In Defense of the Enlightenment (II)
Written by Alfonso Elizondo
Steven Pinker says that the Enlightenment’s belief in progress should not be confused with the nineteenth-century belief in mystic forces, laws, dialectics, struggles, destinies, the ages of man and the evolutionary forces that drive humanity towards utopia. If existing laws and customs are followed, it is possible to think of improving them in order to increase people’s lives and make the world a better place. Although science advances slowly, its progress is relentless and shows that progress is possible.
Pinker says that progress should not be confused with the twentieth-century global movement to reshape society according to the vision of the technocrats and planners, which James Scott calls ‘Authoritarian High Modernism.’ In Scott’s view the movement denied the existence of human nature and its need for beauty, nature, tradition and social coexistence, though not in that order. The modernists designed urban renewal projects that replaced traditional neighborhoods with freeways, high-rises, windswept plazas and brutalist architecture.
Although these developments were linked to assumed progress, this progress was not guided by humanism. Instead of seeking to shape human nature, the Enlightenment hope for progress was focused on human institutions. So the systems created by humans, such as governments, laws, markets and international organizations have become the natural target for the application of reason to the betterment of the human being.
Pinker says that according to this new way of thinking, government no longer comes from a divine mandate, nor is it a synonym for the new society or an embodiment of the national, religious or racial soul. It is a new human invention agreed to in a social contract that is intended to promote the welfare of citizens by coordinating their behavior and discouraging selfish acts that may be tempting to each individual but worsen the lives of the large low-income majority.
Enlightened thinkers were citizens of their time (the 18th century), although some were racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, slave owners or duellists. Many of the issues that concerned them at that time are now incomprehensible to us, and they put forward some absurd ideas as well as others that are very brilliant. They were born too far ahead of their time to be able to appreciate the cornerstones of current reality.
In fact, the men of the Enlightenment were the first to extol reason, so they cared very much for the integrity of the thoughts and very little for the personality of the thinkers. Although they were committed to progress, they could not explain it. So they were completely ignorant about the concepts of anthropology and progress that we now know.
Addendum: In addition to the fact that most human societies in the world today are not aware of the new hypotheses about the genetic nature of human behavior that Steven Pinker has exposed in his latest work, there are very few people without scientific and particularly neurological and philosophical knowledge that can accept them. However, the high level of development of communication technologies through digital channels will enable everyone to know and use them in their personal lives very soon.