Live Well, Do Good

Enlightenment Values Are Needed Now More Than Ever

Brandon Sun, September 17, 2018 – David McConkey

Enlightenment Now is a big book with two messages. The first is that the Enlightenment values of reason, science, humanism and progress are the bedrock of today’s prosperous, civil society. The second is that these values are being threatened and need defending. Author Steven Pinker reinforces these messages with statistics detailing how the world has improved since embracing Enlightenment values 250 years ago.

The 18th century Enlightenment thinkers evoke school classes in history, economics or philosophy: think of Voltaire, Immanuel Kant, David Hume or Adam Smith. Enlightenment values infused Smith’s book The Wealth of Nations and the U.S. Declaration of Independence, both written in 1776. More recently, these values show up in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and Millennium Development Goals in this century. Today, these values support our modern scientific inquiries, technological advancements and human rights.

Pinker’s book is filled with graphs illustrating how “the world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.” Among the statistics assembled by Pinker, one especially impressed me. Two hundred years ago, almost everyone – everywhere – was poor: 95% of people lived in what counts today as “extreme poverty,” less than US $2 a day. Now? Only 10% of the world’s people are that poor. 

But how can the world be doing so well when we read in the news that things are bad and always seem to be getting worse? One explanation for this phenomenon, Pinker says, is that the daily news focuses on bad events, happening right now. Meanwhile, we overlook positive developments taking place over years and decades.

Enlightenment Now Pinker is a Harvard psychology professor. He is a leading world public intellectual. He exudes a positive, cheerful  perspective and a sense of humour that could be described as, well, Canadian. Flowing through the book is a quiet recognition of the benefits of the gentle, the co-operative, the secular and the practical path of gradual improvement. No surprise, then, to discover that he actually is Canadian. He was born and grew up in Montreal, and then went off to the States to begin his career.

Pinker is of course now rooted in the U.S. But he has a global view; many Americans would miss noticing that “societies like Canada, Denmark and New Zealand are among the nicest places to live in the history of our kind.” 

In case you skimmed over that last sentence, let me repeat the gist of it. Canada is one of the best places to live in all human history! But Pinker cautions that we must not take this progress for granted.

For one thing, we global citizens face two existential threats: nuclear war and climate change. We can only hope Pinker is right in his conclusion that “the world’s two most pressing problems, though not yet solved, are solvable.”

And Pinker issues a clear warning: Enlightenment values are under attack, especially in the Trump era. Hence, the subtitle of Pinker’s book: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

Take the key Enlightenment value of science. Pinker reports that science is taking a beating today. Science is even being used by many of us – not to explore and understand the world – but to “signal” to others who we are and what “tribe” we belong to.

Pinker mentions two examples of this misuse of science. Here’s one: what does it mean if we announce that we do not believe the theory of evolution? We are signaling our loyalty to a conservative religious subculture. Here’s another: what if we refuse to accept the scientific consensus on climate change? We are signaling that our politics tilt to the right. (The reverse for the opposite views.)

Such views and signals are not based on a lack of knowledge. If people learn more of the science, Pinker notes, they become more polarized in their opinions. That applies even if their position is the unscientific one. Clearly, we need to work on our science competency!

Enlightenment Now is a readable, comprehensive primer on the state of the world today. And the book presents a compelling argument for reason, science, humanism and progress. It is available at the Brandon Public Library in print and as an ebook.

And speaking of science competency, we must ensure that the next generations are smarter about science than we are! This is Science Literacy Week for kids in Canada: there are resources online and programs at the library.

* * * 

See also:

Enlightenment Now . . . on

How Do You be a Good Person?

More Than Ever, Words and Ideas Matter

Effective Altruism Poised to Make Major Impact

Moral Truth, Moral Progress and Moral Relativity

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