“Intellectuals hate progress,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “Intellectuals who call themselves ‘progressive’ really hate progress.” There are plenty of reasons to think Pinker is right. Many progressives seem hellbent on downplaying or ignoring progress. They stress how far we have yet to go towards achieving our ideals, as opposed to how far we have already come. They zero in on what we don’t yet have, in lieu of highlighting what we have to lose.
Does this amount to a hatred of progress? I don’t think so. But, if not, how do we explain the extreme contempt shown towards Pinker for presenting a clear-eyed, empirically grounded case for optimism about the state of the world? Why have so many on the left reacted so belligerently to his claim that, “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being.” Is it that progressives hate science, disdain reason and reject data that does not support their ideological priors?
This might be true in some cases. Ideological commitments can lead us to deny what is obvious to any reasonable person. I find it hard to make sense of the claim that life is worse for the average person today than it was, say, one hundred years ago. That seems like gaslighting. But I suspect that very few progressives actually believe this.
The reason so many progressives love to hate Pinker and his fellow possibilists probably has more to do with human motivation and social change.
Progressives are always comparing the present to an ideal. Of course, some ideals are more attainable than others. It’s always useful to ask: What is our end game? What would it take for us to be satisfied? Some progressives have a clear sense of this. Others do not. In the latter case, dissatisfaction with the present is built into their modus operandi. For this group, to be a progressive is always to compare the present to an unrealized and often unrealizable standard, thereby providing a reason to keep on fighting the good fight.
But what about those progressives who espouse an ideal that, while perhaps historically unprecedented, is potentially achievable? These progressives have trouble with Pinker’s array of facts not so much because they reject the facts themselves, but because they reject the narrative that frames them. For Pinker, the decline in violence, the increases in literacy and public education, and the reduction in extreme poverty are all part of a celebratory story that allows the west to look at itself with pride. To many progressives, this is all wrong. For in highlighting all that has been achieved, this story omits all that we haven’t achieved—and risks encouraging us to rest on our laurels.
This is not just a matter of deciding whether to view the glass as half full or half empty. How one chooses to interpret one’s situation is likely to determine how and whether one chooses to act.
Though Pinker may be an eminent psychologist, his view of how human psychology works is questionable. He seems to think that highlighting how good things are will encourage us to rise to the challenges on the horizon. I seriously doubt this. Self-satisfaction and self-congratulation are rarely good sources of motivation. Personally, I avoid focusing on my past achievements in order not to be lulled into complacency. Instead, I am almost always thinking about how I could do better. I suspect that this is probably true of most people who aspire to self-improvement.
If you want people to act, you need them to care, and if you want them to care, you need to get them riled up. If you want to start a social movement, or bring about social reforms, you need to make people feel a sense of urgency. Moral outrage, not bare facts, stirs people to action. I cannot think of a single significant social reform that was not born of a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Thus, progressives reject the story of progress not because they reject the facts it entails, but because they see it as a threat to future progress—because they think that the only reason we have come this far is because we have resisted concentrating on our achievements. They don’t hate progress: they just hate talking about it.
If this is correct, we are left with a paradox: in order to achieve progress, you have to downplay (or even deny) its existence. This would explain why so many progressives have trouble listening to claims about how good things are, or how much better they are than they used to be. While they might be empirically accurate, such claims sap the energy we need to keep moving forward.
Many in the Pinker camp fail to appreciate this. Those who champion science and reason over emotionalism and irrationality seem blithely unaware of what it takes to stoke political will. Nobody ever started a successful social movement by shouting, Things are pretty darn good! And one doesn’t rally support for a cause by asking, What degree of moral outrage does a historical analysis of human progress rationally allow? We humans don’t work like that and we never will. To change the status quo will always require a degree of emotional energy that borders on the irrational because collective action simply can’t get going without that. This is why philosophers generally make bad activists. Philosophers always wish to step back and analyze, while activists just want to act.
Of course, the progressive view is not always justified. The fight against injustice can have very dangerous consequences. It can lead to extreme overreactions, driven by emotional responses that are disproportionate to the reality of the problem. Also, as Pinker has noted, if all we ever talk about is how bad things are, then we are likely to undervalue the things that are actually working well. Progressives risk embracing the reckless notion that we have nothing to lose, since everything is allegedly already as bad as it could possibly be.
Unfortunately, we are seeing this attitude all over the place today—especially among those on the left who felt that there was no point in voting for Biden over Trump. This reflects a pathological inability to make moral distinctions—between liberalism and fascism, between incremental reform and outright tyranny, between decency and depravity—born of a cynicism that has lost all sense of proportion. This is a perfect example of how the progressive mindset can undermine progress.
Clearly there are reasons to be wary of progressophobia on the left. But self-satisfaction and the drive to improve, moral outrage and rational analysis, appreciation of the present and yearning for a better future—these pairs of things do not readily go together. The key, then, is to find a balance between recognizing the good that has been attained, and striving for the good that has not. This will not be easy. But there is no other tenable way forward.