Enlightenment Now (2018) Steven Pinker

How To Avoid “The Drumbeat Of Doom”

Cognitive Scientist pinker argues that things are better than they’ve ever been, and this is largely due to the values of the enlightenment. History sucked; “’If you could afford to buy bread to survive another day, you were not poor.’” “…the rate of extreme poverty has tanked from 90 percent to 10…” People line up for factory jobs in southeast Asia because it turns out being a rice farmer really sucks. Thus, arguments to burn down the system are foolish, as the World has been lifted out of poverty by it. “If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations.” -Hayek. Tecnocratic “authoritarian high modernism” tried to deny that which is human nature, and instead shape it; Enlightenment thinking, in contrasts, tries to build better institutions [Fukuyama] instead of trying to change people. Points out that Adam Smith tries to explain, literally, the wealth of nations, which is created through knowledge and cooperation. “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” -God in Genesis. Yet people discuss who is to “blame” for “poverty” in most forms of discussion (and wealth is also thought of as a zero-sum pie of gold, which just gets divvied up somehow). “People demonize those they disagree with, attributing difference of opinion to stupidity and dishonesty. For every misfortune they seek a scapegoat. They see morality as a source of grounds for condemning rivals and mobilizing indignation against them… across the world and throughout history, more people have been murdered to mete out justice than to satisfy greed.” “.. the human moral sense is not particularly moral; it encourages dehumanization (“politicians are pigs”) and punitive aggression (“make the polluters pay.”) Also, by conflating profligacy with evil and asceticism with virtue, the moral sense can sanctify pointless displays of sacrifice. In many cultures people flaunt their righteousness with vows of fasting, chastity, self-abnegation, bonfires of the vanities and animal (or sometimes human) sacrifice… people esteem others according to how much time or money they forfeit in their altruistic acts rather than by how much good they accomplish.” (per his studies). For Romantics, like Rousseau, “Heroic struggle, not the solving of problems, is the greatest good…”, thus the vanity of the social justice warrior. Of religion, “Belief in an afterlife implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal…” Pinker overlooks that people like religion and that it is not disappearing soon. “This is the first society in history where the poor people are fat.” -Chris Rock. Points out the outsized outrage of society for any number of problems, not least of which is the “obesity epidemic.” Borlaug, one of the fathers of genetically engineered food, did years of “mind-warpingly tedious work.”, illustrating how one can feel about their own work (as do lawyers), and why people may resist redistribution. Points out that when we look at “historical dollars” it does not take into account how good technology has made life: today a dentist means Novocain and being painless, and there are no plyers. Technology has made the lives of today’s “poor” better than the aristocrats of yore, in many instances. “A satellite photograph of Korea showing the capitalist South aglow in light and the Communist North a pit of darkness vividly illustrates the contrast in the wealth-generating capability between the two economic systems, holding geography, history, and culture constant.” Pinker finds theories that say inequality drives unhappiness uncompelling, quoting studies; hope of opportunity trumps inequality, and that absolute income matters more than relative income. People are fixated on what causes it, not its existence. Pinker also says inequality in the world is declining, which is not necessarily great for the state of Ohio. “All of us who prize greater economic equality would do well to remember that with the rarest of exceptions it was only ever brought forth in sorrow. Be careful what you wish for” -Scheidel. Americans like social spending (Medicare, social security, disability). Says that disposable income in the lowest quintiles has continued to rise due to redistribution from 1979 to 2010; poverty has declined by 90 percent since 1960 if considered in terms of consumption. Points out that organic farming is neither green nor sustainable, requiring more land to produce the same amount to food. Explains complacent optimism vs conditional optimism; the former a child waiting for Santa to bring something, the latter a child who tries to figure out a way for the neighborhood kids to work together to get it. One of the biggest reasons for international peace as the fact that war is now illegal, and no longer does might make right. A rise in crime after the 60’s partially came from a “Fuck the system, man” mentality, “[C]rime often shoots up in decades in which people question their society and government…” Also said the criminal justice system then as it existed was not up to the task. An expansion of policing explains a lot of the crime decrease of the 90s (with an “overshoot” in incarceration), as well as cheap consumer goods — why bother to steal something that is so cheap now at Wal-mart. Criminals have many psychological issues, “Troublemakers also have narcissistic and sociopathic thought patterns, such as that they are always in the right, that they are entitled to universal deference, that disagreements are personal insults, and that other people have no feelings or interests… amplified in a culture of honor… it can be deconstructed in therapies of anger management and social-skills training…” The drug war has been a failure in terms of anti-drug benefits, and increases violence; drug courts and treatment would be better. Democracy is a system where people are allowed to complain; government will tend to respond to the shouters and protesters. “[A] black suspect is no more likely than a white suspect to be killed by the police,” but contrasts the enormous expense and unfairness of the death penalty to those who are minorities. “In the Intellectuals and the Masses, the critic John Carey shows how the British literary intelligentsia in the first decades of the 20th century harbored a contempt for the common person which bordered on the genocidal.” Fast forward to today, euthanize all the “Fascist” Trumpers. Points out that the “retirement crisis” is a relatively new thing; people didn’t used to live so long, and didn’t really used to retire. “’People seem simply to have taken the remarkable economic improvement in stride and have deftly found new concerns to get upset about. In an important sense, then, things never get better.’” -John Mueller. “…digital friendships don’t provide the psychological benefits of face-to-face contact.” “Few writers on technological risk give much thought to the cumulative psychological effects of the drumbeat of doom… ‘We have media ratings to protect children from sex or violence… but we think nothing of inviting a scientist into a second grade classroom and telling the kids the planet is ruined. A quarter of (Australian) children are so troubled about the state of the world that they honestly believe it will come to an end before they get older.’… journalist Gregg Easterbrook suggests that a major reason that Americans are not happier, despite their rising objective fortunes, is ‘collapse anxiety’: the fear that civilization may implode and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.” As regards slower economic growth, “most transformative inventions may already have been invented.” “Capitalism has lost its capitalists… institutional managers… seek safe returns for retirees… Investors and the government no longer back moonshots.” People don’t want to be entrepreneurs. Explains populism as a loss of cultural competition, as does Michael Lind. Channeling Isaiah Berlin, “… the ideal of a perfectly just, equal, free, healthy, and harmonious society, which liberal democracies never measure up to is a dangerous fantasy. People are not clones in a monoculture, so what satisfies one will frustrate another, and the only way they can end up equal is if they are treated unequally. Moreover, among the perquisites of freedom is the freedom of people to screw up their own lives.” Thus, there will always be problems. “[C]ertain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance… express[ing] not what they know but who they are”, resulting in great pressure to conform. People are still clamoring to get into the United States; thus, its institutions may not be a terrible starting point, and there is no blood in the streets. “People understand concepts only when they are forced to think them through to discuss them with others, and to use them to solve problems.” Critical thinking is thus hard; people have a hard time applying the same concepts to different scenarios. A cause’s spokesperson matters; Al Gore is not a good frontman for anything (least of all President), but specifically not climate change, perhaps doing more harm than good. Pinker quotes studies saying non-violent resistance is far more effective than violent resistance. “What would happen over the long run if a standard college curriculum devoted less attention to the writings of Karl Marx and Frantz Fanon and more to quantitative analyses of political violence?” Your best weapon when facing an enemy alone may be an ax, but in front of a group, it may be an argument. “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no inquiry for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” -Thomas Jefferson. Lastly points out how highly religious Muslims are, in contrast with Christians, which leads to the intense reading of the (as crazy as the Bible can be) Quranic texts.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store