Steven Pinker

The idea of a universal human nature brings us to a third theme, humanism. The thinkers of the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment saw an urgent need for a secular foundation for morality, because they were haunted by a historical memory of centuries of religious carnage: the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, the European wars of religion. They laid that foundation in what we now call humanism, which privileges the well-being of individual men, women, and children over the glory of the tribe, race, nation, or religion. It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient—who feel pleasure and pain, fulfillment and anguish. Whether it is framed as the goal of providing the greatest happiness for the greatest number or as a categorical imperative to treat people as ends rather than means, it was the universal capacity of a person to suffer and flourish, they said, that called on our moral concern.

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1 Response to Steven Pinker

  1. shinichi says:

    Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

    by Steven Pinker


    **

    (Why should I live?)
    In the very act of asking that question, you are seeking reasons for your convictions, and so you are committed to reason as the means to discover and justify what is important to you. And there are so many reasons to live!
      As a sentient being, you have the potential to flourish. You can refine your faculty of reason itself by learning and debating. You can seek explanations of the natural world through science, and insight into the human condition through the arts and humanities. You can make the most of your capacity for pleasure and satisfaction, which allowed your ancestors to thrive and thereby allowed you to exist. You can appreciate the beauty and richness of the natural and cultural world. As the heir to billions of years of life perpetuating itself, you can perpetuate life in turn. You have been endowed with a sense of sympathy—the ability to like, love, respect, help, and show kindness—and you can enjoy the gift of mutual benevolence with friends, family, and colleagues.
      And because reason tells you that none of this is particular to you, you have the responsibility to provide to others what you expect for yourself. You can foster the welfare of other sentient beings by enhancing life, health, knowledge, freedom, abundance, safety, beauty, and peace. History shows that when we sympathize with others and apply our ingenuity to improving the human condition, we can make progress in doing so, and you can help to continue that progress.

    **

    Left-wing and right-wing political ideologies have themselves become secular religions, providing people with a community of like-minded brethren, a catechism of sacred beliefs, a well-populated demonology, and a beatific confidence in the righteousness of their cause.

    **

    What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress.

    **

    As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen.

    **

    The standard explanation of the madness of crowds is ignorance: a mediocre education system has left the populace scientifically illiterate, at the mercy of their cognitive biases, and thus defenseless against airhead celebrities, cable-news gladiators, and other corruptions from popular culture.

    **

    Our greatest enemies are ultimately not our political adversaries but entropy, evolution (in the form of pestilence and the flaws in human nature), and most of all ignorance—a shortfall of knowledge of how best to solve our problems.

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    But it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come.

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    People see violence as moral, not immoral: across the world and throughout history, more people have been murdered to mete out justice than to satisfy greed.

    **

    There can be no question of which was the greatest era for culture; the answer has to be today, until it is superseded by tomorrow.

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