21st century enlightenment - RSA

21st century enlightenment


  • Social brain

As I said in Monday's post, the most important and difficult question about human development (in the sense of people in general attaining a 'higher' level of  capability) may concern whether there are practical, reasonably large scale, examples of such development taking place as an intended consequence of specific interventions.

But before turning to the practical challenge (thanks, by the way, for some useful pointers among the comments on the post), I wanted briefly to explore some of the assumptions underlying the advocacy of human development. As always, I offer little more than a personal and slightly arbitrary path through a small corner of a vast forest of ideas.

The most frequent arguments I have heard for the need for human development can be placed under three distinct headings.

The apocalyptic case is most often made by environmentalists: in essence, the world is doomed unless we change our ways, and such a change requires us to commit to new values and develop new capabilities.

The functional case - made for example by Robert Kegan - suggests changes in the modern world (particularly the human impact of globalisation and the rise of the knowledge economy) require us to develop new capabilities in order for us - as individuals and broader society – to thrive and be resilient. The functional argument has been doubly reinforced in recent times: by the (disputed) finding that rising affluence has not been associated with greater individual or social well-being, and by the growing gap between, on the one hand, social needs and expectations, and on the other, what the state and market can realistically provide (at the RSA we refer to this latter phenomenon as the social aspiration gap).

The idealist case (which might be termed neo-Aristotelian in that it is similar in form if not in specific content to Aristotle's argument for eudaimonia) suggests that without development, people are being deprived of the opportunity to fulfil their potential and that this is a wrong in itself.

It is perfectly possible to subscribe to all three rationales. However, there are a couple of wrinkles. What if a huge carbon capturing machine was invented tomorrow which enabled us to churn out emissions with impunity, would environmentalists then have to abandon their interest in human development? The flip side is the tendency (which I have commented on in the past) for some green activists to appear to be smuggling in a progressive or anti-consumerist agenda under the cover of climate change concern. Similarly, the functionalist case runs the risk of encouraging an attitude of pessimism: we may feel compelled to reject the possibility of progress without advanced consciousness.

The idealist case avoids these risks but can appear either pious or elitist: why would we expect the human race to make a big leap forward in its functioning? And anyway, who are a bunch of touchy-feely liberals to tell the rest of the world who they ought to be and how they ought to think?

Another approach to human development involves applying new thinking about human behaviour to enduring debates about political philosophy. Aided powerfully by findings from social psychology and behavioural economics, the case for genuine autonomy involving capacities for reflexivity, mindfulness and self-control seems ever stronger. While the idea that we must learn to be free has authoritarian, or at least paternalistic, overtones it is surely, in essence, true.

The argument to social justice is both more complex, and arguably, more tentative. In my 21st century enlightenment lecture I reflected on the absence from most conversations about the content of social justice (the definition of equality, rights and entitlements) of this question: what is it that encourages to want to extend fairness towards strangers? Surely the answer lies, at least in part, in empathy, one of the most commonly cited attributes of higher order thinking.

If empathy is the affective foundation for a commitment to greater (wider and deeper) fairness, more universal higher order capabilities may also be the goal of social justice strategies. There is, for example, much evidence that social or ‘soft’ skills (ranging from inter-personal communication to team working to creative thinking) are becoming an increasingly ubiquitous requirement in the labour market. Many – including the RSA - have expressed concern that our modern education system shoves people through an examination system while failing to attend to precisely the capabilities most needed for modern work and citizenship.

The RSA's strap-line -  21st century enlightenment - points to a human development project combining the philosophical ideals that became prominent around the time the Society was founded, contemporary thinking about human nature and behaviour plus an account of future challenges and what they require of us.


Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles