[T]he psychological roots of progressophobia run deeper.
The deepest is a bias that has been summarized in the slogan “Bad is stronger than good.” The idea can be captured in a set of thought experiments suggested by Tversky. How much better can you imagine yourself feeling than you are feeling right now? How much worse can you imagine yourself feeling? In answering the first hypothetical, most of us can imagine a bit more of a spring in our step or a twinkle in our eye, but the answer to the second one is: it’s bottomless. This asymmetry in mood can be explained by an asymmetry in life (a corollary of the Law of Entropy). How many things could happen to you today that would leave you much better off? How many things could happen that would leave you much worse off? Once again, to answer the first question, we can all come up with the odd windfall or stroke of good luck, but the answer to the second one is: it’s endless. But we needn’t rely on our imaginations. The psychological literature confirms that people dread losses more than they look forward to gains, that they dwell on setbacks more than they savor good fortune, and that they are more stung by criticism than they are heartened by praise. (As a psycholinguist I am compelled to add that the English language has far more words for negative emotions than for positive ones.)
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York, 2018, ch. 4
According to a story, the logician Sidney Morgenbesser and his girlfriend underwent couples counseling during which the bickering pair endlessly aired their grievances about each other. The exasperated counselor finally said to them, “Look, someone’s got to change.” Morgenbesser replied, “Well, I’m not going to change. And she’s not going to change. So you’re going to change.”
Steven Pinker, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters, New York, 2021, p. 81
There are studies showing that violence is more common when people are confined to one pecking order, and all of their social worth depends on where they are in that hierarchy, whereas if they belong to multiple overlapping groups, they can always seek affirmations of worth elsewhere. For example, if I do something stupid when I’m driving, and someone gives me the finger and calls me an asshole, it’s not the end of the world: I think to myself, I’m a tenured professor at Harvard. On the other hand, if status among men in the street was my only source of worth in life, I might have road rage and pull out a gun.
Steven Pinker, A history of violence: Edge master class 2011, Edge.org.
Science […] has granted us the gifts of life, health, wealth, knowledge, and freedom documented in the chapters on progress. To take just one example from chapter 6, scientific knowledge eradicated smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone. In case anyone has skimmed over this feat of moral greatness, let me say it again: scientific knowledge eradicated smallpox, a painful and disfiguring disease which killed 300 million people in the 20th century alone.
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York, 2018, p. 386
The facts of human progress strike me as having been as unkind to right-wing libertarianism as to right-wing conservatism and left-wing Marxism. The totalitarian governments of the 20th century did not emerge from democratic welfare states sliding down a slippery slope, but were imposed by fanatical ideologues and gangs of thugs. And countries that combine free markets with more taxation, social spending, and regulation than the United States (such as Canada, New Zealand, and Western Europe) turn out to be not grim dystopias but rather pleasant places to live, and they trounce the United States in every measure of human flourishing, including crime, life expectancy, infant mortality, education, and happiness. As we saw, no developed country runs on right-wing libertarian principles, nor has any realistic vision of such a country ever been laid out.
It should not be surprising that the facts of human progress confound the major -isms. The ideologies are more than two centuries old and are based on mile-high visions such as whether humans are tragically flawed or infinitely malleable, and whether society is an organic whole or a collection of individuals. A real society comprises hundreds of millions of social beings, each with a trillion-synapse brain, who pursue their well-being while affecting the well-being of others in complex networks with massive positive and negative externalities, many of them historically unprecedented. It is bound to defy any simple narrative of what will happen under a given set of rules. A more rational approach to politics is to treat societies as ongoing experiments and open-mindedly learn the best practices, whichever part of the spectrum they come from.
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York, 2018, p. 365
The moral value of quantification is that it treats all lives as equally valuable, so actions that bring down the highest numbers of homicides prevent the greatest amount of human tragedy.
Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, New York, 2018, p. 173
Innate mechanisms are important not because everything is innate and learning is unimportant, but because the only way to explain learning is to identify the innate mechanisms that make learning possible.
Steven Pinker, Language, Cognition, and Human Nature: Selected Articles, New York, 2013, p. 2
Paradoxically, intensifiers like very, highly, and extremely also work like hedges. They not only fuzz up a writer’s prose but can undermine his intent. If I’m wondering who pilfered the petty cash, it’s more reassuring to hear Not Jones; he’s an honest man than Not Jones; he’s a very honest man. The reason is that unmodified adjectives and nouns tend to be interpreted categorically: honest means “completely honest,” or at least “completely honest in the way that matters here” (just as Jack drank the bottle of beer implies that he chugged down all of it, not just a sip or two). As soon as you add an intensifier, you’re turning an all-or-none dichotomy into a graduated scaled. True, you’re trying to place your subject high on the scale—say, an 8.7 out of 10—but it would have been better if the reader were not considering his relative degree of honesty in the first pace. That’s the basis for the common advice (usually misattributed to Mark Twain) to “substitute damn every time you’re inclined to write very; your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be”—though today the substitution would have to be of a word stronger than damn.
Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, New York, 2014
Cannibalism is so repugnant to us that for years even anthropologists failed to admit that it was common in prehistory. It is easy to think: could other human beings really be capable of such a depraved act? But of course animal rights activists have a similarly low opinion of meat eaters, who not only cause millions of preventable deaths but do so with utter callousness: castrating and branding cattle without an anesthetic, impaling fish by the mouth and letting them suffocate in the hold of a boat, boiling lobsters alive. My point is not to make a moral case for vegetarianism but to shed light on the mindset of human violence and cruelty. History and ethnography suggest that people can treat strangers the way we now treat lobsters, and our incomprehension of such deeds may be compared with animal rights activists’ incomprehension of ours. It is no coincidence that Peter Singer, the author of The Expanding Circle, is also the author of Animal Liberation.
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, New York, 2002, p. 320
Social scientists should never predict the future; it’s hard enough to predict the past.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, New York, 2011, p. 278
The logic of the Leviathan can be summed up in a triangle. In every act of violence, there are three interested parties: the aggressor, the victim, and a bystander. Each has a motive for violence: the aggressor to prey upon the victim, the victim to retaliate, the bystander to minimize collateral damage from their fight. Violence between the combatants may be called war; violence by the bystander against the combatants may be called law. The Leviathan theory, in a nutshell, is that law is better than war.
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, New York, 2011, p. 35
This chapter is about the puzzle of swearing—the strange shock and appeal of words like fuck, screw, and come; shit, piss, and fart; cunt, pussy, tits, prick, cock, dick, and asshole; bitch, slut, and whore; bastard, wanker, cocksucker, and motherfucker; hell, damn, and Jesus Christ; faggot, queer, and dyke; and spick, dago, kike, wog, mick, gook, kaffir, and nigger.
Steven Pinker, The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature, London, 2008, p. 327
[P]ublicly expressed beliefs advertise the intellectual virtuosity of the belief-holder, creating an incentive to craft clever and extravagant beliefs rather than just true ones. This explains much of what goes on in academia.
Steven Pinker, ‘So How Does the Mind Work?’, Mind & Language, vol. 20, no. 1 (February 2005), p. 18
[T]he biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It’s not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings–the core of morality.
[…] Th[e] power to deny that other people have feelings is not just an academic exercise but an all-to-common vice, as we see in the long history of human cruelty. Yet once we realize that our own consciousness is a product of our brains and that other people have brains like ours, a denial of other people’s sentience becomes ludicrous. “Hath not a Jew eyes?” asked Shylock. Today the question is more pointed: Hath nor a Jew–or an Arab, or an African, or a baby, or a god–a cerebral cortex and a thalamus? The undeniable fact that we are ll made of the same neural flesh makes it impossible to deny our common capacity to suffer.
Steven Pinker, ‘The Mystery of Consciousness’, Time, January 19, 2007
The taboo on human nature has not just put blinkers on researchers but turned any discussion of it into a heresy that must be stamped out. Many writers are so desperate to discredit any suggestion of an innate human constitution that they have thrown logic and civility out the window. Elementary distinctions—”some” versus “all,” “probable” versus “always,” “is” versus “ought”—are eagerly flouted to paint human nature as an extremist doctrine and thereby steer readers away from it. The analysis of ideas is commonly replaced by political smears and personal attacks. This poisoning of the intellectual atmosphere has left us unequipped to analyze pressing issues about human nature just as new scientific discoveries are making them acute.
Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, New York, 2002, p. x
It is, of course, understandable that people are squeamish about acknowledging the violence of pre-state societies. For centuries the stereotype of the savage savage was used as a pretext to wipe out indigenous peoples and steal their lands. But surely it is unnecessary to paint a false picture of people as peaceable and ecologically conscientious in order to condemn the great crimes against them, as if genocide were wrong only when the victims are nice guys.
Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, New York, 2002, pp. 57-58