Steven Pinker Promotes Enlightenment Values

Steven Pinker Promotes Enlightenment Values

– Meaning of life questions – some people have answers
– for morality questions, beliefs & values
– some people turn to God & holy scriptures
– others turn to strong leaders to ensure order & harmony
– others turn to science & enlightenment values – to use knowledge to enhance human flourishing
– Pinker says the Enlightenment embraces 4 themes:
1) reason
– human beings – he says – are not particularly reasonable
– cognitive psychologists say we: generalise from anecdotes; reason from stereotypes; we seek evidence that confirms our beliefs; we ignore evidence that disconfirms our beliefs; & we are over-confident about our knowledge, wisdom & rectitude
– people are capable of reason if they establish certain norms & conventions – free speech; open criticism & debate; analysis; fact-checking; empirical testing
2) science
– it is based on the conviction that the world is intelligible
– we can understand the world by formulating hypotheses or possible explanations & then testing these against reality
– it has been shown to be the most effective way of understanding the world, including ourselves
3) humanism
– that the ultimate moral purpose of any endeavour is to decrease suffering & increase the flourishing of human beings
[there are opponents to this idea: individuals matter less than the tribe/nation state/a class/ a faith & the dictates of a divinity; or a secular pursuit of a utopian messianic age]
– humans are sympathetic to others, but at this “circle of sympathy” is typically small, but it can be extended by education, cosmopolitanism, journalism, art, mobility & reason
4) progress
– the outcome of the former 3 characteristics

Pinker believes inevitable, ever onward & upward human progress is a myth of our times
– progress is not inevitable
– today there are significant problems facing the world

Human progress/wellbeing can be measured over time: life expectancy, health, sustenance, prosperity, peace, freedom, safety, knowledge, leisure, happiness
– if these factors increase over time, that is progress
– life: public health, sanitation, vaccines – all have increased while infant mortality has decreased
– sustenance: calorific intakes improved with the agricultural revolution & under-nourishment in the developing world has been significantly reduced in last 40 years, with famine also significantly reduced
– prosperity has increased (unevenly) with the industrial revolution, & extreme poverty ($1.90 per day has fallen to 10% today) & social transfers has increased
– peace – for most of human history, war was the norm & peace the exception – this has changed he argues in terms of wars between the great powers (but what about proxy wars?)
– the world is more democratic today than it has ever been – 31 to 105 democracies in the world (today compared with the 1970s)
– freedom: homosexuality & it’s decriminalisation in most parts of the world; child labour reductions; violent crime / the homicide rate continues to decline; work hours reduced; less house work
– knowledge : the Flynn Effect is cited

Do all these improvements make us happier? GDP / higher incomes – people are shown to be more happy the more income they have & yet journalism studies of major news sources shows that the news becomes gloomier & sentiment studies of humans show differently as well.

Pinker asks: why do people deny progress?
– One explanation he says invokes a quirk of our human psychology – Called the “availability heuristic” – people assess risk on the basis of how easily they recall examples from memory – this he says can be fed by a features of the news – & what it reports happened that day (not about stuff that didn’t happen) – news always reports the negative by its very nature & that because the new continues to report the negative, we recall it easily & assume the world becomes ever-worse
– Another explanation related to our human psychology is what is called the “negativity bias” – we think about & feel more in relation to bad events than good ones & we are constantly vigilant to risks & threats & dangers which opens us up to & vulnerable to professional doom-Sayers giving rise to the prophecy market where pessimism sounds serious & optimism sounds frivolous or superficial

To the question – isn’t it good to be vigilant to threats & dangers? The answer is no – it is good to be accurate
– thoughtless pessimism brings with it, it’s own dangers: fatalism, radicalism

He notes that the enlightenment is argued to go against human nature by cultural conservatives
– he says this is not right
– secular liberal democracies are the most sought after places to live by refugees

Source: ABCRN BIG IDEAS podcast: 3 July 2018


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s