Facts about progress

Is ‘facty’ a word? If not, we need it anyway, to describe the confident informational weight of Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s latest offering on the theme of global progress. Other useful adjectives might be: ‘appreciative’; ‘realistic’; ‘anti-miserabilist’; ‘encouraging’; and ‘superb’.

Thumbing through a few of his graphs, you’ll notice a clear pattern: generally, across the world, bad shit goes down, and good shit goes up. This story line with its simple but evidence-based illustrations won’t make miserabilists happy, but let’s hope it will serve to enlighten and inspire people who are fed up with the negative biases of public media and academia.

Having shown us (anyone who could bear to listen), in his last book Better Angels, the astonishing overall global trends towards peaceability and kindness, here his canvas is much more expansive. He looks at most of the really important ways in which the Enlightenment aspirations have borne fruit through application of science and reason by an increasingly free, healthy, well-educated, co-operative, caring, and long-lived human population. Moreover, Pinker patiently explains why it matters to observe and interpret good kinds of change in the world. Since each of these attributes reinforces and is supported by the others, we have arrived in a fascinating era of compound progress.

Fighting fatalism and cultural pessimism

Plenty of other fellow realists have been giving us persuasive, inspiring, and reliable facts about world progress for many years. Between them, though, somehow they haven’t yet converted the fatalists who don’t believe humanity can shape its own destiny, or the cultural pessimists who prefer to moan, to worry, and to believe humanity is in decline. Following the untimely death last year of one of the world’s greatest enthusiasts, Hans Rösling, Pinker is arguably the logical leader of the movement for recognition of global progress. Perhaps he can swing the balance of favour of non-declinist appreciation of just how much more wonderful our world is than the one our grandparents were born into.

Pinker is unapologetically polemical in claiming both that wilful pessimists predominate among contemporary educated populations, and that this pessimism is bad for the world. Though upbeat about most things, he is disappointed and angry that so many people have rejected the spirit of the Enlightenment and persist in denigrating reason and science, and in pretending that progress hasn’t happened. He’s particularly ruthless about those who self-identify as ‘progressives’ but refuse to appreciate progress.

Some will argue that the great paradox of Pinker’s argument lies in his impatience with these cultural critics. You could plausibly argue that being stubbornly critical of everything, looking for reasons to question every forward stride that humanity makes, is more true to the Enlightenment spirit than complacent celebration of the achievements of western civilization. But if criticism is to be both persuasive and useful, it needs to be based on judicious choice of indicators, and on open-minded and evidence-based appraisal of trends.

Inequalities and whether they matter

Take the example of ‘inequality’, which is one the favourite topics of those who prefer to look for things worth sorting out than to look for achievements to appreciate. Overwhelmingly, texts on this theme claim that ‘rising inequality’ is one of the main curses of global capitalism. If they’re right that inequality is rampant and that it is bad for our happiness, then it would indeed be a ‘progressive’ attitude, true to the spirit of the Enlightenment, to complain loudly about inequality. But if you’re going to be a persuasive opponent of inequality, you need to say what kinds of inequality are bad, why they’re bad, and where your evidence of worsening inequality is coming from.

Remarkably few texts on inequality trends pause for breath before simply assuming that some kind of financial measure will serve as an indicator of growing inequality. Even Pinker goes along with this line of thinking, by focusing his ‘inequality’ chapter mainly on ‘economic inequality’ by which he mainly refers to financial inequalities in wealth and income, not to any truly holistic concept of ‘economy’. But even within this narrow set of measures of people’s access to resources, Pinker shows that there’s ample room for debate on whether inequalities have really increased, or whether poorer people have generally suffered as a result.

It’s easy to point to the absurd levels new wealth controlled by a few individuals, but this doesn’t in itself prove that inequalities in people’s ability to buy the goods they want is actually increasing. If poor people’s buying power has increased worldwide, it may not matter much if a small percentage of humanity have increased their theoretical buying power to absurd levels.

More importantly, though, if we can agree that it’s ultimately wellbeing that matters, rather finance or ‘the [measured] economy’, it should be self-evident that any moral concerns we may have about financial inequalities should be checked against evidence of inequalities in wellbeing. If health, longevity, intelligence, and happiness are equalising worldwide (which certainly does seem to be the case), why should people who identify as ‘progressives’ continue to bang on about financial inequality?

Pinker notes that there are plenty of empirical happiness researchers who have cast doubt on the assumption that financial inequality is bad for happiness. It’s not that money is unimportant, but people vary enormously in how much money they want and need. So long as economies offer room for manoeuvre there’s no logical reason to assume that extreme financial inequality is bad for happiness, or even that it insults the pursuit of social justice.

Realism: not taking progress for granted

In any case, it’s important not to dumb Pinker’s polemics down to a fight between optimism and pessimism. Pinker’s main argument is for realism. Whether we love or hate the world as it is, whether we think it’s getting better or worse, we need a realistic appreciation of the changes that matter to people.

The norm among social researchers who study development trends seems to be to notice failures more than successes, and to be suspicious of anyone who shows ‘triumphalist’ tendencies to celebrate good progress – particularly if that progress is traceable to Western civilization and the European Enlightenment. Arguably, though, a much more dangerous form of smugness is to take so much for granted the progress of humanity that we forget to appreciate, interpret, and explain it. In that respect, you could argue that Pinker is best understood as a realist rather than a triumphalist – someone who cares enough about progress not to take it for granted.

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