When Truth and Reason Are No Longer Enough
In his new book, Steven Pinker is curiously blind to the power and benefits of small-town values.
I’m a scientist at UC Berkeley—a card-carrying true believer in liberal Enlightenment values. Imagine that I meet a bright young woman in a small town in Wisconsin or Alabama, and that I want to persuade her to become a scientist like me. “Listen, science is really great!,” I say. “We scientists care about truth and reason and human flourishing. We include people from every country and culture. And our values have transformed the world. For thousands of years before the Enlightenment, the speed limit was the pace of a fast horse, and children died all the time. Now ideas move at the speed of light, and a child’s death is an unthinkable tragedy. Democracy has eclipsed tyranny, prosperity has outpaced poverty, medicine has routed illness, individual liberation has uprooted social convention. Come join us!”
The young woman replies, “That sounds fantastic! But there’s just one thing. I love this town. I have a boyfriend who also wants to be a scientist, and I’d like to get married and have a bunch of kids here soon. My parents are looking forward so much to being grandparents, and my own grandparents need me to look after them. My family and friends are all nearby, and I’d like my kids to live in my community and take part in the same traditions I grew up with. Can I do that and be a scientist too?”
The honest answer? “If you join us, the chances are very slim that you’ll end up living in your hometown. You’ll move around from place to place unpredictably, from college to graduate school to postdoc research to professorship, until you’re 40 or so. You’ll be separated from your partner for long stretches of time. You’ll have to wait to have kids, and you may not have them at all. If you do, they almost certainly won’t be able to grow up with their grandparents. But there’s always Skype.”
This dialogue isn’t just hypothetical. Colleagues in the Midwest and the South describe exactly this kind of conversation, and I’ve had similar talks even in cosmopolitan Berkeley. And this discussion doesn’t apply only to scientists. People in many walks of life, across the country and around the world, are having this conversation. It expresses the tension between the global and the local, modernity and tradition, professional opportunity and family ties, the people who leave the place where they grew up and the people who stay.
The strength of Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s new book, is that it articulates the first part of this conversation. Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard and a wide-ranging public intellectual, and his book is an extended brief for liberal Enlightenment values. He makes his case with masses of data, compelling arguments, and considerable eloquence. At a moment when those values are under attack, from the right and the left, this is a very important contribution.
The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism. If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.
The core of Enlightenment Now is a generic graph, variations of which appear over and over. Each one charts an indisputable measure of human progress—whether it’s more education, peace, and prosperity, or fewer infectious diseases, murders, and even deaths by lightning. To accompany each graph, Pinker provides a summary of scientific data and social-science studies, involving hundreds of thousands of people, spanning human history and extending across the globe. The conclusion, startlingly, is that on almost every measure, things have gotten better and are still getting better. Even that dumpster-fire year 2017 marks an advance over 2016. This pattern of radical improvement began in the 17th and 18th centuries. It accompanied the rise of Enlightenment values in general, and of science and democracy in particular.
Earlier books and articles have made this point, as Pinker acknowledges. Among them, in fact, is one that he wrote, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. But arraying all the evidence in one place is an impressive and useful accomplishment. And Pinker is honest about some significant exceptions to this pattern—inequality, suicide, and climate change, for instance—although he doesn’t think they undermine his argument. He also notes that the U.S. is an outlier on some measures, not because America does better than other countries, but because it does worse. Ironically, the country that was founded on Enlightenment values lags far behind others in fulfilling the promise of those values.
But if things are so much better, why do they feel, for so many people, so much worse? Why don’t people experience the progress that Pinker describes? Pinker doesn’t spend much time focusing on this question, and he gets a little tetchy when he does. Skepticism about Enlightenment values, in his view, comes from leftist humanities professors and highbrow-magazine editors who have read too much Nietzsche, or from theocrats on the right.
Yet there’s a deeper reason that ordinary, well-meaning people may feel that something has gone wrong, despite so much evidence to the contrary. Pinker’s graphs, and the utilitarian moral views that accompany and underlie them, are explicitly about the welfare of humanity as a whole. But values are rooted in emotion and experience as well as reason, in the local as well as the universal.
From infancy, human beings develop specific attachments to particular people and places around them, and those connections underpin commitment, care, trust, and love. In the language of neuroscience you might call this the “oxytocin axis,” though it’s far too complex to be reduced to a single chemical. In most mammals, a “tend and befriend” brain system—which involves the neurotransmitter oxytocin, among others—plays an important role in the bonding between mothers and babies. In humans, with our distinctive capacity for cooperation, this system of attachment has been expanded to apply to a much broader range of relationships, from pair-bonded partners to friends and collaborators.
You might think these bonds reflect the fact that people are similar or have the same interests. In fact, the economist Robert Frank and the philosopher Kim Sterelny have proposed exactly the opposite view. The feelings that go with attachment—such as love, trust, and loyalty—allow people who have different capacities and clashing short-term interests to cooperate in a way that benefits everyone in the long run. Parents versus children, wives versus husbands, hunters versus gatherers—all of these relationships inevitably involve tension and conflict. Rationality and contractual negotiation alone can’t resolve the differences that arise. If individuals all just pursue their own interests, even in coordination with others, they may end up worse off. But emotions can help. Sterelny argues that attachments act as “commitment mechanisms.” They ensure that partners won’t just walk out of an argument or renege on an agreement when it becomes inconvenient.
The very same economic and social forces (such as a global free market) that have fueled the progress that Pinker charts have also made it harder to maintain a network of local attachments. Pinker’s book doesn’t include one notably pessimistic set of graphs: those that chart the signs that local relationships are threatened—even the most-basic relationships, between partners and between parents and children. Since 1960, the marriage rate in the U.S. has declined substantially, particularly for lower-income and less-educated people, and the proportion of single-parent families among American households has risen. Meanwhile, the child poverty rate has remained high. And public-support systems for families, such as paid parental leave and universal subsidized child care, hardly exist in the U.S.
It’s crucially important to distinguish these sorts of local attachments from nationalism and racism—ideas that, as Pinker points out, have had and continue to have devastating effects. The claim that social bonds are rooted in common origin or blood or skin color is profoundly wrong, both scientifically and morally. And there is no reason that loyalty to people you know should make you hostile to people you don’t. But scientific as well as intuitive evidence suggests that tribalism can be seductive when people feel that their local connections are under threat. At the same time, the Enlightenment emphasis on the autonomous, rational individual can also lead to alienation and isolation, which make tribalist mythology all the more appealing.
The dream of the 18th century was that a single, coherent set of values, rooted in rationality, could make a heaven on Earth. Pinker shares that dream. But more-recent philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin, sobered by the 20th century’s failed utopias, have argued for a more modest liberal pluralism that makes room for multiple, genuinely conflicting goods. Family and work, solidarity and autonomy, tradition and innovation are really valuable, and really in tension, in both the lives of individuals and the life of a nation. One challenge for enlightenment now is to build social institutions that can bridge and balance these values. Family policy is a good example. People on both sides of the political and cultural divides in the U.S. are in rare agreement that programs like family leave and preschool deserve more support, even if the political will for such measures never seems to emerge.
But thinking about families may be able to inform liberalism in a deeper way. For the Enlightenment philosophers, as Pinker’s book reminds us, the great problem of politics was how to combine the desires and goals of thousands of autonomous individuals—how to coordinate the pursuit of happiness. The ancient Chinese philosopher Mengzi identified another conundrum: how to expand the mutual commitment and trust that define a family to the very different scale of a state.
This is not an easy lift, especially for a nation as large and scattered as the U.S. But perhaps we can take a lesson from family terrain. Marriage counselors often say that relationships can weather anger, misunderstanding, jealousy, fundamentally different values—even the occasional bout of hatred. But they can’t survive contempt, which has become the signature political emotion of our age. Trying to make a state more like a community doesn’t mean making it more homogeneous or even more harmonious. Instead, the problem for enlightenment now is how to establish a background of trust and commitment that allows conflict without contempt.
This article appears in the April 2018 print edition with the headline “A Cure for Contempt.”
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