This is a series of posts I wrote in reply to Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now first published at Social Matter.
Dark Enlightenment Now
Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now purports to be a defense of the Enlightenment c.1760s, but it reads more like a defense of the Star Trek techno-liberalism c.1960s (who’s the goddamn reactionary here?). Pinker himself comes across less like an Enlightenment philosopher and more as a Henry Ford freaking out over the tunes kids are listening to these days and urging them to listen to the music of his youth. In Greenfield Village, Ford the industrialist built a reproduction of the small town America of which he himself had contributed to the demise; Pinker the intellectual is trying to rebuild the intellectual environment of his youth in the 1960s, an environment that gave birth to the current climate from which he feels so alienated. The old wanting things to be as they were in their youth… I guess that’s human nature for you.
To the Boomers it is always the 1960s and it turns out that the important issues today are exactly what was important to 1960s liberals. In fact, the book reads like a cry of “can’t we just keep debating the same things we did in the 60s?” The main threat is still those dastardly Christian conservative creationists who are always on the brink of becoming Nazis. The multicultural disasters of Rotterdam, South Africa, Malmo, and Paris are nowhere to be found. All we need is more education and some 1960s-style integration programs. (Remember how in the 60s we did integration, and it worked so well that there are now no racial issues in politics?) But equally, Pinker doesn’t like how the Left has moved on from the 60s: away from individualism to identity politics, away from free speech and towards banning unpopular views, away from modernism and towards post-modernism.
The stated argument of the book is that the Enlightenment values of reason, science, and humanism produced great improvements to human welfare, but those values and the benefits they bestow are under threat from both the Left and Right, and so we must rededicate ourselves to protecting these values and fighting against their foes. Other reviewers have provided terrific evaluations of Pinker’s arguments. For examples, see here and here for great reviews.
This essay isn’t so much a review as a rejoinder. To first appearance Pinker seems to be demolishing foe after foe. However, on deeper analysis his arguments start to appear as a sleight-of-hand to dazzle the reader while the implied conclusions are slipped in under their cover. To go through every argument would require a book just as long, but to take one example, in chapter 21 on reason it appears as if Pinker is firing on all cylinders, quoting philosophers, studies in the social sciences, and amusing anecdotes to drive home his point when suddenly I was pulled out and asked, wait a second, what exactly is Pinker showing? The chapter on reason appears to just be a modest appeal to be aware of the ways in which biases and passions may distort reasoning, and the advice is all good, but then the conclusion as to what reason demands is delayed until the final chapter.
There are a number of ways in which someone might be said to be governed by reason and Pinker doesn’t disambiguate them. His examples are all cases of how public policy should be informed by discoveries in the sciences. I guess that’s one way of being governed by reason. But in the final chapter he adopts Spinoza’s dictum that: “Those who are governed by reason desire nothing for themselves which they do not also desire for the rest of humankind.” (P. 410) Pinker has jumped from the modest claim to beware of biases to the strong claim that we can and should be governed by reason, and that if you are governed by reason you will adopt such and such moral views. But chapter 21 showed no such thing, as is here being implied. The classic Enlightenment-era debates on the powers of reason (or lack thereof) to reveal moral truths are nowhere to be found. The skepticism about the nature of reason which Pinker appears to be attacking was always about whether reason could be employed to prove some particular point: whether you could deduce the nature of thing-in-themselves, or whether pure reason could prove existence, infer effects from causes, generate moral imperatives or ultimate ends. These classic instances of skepticism about the powers of reason are not addressed. Pinker’s avoidance of Hume’s arguments and uncritical adoption of Spinoza is a glaring omission.
In fact, the entire book, not just a single chapter, follows this pattern. What is being proven in chapter 1? That there was a thing called the Enlightenment? On reading chapter 1, which refuses to enter into the heated debates of the Enlightenment, or discuss where major Enlightenment figures disagreed, I was sure that it must be just an overview and that he would return to state and defend a specific thesis of a particular Enlightenment thinker, but no, he never does. Or take chapter two. Here Pinker reviews what he takes to be the three major intellectual developments that have happened since the Enlightenment: entropy, Darwinism, and information theory, abbreviated as entro, evo, info. Upon reading this I thought we might have something really valuable, that Pinker was going to use these three tools to resolve enduring debates. I figured that eventually he was going to return to these three ideas to put them to work, but when he does in chapter 23, it really goes off the rails, as I will argue in future installments.
The longest section of the book, section 2, points out all of the ways life has improved and is getting better. But it all can be summed up as the claim that there has been great improvements in technology, and that we have used this technology to cure diseases, increase crop yields, and exploit fossil fuels for economic growth which reduces competition for resources. Again, I can’t see that anyone would deny this, (except on the topic of declining violence where Pinker has faced criticism). I suppose one could argue that the thesis that technology should be put to work improving human welfare is an Enlightenment value, but does anyone today deny this? Who is he arguing against? Radical environmentalists alone, I suppose.
And this is the fallacy that lies at the heart of the entire book:
Enlightenment = science/technology + liberalism
Technology has produced improvements to human welfare.
Therefore, liberalism produces improvements to human welfare.
Most revealingly, in chapter 23 on humanism, in just a few pages Pinker dispenses with the debates between utilitarianism vs. deontology, the argument from cosmological constants, and the nature of consciousness without making any original points. I don’t want to criticize Pinker for failing to resolve ancient and difficult issues, and wouldn’t if he didn’t act like they’ve all been solved. He must know his easy dismissal of these difficult debates is not going to convince anyone who has studied these issues in any depth, so why are they there? The chapter on reason won’t convince those who study reason, the chapter on morality won’t convince those that study morality, so for whom is this book intended? If they are not there to contribute anything to these issues, they must be there to lure the easily lured. And this reveals what Enlightenment Now is really about; it isn’t a book about the history of the Enlightenment, progress, or political theory. It is an exercise in political rhetoric, frame control. As John Grey writes in his review: “To think of this book as any kind of scholarly exercise is a category mistake. The purpose of Pinker’s laborious work is to reassure liberals that they are on “the right side of history.”” These easy dismissals of difficult issues are there to sway the easily swayable and reassure the wavering.
This book is clearly aimed at a mass audience and my impression is that by design a casual reader will be swayed by Pinker’s barrage of studies, even if they don’t quite see exactly how his moral and political conclusions follow from his arguments. He’s got all these charts in the middle chapters, so he must be proving what he asserts in the later chapters! After all, Pinker himself comes across as supremely confident in the validity and importance of his positions, and he is a professor at Harvard, and I’m just a layperson, so I’ll take his word for it. In this light, the entire book comes across as an attempt to create a cover story for a political program and should be judged on its success towards this end, and not as a work in the history of ideas.
I think it is clear that Pinker was very disturbed by Brexit and Trump, and decided that these movements needed to be dismantled. The book would have been far better if it was more of a dispassionate analysis of the arguments that were made on behalf of Trump and Brexit, but Pinker jumps to the hysterical conclusion that Trump is a danger to the Enlightenment itself! We must stand up to defend Enlightenment values against this onslaught! Trump is a “neo-theo-reactionary-populist” nationalist! (p. 450.) To Pinker the biggest threats are, as always, theoconservatives (p.448) and romantic militarism/fascism (p. 449). Actually, Trump is closest in spirit to a 1980s Democrat and Pinker is being ridiculously paranoid. There is no chance that a religious theocracy or fascist dictatorship will emerge in the West, that is, unless it’s imposed by Islam. Fired up by the 2016 election while writing, Pinker failed to heed his own warning about political passions distorting good reasoning.
Thus, there are two themes running through the book. Primarily, the plan of the book is to claim certain theses as the Enlightenment view, show how these have worked spectacularly in improving life, and to answer challenges to these positions. On the other hand, the secondary theme involves a diagnosis of where the problem of recent populist revolts originates, and a prescription on how defeat it. As for the origin of this scourge, Pinker runs through a number of possible explanations such as economic pressure (p. 339), racism (p. 340), education (p. 339), and settles on cultural backlash as the primary driver of “the regressive, authoritarian, tribal populism pushing back” (p. 341). Pinker never deems it necessary to actually read the writings of these people and is happy to look at Leftists’ own explanations which of course see the worst motives. I will provide my own explanation in part 3 of this series.
As for how to defeat it, surely we should use the Enlightenment ideals of open debate and rational discourse in order to reach the truth? No, suddenly reason is nowhere to be found and his strategies are all ways to achieve the goals of Leftists in the sneakiest way possible. First, shut up about talking too loudly about the Left’s true motives, sneak them in quietly, and don’t say anything to inflame the opposition: “Cultural backlash does seem to be a driver, so avoiding needlessly polarizing rhetoric, symbolism, and identity politics might help to recruit, or at least not repel, voters who are not sure which team they belong to” (p. 342). So the aim is to win recruits to your “team” by your rhetorical skills and misdirection?
Secondly, let urbanization and demographics overwhelm the opposition (p.343). Finally, and most importantly, use the media to paint a picture of positivity and happiness (p. 343). Negativity, subjectivity, and relativism work to take down an enemy, but with America effectively dismantled, and in the hands of Leftists, we need to switch to a new public relations campaign of positivity and claim of objectivity.
But relentless negativity can itself have unintended consequences, and recently a few journalists have begun to point hem out. In the wake of the 2016 American election, the New York Times writers David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg reflected on the media’s role in its shocking outcome:
“Trump was the beneficiary of a belief–near universal in American journalism–that “serious news” can essentially be defined as “what’s gone wrong”… For decades journalism’s steady focus on problems and seemingly incurable pathologies was preparing the soil that allowed Trump’s seeds of discontent and despair to take root.”
Bornstein and Rosemberg don’t blame the usual culprits (cable TV, social media, late-night comedians) but instead trace it to the shift during the Vietnam and Watergate eras from glorifying leaders to checking their power. (P. 50)
If Enlightenment Now is at root a political book, I can’t help but wonder about the politics here. Why is it all of a sudden so important for the news media to start painting an optimistic picture after so many decades of negativity? What’s implied is that the media, having succeeded in their 60 year campaign to take down traditional America, need to switch from negativity to a propaganda of how great things now are. Aggressive negativity and constant attacks on how horrible traditional America is was fine for Leftists to use for the last 60 years, but now that we’re in control we need to switch our propaganda tactics to aggressive optimism to shut down the critics (including writing books about how great things are). The 1960s liberals are now the conservatives arguing for the status quo.
Along these lines, Pinker sees the necessity of the return to the strategy of claiming the right to rule by the masters of Reason. Pushing the knife in with post-modern anti-realism has finally met with resistance, and so as to prevent the enemy from pulling the knife out, it is time to change back to claiming the right to rule based on possession of superior reason, and its bestowal on the best reasoners, academia, with the power to reveal prescriptive moral truth. True, Pinker is not saying that scientists should directly rule:
“For the same reason, a call for everyone to think more scientifically must not be confused with a call to hand decision-making over to scientists… It doesn’t matter, because we’re not talking about which priesthood should be granted power; we’re talking about how collective decisions can be made more wisely.” (P. 390 – 391.)
Although he claims to be merely arguing that people should be taught to reason better, he consistently then jumps to inform us as to the conclusions of this better reasoning which should be adopted. Then, in order to get everyone to adopt these conclusions academia should spread them through proxies like the media and universities.
“[E]ntire populations can shift when a critical nucleus of persuadable influencers changes its mind and everyone else follows along… Across the society as a whole the wheels of reason turn slowly and it would be nice to speed them up. The obvious places to apply this torque are in education and the media [emphasis mine].” (P. 377-378).
So Harvard should pass down its decrees to the education, media, and entertainment complex, which will then distribute its worldview to the masses via its network of influencers. Somebody claimed that this is how things work and had a name for it, but I can’t remember who at the moment. Forgive me if I am skeptical in 2018 of the ability to academia and the media to be impartial distributors of politically neutral truth. Leftists saw long ago that the way things work is that the universities tell us what truth demands, and then advises the state and distributes its finding to the people. Thus the necessity of the long march through the institutions. I have no problem with universities advising on pure science, but the social sciences and x-studies departments have taken control of moral education using the prestige universities enjoy to claim the right to distribute completely unscientific socially destructive ego fulfillment fantasies. Wake me when all the social sciences and x-studies departments have been dismantled and the remnants moved over to their rightful place as sub-fields of the biology department.
What comes out most clearly from Enlightenment Now is Pinker’s disdain for traditional red-blooded Americans and their traditions. In Pinker’s eyes, if you’re not a deracinated cosmopolitan you’re an ignorant bigot. Any emotional attachment one might have or preference for your homeland, nation, people, ancestors–the attachments that make us who we are–are the result of a failure to be sufficiently impartial and the result of either ignorance or evil. In a passage that reads like a Stormfront parody of a rootless cosmopolitan seeking his next hotel, Pinker claims a nation is nothing more than a condominium complex.
“When a “nation” is conceived as a tacit social contract among people sharing a territory, like a condominium association, it is an essential means for advancing its members flourishing” (P. 31).
But if a nation is thought of as anything more than that, such as the protection of a distinctive people’s homeland, way of life, traditions, or birthright; if you have been shaped by its history and you cherish its soil more than any other because you have been formed from it and your ancestors have have lived on and spilt blood, sweat, and tears on its behalf, and if you want to preserve it for your people, well then you’re an ignorant bigot.
No one would fight for and die for their condo complex (which might be a feature not a bug to Pinker). I can’t see Churchill declaring “we shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our condo complex, to ride out the storm of war… to defend the condo complex, aiding each other like good comrades to the utmost of their strength… we shall defend our condo complex, whatever the cost may be.” If you are in any way disturbed by the prospect that your people are disappearing from the land they have occupied for generations, centuries, or millennia, if your neighborhood goes from being Irish or Italian to Mexican or Chinese seemingly overnight, if you feel any sense of loss, tragedy, or anger at this prospect, if you would like to urge your people to take steps to continue to exist, well you’re just a bigot. Nothing of value has been lost, you are immoral to think it has, and you have no justification to complain or feel a sense of loss. It’s just a condo complex, it makes no difference who lives there, and if you don’t like what’s going on just move to one with higher property values.
No, I don’t think reason or science demands that you have no such attachments to your people, traditions, religion, or homeland and must become deracinated cosmopolitans. Actually, I don’t think Pinker knows what it is to truly love a country, to love its individual distinctiveness and its history as the history of your people; he probably felt alienated from Canada as a Canadian, and feels alienated now as an American. To Pinker, a nation is just colors on a map (p. 31). I don’t think he can sympathize with or understand the feelings of those whose ancestors have built, fought for, and died for that patch of color on the map, that this is the homeland of your people, and that its history is the history of your people. And since he doesn’t feel it himself, he can’t understand how others might feel that way. They must be irrational (but love of one’s children is irrational as well). What a coincidence that Pinker’s cosmopolitanism would serve to benefit transnational scholars, but the rubes are too stupid to know what is in their interest. Pinker never wonders whether it is more than a coincidence that the values he advocates just so happens to benefit him, and whether the rubes he disdains might actually know what’s best for them.
“Trump voters” commit the greatest offense of all, they love America (or England, or France, or Germany, etc.), and not for its adherence to universal values, but because of its individual irreplaceable distinctiveness and the sacrifices that have been made on its behalf. They see that its unique distinctiveness is the soil out of which their own unique distinctiveness grew; they know that there is more to being an American or Englishman or Frenchman than merely residing there. Pinker titled a book from Lincoln’s “the better angels of our nature,” but ignores that it was “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave” that inspired those angels, not any adherence to abstractions. The traditional Americans who built and love this country are treated worse than Boxer the horse from Animal Farm who labored in true faith to build the farm but then was discarded. (At least Boxer was honored on the farm before being sent off to the glue works.) Pinker is positively gleeful at the prospect of their death. “How might one counter the populist threat to Enlightenment values? … As has been said about science, sometimes society advances funeral by funeral” (P. 342 – 343.) Fuck this guy.
Pinker acts as though the recent surge of populism across the Western world is a reincarnated Nazi death cult bent on world destruction rather than moderate liberals who simply think that immigration levels should be reduced and, maybe, horror-of-horrors, that it is a rightful role of the state to ensure the continued existence of its particular constituent ethnic group, something everyone accepted as common knowledge until, like, 10 years ago. None of this is a threat to “Enlightenment values.” I also think Pinker is insane to think that the barbaric populists are being displaced by enlightened cosmopolitans as the influx of immigrants into the enlightened West are far more tribal than the natives.
Pinker’s argument for cosmopolitanism is:
It is individuals, not groups, who are sentient–who feel pleasure and pain, fulfillment and anguish. Whether it is framed as the goal of providing the greatest happiness to the greatest number or as a categorical imperative to treat people as ends rather than means, it was the universal capacity of a person to suffer and flourish, they said, that called on our moral concern.
Fortunately, human nature prepares us to answer that call. That is because we are endowed with the sentiment of sympathy, which they also called benevolence, pity, and commiseration. Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind, particularly as reason goads us into realizing that there can be nothing uniquely deserving about ourselves or any of the groups to which we belong. We are forced into cosmopolitanism: accepting our citizenship in the world. (P. 10 – 11.)
First of all, Pinker is willing to sacrifice the welfare of the working class in developed nations to improve the welfare of those in developing nations (p. 112). Is that how sympathy works? It’s OK to sacrifice the welfare of some as long as you feel moderately bad about it so then you can feel good about yourself for feeling bad about it? Second, it is just not true that “it was the universal capacity of a person to suffer and flourish, they said, that called on our moral concern.” The “they” in the passage seems to refer to Enlightenment thinkers as whole, but this certainly doesn’t apply to Locke or Kant for whom it was the capacity to reason that made an individual a subject of moral concern. Thirdly, whatever happened to inclusive fitness? I thought it was kin selection that made us care for family, and reciprocal altruism that made us concerned with unrelated cooperators, our friends, or tribe? Doesn’t this predict that the “circle of sympathy” will not expand beyond these limits? Fourth of all, where is that Enlightenment titan Hume’s view that reason alone can not motivate behavior? All of a sudden reason can goad us or force us into behavior? Fifth of all, even if sympathy is an evolved characteristic (and not a disguised self-interest, say, a drive for social approval), it is incredibly weak and nowhere to be found when massacres, stonings, lynchings, rapes, and the rest of the horrible list of atrocities is happening. Sympathy is a luxury good and only seems to operate when an individual is in a state of secured plenty, when they don’t see others as a competitor or threat, when they feel completely secure in their situation and perceive no prospect of future insecurity. Unfortunately, most people, maybe not Harvard professors, but most people, are worried about their jobs, their ability to support their family, and the safety of their loved ones. They do feel that others are competitors for their jobs and wages, and are in a supply-and-demand struggle. Then there are those who are moved to rob, assault, rape, or murder. For those not in a privileged state of plenty, it is often, and perhaps primarily, fear, fear of the police, or fear of falling into poverty, not sympathy, that motivates forbearance. Finally, there is something uniquely deserving about the groups to which we belong, and that is that only we can perpetuate them, and it is our feelings of ethnic pride, love, patriotism, and affection which motivate people to do what it takes to see that their nation or group persists.
Pinker makes the following points when trying to take down the resurgent nationalisms:
First, the claim that humans have an innate imperative to identify with a nation-state (with the implication that cosmopolitanism goes against human nature) is bad evolutionary psychology… People undoubtedly feel solidarity with their tribe, but whatever intuition of “tribe” we are born with cannot be a nation state, which is a historical artifact of the 1648 Treaties of Westpahlia. (Nor could it be a race, since our evolutionary ancestors seldom met a person of another race.) (P. 450).
This is like saying a rat could never develop an aversion to toxic chemicals because it never encountered toxic chemicals in its evolutionary history (this example is from Millikan’s “Truth Rules, Hoverflies, and the Kripke-Wittgenstein Paradox.”) People are perfectly capable of learning they belong to a race, religion, or ethnicity and that they must do certain things in order for their kind to persist. Pinker:
“People see themselves as belonging to many overlapping tribes: their clan, hometown, native country, adopted country, religion, ethnic group, alma mater, fraternity or sorority, political party, employer, service organization, sports team, even brand of camera equipment. (If you want to see tribalism at its fiercest, check out a “Nikon vs. Canon” Internet discussion group)” (p. 450.)
It is passages like these that caused John Grey to call the book “embarrassing.” Pinker thinks he can get by with a straight face and an exasperated tone. It is the intellectual equivalent of John Stewart making faces at the camera. I could see Pinker read this passage at a TED Talk, pause, look at the audience, make a face, and wait to the audience to howl on cue. Can he seriously think that these are all equivalent? It is really dishonest to slip ethnic group in with the the other groups and then claim they are all equivalent because people can see themselves as belonging to them all. Does he truly believe that if the Canon users group died out it is equivalent to if the English died out? You do not choose your racial or ethnic group the way you choose to join the other groups. Most importantly, new members are added to racial and ethnic groups by births, not posting an Reddit.
No nationalist has ever claimed that their nation-state is the one and only group to which they belong, or that there can’t be conflicts of loyalty. But if a nation-state does have the purpose of protecting the existence of their ethnic or religious group, it does give a person a reason to support their nation and reduces conflicts of loyalties between nation and ethnic group, or between ethnic groups within a nation, unlike if a nation treats its people as fungible and does not give a damn whether its historical population endures. There is an entirely different attitude towards the state that comes from thinking of one’s country as protecting and serving the interests of your people rather than as a neutral arbiter who is entirely indifferent. If America is just a refugee camp attached to an office park with a massive state apparatus to keep the whole thing running please let me know because I would need to adjust my feelings towards it. There is no way one would love a refugee camp attached to an office park the way they love their country.
Next Pinker writes:
“The claim that ethnic uniformity leads to cultural excellence is as wrong as an idea can be… Vibrant cultures sit in vast catchment areas in which people and innovations flow from far and wide.” (P. 450).
Perhaps Pinker has heard that there is a thing called the internet, and before that books and letters, by which ideas can travel? I hear Japan is a peaceful, prosperous, and technologically advanced country.
“Finally, let’s not forget why international institutions and global consciousness arose in the first place. Between 1803 and 1945, the world tried an international order based on nation-states heroically struggling for greatness… The result, as we saw in chapter 11, has been seventy years of peace and prosperity in Europe and, increasingly, the rest of the world.” (p. 451.)
None of the current moderate nationalists have been arguing for militant expansionist nationalism. If anything, they have been arguing against other groups expanding into their states. Also, these 70 years were before the current waves of mass migrations, where de-facto ethno-nationalism held, and would be an argument in favor of strong borders, not against them. If Pinker is against the recent revival of nationalism he should be in favor of the strong borders that held during this time and against the mass migrations and the removal of borders that has inflamed resurgent nationalism.
So Enlightenment Now succeeds in illustrating the ways technology has improved people’s lives, but it fails as a moral and political argument. If Pinker had just claimed we should keep using technology to improve human lives it would have been more successful. And it could have been really great if he had used his discussion of evo, entro, info to attack post-modern/post-structuralism/critical theory anti-realism. It is the post-modern leftists who reject truth, reason, and reality itself who are the true threats to Enlightenment values, not Trump. And today’s SJW Leftists are far more radical and wield far more power than the Christian Coalition ever did. True, he writes that the:
prophets of doom are the all-stars of the liberal arts curriculum, including Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon, Michel Foucault, Edward Said, Cornel West, and a chorus of eco-pessimists. (P. 39 – 40).
The humanities have yet to recover from the disaster of postmodernism, with its defiant obscurantism, self-refuting relativism, and suffocating political correctness. Many of its luminaries–Nietzsche, Heideggar, Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, the Critical Theorists–are morose cultural pessimists who declare that modernity is odious, all statements are paradoxical, works of art are tools of oppression, liberal democracy is the same as fascism, and Western civilization is circling the drain.” (P. 406.) [wtf I love Pinker now]
If he had dug into the writings of these authors and criticized their positions in detail he would have had something great on his hands. But no, disappointingly he goes on to discuss how the media makes people think things are getting bad, and should use its power to convince them everything is great.
Instead, the task of using entro, eco, info to attack leftist post-modern anti-realism has been the job, and the pleasure, of the Dark Enlightenment, and it more as a guidepost to the Dark Enlightenment that Enlightenment Now has real value.
For those unfamiliar with ancient history, in 2012 Nick Land published an essay called “The Dark Enlightenment.” Reading it now, the essay has not aged well as it was heavily preoccupied with the hot issues of the time: the Greek financial crisis, John Derbyshire’s firing from the National Review, Trayvon Martin, and George Zimmerman. It reads mostly as a Brit being shocked by his discovery of the sad problems of American politics of race. However, soon after Land’s “Dark Enlightenment” appeared Radish began producing the funny/ironic/affectionate “Heroes of the Dark Enlightenment” trading cards, and Scharlach produced his well-known-at-the-time map of the Dark Enlightenment. These latter two developments expanded the scope of the Dark Enlightenment beyond the concerns of Land’s essay. It was the nodes on Scharlach’s map, more than the views of any one thinker, that interested me (See “The Dark Enlightenment For Newbies” https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2014/12/04/the-dark-enlightenment-for-newbies/ ).
Today, no one on the right talks about the Dark Enlightenment; the only people who mention it are the occasional lefty who have stumbled upon some other lefty attacking a strawman. Either they insanely try to use it as a way to attack Trump, as in, Peter Thiel has heard of Moldbug, and Steve Bannon has spoken to Peter Thiel, and Steve Bannon was President Trump’s adviser, therefore, Trump is really Moldbug! Or it isn’t too strange to see a deranged lefty squealing “OMG! The Dark Enlightenment equals the opposite of the Enlightenment, and the Enlightenment equals Science, so the Dark Enlightenment is against science and for a return to the Dark Ages!” I guess the confusion over what the DE was is understandable as there never was much of an agreement. I remember sympathetic writers at the time writing things such as “The Dark Enlightenment, also known as neoreaction,” and elsewhere “Neoreaction equals neo-cameralism,” therefore, one would be justified in thinking that the Dark Enlightenment equals private government.
Also, at the time there was another split concerning what neoreaction itself was. On the one hand there were those for whom it was synonymous with private government. This was contrasted with what was called “the trichotomy”: the conjunction of capitalism, ethnic nationalism, and social traditionalism. I think it is safe to say that the banner of “the trike” was more-or-less picked up by the alt-right. Neoreaction was then owned by the Moldbuggians, and “Dark Enlightenment” fell between the cracks and out of use.
And so there were at least four ways to think of the Dark Enlightenment.
There was the DE as synonymous with neoreaction. But this misses people like hbdchick, Steve Sailer, and Greg Cochran who were featured on Scharlach’s map and Radish’s cards.
Or you could think of the Dark Enlightenment as a group of dissident bloggers who were dissatisfied with the dominant post-modern progressivism and corporate conservatism and probed the intellectual foundations of these structures.
Or you could just think of the Dark Enlightenment as a specific one-time historical event that happened in 2012/13 when all these bloggers discovered each other and saw that they were all attacking the premises of the current post-modern progressivism from different angles.
But there was also a wider notion prevalent at the time, that the Dark Enlightenment was more akin to the historical Enlightenment; it was a wider intellectual movement, a dawning of new ideas. In The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson called for a “New Enlightenment.” This was to be a rejuvenation of the humanities through application of insights gained in the biological sciences. Perhaps, if the Dark Enlightenment had called itself the New Enlightenment and claimed to be picking up Wilson’s banner it would have had greater legs. Or perhaps Enlightenment+ would have been a better name, setting itself up as an avowed enemy to the in-vogue leftist Atheism+. But in truth Dark Enlightenment was a perfect title as it explicitly wished to refute the sunny optimism of the perfectibility of mankind which followed from blank slate egalitarianism. (Isn’t it odd that Pinker wrote one book singing the praises of the Enlightenment and another shredding the Enlightenment’s strongest pillar in The Blank Slate?)
In Enlightenment Now Pinker might have unwittingly provided the long sought after definition of the Dark Enlightenment: Enlightenment plus entro, evo, info. But if so, I don’t think it has the implications Pinker thinks it does. The rest of this essay will be about proposing an alternative view to Pinker’s as to the implications of evo, entro, info. First I’m going to quickly run through a number of ways in which entro, evo, info would have consequences contrary to the reigning post-modern liberalism. To start with evo, the Dark Enlightenment, more than any other online community, was always heavily interested in recent developments in the study of human biology, especially human biodiversity, genetic anthropology, behavioral genetics, evolutionary, and bio- psychology. The Dark Enlightenment takes the message and implication’s of Pinkers The Blank Slate to heart more seriously than any other group. More seriously than Pinker himself probably. Along these lines we can see the following developments which might be seen as the Dark Enlightenment view:
Anthropology: The dominant view of indigenous tribes as pacifists and violence as being the result of civilization, capitalism, or imperialism is being disproven.
History: The use of modern genetics to discredit anthropologists’ and historians’ “pots not people” dogma and replace it with a truer history that includes migrations, massacres, and displacements/genocide, in addition to genetic changes as a result of the different histories of distinct peoples, could be considered Dark Enlightenment history.
Human Biodiversity: As opposed to blank slate equalism, individual and group psychological and physical differences have genetic or otherwise biological component, in addition to any cultural influences, instead of being the result of culture or upbringing alone.
Moving on to entro, Pinker writes:
How is entropy relevant to human affairs? Life and happiness depend on an infinitesimal sliver of orderly arrangements of matter amid the astronomical number of possibilities.
From an Olympian vantage point, it defines the fate of the universe and the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and knowledge to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. (P. 16 – 17.)
Pinker is looking pretty squarely at what is jokingly referred to as the great crab god Gnon, an anagram of “Nature Or Nature’s God.” Basically, Gnon is the natural processes that explain why things—individuals, groups, states, institutions, etc.– endure through time. Which brings us to the next theses of the Dark Enlightenment, realism, as opposed to social constructivism, concerning kinds: species, race, ethnic, cultural, and psychological kinds. Pinker writes:
“Once self-organizing processes of physics and chemistry gave rise to a configuration of matter that could replicate itself, the copies would make copies, which would make copies of the copies, and so on, in an exponential explosion.” (P. 18.)
Of course, the replicating genes do not travel alone, they hang together in DNA strands, which ride in individuals. The genes and memes residing in more or less isolated populations of these individuals, subject to shaping by the forces of a common environment and history over millennia, will form the distinctive ethnic and racial groups we find inhabiting the world. (See “Why the ‘No True Scotsman’ Fallacy Isn’t a Fallacy” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/why-the-no-true-scotsman-fallacy-isnt-a-fallacy-and-why-it-matters/) and “Race (and) Realism” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2014/05/19/race-and-realism-part-1/ )) This common history worked to mold people so as to produce similarities among groups of individuals, and in order for these kinds to continue to persist, to fight the tide of entropy as it wears on these human kinds, they must do certain things such as make new members at least as fast as old ones die, protect their territory, pass on their traditions, and so on. If they fail to do these thing they will bring down the wrath of Gnon. Thus, ethnic and racial groups must be permitted to do what it takes to continue to persist, as long as they are not harming any other groups or individuals, including reserving their territory for themselves. To prevent the members of these kinds from doing this, especially protecting their territory, would be genocidal (see “The Ultimate Guide To Cultural Marxist Genocide.” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2014/09/10/the-ultimate-guide-to-cultural-marxist-genocide-part-1/)) I wonder what Pinker thinks people are and aren’t allowed to do to ensure the existence of their kind. His hatred of partiality (p. 412) and tribalism (p. 333) makes me think that nothing is permitted as any such efforts would require partiality towards ones own kind.
If you combine the natural selection of evo with the copying of entro you get teleofunctionalism, which should be added to Pinker’s trio: evo, entro, info, and teleo. Teleofunctionalism explains why biological functions and cultural products like language forms, cooperative conventions, social institutions, traditions, and distinctive styles proliferate and endure. (See “The Biosemantics of Self-Representation.” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2016/04/14/the-biosemantics-of-self-representation-part-1/ )) It also explains why cultural diversity produces failures of functional conventions and its attendant feelings of alienation and destruction of social capital. (See “Alienation and Diversity” ( https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/alienation-and-diversity/ ) and “Why Diversity Destroys Social Capital” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2015/03/09/why-diversity-destroys-social-capital-part-1/. ))
And finally it supports an account of sex realism: sexual attraction is primarily a biological rather than cultural process, sex is not a social construct, and sexual orientation is a mistaken folk theory. See “The Myth of Sexual Orientation” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2014/01/17/the-myth-of-sexual-orientation/ ) and “Sex Is Not A Social Construct” (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2015/10/21/sex-is-not-a-social-construct/ )
In part 1 I said that I would give my own explanation for the recent surge in right wing activism and it is this: if you adopt liberalism you go extinct, and the Right is fighting against Leftist deathwish values. In Pinker’s barrage of charts and graphs the most important one is missing: fertility rates. The birthrates of all modern, Enlightened, liberal nations are below replacement levels and will ultimately lead to the extinction of these peoples if they persist in their current direction. Values have survival value and everywhere modern liberalism reigns it sets the people on the path to extinction. Isn’t it convenient that Pinker doesn’t look at the survival value of his Enlightenment values? Apparently when it comes to evaluating Enlightenment values themselves evo and entro are no longer important. Modern Enlightened nations are not being killed by enemies, eradicated by disease, wiped out by natural disasters, or devoured by predators; they are being wiped out by their own deathwish values. Enlightenment appears to be the worst path a people can take from a Darwinian perspective. Evolutionist X’s saying “Modernity selects for those who resist it” might best encapsulate this movement. Hilariously, Pinker writes:
Many Jewish and Christian denominations have become humanistic, soft-pedaling their legacy of supernatural beliefs and ecclesiastical authority in favor of reason and universal human flourishing. Examples include the Quakers, Unitarians, liberal Episcopalians, Nordic Lutherans, and Reform, Reconstructionist, and Humanistic branches of Judaism (P. 412.)
He couldn’t have picked a better list of dying denominations if he tried. All of these are dying out to the extent that they become less religious!
It is not ignorance, superstition, bigotry, or irrationality that is motivating the Right. It is that the Right can see that everything the Left touches dies. Institutions such as businesses, the military, or entire national governments require hierarchy and they die if they become egalitarian. Ethnic and religious groups die as they abandon traditionalism and adopt Leftist materialism. On the other hand, the values of traditionalism are designed, in a very “evo” sense of designed, to prevent social problems and preserve your nation, family, ethnicity, or culture. That’s what the new populist right is fighting for.
We now turn to the moral and political views Pinker espouses. Primarily, I wish to claim that Pinker’s liberal cosmopolitanism is not the best way to pursue his goal of human flourishing.
Pinker claims to be in favor of promoting human flourishing (p. 264, 412), and approves of utilitarianism as the means by which this is to be done. Pinker’s positive statements about morality are all quite general and it is somewhat difficult to pin down specifics. He claims to be in favor of utilitarianism, but nowhere in Enlightenment Now does Pinker promote a simple act-utilitarianism. He certainly hasn’t flown off to Bangladesh to labor on behalf of the extremely poor where he could produce the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Pinker’s examples are all of natural human drives that he feels should not be impeded–“food, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love, sex, and camaraderie” (p. 414). However, other aspects of human nature–“tribalism, authoritarianism, demonization, zero-sum thinking” (p. 333)–are bad and need to be blocked. But then again “human nature, with its messy needs for beauty, nature, tradition, and social intimacy” (p. 12) should be respected.
Pinker’s examples of active promotion of human welfare are all undertaken by the state, and so I think humanism, cosmopolitanism, and utilitarianism are combined in a morality of Kantianism-lite, with the utilitarian promotion of human welfare being the domain of the state. By “Kantianism-lite” I mean the view that the entirety of morality is to not use others as a means to an end they do not themselves share, and tolerate any behavior that does not violate this rule, ignoring Kant’s belief that we have positive duties to ourselves and others. This seems to be a pretty close approximation of the standard modern liberal view.
When describing what human flourishing entails, Pinker writes:
The physical requirements that allow rational agents to exist in the material world are not abstract design specifications; they are implemented in the brain as wants, needs, emotions, pains, and pleasures. On average, and in the kind of environment in which our species was shaped, pleasurable experiences allowed our ancestors to survive and have viable children, and painful ones led to a dead end. That means that food, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love, sex, and camaraderie are not shallow indulgences or hedonistic distractions. They are links in the causal chain that allowed minds to come into being. Unlike ascetic and puritanical regimes, humanistic ethics does not second-guess the intrinsic worth of people seeking comfort, pleasure, and fulfillment—if people didn’t seek them, there would be no people. [my emphasis] (P. 414)
Pinker is so close to seeing Gnon here. (Of course the same argument applies to kinds like ethnic and racial groups; if their members don’t do certain things, they cease to exist, but then the argument becomes pure evil.) Despite outright stating “pleasurable experiences allowed our ancestors to survive and have viable children, and painful ones led to a dead end”, I refuse to believe he actually could be saying this. Fear and anger allowed our ancestors to survive as well, but they are not pleasurable. So is anxiety over a sick child, and worry over exam results. He must be arguing for the lesser conclusion that avoidable pain that doesn’t serve its designed purpose is harmful, and pleasures are not bad if they do what they were designed to do. Does he really think that hairshirt wearing extreme ascetics are a bigger problem than hedonists today?
As with his discussion of reason, despite only making a modest point, he then goes on to act as if he’s proved a major one. He acts as if he’s made the larger point that human flourishing means the maximizing of pleasurable experiences over the course of your life and avoiding unpleasurable ones. But maximizing pleasurable experiences is not what humans did that was selected for. Something like fear of ostracism was selected because being in a cooperative community was advantageous. The benefits that cooperation bestow to individuals was the ultimate effect of the fear of ostracism or loneliness, not the acquisition of pleasure. If people could take a pill to get pleasure whenever they felt fear of ostracism, instead of actually working to get the benefits of cooperation, they would eventually be out-competed by those who did actually get the benefits of cooperation.
What Pinker is missing is that these mental states all have distinct etiologies and intermediate functions before the ultimate function of survival and reproduction. In writing “pleasurable experiences allowed our ancestors to survive and have viable children, and painful ones led to a dead end” he’s jumping straight from pleasure to survival and reproduction. Pinker says that “They are links in the causal chain that allowed minds to come into being” but doesn’t look at the individual chain of each mental state. It’s not that the desire for food directly produced more people, and the desire for camaraderie directly produced more people, and the desire for comfort directly produced more people, as if when you experience comfort a baby pops out of you. Desires, emotions, pleasures, and pains are designed to get the organism to perform a certain behavior, as hunger is supposed to get us to procure food to keep our body supplied with energy so that we may survive to have and support children. Pinker should be looking at what behavior and ends these mental states have been selected for their ability to produce, not the accompanying pleasures and pains, as it is the benefits of successful behavior that the other links are ultimately designed to produce. What this leads us to is that these traits, pleasurable and painful alike, contribute to the successful living of a distinctively human life, and it is this form of live which replicates due to the successful functioning of these mental processes.
For example, how does human flourishing differ from say, salmon flourishing, or elm tree flourishing? The answer comes from the distinctive way humans evolved to live (as opposed to how salmon or elm trees evolved). A human life, like a salmon’s life or an elm tree’s life, or any other living organism, has a form. In the case of humans this is to develop intellectual, physical, and social skills when young, attract the best mate possible, have children, work cooperatively with others, and nurture your children in the best environment possible. Human flourishing would be the cultivation to the highest degree of the traits that allow us to live out the human life as excellently as possible. But to say that human morality involves the cultivation of traits that contribute to the living of a good distinctively human life takes us into the realm of virtue ethics, the third great tradition of Western ethics (along with utilitarianism and deontological ethics) that Pinker completely ignores. See “Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics For The 21st Century” for details (https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2015/08/26/restoring-a-virtue-based-ethics-for-the-21st-century/ ).
However, virtue ethics arguably has certain implications which would clash with Pinker’s liberalism. Pinker wrote the book on “the modern denial of human nature” but I don’t think he realizes how deeply the existentialist “existence precedes essence” denial has penetrated the culture in the past 60 years, and how radically things would have to change were the promotion of human flourishing taken seriously. For example, on a Kantianism-lite liberalism or libertarianism, someone who enters prostitution in order to finance their drug habit can in no way be criticized as long as they were doing so on their own free will, and violated noone’s consent. Or could someone who is fat, lazy, short-tempered, vain, envious, and greedy, who cannot attract a mate, and never has children, be said to be flourishing as an instance of the human species? Can an 18 year old girl documenting on Tumblr her promiscuous sadomasochistic proclivities be said to be flourishing? Pinker might agree that someone who lives such a life is not flourishing. But under what principle can he condemn this?
Imagine what it would take in this day and age for a society to take human nature seriously and to re-dedicate itself to human flourishing by the inculcation of virtue. My great concern is for young people who are constantly taught the message that 1. there is no purpose to human life other than what you create (“existence precedes essence”), and 2. don’t give a damn about what anyone else thinks in the pursuit of your desires. The ideal that is pushed in popular culture is to pursue a life where you never have to repress a desire out of concern for what someone else thinks, and the greatest sin in our society is to judge that someone ought not act on some impulse that does not directly harm another. If a women feels bored in a relationship what kind of judgmental monster are you to shame her into staying in her marriage? Or to *gasp* put in effort to make one’s spouse happy? If someone wants to spend their life in front of the TV that is their lifestyle choice and is as equally valid as any other. Masculinity is toxic! Femininity is oppression! Don’t care about what any one else thinks about you, do what you want. Don’t repress a single desire in order to please others, and don’t suggest that someone else not act as they please. How dare you fat-shame or slut-shame? How dare you enforce beauty standards in your sexual preferences? And recently, how dare you have sexual preferences at all? If they don’t like it that’s their problem, not yours. And on and on, endlessly taught in the schools and relentlessly blasted through the media. Every goddamn piece of popular culture blasts the same message.
The dominant, existentialist, view is that liberation involves the lifting of all external impediments to the will: other people’s preferences, societal expectations, religious admonishments, and even, in the extremes of the “thug life” and “stop snitching” movement, the rule of law. Sometimes it is thought that there is a beautiful “true-self” waiting to be freed from all these outside restrictions; sometimes it is thought that there is nothing underneath at all but an empty will waiting to create itself once freed from external impositions. But if the human mind evolved via natural selection, what really lies behind human consciousness are the selfish genes producing mental imperatives to further their interests. There is no radical autonomy to be unleashed by the lifting of repressions; the human mind can not create itself in an act of existential self-creation as it has already been created to serve a purpose. (See “Allow Me To Explain The Darkness Of The Human Soul.” ( https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/allow-me-to-explain-the-darkness-of-the-human-soul/ )) Instead, it is through restrictions on our selfish impulses caused by the need to produce good relations with others–attract a mate, raise a family, work together, and ensure social harmony–that allows for human flourishing. Humans are torn between our selfish and social nature and virtue is the acting on our social impulses and repressing our selfish drives so as to receive the advantages of cooperation. This is the complete opposite of the liberal view that it is the lifting of all restrictions which is the end of human life. And so to the extent that liberalism is about lifting restrictions on the ego it is against human flourishing.
And so the root of my disagreement with Pinker comes down to these points:
1. Different views of what human flourishing entails. Human flourishing means living out the form of a human life as excellently as possible. For Pinker it seems to be the attempt to maximize our pleasurable experiences (“food, comfort, curiosity, beauty, stimulation, love, sex, and camaraderie” (p. 414)) combined with a sense of purpose in working to allow others the maximum experience of these pleasures.
2. Pinker seems to think that reason alone can motivate behavior. But I’d say the dominant view today is that Hume was right and that reason can not produce behavior or by itself control the appetites and emotions.
3. However, what motivates restraint is care for others and the fear of negative social consequences; human flourishing requires restraint of our appetites and emotions so as to produce mutually beneficial relationships. Pinker seems to think if human nature is left unimpeded and tolerated (excepting tribalism, authoritarianism, rationalization, demonization, and zero-sum thinking) people will naturally pursue flourishing; I think the result has been a culture where people scorn any suggestion that they should restrain their appetites and do what they can to avoid doing so.
4. Social liberalism is the attempt to remove social consequences for acting on ones appetites and emotions, and so is against human flourishing. For Pinker this problem doesn’t arise because to him people naturally will pursue flourishing if left alone and human nature is allowed to work (with the exception of the prevention of violence by the state). As a result there is no need for the culture to view negatively those who refuse to pursue flourishing, since that does not occur. But our nation of obese, meth-addicted, tatted-up, porn-obsessed, unmarried or divorced, slobs argues otherwise. These people are just doing what the culture tells them is the correct path; they’re not caring what anyone else thinks about them and doing what they want.
The question then is how to best promote human flourishing. Imagine how things would change were it declared that 1. what counts as human flourishing is a matter of human nature and so is objective, and 2. the purpose of civilization is the cultivation of human flourishing. I think Pinker subscribes to both these theses, but doesn’t see how their adoption would destroy contemporary liberalism as we know it. The Left would froth with rage were it understood that what counts as human flourishing is objective. It would destroy their avowed relativism and evoke their fury were it widely understood that say, a women who has the character to find and keep a loving husband, and have and nurture virtuous children is a better instance of human flourishing than a childless spinster. Likewise, were it understood that our civilization exists to nurture this form of life in the highest degree, not respect all conceptions of the good equally, the Left would melt down as society no longer must remain neutral on various “lifestyle choices.” Civilization exists for the good life, not the thug life, and we do not have to treat such a conception as having equal consideration, worth, or value; we are allowed to structure society to nurture, favor, and promote this form of life to the exclusion of others.
The first thing to notice is that our society is not currently dedicated to human flourishing; it is dedicated to “the pursuit of happiness.” Now, if you simply define happiness as flourishing or the result of flourishing, which is a very common idea, there is no problem. Flourishing–doing well at school and work, attracting and keeping a mate, having children, providing them with a good environment in which to grow—normally does produce happiness. In fact, we are designed to receive happiness for accomplishing these things. But this phrase has been subjectivised and relativized and captured by the ego so that today the culture teaches that happiness entails not having to repress a single desire out of concern for its effect on others. (Again see “Allow Me To Explain The Darkness Of The Human Soul.” https://darwinianreactionary.wordpress.com/2017/08/09/allow-me-to-explain-the-darkness-of-the-human-soul/ ) Our selfish and social natures are in conflict about how to act. Selfishly, we wish to be able to defect yet receive the benefits of cooperation: be fat yet still be found attractive, be lazy and not have to work yet receive wealth, be liked without having to be likable, be loved without being lovable, and so on. It is the preferences of other people which motivates us to put in the effort required for virtue, not pure reason. But popular culture, as I have mentioned, urges us to defect and listen to our selfish nature; it pronounces repressing the urges of the selfish ego to be weakness or inauthenticity, and calls success at avoiding this happiness.
The view that happiness means flourishing is not particularly radical. Even today most people seek to get married, have children, and work hard to support their family as best they can. Women and men understand that they should try to demonstrate attractive traits when seeking a mate. We understand that children need to develop skills to succeed in life; we provide tax benefits for those with children, and so on. The fundamental things apply, as time goes by. Society already does support and nurture the living of the good life. Where trouble comes in is when people either come to believe the Leftist claim that this life is in no way preferable or privileged over any other, that we have to respect other conceptions as equally valid, that vice is just individuality or self-expression, or when one tries to live the form of a human life while actually following the advice of liberals which is guaranteed to produce dissatisfaction, frustration, and dysfunction. What I mean by this, for example, would be a marriage where the wife believes the feminist dogma that a man should love her unconditionally for who she is on the inside. She thus gets fat and unattractive yet attacks any suggestion that she should put in effort for the happiness of her spouse. Her husband is thus dissatisfied and so defects as well thinking that she should love him unconditionally resulting in mutual dissatisfaction. Another example would be a man who becomes bitter towards women because they prefer confident jocks rather than sensitive wimps and thinks they should find him attractive instead. Or someone with a gender studies degree who think they should be paid the same as a CEO, and on and on.
Now, it would be absurd to claim that conditions today are a hellish nightmare. Due to our technology I can’t deny that this is the best time to be alive. As Pinker wonderfully documents, capitalism and technology have undeniably produced great improvements to the state of mankind. I can’t deny that things are pretty good (if mediocre compared to the heights humanity is capable of achieving) in Bellmont but I just see far too many lives ruined in Fishtown by the degenerate values of the liberal culture. The presence of so much despair and dysfunction show that technology alone is not sufficient for flourishing. As Charles Murray pointed out in Coming Apart, one part of America preaches liberalism, but practices conservatism. It is when we try to live liberalism that we do not flourish and are full of vice, dysfunction, and social problems.
So if we make it explicit that human flourishing is our mission statement how does that alter our understanding of society and how this end is to be achieved? This is not a new problem, in fact it is the problem faced by civilization itself. For most of human history, during pre-civilization, kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and harsh environmental conditions were sufficient to motivate us to repress our ego imperatives in order to receive the benefits of group cooperation. Locke said that humans enter civil society because of the “inconveniences” of the state of nature. But humans lived successfully in this state for hundreds of thousands of years and could have continued to do so for hundreds of thousands more. The problem only arises with the rise of a sedentary, agriculturally-based, high population, high-density environment (the actual list of conditions that produce civilization is still much debated). And this is the problem with classic contract theory, they missed that there is a state in-between the state of nature and civil society. I’ll call this “the abnormal state” (in homage to Millikan) because the environment has changed from the conditions under which hunter/gatherers functioned successfully.
The problem of civilization is how to allow human flourishing in this large, sedentary, high-density, agriculturally based, population where people dwell among and need to practice restraint towards those outside kin and clan networks. When people live in such an environment with only kin and clan loyalty as a guide you get the violent disasters of American inner cities or European no-go zones. Kin and clan alone restricting human behavior in the abnormal state is bad bad bad. Civilization is one of Pinker’s “circumscribed zones of order.” “When energy is poured into a system, and the system dissipates that energy in its slide towards entropy, it can become poised in an orderly , indeed beautiful, configuration” (P. 18.) In the case of civilization, what is pulling it down is the undertow of human nature’s drive to return to rule by kin and clan alone, as we see in American inner cities, failed states, or European no-go zones where the rule of law no longer operates. Civilization needs to fight a never-ending battle against this undertow and has come up with three great innovations to address this problem: marriage, church and state. They add the necessary additional motivations for restraint where kin and clan are no longer sufficient.
A civilization is a large-scale teleofunctional institution designed to solve the problem of how to allow the living of a good human life in the abnormal state. Thus church and state are separate in the way that the State Department and the Defense Department are separate–yes they’re separate but they are not ultimates, they are both part of something larger, the United States government in this case. Similarly, the cultivation of human flourishing in the abnormal state is the purpose of civilization, and church and state are its two great arms serving this one shared purpose. (I am thinking of civilization as an individual in the way we used to speak of British civilization, or Hittite civilization, or Egyptian civilization.) This notion that a civilization is the ultimate unity to which we belong and church and state are its arms remains alive, for example, in the symbolic role of the British monarch as head of both state and church.
However, whenever the state attempts to promote virtue it is disastrous; I am convinced that the state can not improve the character of the people. As I look back at the history of human civilization, it seems clear to me that it is the function of centralized religion to motivate the people to restrain their socially destructive impulses. I can’t see how Pinker can miss that the core mission of religion is teaching people to fight against their selfish impulses. In the great monotheistic religions the primary battle is against sin as putting self first in gluttony, pride, greed, vanity, sloth, envy; the ancestor worship religions motivate its adherents to avoid acting on their selfish impulses so as to not bring shame on their ancestors; and even Buddhism, which is often hard to categorize with other religions, offers nirvana as a reward for the cessation of desires. In all of them the point is to motivate people to not act on their selfish impulses. But Pinker just sees religion as harmful superstition.
“To take something on faith means to believe it without good reason, so by definition a faith in the existence of supernatural entities clashes with reason. Religions also commonly clash with humanism whenever they elevate some moral good above the well-being of humans, such as accepting a divine savior, ratifying a sacred narrative, enforcing rituals and taboos, proselytizing other people to do the same, and punishing and demonizing those who don’t” (p. 30)
Communism died after 50 years when it became obvious that it was not serving people’s interests. Religion, on the other hand, has endured for thousands. If religion was truly a parasitic meme virus and harmful to its adherents, its harms would have quickly been perceived and it would have been discarded like communism, but it endures. Dawkins’ thesis that religion harms its “hosts” has got to be one of the worst ideas of a major thinker in recent decades. In fact, a case could be made that if the mental capacity to reason evolved via natural selection, then its ultimate purpose is to aid us to survive and reproduce by producing true beliefs about the empirical world. Likewise, religion may have evolved (culturally or genetically) to aid us to survive and reproduce by producing metaphysical beliefs. (And since religious people have more children than secular, and since modern liberal states all produce below replacement levels of fertility, it might be that religion is better at doing that job than reason is.) My view is that high religion evolved in order to produce altruism beyond kin and clan by asking us to believe in divine commands and inescapable punishments. Even if there is no afterlife, a high-population, high-density civilization requires altruism beyond kin and clan. And belief in divine commands produces the beneficial effects in this life that make civilization possible. (Plus, it may actually be that God caused the Big Bang, controls the collapse of the quantum waveform so as to allow miracles, that there is no multiverse and so the argument from cosmological constants is valid, that qualia is non-physical and so can survive the death of the body, or that human psychology contains certain features–subjectivity, free will, and true altruism–that defy naturalistic explanation.)
The great religions do this job by acting as the central controlling source and distributor of the social emotions. You might think of it as that in the abnormal state society needs to switch to a server/client model from the peer-to-peer of kin and clan (a metaphor I worry will get me into trouble, but what the heck.) This controlling source centralizes the telling of stories that provide moral instruction, it distributes these stories from the source through a network, teaches people as to what behaviors result in the removal of reciprocity/ostracism, and instruct them to enforce these teachings on one another. In religious societies the central religious order distributes the stories and lessons to the priesthood which distributes them to the nodes of the followers.
(I am certainly not in favor of a theocracy where a religion has the power to punish violators. Instead, a religion that paints such a powerful picture of the glory and love of God such that people willingly choose to resist the urges of their ego and pursue virtue and morality willingly is best. But I worry that such an arrangement is always proves short-lived and will be subverted by ego rationalizations.)
Now, If I look around today at who controls the telling of stories, has a distribution system for sending them out to the nodes, educates the people as to what behaviors are praiseworthy and which result in ostracism and excommunication, and demonstrates to the people how to remove the benefits of reciprocal altruism towards violators, it seems obvious that the controlling source is The Media. Hollywood controls which stories are told, distributes them over its network of TV and movie screens, and through its stories educates the people as to what behaviors result in ostracism, and instructs the people to enforce this denial of the benefits of reciprocal altruism on each other. The Right thought it would fight the culture war through the use of the religious establishment in its traditional role to disseminate its views while the Left used Hollywood to disseminate theirs, and we all know how that turned out. Funyuns outsold Responsibilityuns for 60 years. The religious establishment saw the threat of Hollywood right from the start, and managed to get the Hayes code passed. And even after the code was lifted Hollywood was afraid for decades to challenge and stir up religious sensibilities. It wasn’t until the 1990s that Hollywood felt sufficiently secure to mock religion and openly declare itself to be the controlling source of the social emotions. And the lesson it teaches is not one of virtue and human flourishing, but unbridled pursuit of the ego, and ostracism towards any who say otherwise. (How and why Hollywood did this is an interesting story.) Thus, the central source which is supposed to instruct people to resist the urges of the ego, now teaches us to attack anyone for suggesting we do so.
It is often said that the failure of communism showed that propaganda can not overcome human nature. However, you have to be awestruck by the ability of Hollywood to change public opinion seemingly as will. If propaganda can’t get us to act against self-interest—to sacrifice our own well-being for the good of the state, for example–it sure can get us to act on our worst impulses. To promote human flourishing we would need this central controlling source of the social emotions, aka the media/education complex, to educate people that human nature is real, not all lifestyle choices are equal, and that, as a social animal, in order to live a good human life to the highest possible degree we need to restrain our selfish impulses so as to produce good relationships with our fellow humans. Pinker spends a lot of time in Enlightenment Now criticizing the news media; he can have it if he gives me the entertainment media.
We will always be torn between our selfish desires and our social needs. In order to balance these conflicting impulses we need the message to be to restrain our appetites, cultivate attractive masculinity and femininity, overcome inertia so as to thrive in our education and work, see that the culture praises the loving family, not the individual career, as the highest expression of human flourishing, while illustrating how to detect and avoid the omnipresent negative influences–promiscuity, drugs, vice, crime, careerism, envy, vanity–that lure us away from the living of a good human life. What motivates virtue is the prospect of producing negative social relationships through vice. But our current liberal culture wants to practice vice yet receive the benefits of virtue; they demand the right to not repress a single urge and yet receive the benefits of virtue. The desire to defect and yet receive the benefits of cooperation exists in all time periods, but some are better able to innoculate against it, to teach the people to detect and shun it in others and themselves, unlike ours which manufactures rationalizations on an industrial scale so as to justify it.
Vice would again be subject to censure, not in a cruel way, but, as was the traditional practice, when people understand what flourishing entails, and can detect the desire to free ride in themselves and others, they learn to not grant the rewards of virtue to the vicious. Nor would society be neutral on various lifestyle choices, but also wouldn’t enforce or penalize failure. Instead pity towards those who fail to live out a full life would be the norm as, for example, was the traditional way to see an old maid. Society would need to discard the existentialist view that freedom requires the throwing off of all impediments to the will and come to re-learn the value of restraint. Marriage especially would need to undo decades of feminist degradation and cease to be about being able to defect yet receive the benefits of cooperation, what we cynically call being loved unconditionally, and again be about nurturing mutually attractive traits. And perhaps there would even be a newfound respect for religious notion of sin as the giving in to our selfish drives to the detriment of our living of a good life.
Can the controlling source function without metaphysical beliefs as the foundation? I don’t know, but the fact that this was the solution to the problem for thousands upon thousands of years makes me think that it can’t. Can we just get by with no controlling source at all and just let people live as they please? The 1960s generation tried to throw off religion and other social pressures but immediately just built a new controlling source in The Media. Again, the fact that civilizations always have one, and when they try to get rid of one they just build another makes me think that they are necessary. The controlling source is never all-powerful, there are always competitors looking to knock it off the throne (how to do this is another interesting story), but there always seems to be one dominant source and it guards its power jealously.
Ideally I’d like to achieve this through open debate and education. This isn’t a radical proposition as it was the world-view of the media until recently. People could come to understand human nature and what flourishing entails, learn to detect when others are acting under the influence of their ego imperatives, see how these destructive tendencies are pushed by the media, come to mock and reject them, and via market mechanisms, the media respond by providing the content the people demand. But when in a darker mood I come to worry either the current state of affairs did not itself result from market forces (conservative channels or shows are not allowed to even try to compete), Hollywood was taken over by Leftists who used it to push an agenda. Or even worse, perhaps the current state of affairs did result from the marketplace of ideas, and when people are allowed to choose they will inevitably purchase from those who promise they should rightfully be able to defect yet receive the benefits of cooperation. Education and the media are already a propaganda operation controlled by a small number of voices that blasts a unified message relentlessly from cradle to grave on all 500 channels and people don’t seem to mind too much. For a time it seemed that perhaps the internet would allow us to bypass The Media, but at this time it appears that the mega-Silicon Valley controllers of social media are doing everything they can to clamp down on any such efforts and retain their role as source and controller.
Pinker opens Enlightenment Now by giving advice to a young woman seeking purpose in life; I will close this series with my evil evil Dark Enlightenment answer. You have been designed by nature or nature’s God. You will find the most satisfaction in life by taking up the purpose for which you have been designed. As a social creature your greatest source of joy and happiness will be through your loving relationships with other people, especially your spouse and children. Have as many children as you can support. To receive this satisfaction from others you need to produce it in them in turn. Thus, inculcate in yourself the qualities that will aid you in living a good life to the highest degree. Don’t envy those who are able to do better, and don’t look down on those who don’t do as well. Do not give the rewards deserved for the virtuous to those who practice vice, and reserve your scorn for those who praise ugliness, envy, and vice and so lead people away from the good life. Know where you, your family, your people, your values, your traditions came from. Be loyal and proud of your traditions and people; teach your children to be loyal and proud of them as well. If religion helps you in following the path, good; if you are having problems in life, look for religion to give you your missing sense of purpose. We live in a technologically marvelous age and so unless you are foolish you should be able to avoid the pitfalls of drugs, violence, crime, and extreme poverty. The biggest obstacle will be your own ego which will constantly tempt you to take the easy path of selfishness, and will provide endless rationalizations for doing so, and so come to ruin your meaningful relationships with others.
I don’t think any of this is at all radical and was pretty much common sense not that long ago. The main question is whether these points can once again be adopted by the usual means of education and public debate. Perhaps simple education in biology will quickly allow people to see the absurdities of radical feminism and post-modernism, and soon we will slap our foreheads in disbelief at these beliefs the way we view the Shakers.