Optimism and Pessimism: The Sad Case of Steven Pinker

As fate would have it, while checking out Gordon Marino’s new Existentialism book on Amazon, I caught the advertisement for Steven Pinker’s, Enlightenment Now.

According to the blurbs, and what I’ve seen in the interviews that he’s given, his notion is that if you take the long view, we should be optimistic: we live longer, have better health, more wealth, more peace, and more freedom than ever before.  He subscribes to the Enlightenment view of reason being an engine of progress, and an engine that has worked. He even graphs progress over the ages.

I don’t doubt his graphs, but I reject that the graphs should erase the bad news and make us optimistic.

Take this blurb for another new book:

A sweeping history of twentieth-century Europe, Out of Ashes tells the story of an era of unparalleled violence and barbarity yet also of humanity, prosperity, and promise.

Konrad Jarausch describes how the European nations emerged from the nineteenth century with high hopes for continued material progress and proud of their imperial command over the globe, only to become embroiled in the bloodshed of World War I, which brought an end to their optimism and gave rise to competing democratic, communist, and fascist ideologies. He shows how the 1920s witnessed renewed hope and a flourishing of modernist art and literature, but how the decade ended in economic collapse and gave rise to a second, more devastating world war and genocide on an unprecedented scale. Jarausch further explores how Western Europe surprisingly recovered due to American help and political integration. Finally, he examines how the Cold War pushed the divided continent to the brink of nuclear annihilation, and how the unforeseen triumph of liberal capitalism came to be threatened by Islamic fundamentalism, global economic crisis, and an uncertain future.

What’s the lesson? Well, it seems Out of Ashes captures the truth of the ups and downs of history in a vivid way, refusing — reasonably — to tally whether the ups outweigh the downs. He writes as any morally sensitive person would, recognizing the co-presence of barbarism and decency in recent European history.

What’s wrong with Pinker’s approach?

If I said I was optimistic about the world the day after 9/11 or Hiroshima, I’d be irrational, insensitive, and blind.  The Pinker view is that we should look at the high points in the ups and downs of history, and look from on high, not from the trenches or the emergency rooms or the villages subjected to gas attacks.

I’d say it can be immoral and certainly insensitive to watch the highs getting higher rather than taking in the horrors of immediate suffering.  If I lose only two of six children to street violence or disease I should — what? — cheer because 100 years ago I would have lost three of six children to violence or disease?!?

Pinker’s mistake is to think that judging progress in the long view gives me reason to be optimistic in the short view, here and now. If my here-and-now is Syria or Yemen, or loss of health benefits, or news of the disintegration of justice in Washington, it won’t help to join Pinker in applauding the fact that things were worse all around 200 or 500 years ago. Horrors are horrors whether or not medieval or stone age or 3rd world horrors are worse.

Dan Rather takes a walk in the woods when the news gets too depressing. That’s more reasonable that reading Pinker’s cheer-me-up tonic. Massacres should be depressing no matter their past frequencies or purported present infrequency. We should be ashamed and pessimistic that reason hasn’t made massacres as unthinkable today as dying  from the common cold.




11 comments on “Optimism and Pessimism: The Sad Case of Steven Pinker

  1. dmf says:

    well said, all of these folks who talk about the gains made via capitalisms never take into account that the cost of all that is our unfolding climate disaster, like accountants who don’t consider “externalities” in their costs of doing business.
    this bit of Said reminded me of your recent post on truth values:
    Berger’s project is to distinguish the authentic from the merely successful, and to save the former from the ravages of the latter.

  2. Steve Webb says:

    I haven’t read Pinker but I can imagine how he might reply. He might say that of course the overall trajectory of human history—its, to his way of thinking, demonstrable progress along many fronts over the long haul—does nothing by itself to solve all the problems that continue to plague us. What remembering the fact (if it is a fact) of human progress can do, however, is help us recover our lost confidence in ourselves as rational agents able to cooperate and build a better future for the earth. The aim of Pinker’s book (I’m speculating) is to counter the doom-and-gloom crowd—the tone-setters of our current Zeitgeist—who scoff at the very idea of progress and slump down in a brooding state of futility and inaction. Some people even go so far as to say that progress itself is the problem and that a drastic pruning back of the human species, even one brought about by cataclysmic events, would be preferable to all this reasoning and specious “progress.” We’d be better off living like our hunger-gatherer ancestors before the advent of fixed-field agriculture and the militaristic states that sprang up beside it. I suppose the question that each person must ask herself in all seriousness is whether it’s worthwhile to counter such counsels of despair.

    As for the idea that Pinker’s over-bright picture of our capacity for progress distracts us from a more solemn obligation to feel depressed, to grieve, and to know shame for all the extant misery in the world, I’m remind of a retort by Will Ladislaw in George Eliot’s “Middlemarch.” Dorothea, with whom Will has been conversing about art, has just said that the proliferation of art and its widespread enjoyment greatly pains her because it does nothing to allay the world’s suffering. Her consciousness of suffering, she says, “spoils my enjoyment of anything when I am made to think that most people are shut out from it.” To this Will impetuously accuses Dorothea of “the fanaticism of sympathy,” and goes on to explain: “If you carried it out you ought to be miserable in your own goodness, and turn evil that you might have no advantage over others. The best piety is to enjoy—when you can. You are doing the most then to save the earth’s character as an agreeable planet. And enjoyment radiates. It is no use to try and take care of all the world; that is being taken care of when you feel delight.”

    I would be reluctant to come down too hard on anyone who wants to encourage, in whatever way, the prospect that earth can be made a more agreeable planet. Maybe optimism, like the enjoyment of art, also radiates. It seems certain that pessimism does.

  3. dmf says:

    homo-rhetoricus vs homo-seriosus

  4. Steve Webb says:

    So I’ve gotten around to reading an interview of Pinker about his new book “Enlightenment Now,” and here’s the first thing I read: “It would be a mistake to think the message of the book is that we should be optimistic. The point of the book is that most measures of human well-being show that we have improved, that we should seek to understand what went right, and do more of that in the future.” He also says, “the defensible position [against what he calls ‘progressophobia’] is not cheerfulness but accuracy.” Had I read that first I might have saved myself a few foolish remarks. Oh well. I still think Will Ladislaw’s reproof of Dorothea is worth thinking about. Does sympathy have a limit beyond which it does more harm than good, both to oneself and others? A philosophical question!

  5. efmooney says:

    Confession — maybe Pinker is only for accuracy, not for optimism (I haven’t pursued his view far enough to see). Still, if you reject nay-sayers and pessimists, you at least prima facie endorse yea-saying and optimism (unless you think accuracy has no bearing on mood). One way to focus my retort to Pinker is to say that short term pessimism or optimism has little to do with the long term trends he attends to. Frankly, I’m much more interested in pessimism/optimism in the here and now regarding specific issues — not with global optimism or pessimism based on the data of millennia.

    • Steve Webb says:

      Here’s another bromide from the 19th-century, Ed, that might be relevant to your remark. It comes from an obscure English clergyman named Sydney Smith and takes the form of an exhortation: “Short views, for God’s sake, short views!” A somewhat blander version of the same call, also by Smith, reads: “Take short views, trust God, hope for the best.” The “views” that Smith is referring to are views on the future in relation to any work that might need doing. To perform any work with a cool head, he seems to say, we should resist asking whether our efforts will finally succeed. Above all, we should not allow our imaginations to fill up with fantasies of all that can go wrong, for that is only to second-guess ourselves and transform needed energy into a bad case of nerves. What we need, in other words, is to drastically foreshortened our perspective on the future. If we are called to a particular task, we should simply set about doing it and stop trying to clamber up the high wall separating us from the land of maybe-maybe not. We should concentrate our attention on the next and nearest steps and measure our success by the steps we have already taken. The best optimism, perhaps the only optimism left to us, is the confidence that the small bit we do today can be repeated tomorrow and over many days brought closer to something complete. As for the effect of our finite work on the state of the world as a whole, well, that really is the long view and turns our heads quite away from anything that we can sensibly accomplish today.

      • efmooney says:

        I like Pastor Smith, as you expound his maxim, “Short views, for God’s sake, short views”. We like to go cosmic, draw sweeping conclusions that prompt sweeping moods. Short views on little things, a bit of modesty, restraint. I have the feeling you are much more articulate and eloquent about this than Sydney Smith. Under what rock has he been hiding?

      • Steve Webb says:

        I came across the first quotation years and years ago in Saul Bellow’s novel “Mr. Sammler’s Planet,” uttered by the eponymous Artur Sammler himself. I have not seen it anywhere else in that particular form, and it’s entirely possible Bellow was offering up a fictional rendition of the second quote. What’s more, Bellow, or his character Sammler, interprets the exhortation to mean something like, “Express your views briefly, don’t expatiate, be succinct.” I obviously disagree with that take and I think the second quotation supports my view—but I won’t make a fuss. Other quotations by Rev. Smith can be found on various quotation websites. Some of them are quite humorous. It’s possible that his principle reason for espousing short views was his concern that tea time not be disrupted by long-view unpleasantnesses. “Hush, Margaret, all will be well in time, God willing. Now pass the cake and pour tea, won’t you dear?” That sort of thing. I give it a bit more gravitas.

  6. dmf says:

    ending well

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