In the present climate, popular and intellectual alike, I am grateful to find someone prominent making the sort of case Steven Pinker is making in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It was actually a surprise to me, reading this, to realise how much I support him.

I do have some specific disagreements; for instance, I still do not support nuclear power because, although normally very safe, it carries a potential (however remote) for vast catastrophe not present with other forms of energy generation. (Maybe development of nuclear fusion or small reactors would change my attitude.)

But, as Pinker himself understands, the most difficult challenge for his attempt to update the 18th century Enlightenment comes with the progress theme and inequality. The current wave of populist politics, along with the impact of the Covid crisis, is only the latest form of an old challenge. More than either Pinker himself or fans of Critical Theory (as distinct from postmodernism) would admit, they agree except about progress. The outlook going by the name of Critical Theory had been developed, first in Germany in the 1920s and later in the USA after its exponents fled the Nazis, at a time when the Enlightenment promise seemed especially far-fetched. Pinker has been able to advance empirical data about beneficial trends in health, education, and welfare (not least in poorer parts of the world) which simply did not exist at the earlier time. But the psychology associated with inequality still seems to stimulate authoritarian and/or populist tendencies (of left or right, secular or religious).

I suggest Pinker's case could be supplemented by an explicit (rather than merely implicit) requirement that inequalities need to be limited to a level where they do not threaten people with abuse of power, denial of civil rights, and so on. This, rather than making a virtue of equality per se, is both easier to justify to people, and already implied by Pinker's own arguments - just spell it out!


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