I highly recommend Charles Kenny's review of Stephen Pinker's new book, Enlightenment Now, in the latest issue of Democracy Journal. I've already flagged Pinker's book several times as the best single compilation of data about the remarkable progress humanity has made in not just the last 200 years but the last 50 as well. Progress has not stopped; it is ongoing even if pessimists on the left and right seem inclined to deny this.
Kenny largely agrees with this assessment. He is not without his criticisms of the book, however, criticisms that I think are well-taken:
"[W]hile Pinker makes a strong case for progress underpinned by the spread of Enlightenment values, it needs a caveat—one that can draw from some of the left-leaning discussions of development. There are less benign interpretations of how we got to the modern world, which involve conquest, slavery and exploitation alongside fellow feeling and rationality. And there’s an active debate about which came first—the material progress or the moral values (see, for example, Benjamin Friedman’s The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth, in which he argues strong economies foster opportunity, tolerance, and mobility). Regardless, all good things don’t necessarily go together: A lot of the recent global progress in income, health, and education has taken place in countries that do not hold fully to Enlightenment values when it comes to liberty and free expression. China and Ethiopia are two examples.
Amongst the humanities, theology is surely Pinker’s least favorite: He suggests that atheist humanism is the purest distillation of the Enlightenment values that he champions. This might go too far: Surely you don’t need God to be good, but you still don’t need to deny God’s existence to agree with progress and humanism—a good thing, too, given that only about 13 percent of surveyed populations worldwide reported themselves as “convinced atheists” in 2012. And while atheism need not be “in” as a core value, I might suggest otherwise about concern for inequality. Pinker argues that inequality “is not itself a dimension of human progress,” and that what exercises (or at least should exercise) people is inequality caused by unfair advantage rather than unequal outcomes. But there is a rich tradition suggesting inequality of outcomes is a bad in its own right. One of the Enlightenment’s most famous brains, Rousseau, wrote a whole discourse on the unnatural (and unhealthy) nature of any inequality not based on personal characteristics, after all."
But Kenny also notes:
"...the danger of progress-denial to progressives. For example, Enlightenment Now lays out significant evidence that, even as inequality has worsened, the War on Poverty has made some important strides, with the proportion of people under one consumption-based measure of poverty falling from 30 percent to 3 percent of Americans between 1960 and 2016. Denying that progress allows welfare opponents to suggest the system has failed and the safety net can be removed without consequence: Whatever the government does, the poor will always be with us.
The same logic applies worldwide. Fear about our ability to feed the global population spurred research into new food crops but also led Robert McNamara, at that point head of the World Bank, to discourage financing of health care because people not dying of illnesses would contribute to the population explosion. And portraying Africa as a shithole is an approach used by people trying to raise money to help the region as well as those trying to lock this country’s doors to immigrants from the continent."
I commend the entire review to you and, if you are so moved, the Pinker book itself.