Steven Pinker put out a book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, about a year ago that caused a bit of a stir. His data-based case for tremendous progress in the human condition and the relation of that progress to enlightenment values of reason, science, knowledge, universalism and so on is one I'm broadly in sympathy with.
But not everyone is. Pinker received quite a bit of pushback from various quarters and he has taken the opportunity to respond to the most frequent criticisms in a long essay on Quillette. I recommend it. Pinker is a fine polemicist and he does a good job responding in a reasonable, fact-based way to the litany of criticisms.
He also notes at one point that his is not alone in making the case for an improving world. Other folks have looked at the same data and come to the same conclusions including, well, yours truly:
"It’s not just me. In the year since EN went to press, five other books have drawn similar conclusions about the state of the world: Gregg Easterbrook’s It’s Better Than It Looks, Bobby Duffy’s The Perils of Perception, Hans and Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rönnlund’s Factfulness, Michael Cohen and Micah Zenko’s Clear and Present Safety, and Ruy Teixeira’s The Optimistic Leftist (so much for that conservative/neoliberal/right-wing conspiracy)."
Here are the criticisms he responds to; read the essay for his detailed responses.
* You got the Enlightenment wrong. There were many Enlightenments, not just one. The Enlightenment thinkers were not all scientific humanists: some were men of faith, and some were racists. Wasn’t Rousseau a part of the Enlightenment? Shouldn’t Marx be counted as an Enlightenment thinker?
* The Enlightenment is not worthy of celebration. It gave the world racism, slavery, imperialism, and genocide.
* How can you say that we should stop worrying and that everything will turn out okay? What about plastics in the ocean? What about opioids? What about school shootings? What about incarceration? What about social media? What about Donald Trump?
* All those numbers showing that the world has been getting better must have been cherry-picked.
* Looking at numbers on human well-being is amoral and callous and insensitive. What do you say to those people who are suffering?
* How do you explain Donald Trump? And Brexit? And authoritarian populism? Don’t they spell the end of the Enlightenment and the reversal of progress?
* How do you explain the growing epidemic of despair, depression, loneliness, mental illness, and suicide in the most advanced liberal societies?
* The Enlightenment will be killed off by its own creations, artificial intelligence and social media.
* Why were you so mean to Nietzsche?