Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Humanists UK's online course, Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 11 seconds We, as a species, we have made progress in just about any dimension in which you could measure human wellbeing. We live longer, we are felled by fewer diseases, our children live longer, women are less likely to die in childbirth, more of us are literate, more of us are educated. Our lives are safer, we’re less likely to be murdered, to die in a car crash, a plane crash, a occupational accident. Less likely to be burned to death, to drown. Even less likely to be struck by a bolt of lightning. We are less likely to die in war.

Skip to 0 minutes and 42 seconds Wars have been declining in number and intensity, and far fewer people are killed today in war than in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. We have more leisure time, we have, thanks to the growth of labour saving devices, and electricity, running water, and a reduction in the work week. We have more time to enjoy ourselves, we have more opportunities to sample culture through the availability of culture through electronic media, and on average we’re getting happier - not everyone, everywhere, but in a majority countries in which happiness has been measured over time, there have been increases.

Skip to 1 minute and 31 seconds You can easily get the impression that the world is getting worse if you base your impressions on the news because as long as rates of violence and other catastrophes haven’t fallen to zero, they’ll always take place somewhere or other on the globe, the news will cover them and so it might appear that we’re not getting any better or even stagnating. But when you aggregate the places say that are not at war together with the ones that are at war, the cities that have not been subject to terrorist attacks, as well as the ones that that are, you see that the degree of danger has been in decline, as has the degree of poverty, oppression, and other kinds of human misery.

Skip to 2 minutes and 23 seconds I identify the most overarching cause of progress as: the values of the Enlightenment - the idea that we apply reason to understanding our condition rather than superstition or dogma or intuition; Science - the increased mastery over the understanding of the world by formulating hypotheses and testing them against reality; and humanism - the prioritising of human wellbeing as the ultimate moral good, as opposed to spreading the faith, as opposed to enhancing the glory of the nation, the tribe, the race or the faith.

Skip to 3 minutes and 10 seconds Progress, of course, is not inevitable, there’s no law of the universe that says that things must get better. In fact, the laws of the universe don’t care about our welfare and they’re bound to make things worse left to their own devices. But human ingenuity, capturing energy, and applying knowledge can solve problems as they arise. Solutions bring on new problems which have to be solved in their turn. But it’s thanks to the cumulative retention of policies that have made us better off that progress takes place. It can be threatened if we don’t dedicate ourselves to applying knowledge to enhancing human flourishing.

The best time to live

‘If you had to choose one moment in history in which to be born, and you didn’t know in advance whether you were going to be male or female, which country you were going to be from, what your status was, you’d choose right now.’

Barack Obama

Steven Pinker is a cognitive psychologist, linguist, and popular science author. He is Johnstone Family Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University. His book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Science, Reason, Humanism and Progress was released in 2018.

Question: Do you agree with the statement made by Barack Obama above?

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Humanist Lives, with Alice Roberts

Humanists UK