New Enlightenment - after the speech


Thanks to everyone who came to my lecture last night, despite the heat and the alternative attraction of Andy Murray (although I still had time to get home and watch the fifth set!)

It was great to have David Willetts as a respondent, both on Today and on the night. I have been thinking more about his three critiques of my speech.

David’s views are valuable, in part because they raise issues I need to address more fully but also because his interpretation helps me see which bits of my argument I am not communicating clearly.  So briefly, my responses to his responses:

1)      David argues that just because our view of our selves and reality may not accord with the     science it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work nor that we will change. For example we know the earth revolves around the sun but we still think about the sun ‘rising’ and ‘going down’. I agree.

However, my argument is that as we become more aware, for example, of counter-intuitive facts about our brains (such as the neurological process associated with taking an action preceding us thinking about taking the action) this opens us up to more profound questioning of how we relate to the world.

That questioning won’t stop us going about our day to day business but it might widen the canvas of public discourse about how we persuade citizens to do the right thing, whether that’s volunteering, recycling or living more healthily.

2)      David disagrees with my suggestion that human behaviour is often ‘idiosyncratic’, ‘irrational’ or ‘myopic’. He is right that this suggests a too disparaging a view of people (I’ve probably been reading too much John Gray).

David argues that most acts – whether it’s failing to save for old age or not living up to our commitment to sustainability can be explained as being rational as long as we have a sophisticated view of what constitutes rationality. I have two problems with this.

First it is a circular argument to say that human behaviour is always rational then prove this by extending the definition of rationality to include the fact that, for example, human beings have a non linear view of time leading them to make decisions today that don’t seem to accord with their own definition of their best interests.

If your definition of rational includes apparently contradictory or self deceiving behaviour then ‘rational’ has become a very loose term.

Second, and more importantly, I want to include the concept of moral consistency within my idea of rationality. So, in relation to climate change I think it is irrational to desire a social outcome which demonstrably cannot be achieved if everyone else behaves like me. This is a disputable point but one I think worthy of more debate.

3)      David argues we should be less concerned with people changing themselves and more with creating the circumstances in which the best parts of our selves are expressed.

I entirely agree and it is a failing of my speech that this doesn’t come across. My only argument with David is that I believe that in winning legitimacy for the kinds of policies that strengthen, for example, social commitment we need to open up the broader debate that my speech seeks to provoke.

You will soon be able to see some of this debate on our web site. I suspect I am using my blog to respond to David because he got the best of the argument last night!

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