By Joseph Chuman
It’s a new season at the Ethical Society. Those members and friends who have been attending the Society in the recent past know that I have devoted a good number of my Sunday addresses to the state of our political environment in the age of Trump. While the Society is a non-partisan organization, we are by no means neutral when it comes to the defense of freedom and democracy. And it is my deeply felt view that freedom and democracy have never been in greater peril than they are at this political moment. Not to speak out, and do so forcefully, would be a betrayal of Ethical Culture’s most cherished values, as well as a betrayal of my personal conscience. This is not a time for evasion, rationalization, pussy-footing or silence.
But as I begin this new season, I want to change perspective. This is not to deny the dangers we confront and the challenges we face. They call for forceful and unrelenting action and resistance. Change will not emerge unless we make it so.
However, what I wish to do in my opening address is pull back the lens and take a look at the human condition from a distance and across a broad spectrum. When we do this, we arguably live in the best of times. This is the position of the Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, elaborated in two recent magisterial books, “The Better Angels of Our Nature” and “Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.”
Pinker makes a powerful case, backed up by reams of data, and illustrated with scores of charts and graphs, that human progress is real and that human life in the ways that matter most continues to get better, indeed much better. In fact, as implied, we who are alive today live far better lives than our ancestors did a hundred, two hundred and five hundred years ago.
Life is less violent now
The first book is centered on the argument that people today in general are far less likely to die by violence than at any time before; in short, life is far more secure than at any time in history. While the news brings the horrors of war in places such as Syria, Afghanistan, and Congo to our attention incessantly, the statistical truth is that far more wars were raging during the Cold War period than today, and with few exceptions each century has been more peaceful than the one before. Pinker argues that even the 20th century, inclusive of the two World Wars, the violence wrought by Stalin and Mao, as well numerous genocides, was most likely not the most bloody in history, as is often assumed, when we compare the numbers killed with the population as a whole.
In short, Pinker argues that humanity has become less barbaric and more civilized and more humane. Among the historical dynamics making it so is the expansion of trade: It is far more valuable to have people alive to trade goods with than to have them dead. But he also credits in greatest measure the humanitarian revolution that was ushered into being by the European Enlightenment. In was a revolution of ideas that brought to the fore such values as equality, universalism, justice and dignity and laid the groundwork for human rights.
Much less poverty in the world today
Pinker’s second book is a development of the first. He makes the case that when it comes to the big issues of longevity, health, wealth, education, democracy, equal rights, knowledge and even such quasi-tangible conditions such as happiness and the quality of life, the human condition continues to get better and better. Two brief examples, the first known to me, the second a surprise. The first pertains to the percentage of people living in extreme poverty. He says, “In two hundred years the rate of extreme poverty in the world has tanked from 90 percent to 10, with almost half that decline occurring in the last thirty-five years.” In short, the last several decades have seen hundreds of millions of people lifted out of extreme poverty, so that “by 2008, China…had the same per capita income that Sweden did in 1950…” His second observation I find even more startling. According to Pinker, in 2015 a human being could expect to live on average 71.4 years! This is not just in the United States, or the West, but globally, taking into account all those premature deaths from hunger and disease in the developing world. By comparison, in the mid-18th century the average lifespan in Great Britain or America was 35 years. Globally, it was 29 years, and that was the way it was for much of human history before then.
When it comes to wealth and other indicators, Pinker doesn’t deny that there have been great gaps between those at the top and those at bottom, but he is emphatic that even for those in the lower countries and strata of society conditions are vastly improving over time.
Responding to a climate of complaint
I would guess that Pinker was inspired to research and write these tomes, which are engaging and a delight to read, in response to academic colleagues with whom he works and, I infer, generate an environment of negativism that one often finds in academia. It’s his mission to respond to a climate of complaint, of “ain’t it awful,” of perpetual kvetching that is so readily found among the intelligentsia. It should be said that by no means is Steven Pinker a determinist. Progress is a fact, but it is not inevitable. It is dependent on how we apply our knowledge, our critical thinking and our will to the problems that we confront.
I will discuss Steven Pinker’s thoughts more thoroughly in my opening address of the new season on Sept. 9. I have entitled it “Reasons for Optimism and Hope.” I look forward to seeing you then.
Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.