Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment

51Z212TCk+L._SX327_BO1 204 203 200_Gary Gutting at Commonweal:

In any case, Pinker’s argument falters when he comes to the crucial question of happiness. What good are all our modern health, wealth, and safety if we aren’t living happier lives? Pinker is confident that psychologists can measure happiness just by asking people—either in surveys (“On a scale of 1-7, how satisfied are you with your life overall?”) or in real-time responses to a beeper signal (“How happy do feel right now?”). Of course, such methodologies ignore the ease with which we can deceive ourselves about how happy we are and, especially, the extent to which we aren’t sure what real happiness would be. More generally, they ignore any aspects of a phenomenon that fall outside the idealizations needed for rigorous empirical analysis. But even waving such difficulties, it turns out that there aren’t good data about how happy people have been over the ages. Pinker can only display graphs showing increases in reported happiness in most countries over the last thirty years. (But even so, the United States is an outlier and, he admits, “hasn’t gotten systematically happier over the years”.)

As a result, Pinker has to retreat to an argument based on the correlation between wealth and happiness: “we now know that richer people within a country are happier, that richer counties are happier, and that people get happier as their countries get richer (which means that people get happier over time).” But even if people in, say, medieval or early modern times got happier over the years, it doesn’t follow that their absolute felicity at any given time was lower than ours. In particular, they may, despite relative poverty and other material lacks, have had a much stronger sense of leading meaningful lives, perhaps due to religious belief and sustaining social values.

more here.