The Agonist Journal

"You believe in a crystal palace that can never be destroyed—a palace at which one will not be able to put out one's tongue or make a long nose on the sly. And perhaps that is just why I am afraid of this edifice, that it is of crystal and can never be destroyed and that one cannot put one's tongue out at it even on the sly.

You see, if it were not a palace, but a hen-house, I might creep into it to avoid getting wet, and yet I would not call the hen-house a palace out of gratitude to it for keeping me dry. You laugh and say that in such circumstances a hen-house is as good as a mansion. Yes, I answer, if one had to live simply to keep out of the rain.

But what is to be done if I have taken it into my head that that is not the only object in life...? That is my choice, my desire. You will eradicate it only when you have changed my preference."

Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

A number of people—including John Gray, David A. Gray, Yarom Hazony, Edward Feser, Jason Willick, and me—have demonstrated the philosophical problems and historical inaccuracies in Steven Pinker’s latest book, the humorously titled Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. It is in moral philosophy that Pinker is most vulnerable to objections, and in a July 27, 2018 interview in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Pinker provided a striking example of this weakest aspect of his thought. Explaining one of the reasons for writing the book, Pinker said:

Many defenders of religion say that Nietzsche got it right: if you abandon belief in God, then you inevitably abandon morality, compassion, universal human values---all you're left with is the ruthless egoism of the superman. Therefore, if we believe in compassion and universal human rights, we have no choice but to accept God. But both Nietzsche and his religion-defending adversaries have accepted the same false premise---that there cannot be a robust secular basis for morality. In fact there is such a basis, both in the interchangeability of perspectives and interests (whereby I can't hope to convince you that only my interests count, because I'm me and you're not), and in the enormous opportunities for positive-sum benevolence (when people treat each other well, everybody is better off, so that we have a selfish interest in everyone being moral). So the Nietzschean assumption, accepted even by his worst enemies, that only God can justify a compassionate, benevolent morality needed to be countered.

Though he sometimes condescends to believers, Pinker with his secular liberal moral rationalism ironically relies on a faith of his own: the belief that somehow, someway things will work out in the moral domain so long as we follow our Enlightenment heritage.

To begin with, this is a rather inaccurate account of Nietzsche’s thought. The philosopher did not believe that the “death of God” “inevitably” entailed the abandonment of morality and compassion as such. It is true, of course, that Nietzsche fiercely opposed Christian morality, thinking it hostile to life and a perversion of what might be called the natural and rightful rule of the strong, the healthy, and the noble. On the same grounds, Nietzsche despised both equality and democracy, things which he considered to be contrary to excellence as well. All of this is captured in his last dictum, “Dionysus against the crucified!” Yet Nietzsche nowhere says that without God we necessarily lack such values, as if it were certain that everybody would just stop practicing them. Nor did he claim that without God we are left with only “the ruthless egoism of the superman.” What Nietzsche himself argued for is one thing; what is possible in regard to morality as such is quite another. In short, though he is an excellent social scientist, and a commendable advocate for free thought, Pinker is no better on Nietzsche than he is on the Enlightenment, about whose continuities with the Renaissance and with the Middle Ages he appears to be ignorant—to say nothing of the Enlightenment’s debt to Christianity and to various civic nationalisms.

Now, it is true that Nietzsche did not believe in “universal human values,” nor in objective morality (save for the will to power, a paradox of which he was aware). For Pinker, “the Nietzschean assumption, accepted even by his worst enemies, that only God can justify a compassionate, benevolent morality needed to be countered.” But what Pinker advocates is a kind of inter-subjective pragmatism. It is not obviously objective, so as a philosophical response to Nietzsche’s critique of objective morality and Christianity, it is not even coherent. Nor is that surprising, because while nobody is more hopeful about reason than Pinker, the man appears to have devoted little thought to epistemic justification in the moral domain. “Drop the Nietzsche,” Pinker counsels at the end of Enlightenment Now. Whatever one may think about Nietzsche, Pinker has not made a case against him. The men have quite different premises and goals, nor are Pinker’s obviously correct.

Nietzsche, of course, did not think that Christian “slave morality” was justified without the concept of God. More important for my polemical purpose, the loss of Christian morality, for Nietzsche as for those other geniuses, Fyodor Dostoevsky and the philosopher’s older University of Basel colleague Jacob Burckhardt, was a moral crisis without precedent in history. The best way to understand Nietzsche’s thinking here, it seems to me, is to realize his huge debt to Arthur Schopenhauer, the later philosopher’s primary philosophical influence. Nietzsche’s philosophy, as George Santayana was the first to emphasize, represents an inversion of that of his great pessimistic predecessor. Nietzsche’s will to power is Schopenhauer’s will to live, the former thinker “saying yes to life” no matter how horrible it might be. For Schopenhauer, the essence of morality is compassion, this entailing the denial of the ruthlessly egoistic will to live, which, in man as in all other beings, strives by nature to obtain its own ends above all else—frequently a brutal and evil business. Moral thought-systems—whether Christian or Hindu-based (for Schopenhauer despised Judaism and Islam alike)—are quite valuable because they provide a check on man’s blind impulse to assert his will at all events. Without such a check, man is rather more likely to be a wolf to man.

Crude though this sketch is, it suffices to make the point that Schopenhauerian morality was an immense influence on Nietzsche’s thought. In Nietzsche’s predictions of the unprecedented violence and destructiveness of the future—which were massively vindicated in the last century—one sees the will to live (or will to power) unleashed, no longer constrained by Christianity. A far greater psychologist than Pinker, Nietzsche took seriously the truth, which Pinker certainly knows, that man is more irrational than not; and even if he had been inclined to humanism, Nietzsche would have had no faith in the efficacy of Pinker’s secular liberal rationalist morality.

Although the West’s decline in religious belief is troubling for many, it has not been the case historically, we should recognize, that morality requires proof of God’s existence, for even though Christian morality has long been thought to be divinely justified, still human beings, in their moral practices, have always operated from the belief (true belief, as they think) in God as objective justification: while the truth of that justification has never actually been demonstrated. The concept of Nature, if it had a certain concomitant moral criterion, could serve the same logical function, because the logical structure would not be changed. In other words, supposing it were reasonably believed that “a compassionate, benevolent morality” had an objective basis in Nature, then, as with God as objective justification, people would still have to believe in that objective basis: it would not simply be proven deductively, let alone verified empirically. As concepts, the justification and the belief would be one, impossible to distinguish conceptually since one could not do so in phenomenological experience itself. In neither case here are we dealing with something that is objectively true beyond dispute. In both religion and Pinker’s sort of secular, essentially pragmatic morality, the most important thing by far is belief.

It is similar with so-called universal human rights. For plain enough practical reasons, people are motivated to believe in them. Because they seem very useful, people devise a basis for them: God, Nature, human dignity. “The beginnings of natural right theory,” observes Paul Gottfried,

can be found among Jesuits in Spain and among the Presbyterian Covenanters in Scotland in the mid-sixteenth century, several generations before it emerged in the political writings of Thomas Hobbes and later, in Locke, Samuel von Pufendorf and Hugo Grotius. Integral to the evolution of natural right thinking were the trauma of religious wars and the seizure of ecclesiastical power by Catholic as well as Protestant territorial princes in the wake of the Reformation and Counter-reformation. Medieval hierarchical ideas about ascending levels of authority were no longer useful to religious minorities or to Catholic churchmen in the face of this encroachment by temporal princes. The atomistic interpretation of political society and the positing of pre-political individual rights were responses to the seizure of power by civil governments for which older scholastic notions of government no longer seemed adequate.

But uniquely valuable though they are, rights, whether they are supposed to be universal or culture-specific, surely do not exist outside of the legal or rhetorical structures that justify them, and which come into being in order to advance human interests. This is confirmed by the simple fact that before those very structures existed nobody had any notion of rights. To speak a truism, rights are not natural facts; they are not inherent in the material world, like gravity and the sun. Nor can the idea of “universal human values” withstand historical scrutiny.

So-called psychological disorders also show how human values arise and function epistemically. A little while back, for example, I read about a young man in Wales who had been spending up to sixteen hours a day playing video games. As one would expect, that indulgence created many problems for him. He is not alone in that—the condition, indeed, is now common. So that the “experts” at The World Health Organization, as they endeavored to “treat” these persons, came up with a new “disorder” called “video game addiction.” One could give plenty of other examples in this vein. (To be clear, I do not mean to suggest in these paragraphs that there is nothing to truth per se but social constructionism—an absurd notion. Nor do I imply that God does not exist, or that Christian morality is untrue, just because we lack proof either way.)

The Grave Problems Pinker Overlooks

“When people treat each other well,” says Pinker, “everybody is better off, so that we have a selfish interest in everyone being moral.” Amen to that good sense! Pinker may assume many “opportunities for positive-sum benevolence” among his fellows, and among fellow liberals in particular. And yet, in practice morality is enormously complex; Pinker’s secular liberal moral rationalism therefore faces grave problems, and his optimism concerning it is simply not warranted.

Pinker speaks of “the enormous opportunities for positive-sum benevolence.” As a psychologist, he is no doubt aware that often what appears to be benevolence is a mask for egoism. La Rochefoucauld, with his immortal Maxims, remains the greatest authority on this subject. Bernard Mandeville, author of The Fable of The Bees: or, Private Vices, Public Benefits, is another fine classical writer here. Then there are Dr. Johnson’s essays, Nietzsche’s essays and aphorisms, and finally, in our time, the writings of Robin Hanson and others on hidden motives. When it comes to lying, both to themselves and others, about their actual motives and intentions, human beings are ingenious and intractable. Much of morality is a kind of deceptive game, and if there were not tremendous utility in this, it would not be so prevalent. As it is, many people find that it is quite effective to appear moral while really deceiving others, as well as themselves. While those who are clever and unscrupulous actors may gain from this activity, with respect to social cohesion and stability—let alone justice—it is far from optimal.

With all this in mind, we should be able to see why the concept of God, as a preventive measure, is so valuable. People are very good at fooling others, but for sincere believers, God, being omniscient, is the one being whom they cannot possibly manipulate to suit their purposes: he always knows what they are up to. Thus God serves to provide a sense of moral fear, of the inevitability of consequences—read: of punishment. So that fewer people will be inclined to treat morality as a kind of game in which, so long as they are skillful enough, they might well try to deceive the other person or persons, the overriding goal being to not be perceived aright. Now it seems reasonable to believe that in a secular society there will be a lot more people who will not be so checked. For instance, although corruption is never lacking in human affairs, one could make a fairly strong case, I think, that in recent times there has been more of it in American government and throughout the culture than there was when Christianity was more influential. Lest this opinion should seem biased, let me mention here that, like Pinker, I am an atheist. Nor am I unaware of the plain truth that corruption has always been widespread, more Christian times being no exception.

Pinker believes “in the interchangeability of perspectives and interests.” Well, it is trivially true that these exist. But Pinker shows no awareness of the awful problem of incompatible values (or of incompatible “perspectives and interests”), of how, in Max Weber’s words, “the various value spheres of the world stand in irreconcilable conflict with each other.” This problem is serious insofar as people lack religion or another homogenizing cultural force—the other big one, we learn from history, has been war—to unite them. The more “diverse” a people becomes, the more conflicts and hostilities they have to deal with, their respective conclusions following from incompatible premises. That is, when people do engage in argument or debate—after all, quite often they simply assert their ends, a primordial instinct to be sure. If you have read left-wing publications like The New York Times, The Atlantic, or The New Republic lately, seeing the now commonplace racism against white people, you should readily understand that outside of places like Pinker’s Harvard, where there is no skin in the game, cultural diversity is generally not good news. So much, at any rate, is manifest from human history, and in our time, from the endless conflicts and hostilities in the Middle East in particular. Take a collection of incompatible and conflicting ends in the form of the people who embody them. Tell everyone he has "rights" and "dignity," that he "deserves" such and such. Given the natural inequalities among groups, the unequal outcomes that are unavoidable save for life lived in test tubes, this diversity easily becomes a dangerous state of affairs. As I put it in my column in Taki’s Magazine,

The more we strive to be fair, the more we should expect conflict in response. For on the whole, human groups...will never accept fair but unequal outcomes, because human nature's difficult need for esteem is an insuperable problem and source of delusive resentment. It is uncontroversial to say that Germans are good at engineering, that Italians are good at opera, that Asians are good at math, and so on. These things are all positive. But when it comes to unequal—not to say, unfair—outcomes, certain negative comparisons are inevitable. And it's here that many people, instead of facing the unwelcome truth, are inclined to believe America is systemically racist, sexist, and so forth. For they would rather feel righteous than face the simple reality that the world is not answerable to their moral sentiments.

In this situation, what is the value of Pinker’s “interchangeability of perspectives and interests”? The problem, indeed, is that many perspectives and interests are not interchangeable: they are rather at odds, and here reason is likely to do more harm than good, being the tool of all manner of evil passions. There are anxieties and conflicts that issue from group differences in intelligence and conscientiousness. Nor are vague appeals to Enlightenment ideals and humanism likely to keep groups from being bothered by unequal financial outcomes and being underrepresented at places like Google and Apple. On the other hand, people can, and do, use reason to manipulate others so as to “correct” these “unjust” states of affairs, an activity that produces still more resentment.

Pre-rational in character, morality quite understandably has always been essentially a practice, a discipline, a habit. As such, it has served, namely in the form of religion, to unite people where conflict might otherwise be ineradicable. Why should Pinker think that his beloved reason is an adequate alternative here? Does history support that belief? No, it certainly does not. As Jonathan Haidt puts it,

Societies that forego the exoskeleton of religion should reflect carefully on what will happen to them over several generations. We don't really know, because the first atheistic societies have only emerged in Europe in the last few decades. They are the least efficient societies ever known at turning resources (of which they have a lot) into offspring (of which they have few).

Is reason really so useful where premises and goals are not already shared? To be sure, in nearly all cases, moral value, as people endeavor to realize it, is not the product of rational deliberation, but of intuition. As Pinker knows very well, our moral judgments tend to be unconscious, automatic, reflexive: the head is put to work, post hoc, to advocate for what the heart (or character) feels. Why, then, should Pinker be so confident about “the interchangeability of perspectives and interests (whereby I can’t hope to convince you that only my interests count, because I’m me and you’re not), and in the enormous opportunities for positive-sum benevolence”? Again, where we do not start out from a position of agreement or, anyway, of deep sympathy, is not reason more likely to be a vehicle of disagreement, and of strife, in many instances?

“When people with die-hard opinions on Obamacare or NAFTA are challenged to explain what those policies actually are,” Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now, “they soon realize that they don’t know what they are talking about, and become more open to counterarguments.” Are people really so open-minded, so flexible, so compromising? Or is that, for Pinker, “people” means more or less fellow left-leaning intellectuals? Ask yourself, common reader, whether with respect to some vital subject, in your own experience, it is typically the case that you come to agree with another, despite starting out from opposite poles. Or is it not rather more common—indeed the norm—for such situations to begin in hostility, whether mild or intense, and end in the same? Or again, does it not often happen, even when people set out to argue with good intentions, that the affair quickly devolves into rancor? For my own part, I am often struck by how futile it is to try to persuade my friends and family to agree with me, let alone those who are indifferent to my existence or worse.

“Many intellectuals,” Pinker sagely reminds us in The Los Angeles Review of Books interview, “have been seduced by some top-down view of society, which licenses a political and economic system based entirely on rational analysis. But history shows such plans to be untenable.” It does not occur to Pinker that, in the absence of traditional religious customs, a “top-down” morality, likewise problematic, would almost certainly emerge. After all, men and women must be answerable to some collective moral principles, and if they do not issue at the local level, in the form, to at least some degree, of a shared tradition, where are they to come from? Hence what in an essay I have termed the left’s puritan theater. Whether it is President Obama’s “Dear Colleague” letter, the James Damore Scandal at Google, or microaggressions, safe spaces, and bias response teams on university campuses, in recent years we have seen the emergence of a perverse, “top-down” form of Christianity—all petty resentment, needless guilt and blind pity—serving, however miserably, to bind people together since, however bad its moral character may be, there must be binding of some type or other. It is here in this debased and debasing Christianity, as much as anywhere, one could argue, that we find what is likely to come from a secular liberal rationalist morality. The pseudo-religion of political correctness is not, I think, any less robust or less likely to last than the vague, thin, diffuse secular humanism Pinker cherishes. Indeed, so far mere intellectual criticism has not stopped political correctness from transforming higher education, the media, and now much of corporate America into playgrounds for “social justice.”

The American public, to be sure, can never have too much optimism. Nevertheless, we need to ask: Just what it would mean for everyone to be blessed with “enlightenment now”? All the world, thanks to reason, being as liberal as the Harvard professorate? Pinker’s humanism historically derives from Christianity. It is the epitome of what Nietzsche called living in “the shadows of God,” or as people now say, Christian moral capital. One may well question, as Nietzsche did, the long-term tenability of this project—that is, to what extent and for how long people will be disposed to act on this Christian inheritance. For when it comes to justifying how people should live together and treat one another, rhetoric about “the interchangeability of perspectives and interests,” however true, goes only so far. Historically, our species has relied on more affecting sources of deep value. Fidelity to one’s religion and nation have often been crude and irrational affairs, we learn from our violent history, and yet such characteristics are precisely what allow these things to be more meaningful than mere shared practical aims and ends.

Pinker’s tale of progress is largely a tale of material prosperity, and it is strange that this is so little commented on. It is as if the Philistinism of our time were so great, and people so lacking in any higher notions of value, that one has only to speak of vast material gains, and voila, many will think, “Why, yes, life has never been so wonderful!” Thus Pinker points out material improvement and the spread of human rights, as if these alone justified the value judgment that life in 2019 is much, much better than it was in 1819. Yet what if one wants more from life and mankind than increased prosperity, longer lives, greater safety, and the like materialistic goods? What if one is not convinced that universal suffrage is a good thing? What if one is skeptical about the value and sustainability of “gender equality”? Indeed, this last item is especially apt. Although Pinker is quite supportive of feminism, and accepts the feminist shibboleth that women have been oppressed for nearly all of history, in view of the poor and biased treatment of men in academia, in the media, in the family courts, in the criminal justice system, and by the experts at The American Psychological Association, there is a strong case to be made that, in practice, “gender equality” has proven to be just the opposite of what the word itself says. And yet, given the intrinsic struggles and difficulties between the sexes, that is actually no wonder. Nor is it a wonder that Pinker, with his general blind spot for incompatible values and interests, has nothing insightful to say about the battle of the sexes.

Surrounded by liberal intellectuals who share his prejudices, Pinker seems convinced that all “good people” should simply get on board with his agenda, as if a discussion about first principles were off the table. Pinker appears to disagree with Nietzsche’s belief that in the long run morality is contrary to excellence. Unlike more searching liberals of the past, he does not see that excellence and equality are in intrinsic tension. The awful decline of high culture—which for some people is what makes life itself worth living—goes unmentioned amid Pinker’s calls for a technocratic globalist social order, that is, “enlightenment now.” Perhaps for Pinker politically correct art and culture is the price we must pay for being able to live longer while safely enjoying the internet, iPhones, and cable television.

Concerned as he is with individuals, Pinker overlooks the vexed state of the American family. In a recent essay for Vogelin View, I cited a number of statistics showing just how bad things are in the fundamental and most important social unit. At the end of the work I observed:

The marriage script consisted of customs that were born of need and reflected the collective, organic wisdom of the species. Why believe that enough people, through mere reason, will elect to follow the marriage script, which, needless to say, is not itself the product of reason? Cheap sex ends when women collectively stop yielding to men's non-committal advances, whereupon men must collectively commit to women. But this situation is now a matter of personal, rationalistic choice, not of expected, enforced submission to organic customs borne of practical necessity. The debasement of marriage therefore seems likely to continue.

It is by no means clear that mere reason can improve the declining family. Again, the customs that long served to hold it together do not come from reason, which by itself hardly ensures that in an age of individuals “enough people” “will elect to follow the marriage script.” And Pinker’s treasured “cosmopolitan humanism” is equally useless here. Unlike religion, humanism elevates personal autonomy as the highest good. Very well, one might say, but social cohesion bears the cost of that elevation, and nowhere is the ensuing social dysfunction more significant than in the family, the implications of whose debasement cannot be overestimated, for where the family goes, culture and politics follow.

Pinker is the philosophical offspring of John Locke, who believed that “mankind are one community.” Meanwhile, outside of institutions such as Pinker’s Harvard, the world is a big, varied place, and hardly liberal. “What may be good at Philadelphia may be bad at Paris and ridiculous at Petersburgh,” said Alexander Hamilton. For Joseph de Maistre, “there is no such thing as ‘man’ in this world. In my life I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians, and so on. I even know, thanks to Montesquieu, that one can be Persian. But as for man, I declare I’ve never encountered him.” For moral values stem from history and custom, a truth that entails a humbling lesson for Pinker with his much-vaunted reason. As I wrote in my essay for Jacobite Magazine, “The Intellectual Dark Web’s Unwise Center,”

reason, indispensable though it is, serves as the vehicle for those virtues and ends we desire because of the sort of people we are, and that depends to a significant extent on our cultural inheritance and social conditioning. Virtues and ends are not the same everywhere in the world, and it is important to remember, in our increasingly mobile era, that we have no evidence that people's virtues and ends can exist any- and everywhere. They certainly do not derive from reason, and when, for whatever reason, a people ceases to live by its former moral-cultural inheritance, no longer being conditioned to do so, then it may or may not use reason to will the same virtues and ends its forebearers did. There's always a strong chance, certainly, that they will not, lacking as they do the requisite disposition. Nor can reason make incompatible ends and perspectives compatible....

Like Nietzsche before him, Jonathon Haidt, in his excellent work on moral foundations theory, helps us to see that, to some extent, moral value is irreducible, being intrinsic to different human types. Now in politics, a naive faith in reason’s ability to transcend human history and differences is exceedingly dangerous. That this is so may be seen from the following passage in Daniel McCarthy’s review-essay in The National Interest, “An Autopsy: Why Liberalism Failed”:

At the turn of this century, Turkey was supposed to be a model for how a Muslim-majority country could become Western and democratic. Now, Turkey is illiberal, however democratic it remains: less secular, more nationalistic than before and less Western-oriented. The last hope for Turkish liberalism may have lain not with democracy but with military guardianship---a prospect to which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has put paid. His successful fusion of assertive nationalism and religious populism bears a striking resemblance to the formula that brought Narendra Modi to power in India. Even in Israel, the present and future of politics belong not to the dead dream of Labour Zionism but to an alliance of the nationalist Right and ultra-Orthodox.

The pattern is too distinctive to miss: whether the civilization is Muslim, Hindu, Jewish or Orthodox Christian---there are even signs of it in the Buddhist world and beyond---the nation-state has been reaffirmed as the expression of distinct peoples with distinct interests and rivalrous gods, as against the universal order of rationalistic liberalism. And where America has tried to promote liberal democracy by force, the results are no better: nearly twenty years of U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan has failed to defeat the Taliban. In fact, American efforts have not so much as made a start at ending tribal customs that involve the rape of young boys. At this point, many of the Afghans who continue to fight the Americans and U.S.-backed government in Kabul were not even born when George W. Bush launched "Operation Enduring Freedom"---which has certainly been an enduring operation, if not much good for freedom.

“Distinct peoples with distinct interests and rivalrous gods,” all of them with conflicts enough. The neoconservative follies McCarthy describes—the murderous efforts “to promote liberal democracy by force”—are among the many bad things that happen when people, being unfettered from the moral and fundamentally religious traditions that serve to both unite and constrain them, act on “the [illusory] universal order of rationalistic liberalism.” The ensuing destabilization of the Middle East, which led to an immigration crisis that has no solution, is many things—and tragic above all—but enlightenment it is not. While he is an acute and erudite critic of social constructionism, with respect to moral values, Pinker does not give one the impression that he has a strong sense of “distinct peoples with distinct interests and rivalrous gods.” That vital traditions may be resistant to his project of amelioration does not seem to be a concern for Pinker. Still, as we have seen from our disastrous attempt to instill democracy in the Middle East, failing to take such traditions seriously can have grave consequences.

Steven Pinker’s notion of man is far more rational and inclined to compromise on what is important than the men and women I recognize from my own experience and from what I know of history. Though he sometimes condescends to believers, Pinker with his secular liberal moral rationalism ironically relies on a faith of his own: the belief that somehow, someway things will work out in the moral domain so long as we follow our Enlightenment heritage. The implicit premise, which serves Pinker’s own values, interests, and politics, is that moral progress derives from reason. But there is no such necessary causality, although of course reason can and does realize moral ends. What enables Pinker’s questionable thinking here, I think, is that he himself has never known anything besides a smoothly functioning world. So he is exceedingly hopeful about moral order where skepticism and even some pessimism are warranted. Just as the fundamentalist clutches his Bible and speaks in tongues, so Pinker tells us, in so many words, that moral customs which did not derive from reason may nevertheless remain feasible for everyone—provided we read the right books.

In this respect, Pinker is so absurd that it is hard to believe his eminent reputation would have been possible in a previous era. That reason has limits—a theme of major conservative thinkers from Joseph de Maistre and Edmund Burke up through Michael Oakeshott—is a conservative principle that seems insignificant to Pinker. Might the reason be that it undercuts his perpetual good news? Or perhaps this is just an intellectual weakness on his part, like his cliché, groundless belief that President Trump is an “authoritarian”? In any event, as I show in my essay on him for The American Spectator, Pinker is hardly an exemplar of intellectual integrity, but exhibits considerable intellectual disingenuity and irresponsibility. David A. Bell demonstrated these defects very ably in his review of Enlightenment Now for The Nation. Robert Tracinski noted them as well in his review of the same book for The Federalist. On his website, Phil Torres has published a devastating critique of the “Existential Threats” chapter in Pinker’s tome. “I discover multiple mined quotes,” Torres writes,

that Pinker uses to suggest more or less the opposite of what the original authors intended; cherry-picked data from Pinker's own sources; misleading statements about views that Pinker disagrees with; some outright false assertions; and a general disregard for the most serious scholarship on existential risks and related matters. I claim that it would be unfortunate if Enlightenment Now were to shape future discussions about our existential predicament.

The whole of the book, in my view, is little better.

Progressive Apologist: Pinker’s Political Function

To be a conservative is to value an inheritance that experience—an unforgiving teacher—reveals to be wiser than the present. “Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity,” said Russell Kirk, “because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.” Comprehending the collective, organic wisdom that precedes us, as well as our deepest dispositions—and, therefore, how we will tend to feel, to think, and to act—custom is the fundamental conservative principle. Its antithesis is rationalist reason, in which Pinker has far too much faith. This excess reflects his peculiar habitat, the world of academia, where, as we learn at the seminars and the conferences, everyone is supposed to be so very reasonable and wise, so very fair and tolerant. Of course, liberals tend to dismiss conservatives as narrow-minded types, resistant to change and fearful of innovation. There is, to be sure, some truth in that caricature, but very few liberals are even aware of conservatism at its most sophisticated, which comprehends the very limits of reason that liberals are loath to recognize.

Pinker has fallen for what I call “the rationalist fantasy.” As I put it in the essay for Jacobite Magazine from which I have already quoted, “In that fantasy, people turn to reason in a quasi-religious manner: If we all live by the right abstractions, faithful to our Enlightenment heritage, progress shall be ours.” For

as traditions wane...mankind becomes desperate for a new faith, for something that can mitigate their fear and anxiety about the uncertainty of events, while helping them to believe that things are better than they are and can become better still. It is telling that nobody is less skeptical of reason than classical liberals. We also find that unlike profound unbelievers from the past—Hume, Leopardi, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Santayana—these rationalists are generally optimistic about human affairs. In practice, this often amounts to a weird dogmatism that is no more sophisticated than that of the believers to whom they condescend.

Hence, then, those many unintentionally funny sentences that flow from Pinker’s pen. As he writes in The Language Instinct, “Language is a complex, specialized skill, which…is qualitatively the same in every individual….When it comes to linguistic form, Plato walks with the Macedonian swineherd, Confucius with the head-hunting savage of Assam.”  Or, as we read in Enlightenment Now, “There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice.” And again, “An average person of 1910, if he or she had entered a time machine and materialized today, would be borderline retarded by our standards.”

Doubtless such passages, being so progressive, endear Pinker to his fellow academics. But alas, all the dogmatic optimism evidently creates terrible anxiety for the man, who—bless his heart—still endeavors to help his fellows. “If you want to fight authoritarian populism,” he tweets, “stop insisting that the world is getting worse and worse. New Pew poll: ‘Those who view populist parties favorably are more likely to say life is worse today than it was 50 years ago.’” You see, in order to keep up his own faith in liberal internationalism—with its “free markets” and, God-willing, spread of “Enlightenment values”—Pinker feels urged to proselytize to the hoi polloi, who—pesky unenlightened bunch!—have elected to resist the elitist politics that accompany his gospel. In Robert Tracinski’s words:

Pinker's defense of the Enlightenment ends up coming off more as a defense of the current center-left status quo. On one issue after another, from capital punishment to global warming to the welfare state to terrorism, rational counterarguments are either glibly dismissed or treated as if they do not exist. Pinker's Enlightenment may be very vague and general in philosophical terms, but it is curiously specific in terms of public policy. It certainly seems an amazing coincidence that the ideas of a very diverse group of philosophers writing two to three centuries ago would all culminate, point for point, with the platform of Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

In Enlightenment Now Pinker declares:

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.

This is the height of rationalist naiveté, and it is very problematic indeed. Pinker tells us that, simply “because we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others,” “the circle of sympathy” will extend beyond our natural limited bonds (family, friends, community, nation) to “embrace all of humankind.” Not only is this “progress” inexorable. “[T]here can be nothing,” we learn from “reason”—which apparently “goads us” like a conscience— “uniquely deserving about ourselves” or our in-group affections. Well! This is news not only to those who have studied and pondered moral psychology. Pinker here lacks the commonsense of the ordinary people who will never read his books. He is less sophisticated than the local barber or mechanic. For unlike him, they intuit that “the groups to which we belong” invariably matter to us more than out-groups do. That does not mean we owe nothing to the latter, but men and women are not angels, they never will be, and neither does it follow from the nature of reason that “cosmopolitanism” or “our citizenship in the world” is higher in the order of value than our local bonds.

Besides, it is quite wrongheaded to reduce morality to desert in some rationalist sense—that is not how the human animal works, though this observation does not imply that we should have no regard for rational deliberation about such sympathy as out-groups may deserve. Our most important relational values may be pre-rational or irrational, yet whatever they are, it is by no means obvious that “sympathy” and “reason” entail moral universalism, let alone Pinker’s globalist heaven. Notice, too, that he conveniently overlooks the reality that immigration and cultural incompatibility (read: value clashes) are formidable impediments to his Panglossian project. (Not that Pinker’s own comfortable lifestyle would be seriously affected by these in any event.) Pinker acts as though national sovereignty were as simple and easy as hopping around the academic conference set. And yet people who do not have Harvard professorships find that it is not so.

Does Pinker live in a way that is consistent with what he advocates in the passage quoted above? The world numbers billions of persons whom he has not met and never will meet. Are we to believe, nevertheless, that his “sympathy” for them is (or should be) akin to that for his wife and children? Is that what one is to gather from “reason”? Surely not. Why, then, does Pinker write such things, and so many of them? Is there no vulgar careerism in all this? No playing to the liberal crowd? One would like to simply dismiss Pinker at his frequent worst, when he seems an unreal grotesque out of Swift or Voltaire, but it is necessary to treat him head-on, because he has a most pernicious political agenda. Writing in Quillette, for whose middling editors he is a proper idol, Pinker happily notes that “The demographic sectors that are the hottest hotbeds of populism are all in decline: rural, less educated, older, and ethnic majorities.” Nevertheless, while the deplorables are on their way out,

For believers in Enlightenment and progress, the second year of Donald Trump's presidency felt like being strapped to a table and getting a series of unpredictable electric shocks. They include his kissing up to autocratic thugs, undermining a free press and judiciary, demonizing foreigners, gutting environmental protections, blowing off climate science, renouncing international cooperation, and threatening to renew a nuclear arms race.

While there is some truth here, on the whole, this is rather glib and cheap, complex issues being simplified into progressive boilerplate. I am not going to analyze Pinker’s take on the Trump administration, however. What interests me, and what I want to call attention to, is how Pinker functions to justify “the current center-left status quo.” Take the following passage from Pinker’s Quillette piece:

But before we imagine the future as a boot stamping on a human face forever, we need to put authoritarian populism in perspective. Despite its recent swelling, populism appears to have plateaued. A majority of Americans consistently disapprove of Trump, and in Europe, nationalist parties won a median of just 13 percent in 2018 elections....The travails of Trump and Brexit in 2018 are a reminder to supporters that populism works better in theory than in practice. Lined up against it are democratic checks and balances within a country and pressures toward global cooperation outside it, the only effective means to deal with trade, migration, pollution, pandemics, cybercrime, terrorism, piracy, rogue states, and war.

And though Trump and other reactionary leaders can do real damage, and will have to be opposed and contained for some time to come, they are not the only actors in the world. The forces of modernity, including connectivity, mobility, science, and the ideals of human rights and human welfare are distributed among a wide array of governments and private-sector and civil-society organizations, and they have gained too much momentum to be shifted into reverse overnight.

Here Pinker seeks to lend a naive rationalist faith to the technocratic globalist agenda. National sovereignty, and the desire of ordinary people to govern themselves, are to be subordinated to the calculations of large expert organizations, many of them transnational. And all this while Europe is gradually dying off, with America perhaps not far behind. If ever a man was fit to devise a Dostoevskian crystal palace, that man is Steven Pinker.

Reading him, one does not get the sense that there was something terribly wrong with America before Trump became president, something that may be responsible for the Trump presidency. In accounting for Trumpism, Pinker is utterly trite and shallow: “People easily slide back into motivated cognition, magical thinking, tribalism, authoritarianism, and nostalgia for a golden age.” Pinker would do well to read a little Pat Buchanan. “Consider the fruits of free trade policy during the last 25 years,” he writes; “the frozen wages of U.S. workers, $12 trillion in U.S. trade deficits, 55,000 factories lost, 6 million manufacturing jobs gone, China surpassing the U.S in manufacturing, all causing a backlash that pushed a political novice to the Republican nomination and into the presidency.” Nevertheless, the optimism of Harvard’s celebrated confidence man is as reliable as his long curly hair. “Life is [not] worse today than it was 50 years ago,” he insists. “Take care about ‘authoritarian populism’! Take care about Nietzsche and his super men!”

Laughable as Pinker’s gospel is, we should not let it divert us from recognizing the man’s political function. He is ultimately an apologist for the globalist elite and the homogenizing technocrats, and an enemy of the independent right in particular.