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Human progress

The way forward

by Hans Dembowski

In depth

Literacy rates have risen, and more countries now enjoy the freedom of the speech than in the 1980s: newspaper stand in Nairobi.

Literacy rates have risen, and more countries now enjoy the freedom of the speech than in the 1980s: newspaper stand in Nairobi.

Reason, science and humanism have delivered spectacular results, argues Harvard scholar Steven Pinker. His new book’s programmatic title is “Enlightenment now”.

The case Pinker makes is overwhelming. Here is an abridged version of beginning of chapter 20. Its title is “the future of progress”, and it starts with a summary of what has been achieved in the course of the past 250 years:

  • “Since the Enlightenment unfolded in the late 18th century, life expectancy across the world has risen from 30 to 71, and in the more fortunate countries to 81. When the Enlightenment began, one third of the children born in the richest parts of the world died before their fifth birthday; today that fate befalls six percent of the children in the poorest parts. (…)”
  • “The world is about 100 times wealthier today than it was two centuries ago, and the prosperity is becoming more evenly distributed across the world’s countries and people. The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from almost 90 % to less than 10 %, and within the lifetime of most of the readers of this book it could approach zero. Catastrophic famine, never far away in most human history, has vanished from most of the world, and undernourishment and stunting are in steady decline (...)”
  • “War between countries is obsolescent, and war within countries is absent from five-sixths of the world’s surface. The proportion of people killed annually in wars is less than a quarter of what it was in the 1980s, one seventh of what it was in the early 70s, an 18th of what it was in the early 1950s and half a percent of what it was during World War II. (…)”
  • “People are getting not just healthier, richer and safer, but freer. Two centuries ago, a handful of countries, embracing one percent of the world’s people, were democratic; today two-thirds of the world’s countries, embracing two-thirds of its people, are. Not long ago, half of the world’s countries had laws that discriminated against racial minorities; today more countries have policies that favour their minorities than policies that discriminate against them. At the turn of the 20th century, women could vote in just one country; today they can vote in every country where men can vote save one. Laws that criminalise homosexuality continue to be stricken down. (…)”
  • “As people are getting healthier, richer, safer and freer, they are also becoming more literate, knowledgeable and smarter. Early in the 19th century 12 % of the world could read and write; today 83 % can. Literacy and the education it enables will soon be universal, for girls as well as boys. (…)”
  • “As societies have become healthier, wealthier, freer, happier and better educated, they have set their sights on the most pressing global challenges. They have emitted fewer pollutants, cleared fewer forests, spilled less oil, set aside more preserves, extinguished fewer species, saved the ozone layer and peaked in their consumption of oil, farmland, timber, paper, cars, coal and perhaps even carbon.”

This is only a part of Pinker’s summary of the blessings of progress. The book’s documentation of facts and trends is solid. The data clearly show that humanity has advanced incredibly. If humankind sticks to the well-tested formula of reason, science and humanism, Pinker sees scope for further progress.

The book’s final chapters discuss what that means. Pinker admits that human beings are not by nature reasonable. Indeed, irrational behaviour is actually quite common. The point, according to the psychology professor, is that we are endowed with reason, and that we benefit from using this capacity.

Science, of course, is based on reason, and Pinker praises its merits. Research actually keeps delivering results in terms of new technology. At the same time, it expands the horizons of our knowledge. The Harvard scholar refutes post-modern, romanticist and other intellectual notions that belittle science. He insists that science is not just another ideology. It delivers key to understanding and changing the world.

Impartial humanism

That said, Pinker argues that the powers that science unleashes should be harnessed in a spirit of humanism, which bases morality on a secular foundation. The principle idea is the acceptance that all human beings are of equal value and should have equal rights. Pinker explains: “If I object to being raped, maimed, starved or killed, I cannot very well rape, maim, starve or kill others.” This kind of impartiality is the foundation of Pinker’s moral reasoning.

This thinking is secular because it does not refer to any higher being. Its logic is imminent in human existence. Pinker writes that people do not necessarily need religion, but his stance is not anti-religious. Impartiality is actually reflected in the biblical rule of treating others as one would want them to treat oneself. Other world religions have similar doctrines.

The point of enlightened humanism, however, is that collectively binding decisions should not be based on any kind of religious dogma. Nor should they be based on special interests or personal will. According to Pinker, policies should be based on the careful assessment of all relevant facts and well-considered hypotheses about causes and impacts. All interests affected should be taken into account.

So is everything fine given that humanity has made such spectacular progress? No, Pinker does see two huge risks. One is climate change and the other is nuclear war. If nothing is done to control these risks, Pinker considers catastrophes not only to be possible, but even likely. In his eyes, however, the situation is not desperate because multilateral action has been taken on both fronts.

The big question, of course, is whether those multilateral efforts will be effective. Action on climate change must be stepped up fast, whereas non-proliferation and disarmament agreements seem to be eroding. As the Harvard professor acknowledges, things can go terribly wrong.

Unenlightened and authoritarian populism is a serious problem in this context, according to Pinker. Unsurprisingly, US President Donald Trump serves him as the most prominent example of a leader who shies away from fact-based discourse, but pretends to know more than experts. As political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues (see D+C/E+Z e-paper 2017/02, p. 39), populist leaders:

  • claim to personally represent their nation,
  • find any kind of dissenter opposition illegitimate and
  • try to change the constitutional order in a way to entrench their power permanently.

Populism thrives on divisiveness, not problem solving

Pinker writes that the way western nations practice democracy is part of the problem. Elections resemble sports events, with citizens rooting for one team and resenting the other. Campaign slogans and polemical agitation prevail where nuanced arguments and diligent number crunching are needed. Media pundits would do a better job if they carefully weighed arguments instead of reinforcing their audience’s entrenched world view. Nonetheless, Pinker expresses the belief that the forces of enlightened liberalism will prevail – not least because populists’ rejection of experts means they are likely to run into problems they refuse to see.

Pinker’s basic stance on reason, science, humanism and progress makes sense and deserves endorsement. Details of his long essay, however, certainly deserve scrutiny. For example, Pinker tells us not to worry about rising inequality as long as living standards in general keep rising. He has a point, but he only briefly discusses the worrisome trend of the super-rich increasingly being able to usurp democratic decision-making (see our briefing on philanthropy).

Another example is that Pinker considers nuclear power to be a rational choice in view of climate change, arguing that there have only been few accidents in the past and they all proved to be far less deadly than environmentalists had feared. He does not, however, discuss the unresolved issue of radioactive waste. It certainly looks irresponsible to generate tons of toxic waste which need to be stored safely for thousands of years. The proliferation of nuclear power plants, moreover, would make the proliferation of nuclear weapons more likely.

The case in favour of science is not as clear as Pinker would have it. Two fundamental principles of science are transparency and disinterestedness. All too often, regulating agencies base decisions on corporate research that does not meet these criteria.

All these points deserve reasoned and fact-based debate. The views of all parties concerned must be considered. And that can be done according to the principles Pinker spells out in his book. His core thesis is that the promises of enlightenment have not proven to be empty. Modernisation, industrial technologies and, indeed, globalisation have delivered better results than is often assumed. More than 200 years after enlightenment began, it is safe to say that reasoned democracy is more promising than authoritarian populism or any other kind of dogmatism for regulating worldly affairs.

Hans Dembowski is editor in chief of D+C/E+Z.
[email protected]

Pinker, S., 2018: Enlightenment now. The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. London: Allen Lane.

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