Enlightenment Now: Steven Pinker’s Appeal for Optimism

Is the world getting better or worse? What does the data actually say? Is there cause for hope?

In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker argues that Enlightenment values and modernization have contributed to gradually improving the world on “every single measure of human well-being.” He says people tend to think the world is getting worse because of psychological biases and errors in perception, but the data supports the conclusion that life for humans everywhere is getting better. 

Keep reading for an overview of Pinker’s New York Times best seller.

Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker

In Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker explains why our perceptions of a worsening world are wrong and provides statistics to challenge those misconceptions. Through presenting data on such factors as health, wealth, equality, human rights, happiness, peace, and freedom (among other measures), he explains how The Enlightenment’s key ideas of reason, science, and humanism are the driving forces behind progress in all these areas.

Pinker is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. This book, published in 2018, follows The Better Angels of Our Nature, which examined questions around peace and violence, arguing that the world has gotten consistently more peaceful over time. Pinker has gained a wide following—in 2004 he was named one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World Today” by Time magazine, and his TED Talk presenting a synopsis of Enlightenment Now has been viewed over 4 million times.

We’ll first explain what Enlightenment values are and where they come from, as well as what some of the prominent anti-Enlightenment positions are. We’ll then discuss Pinker’s definition of “progress,” and his explanation for why we tend to mistakenly think things are getting worse when they’re actually getting better.  

Finally, we’ll delve into the data Pinker presents to support his argument that the world is improving everywhere, on all measures, due to the ongoing impact of Enlightenment thinking. We’ve reorganized Pinker’s measures of progress into three categories of well-being: human, societal, and environmental.

What Are Enlightenment Values?

The Age of Enlightenment refers to a historical period in the 17th and 18th centuries when European intellectuals and philosophers were concerned with re-thinking social values and moving toward a more “progressive” vision for humanity. This included thinking about the most rational ways to go about organizing and governing society to maximize human well-being, including discussions of freedom, equality, and empirical truth.

The major theme tying all Enlightenment thinking together is reason. But, according to Pinker, Enlightenment also implies science, humanism, and progress:

Reason: Pinker contrasts reason with religious faith and dogma, on which he says most pre-Enlightenment thinking was based. It’s crucial to think through our beliefs, values, and social policies in a rational and logical way, rather than relying on feelings, intuition, or religious texts.

Science: When we apply scientific methods to our beliefs, Pinker says, we can prove or disprove them. Therefore, he argues, the scientific method is necessary to generate knowledge that is reliable.

Humanism: The Enlightenment is fundamentally associated with humanism, a system of thought that prioritizes the good of humanity over any divine or supernatural concerns. Pinker argues that humanism provides a secular basis for morality.

Progress: Pinker defines progress as using reason, science, and humanism to better conditions for all of humanity. He argues that progress is made by making changes in social institutions like laws and educational systems, not by trying to change anything in human nature.

Anti-Enlightenment Positions

Pinker identifies four anti-Enlightenment positions, which he sees as stalling the progress of humanity.

Religion: Pinker sees religion as the most obvious of the anti-Enlightenment forces because belief in anything based on faith is inherently in conflict with belief based on reason and science.

Anti-scientism: Often overlapping with religious approaches, anti-science stances claim that science is just another “narrative” or myth. Pinker argues that continued scientific progress is essential for human progress, so anything that impedes science will necessarily stall human progress.

Tribalism: Pinker defines tribalism as allegiance to a group and prioritizing that group above the individual. He argues that the idea that the good of the group matters more than the good of individuals is essentially counter to humanism.

Declinism: Pinker defines declinism as the belief that the modern world is declining in stability and on the verge of collapse. These ideas impede progress, Pinker explains, because they create a culture of pessimism and anti-technology sentiment.

What Is Progress?

The word “improve” implies a value judgment and is therefore subjective. Who decides what’s better? Some measures of “improvement” are not obviously universally “better.” For example, the claim that wealth is inherently better than poverty can be challenged by pointing out that a person who is poor but happy is better off than a person who is wealthy but miserable.

Pinker argues that, to solve the dilemmas we face in the modern world, we simply need to push forward with reason, science, and humanism. He argues that people today who don’t think life is all-around better than it was for humans in the past suffer from two problems:

  1. They have distorted perceptions of the world, due to biases in what they see and how they think.
  2. They’re ungrateful for what they have because they’re so disconnected from the unpleasant reality of what life in past societies was like.

Is the World Getting Better or Worse?

Pinker’s major goal in this book is to counter the widespread belief that the world is getting worse by showing data that indicates it’s actually improving on many measures. But, why do people think things are so bad if they’re not? Pinker explains that this happens for a few intersecting reasons: media slant, cognitive biases, and ingratitude.

Media slant: Pinker explains that we tend to believe our societies are worse than they are because the media focus on negative news. But we must ask whether more negative things have actually been happening or whether news outlets are becoming more negative in what they focus on and how. Pinker says a look at the data clearly shows it’s the latter.

Cognitive biases: Pinker describes three cognitive biases that are at work in our brains, influencing us to think things in the world are getting worse.

  • Availability bias: Pinker says that, when we estimate how likely something is to happen, things that come most readily to mind will seem more likely than those that don’t. And he says events or ideas that are sensationalized tend to stick in our minds.
  • Negativity bias: Another bias that’s built into our brains, Pinker says, is a general bias toward negativity.
  • Nostalgia: Pinker points out one exception to the negativity bias, and that’s in regard to memories of the past. He says we also have a cognitive bias for nostalgia, meaning we tend to remember events of the past as more positive than they were. Related to this, Pinker argues that people who don’t appreciate the positive contributions of modernity to life are simply ungrateful because they don’t realize how much worse life was for people in the past. They’re romanticizing the past.

Recognizing the media slant and our cognitive biases should enable us to intellectually challenge and correct our assumptions. Pinker says that the solution is to count—when we look at the data, we can no longer deny that things are getting better.

The Data on Progress

We’ve organized his data into three categories of well-being: human, societal, and environmental. Pinker notes throughout the book that the United States tends to be an outlier on many of the measures, like happiness and equality, and that it’s not showing as much progress as other wealthy democratic nations.

Human Well-Being

In this category, we’ll consider statistics presented by Pinker on overall lifestyle, health, safety, human rights, and happiness.

Lifestyle

Overall, Pinker argues that people have a much better work/leisure balance than they did in the past. He says that modernization has made this possible. Some of the statistics presented to support Pinker’s argument are decreased work hours, increased retirement, decreased housework, a proportional decrease in household expenditures, increased leisure time, and increased travel and tourism.

Health and Nutrition

On this topic, Pinker looks at access to food and nutrition, how long people live, and how medical advancements have eradicated many diseases that once plagued humanity. He cites evidence that humans are living longer, healthier lives around the globe, including a decrease in disease, child mortality, hunger, and malnutrition.

Safety

On this measure, Pinker examines data on both intentional and accidental causes of harm and death and says that we’re safer on all counts. While we can never avoid violence, accidents, or natural disasters entirely, he says we can put policies in place that minimize their threat and make us safer. Pinker presents data that shows decreased violent crime and fewer deaths from accidents (except drug overdoses) and natural disasters.

Human Rights

Pinker specifically considers racism, sexism, and homophobia to be the biggest contributors to human rights abuses and argues that we should acknowledge the great advances the world has made in these areas.

Pinker says that when we look at the overall trends, we see that the world is becoming increasingly liberal. He defines liberal values as “emancipatory” values that encourage personal freedom and autonomy, individuality, and creativity over authority, conformity, and discipline.

Happiness

Pinker says that, despite beliefs to the contrary, we are happier. He acknowledges that happiness can be difficult to measure. However, he argues that there are intrinsic goods in life—life itself, health, education, leisure, and freedom—and we can measure those.

Levels of happiness: In order to examine what actually makes people happy, Pinker looks at levels of happiness across different countries and then compares those to other features of those countries. He says the research shows that happier countries also have better health, greater freedom, higher wealth, and better social welfare systems.

Mental illness: Pinker acknowledges we’ve seen a rise in mental illness in recent years. However, he attributes this rise largely to a rise in diagnoses. He argues that the fact that we’ve gotten better at acknowledging and diagnosing mental illness is a positive sign that we’re becoming more compassionate and is actually a sign of moral progress.

Loneliness: Although he looks at data only for Americans on this measure, Pinker says the data shows that people aren’t actually lonelier now—they just have different types of relationships than they did in the past. They interact more on social media than in person, but they have wider social networks because of this.

Societal Well-Being

Next, we’ll turn to Pinker’s data on how Enlightenment values have affected humans on a larger scale—at the societal level.

Wealth and Inequality

Pinker contends that inequality in the distribution of wealth isn’t a problem in itself because it doesn’t matter how much money rich people have as long as everyone has enough. The problem, he says, is poverty, not inequality.

Global Distribution of Wealth

Pinker says the idea that “as the rich get richer, the poor get poorer” is actually false. The data shows that, all around the world, the rich have indeed gotten richer and the poor have also gotten richer, just to a lesser degree. Wealth has become more equally distributed again since the Industrial Revolution, as people in all classes have prospered.

Poverty Alleviation

Since the middle of the 20th century, social spending in developed countries has increased dramatically. Pinker believes that universal basic income may be the next historical trend we’ll see to prevent poverty.

Peace

Pinker says that the overall historical trend is that instances of violence are declining globally. After World War II, we entered what’s called the Long Peace, with no major world wars since. Although wars still break out, Pinker says, they’re no longer the norm.

Democracy

Pinker argues that the democratization of the world’s nations constitutes progress, and the world is clearly going in that direction. He points out that, in 1971, there were 31 democratic governments in the world. In 1989 that number was 52. In 2009 it was 87, and in 2015 it was 103. He says that, along with democratization, government protections of the human rights of their citizens have gradually increased worldwide over time.

Capital Punishment

Pinker considers capital punishment to be a form of abuse by a government of its own citizens, so he argues that abolition of capital punishment is progress. With issues like this, he says, the government needs to legislate based on reason by legal scholars, instead of the will of the “common man.” He says it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. abolishes this practice.

Technology

Pinker turns again to that enemy of Enlightenment: anti-technology sentiment. He says there are fears that technology will destroy us, but most of the major threats humanity has faced could actually have been avoided or solved with technology and that people need to use reason to counter these kinds of fears.

There are also widespread fears of attacks by biological weapons or cybersecurity attacks that could cause the collapse of civilization. Pinker argues that these fears are far overblown compared to the likelihood of them happening.

Pinker says that, although nuclear technology itself can be used in positive ways, one technological threat is real: nuclear war. But fear-mongering is counterproductive, he says. It immobilizes people. People are more likely to try to solve problems if they think they’re solvable, so we need an approach somewhere between panic and apathy.

Environmental Well-Being

It can be argued that the good of modernization does not outweigh the harm it does to the environment. So, Pinker asks whether progress and modernity are worth the environmental cost. He argues that they are—because, he says, environmental problems are solvable if we keep on the “enlightened” trajectory of applying reason and science to them. He calls this position “ecomodernism,” asserting that trade-offs are worth it because it’s exactly those modern advancements that will solve the environmental crisis.

On the topic of “resources,” Pinker argues that it’s a fallacy to think we’ll eventually run out of the resources we need to sustain our lives because humans have always been able to switch to new resources before the previous ones ran out. He says we need to acknowledge the danger of the environmental crisis without panicking to the point of resignation.

The environmental issue illustrates Pinker’s overarching argument. He says that, when we are confronted with challenges, we have a tendency to overreact or withdraw and desire the past. He says only reason, humanism, and continued scientific progress will adequately address climate change—along with all the other problems we face in the world today.

Enlightenment Now: Steven Pinker’s Appeal for Optimism

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, science, and philosophy. A switch to audio books has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a creative nonfiction book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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