Questions for a 21st century enlightenment - RSA

Questions for a 21st century enlightenment

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By multiple measures, we are healthier, more prosperous, and better educated than ever. But are we using our expanded power for good? Do we as a society live by values that make us proud?

The legacy of the Enlightenment era has brought us a world that would have been incomprehensible back then, when the RSA was a fledgling and the steam engine was at the cutting edge. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been holding a programme of events reimagining the RSA’s enlightenment heritage for today’s context: whilst the topics – from ethical AI to identity politics – have been a far cry from what would have been talked about on the Great Room stage back in the 18th century, the ideals and values behind the thinking will have remained largely the same.

Back then...

Enlightenment thinking covered a range of ideals centered on reason as the axis of what matters in a good society, prizing knowledge, progress, liberty, and tolerance. The focus on knowledge and evidence brought on an explosion of scientific breakthroughs whose legacies continue to inform our thinking today, and with this came the conviction that the world around us is intelligible and amenable to human reason; a challenge to traditional doctrines which held our source of knowledge and understanding to be divine authority. This shift in power away from absolute monarchy and the dogmas of the Church brought worldly human matters into sharper focus, and between Immanuel Kant’s exploration of how to reconcile individual freedom with political authority, and Montesquieu’s espousal of the separation of powers, the thinking of the time was profoundly influential in shaping the foundation of liberal democracy as we know it.

So the Enlightenment reached beyond advancements in knowledge and science and into the realm of values and morals – the Enlightenment move towards democratic politics was after all furnished by belief in freedom, tolerance, and the inherent worth of the individual – although it’s much easier to gauge progress when it comes to the former than the latter. Of course we’ve progressed hugely in scientific terms since, for instance, the discovery of carbon dioxide in the 1750s, but it’s not so clear that the sophistication of our moral thinking has kept pace. The values prized by enlightenment thinking are never safely in the bank, but must be fought for time and time again; every new threat to freedom, progress, tolerance, and truth must be met with a bolder conviction that these really matter and are worth defending. The challenge is making sure that our moral achievements match up to our empirical and technical ones, and remembering that progress comes not just in expanding what we can do, but in ever more thoughtful consideration of what we should do and who we should be.

These questions have been the thread running throughout the conversations that have taken place over the last few weeks of our programme, and it’s been fascinating to see the themes that have emerged.

Enlightenment questions for now

One urgent question is how we can cultivate a sense of community and belonging in an increasingly globalized world, without predicating that sense of belonging on rejection or hatred of those we deem ‘other’. As Michael Sandel points out, the notion of patriotism has been commandeered by populist rhetoric which uses the status of the nation state to legitimise racism and xenophobia, but liberal positions can and should have things to say on our need for belonging and collective identity too.

At a time when our political positions are so viscerally bound up with our social identities, another major question is how to engage with people and discourse beyond our usual orbit. Lots of concerns that have surfaced in discussions over the last few weeks have revolved around the relatively new ability to curate and tailor the information to which we’re exposed, and what that does to our sense of reality. That the Brexit debate has been reduced to little more than shouting across the divide is inevitable if we literally don’t understand the version of things that other people are experiencing, exposed to an entirely different universe of information serving to bolster our conviction that we’re right in the only way it’s possible to be.

Related to this is the challenge of protecting our freedom of speech whilst taking seriously the responsibilities that this freedom brings with it. In much surrounding discussion, the right to free speech has been conflated with an entitlement to immunity against any sort of consequences or criticism for what is said. Rather than removing all accountability for what we say, as many ‘free speech warriors’ insist upon, we have to set about liberating everyone from the conditions that impede upon their free expression, whether that’s social oppression, political persecution, fear, violence or harassment. So-called ‘safe spaces’ have been decried as inherently antithetical to free speech, but it would be unwise to allow the hand-wringing to drown out conversations about if and how the goals of safe spaces can align with those of free speech; for instance, if they can empower marginalized voices and expand the arena of speech to include those not usually heard. If we really care about free speech as a fundamental right, we have to care about securing it for everyone, and think imaginatively about how this can be done.

If the Enlightenment era was about bringing about the expansion of human power, a 21st Century enlightenment should be about ensuring this power is exercised and distributed justly. It means thinking carefully about the values that should guide the incredible command we now have over so many aspects of our lives, and making sure our politics brings out the best of these. As David Marquand reminds us, politics isn’t just about policy. We ought, he says, to be striving for revitalization not just of our public institutions, but of the culture and character of our society – and this involves enacting particular values, not just policies. Some of the trouble we find ourselves in seems to come from the two having become estranged, and the main mission of a 21st century enlightenment should be to rectify this and to keep defending the values that really matter by embedding them in the way our society functions. As Marquand tells us, the good society is the one that knows it isn’t good enough, so we have to keep asking more of ourselves and demanding better from our politics. This is hard, and the work is never really done – but what else do we have?

Revisit this year’s events

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  • Stephane, your observations made me think of a 19th century invention, the typewriter! 

    I am left wondering how people would have responded to the new technology of a typewriter way back in 1868!  I imagine both with awe and respect about what this 'new fangled' machine could do. Each word would have been deliberated over (not least because you didn't have a delete button!) and read, edited and then rewritten - perhaps an arduous task by today's standards but you could imagine that more thought would have gone into the content to avoid too many rewrites.

    It is already a concern that children can't spell words, use grammar correctly etc  due to modern mediums of communication but, I wonder, if we still respected the machine that we use to communicate, then maybe people would be a little more mindful of what they say.

  • Yes, these points are all well taken, and yet we seem to lack the intellectual oomph to make today's  new enlightenment actually         l i g h t e n   the scene. The original enlightenment came about because Descartes showed that mathematics had a vast new potential application to physical science. At the time maths was much admired as a 100% lucid, 100% rational logos. The "light" of the enlightenment thus came essentially from the spectacular capacity of mathematical models to illuminate a vast range of new phenomena. At the time maths was supposed to be the language God used to create the universe. So this light was the real Mcoy. Today mathematics has become all-pervasive and it has gradually become oppressive,  because spacetime says that the future is already "there", which means that human freewill is a sham. Without freewill we are trapped and any kind of "human light" disappears. Moral: we need a 21st century revolution in science to throw-off the entrapment implied by Einstein's theory which still harbours an element of the absolutism it is supposed to have rejected. 

  • Thank you Phoebe for your thoughtful piece. You summarise very well some of the challenges confronting a renewal of Enlightenment values. I note in particular (because of my particular interest in this issue) your comment on the ability to curate and tailor information. The deluge of easily-accessible if not downright intrusive information which which confronts us all on a daily basis is, of course, another phenomenon that the 18th century Enlightenment did not face. The curation and tailoring of information is one answer to the challenge. But another is to equip us, as citizens, with the skills, abilities, competencies and confidence to be discerning about information; to nurture our critical faculties; to be more patient in the way that we consume, share and create information; and to enable us, as you suggest, to experience a greater diversity of views and standpoints. Such abilities do not develop spontaneously in humans, and nor are they acquired as a sort of side-effect of tech-savviness. They need to be taught carefully, and as a society, we are generally failing in this task, not least in schools - although there is now at least the beginnings of an understanding in the UK about the importance of information or digital or media literacy - whichever way it is termed. It seems to me that developing a healthier (and dare I say, more mature) relationship with information is a critical part of fostering the good society. Perhaps this is something that RSA could reflect on?