I recently read 2 very good books that I strongly recommend : Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress and Robert Reich’s, “The Common Good“. These books, however, seemed to share conflicting messages.
Pinker’s book provided a bird’s eye view of the incredible progress the human race has enjoyed since enlightenmen. Below is his TED Presentation I recommend you watch, “Is the World Getting Better or Worse? A Look at the Numbers“.
Robert Reich’s, “The Common Good“, unlike Pinker’s book, explained how things can get better, even though we are doing well. To make his point he highlighted current barriers to us continuing progress. Specifically he identified the three current trends that are pushing us in the wrong direction. He spoke mostly from a political perspective. Previously he served in the administrations of Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton. In the Clinton administration he was Secretary of Labor from 1993 to 1997. Specifically he blamed the practices listed below and suggested these are problematic because they will only benefit the few, specifically the wealthy and well-connected, and not the Common Good. He clearly explains how instead of working toward a common good, the system now seems to encourage and promote people to do:
- Whatever it Takes to Win!
- Whatever it takes to maximize Profits!
- Whatever it takes to rig the economy!
It was contrasting because Steven Pinker was demonstrating, very clearly, the incredible progress we have made, please listen to his TED talk if you have not. Contrastingly, Robert Reich was suggesting a better society is now only available for the rich and that society is moving more in that direction. Many may not notice the problems as outlined by Reich because we are so much better off and are a much richer society than we have been in the past. We can now do things not possible previously.
One contention I had with Pinker’s information was how he indicated our life expectancy had increased from 35 in the mid 18th century to over 70 years today if we consider the whole world and over 80 years of age in rich countries. While this is wonderful, the numbers are misleading because the high infant mortality. Infant mortality is when children do not live past 5 years of age. In times past, the higher infant mortality drastically altered the average life expectancy number. He even points out hat today all countries have lower child mortality than any country did in 1950. It seems a more appropriate comparison would be of life expectancy for those that were able to reach adulthood, if that could be determined. If people reached adulthood in the mid 18th century, did they reach old age? The statistics he shares lead us to think that most people did not make it into their 40s, 50s, 60s or 70s – is that true?
To sum up how he thinks humans have made so much progress Pinker suggests it may have its origins in The Humanist Manifesto III (2003). This manifesto states:
- Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis
- Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change
- Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience
- Shaped by humans circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond
- Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals
- Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships
- Humanists strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence
- Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness
Either way, they are wonderful principles to integrate into life and are likely to lead to progress. Whatever the cause, over all progress has been amazing. As he explains, “The children have obtained what their parents and grandparents longed for – greater freedom, greater material welfare, a juster society; but the old ills are forgotten, and the children faced new problems, brought about by the very solutions of the old ones, and these, even if they in turn can be solved, generate new situations, and with them new requirements – and so on, forever – and unpredictably”
Also what I found as one of the most profound insights was why most of us do not realize how much better things have become. I previously discussed it in this previous post, Record Progress To Feel Good or Evidence Disappears. As I noted, he explains we forget the progress made because because the tracks of progress are erased. They are erased because we turn our attention to what remains to be done rather than how far we have come. Such is the nature of progress. Later he suggests, Progress is a self cloaking action seen only in retrospect.
I also like the very powerful words he used to end the TED Talk and to end his book:
“We are born into a pitiless universe, facing steep odds against life-enabling order and in constant jeopardy of falling apart. We were shaped by a force that is ruthlessly competitive. We are made from crooked timber, vulnerable to illusions, self-centeredness, and at times astounding stupidity.
Yet human nature has also been blessed with resources that open space for a kind of redemption. We are endowed with the power to combine ideas recursively, to have thoughts about our thoughts. We have an instinct for language, allowing us to share the fruits of our experience and ingenuity. We are deepened with the capacity for sympathy – for pity, imagination, compassion, commiseration.
These endowments have found ways to magnify their own power. The scope of language has been augmented by the written, printed, and electronic word. Our circle of sympathy has been expanded by history, journalism, and narrative arts. And our puny rational faculties have been multiplied by the norms and institutions of reason: intellectual curiosity, open debate, skepticism of authority and dogma, and the burden of proof to verify ideas by confronting them against reality.
As the spiral of recursive improvement gathers momentum, we eke out victories against the forces that grind us down, not least the darkest parts of our human nature. We penetrate the mysteries of the cosmos, including life and mind. We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy small pleasures and rich experiences. Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited by others. From a few oases, the territories with peace and prosperity are growing, and could someday encompass the globe. Much suffering remains, and tremendous peril. But ideas on how to reduce them have been voiced, and an infinite number others are yet to be conceived.
We will never have a perfect world, and it would be dangerous to seek one. But there is no limit to the betterments we can attain if we continue to apply knowledge to enhance human flourishing.
This heroic story is not just another myth. Myths are fictions, but this one is true – true to best of our knowledge, which is the only truth we can have. We believe it because we have reasons to believe it. As we learn more, we can show which parts of the story continue to be true, and which ones are false – as any of them might be, and any could become.
And the story belongs not to any tribe but to all of humanity – to any sentient creature with the power of reason and the urge ot persist in its being. For it requires only the convictions that life is better than death, health is better than sickness, abidance is better th seean want, freedom is better than coercion, happiness is better than suffering, and knowledge is better than superstition and ignorance.”
Although progress has been remarkable, we must continue to work so we can continue to make it happen. As you know, I will work for progress by generating comprehensive improvements by creating pervasive, reciprocal, selfish, selfless, synergistic interactions so everyone and everything benefits, or by practicing paneugenesis. I look forward to hearing about the progress you help generate.
Be selfish, selfless, & synergistic so everyone and everything benefits!
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