Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment”

Quillette recently hosted an essay by Steven Pinker on his Enlightenment Now a year after its publication. The following is a repost of a comment on the book I left there by way of a review. In the first chapters of the book, Pinker argues that we’ve made lots of progress towards “human flourishing” by applying the principles of the Enlightenment. I don’t take issue here with those claims one way or the other. I do take issue with what he has to say about his favorite flavor of morality, referred to in the book as humanism, as follows:

Pinker extols the merits of science and reason. The problem with “Enlightenment Now” is that it is fundamentally irrational and unscientific. Consider, for example, what he has to say about morality, which he discusses under the rubric of humanism. He agrees with Darwin that it is a manifestation of innate predispositions, or “human nature” if you will. If that is the case, then there can be no such thing as objective morality. Darwin practically spoon fed us this truth in Chapter IV of “The Descent of Man.” The illusion that there is an objective morality, independent of what any individual thinks about the matter, complete with objective goods and evils, is as much an illusion as the belief in God, yet Pinker, in spite of accepting the innate basis of morality, makes the fundamentally irrational claim that the illusion is real. Nowhere in the book do we find a disclaimer to the effect that what he has written about morality merely represents his personal opinion. On the contrary, he speaks of it as an objective thing, imposing duties on the rest of us. It comes complete with “moral imperatives” and even an “authority,” based on what Pinker describes in glowing terms as the values of the Enlightenment. These values themselves, however, cannot be distilled from pure reason, any more than a computer can program itself. Hume pointed this out long ago. Try to trace Pinker’s reasons for embracing the values of the Enlightenment back to their “rational” source, reason by reason, and you will find that his reasons only end up chasing their own tails. In the end, those values, too, must have a root cause or source in innate predispositions, or emotions, if you will, that exist by virtue of natural selection. Since these predispositions exist by virtue of a natural process, they cannot have a purpose. They are simply facts of nature. They could not have a purpose of the sort claimed by Pinker unless a God or other creator existed who gave them purpose.

Pinker is well known as an opponent of group selection. He confirms his belief that the emotional roots of morality exist by virtue of natural selection, and are selected at the level of the gene, in the following passage:

Today’s Fascism Lite, which shades into authoritarian populism and Romantic nationalism, is sometimes justified by a crude version of evolutionary psychology in which the unit of selection is the group, evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest group in competition with other groups, and humans have been selected to sacrifice their interests for the supremacy of their group. (This contrasts with mainstream evolutionary psychology, in which the unit of selection is the gene.)

He then commits the fundamentally irrational non sequitur of claiming that we must ignore the reasons morality exists to begin with, and jury-rig it so that it goes well beyond group selection, and promotes “the good of the species!” For example,

Evolution thus selects for the moral sentiments: sympathy, trust, gratitude, guilt, shame, forgiveness, and righteous anger. With sympathy installed in our psychological makeup, it can be expanded by reason and experience to encompass all sentient beings.


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.

How can it possibly be deemed “rational” to “reprogram” morality in this way? We are dealing with a manifestation of human nature that evolved at a time radically unlike the present, in which the very existence of “all of humankind” was unknown. It evolved because it happened to enhance the odds that the responsible genes would survive and reproduce. Pinker would have us believe that it is “reasonable” to “fool” morality into serving other ends that may well result in outcomes that are not only dangerous, but the very opposite of the survival of those genes. The “other ends” Pinker has in mind are the “values of the Enlightenment,” which he describes in noble, glowing phrases, but which are really just expressions of other emotional predispositions not unlike those that give rise to morality. We can certainly reason about whether we want to promote “the values of the Enlightenment” or not as individuals, but to bowdlerize morality in order to serve those ends, harnessing powerful illusions of “objective Good” and “objective Evil,” which can just as easily promote violence and warfare as they can “the values of the Enlightenment” is nothing short of foolhardy. I suggest that we would all be better served by reducing the scope of such a powerful emotional phenomenon as much as possible.

As far as Pinker’s embrace of “reason” is concerned, consider all the passages in the book in which he condemns Trump and all his works. He would have us believe that Trump is no less than a follower of Hitler and Mussolini, inspired by a careful parsing of the works of Nietzsche. Anyone who supports him, and that would amount to half the population of the United States, give or take, must therefore be either a Nazi or a dupe of the Nazis. In what way does such a claim support the notion of a “rational” dialogue with all these people? I am certainly not in the habit of calmly and rationally discussing things with people who initiate the conversation by claiming I’m a Nazi.

In fact, a major reason Trump was elected, and the main reason a great many voters supported him, was his promise to enforce our immigration laws. Not only was this not irrational, it was actually an embrace of Enlightenment values. Was not one of those values respect for the law? “The rule of law” was deemed so important that it was actually inscribed as a motto on French coins after the Revolution! Under the circumstances, it is difficult to construe the furious attacks on Trump that appear so frequently throughout the book as “reasonable.” They are far better understood as virtue signaling to Pinker’s academic tribe. He has often subjected that tribe to pinpricks here and there, but he is well aware that he dare not attack the fundamental shibboleths that define his tribalist ingroup, and one of those shibboleths is currently blind allegiance to the notion that Trump is a manifestation of pure evil. Respect for the shibboleths of his tribe is how Pinker has managed to avoid being denounced as a heretic and ostracized after the fashion of Charles Murray or James Watson. Need I add that there is nothing “rational” about tribalistic virtue signaling, other than the fact that it is a common trait of our species?

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

5 thoughts on “Steven Pinker and His Obscurantist “Enlightenment””

  1. Well said.

    The evidence is in, the ability of individuals to independantly form rational objective opinions re a range of disparate and diverse human issues and behaviours, without group signals is completely lacking.
    There is no doubt that the ‘in group’ nature of belief is the concrete driver for the majority, I would say the vast majority, however, this immediately leads us to the next question. If not the majority whom?
    Authority, as vested in the alpha/alpha group, or in our ‘modern societies’ the ‘false authority’ of the Church and the organs of Nation State.
    I’m increasingly dismayed, or is it beginning to see, that Academia (and good grief the MSM) is but lowly sub branches of the Authority structure.
    Pinker gets my goat, in particularly his idiotic notion that the graph of ‘human nastyness’ has downturned since people started listening to people, unsurprisingly, like Pinker. However, I see Sam Harris is embroiled with a similar fantasy, with his gullible acceptance of the Russia Gate HRC/DNC MSM consipracy.
    We mentioned the ‘lefts’ bizzare embrace of War in the last post, as an old exlefty, I’m even further peaked by them now falling for their old enemy the FBI and the CIA etc. That the FBI starting an investigation into a newly elected President goes past without an absolute explosion of the voting population leaves me speechless.
    Your analysis and exploration of the real drivers have been instrumental in seeing the blinding effect of group dynamics on the thinking processes of us all. No doubt it is now clear.

  2. I haven’t paid much attention to Sam Harris lately, but his take on the “Russia Gate HRC/DNC MSM conspiracy” doesn’t surprise me. He belongs to the same ingroup as Pinker, and virtue signaling loyalty to the ideological shibboleths that define that ingroup comes with the territory.

    Apropos ingroups, my latest post takes up the subject again. The book by Norman Podhoretz that inspired it is well worth reading, regardless of what you think of the authors ideological twists and turns.

  3. Pinker is at it again with recent tweets showing some graph that allegedly show a decline in ‘racism’ etc.
    There would appear to be at least two problems with this, firstly whilst highly politically incorrect even to think the following, where in nature do we see evidence that ‘racism’, or ‘exclusion of the other’ is wrong. We don’t of course, and it then comes back to ‘morally wrong’, which I’m happy to back, but is a bit like pouring from the empty into the void.
    Secondly, the graph, along with lots of Pinker’s recent work strikes me as suffering from the following problem. ‘Timescale’. Evolution doesn’t allow rapid change in groups or individuals. Far more likely that people have learn’t, when answering questionnaires to lie, it’s much easier, and then when it come time to have a secret vote, to vote the other way.
    In reply to one of his little tweets I quoted Ardrey, ‘we are risen apes not fallen angels’, one of his crowd responded, ‘I’m sure Pinker understands that’. I’m not so sure.

  4. The amusing thing about the paper he refers to is that it’s a perfect example of “racism” itself. It promotes outgroup identification of the Trump “race” and, by implication, anyone who agrees with him or voted for him as either evil or stupid. The authors don’t even entertain the idea that the difference in responses to questions about race between now and a decade ago could possibly be explained by anything other than either an increase or decline in racism. A painfully ludicrous paper. Perhaps I’ll post something about it one of these days.

  5. From Aus your domestic politics seems to be in a real crisis, the ‘group’ dynamics now seems to be at a fever pitch. I watch the revelation re the outcome of the Mueller report and think its a perfect case study for ‘group’ ‘belief creation’. I don’t expect you to answer but it appears that there were certain central authority figure who created the ‘belief’ that the Russian, Assange etc were in cahoots and stole the election from HRC. Bizzare.
    Back to Pinker, his type miss that ‘success’ is not measured by abstract notions of ‘correct thought’, but breeding success and the number of great grandchildren. Evolution has a fairly simple ruler.
    One last tangent,. Just rereading the first few chapters of ‘The Territorial Imperative’, where Ardrey smashes Montague etc,. Great sport, Pinker could do worse than to read it.

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