, shouldn’t Enlightenment societies have produced a deeper, richer experience of being human?

If we’re satisfied to answer these questions in the affirmative but also in terms of Pinker’s standards of material conditions as the measure of how happy we are—doesn’t that make it obvious that the Enlightenment project is not only in a crisis, but in some sense has become the crisis?

The paradox of the Enlightenment is that an intellectual framework that’s produced more and more wealth, prosperity, and security over hundreds of years cannot produce just as much enlightenment.


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2 thoughts on “Steven Pinker And The Enlightenment Paradox

  1. There’s an old saying, and I paraphase, abundance leaves many wanting. I think you’re right about what ails those of us who live in such an abundant time and nation. The pursuit of happiness encompasses much more than pursuing material happiness. It may be that real happiness is achieved by doing the right thing and/or knowing that that the right thing is being done in one’s name. The Enlightenment gave us a set of ideals that allowed us, as individuals, to do the right thing and to pursue our own happiness. From those ideals sprang a form of government and institutions that allowed societies to do the right thing as a whole, which in turn allowed for the happiness of the majority. The ennui that you allude to and that defines the times we live in is a result of a loss of belief and faith in the tenets and ideals of the Enlightenment andour form of goverment because of greed and excessive wealth by an ever shrinking few. As such, it is not the tenents and ideals of the Enlightenment itself that are failing, per se, but rather an extreme pursuit of happiness, defined by material wealth, by society at large.


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