Friday, March 09, 2018

Pinker on humanism and human flourishing.

These clips from the last chapter (chapter 23) of Pinker's new book "Enlightenment Now" conclude my passing on of some of the ideas from the book. Please read through to his final summary, which is very powerful. In a subsequent post, I want to comment on positive and critical reviews the book has received.
Though humanism is the moral code that people will converge upon when they are rational, culturally diverse, and need to get along, it is by no means a vapid or saccharine lowest common denominator. The idea that morality consists in the maximization of human flourishing clashes with two perennially seductive alternatives. The first is theistic morality: the idea that morality consists in obeying the dictates of a deity, which are enforced by supernatural reward and punishment in this world or in an afterlife. The second is romantic heroism: the idea that morality consists in the purity, authenticity, and greatness of an individual or a nation. Though romantic heroism was first articulated in the 19th century, it may be found in a family of newly influential movements, including authoritarian populism, neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and the alt-right. Many intellectuals who don’t sign on to these alternatives to humanism nonetheless believe they capture a vital truth about our psychology: that people have a need for theistic, spiritual, heroic, or tribal beliefs. Humanism may not be wrong, they say, but it goes against human nature. No society based on humanistic principles can long endure, let alone a global order based on them.
….let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness. It didn’t turn out so well. It’s particularly wrongheaded for the reactionary right to use frantic warnings about an Islamist “war” against the West (with a death toll in the hundreds) as a reason to return to an international order in which the West repeatedly fought wars against itself (with death tolls in the tens of millions). After 1945 the world’s leaders said, “Well, let’s not do that again,” and began to downplay nationalism in favor of universal human rights, international laws, and transnational organizations. The result, as we saw in chapter 11, has been seventy years of peace and prosperity in Europe and, increasingly, the rest of the world.
As for the lamentation among editorialists that the Enlightenment is a “brief interlude,” that epitaph is likelier to mark the resting place of neo-fascism, neo-reaction, and related backlashes of the early 21st century. The European elections and self-destructive flailing of the Trump administration in 2017 suggest that the world may have reached Peak Populism, and as we saw in chapter 20, the movement is on a demographic road to nowhere. Headlines notwithstanding, the numbers show that democracy (chapter 14) and liberal values (chapter 15) are riding a long-term escalator that is unlikely to go into reverse overnight. The advantages of cosmopolitanism and international cooperation cannot be denied for long in a world in which the flow of people and ideas is unstoppable.
Though the moral and intellectual case for humanism is, I believe, overwhelming, some might wonder whether it is any match for religion, nationalism, and romantic heroism in the campaign for people’s hearts. Will the Enlightenment ultimately fail because it cannot speak to primal human needs? Should humanists hold revival meetings at which preachers thump Spinoza’s Ethics on the pulpit and ecstatic congregants roll back their eyes and babble in Esperanto? Should they stage rallies in which young men in colored shirts salute giant posters of John Stuart Mill? I think not; recall that a vulnerability is not the same as a need. The citizens of Denmark, New Zealand, and other happy parts of the world get by perfectly well without these paroxysms. The bounty of a cosmopolitan secular democracy is there for everyone to see.
Still, the appeal of regressive ideas is perennial, and the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress always has to be made. When we fail to acknowledge our hard-won progress, we may come to believe that perfect order and universal prosperity are the natural state of affairs, and that every problem is an outrage that calls for blaming evildoers, wrecking institutions, and empowering a leader who will restore the country to its rightful greatness. I have made my own best case for progress and the ideals that made it possible, and have dropped hints on how journalists, intellectuals, and other thoughtful people (including the readers of this book) might avoid contributing to the widespread heedlessness of the gifts of the Enlightenment.
Remember your math: an anecdote is not a trend. Remember your history: the fact that something is bad today doesn’t mean it was better in the past. Remember your philosophy: one cannot reason that there’s no such thing as reason, or that something is true or good because God said it is. And remember your psychology: much of what we know isn’t so, especially when our comrades know it too.
Keep some perspective. Not every problem is a Crisis, Plague, Epidemic, or Existential Threat, and not every change is the End of This, the Death of That, or the Dawn of a Post-Something Era. Don’t confuse pessimism with profundity: problems are inevitable, but problems are solvable, and diagnosing every setback as a symptom of a sick society is a cheap grab for gravitas. Finally, drop the Nietzsche. His ideas may seem edgy, authentic, baaad, while humanism seems sappy, unhip, uncool. But what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding? The case for Enlightenment Now is not just a matter of debunking fallacies or disseminating data. It may be cast as a stirring narrative, and I hope that people with more artistic flair and rhetorical power than I can tell it better and spread it farther. The story of human progress is truly heroic. It is glorious. It is uplifting. It is even, I daresay, spiritual. It goes something like this.
We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.
Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open a space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy—for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.
These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and the narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.
As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darker parts of our own nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by the others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number of others are yet to be conceived.
We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true—true to the best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones false—as any of them might be, and any could become.
And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity—to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge to persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abundance is better than want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.

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