Enlightenment Values: The Driving Forces of Progress?

What are Enlightenment values? How are they relevant today?

In his book Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker provides statistics to show that life has improved over time, all around the world. And he says the driving forces of this progress are reason, science, and humanism—values that are derived from the European Enlightenment.

Continue reading to learn more about these Enlightenment values from Pinker’s perspective.

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 rethinking 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. Some of the best-known thinkers associated with this movement are René Descartes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, and David Hume. Enlightenment philosophy led to revolutionizing many aspects of European society and ultimately had global influence. 

The Origin of Enlightenment Values

David Graeber and David Wengrow, in The Dawn of Everything, argue that much Enlightenment thinking originated in conversations between European colonists in America and the indigenous people there. In these conversations, Native Americans raised scathing critiques of European social customs and values, particularly criticizing monarchical rule, social hierarchies, emphasis on the accumulation of wealth and materialism, and punitive justice systems. The social values in their own societies at the time were essentially Enlightenment values. These descriptions made their way back to Europe, where they were widely distributed among the intellectual class and, Graeber and Wengrow argue, became the inspiration for much Enlightenment thought. 

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. He says consciously applying reason to all matters is necessary precisely because humans aren’t always rational thinkers. So 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. (Shortform note: In The Laws of Human Nature, Robert Greene says we’re all naturally prone to irrationality. We have a tendency to react based on our emotions rather than reasoning. But rational thinking, he says, is a skill that can be learned. And that begins with not allowing our emotions to influence our thoughts and decisions.)

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. On the topic of science, Pinker includes modernity as an essential feature of Enlightenment, meaning that continuous technological innovation and advancement, through scientific endeavors, are key to continued progress. 

(Shortform note: Pinker strongly associates Enlightenment values with modernity, and argues throughout this book that modernization necessarily corresponds to progress and improvement. As an example, he describes access to electricity (and other technologies) as an undeniable improvement in the human condition. But in The Dawn of Everything, Graeber and Wengrow argue that indigenous peoples in America were living according to Enlightenment values in vibrant, healthy, peaceful societies, without any electricity or other modern technology.)

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, allowing us to look at what contributes to human well-being, without allegiance to religion, race, or nationality, which divide humans. He says humanism compelled Enlightenment thinkers to condemn such practices as slavery, torture, and cruel execution methods. 

(Shortform note: Some argue that a humanistic worldview promotes human exceptionalism, meaning humans are centered and prioritized above other living things, which can be damaging to animal rights and environmental causes. This ideology can fuel extreme “anti-humanist” environmentalist campaigns to reduce population growth.) 

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. (Shortform note: Some people believe the opposite—that progress is made by changing people. Conservative thinkers have argued that human flourishing must begin within the individual, often through spiritual development, and they oppose attempts to regulate progress by law.)

Pinker argues that Enlightenment values have improved life for humans globally and that, in order to continue to improve, we need to reinvigorate our public discourse with these values and push forward on the path of progress through reason, science, and humanism.  

Enlightenment Values: The Driving Forces of Progress?

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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