Accessibility links

In recent days I have been asking people to sponsor my crazy mountain marathon in Scotland in early June. I am incredibly grateful to those people - especially a very generous RSA Trustee - who have helped me get so close to my target of two thousand pounds toward the Great Room refurbishment. But to prove the dictum, 'give him an inch and he'll take a mile', I am today making an even bolder request. How about reading my longest blog post ever? It is the final draft of a speech I am delivering to a Dutch think tank tonight. Most of it is a reprise of my 21st Century Enlightenment lecture in 2010 but I am always trying to inch these ideas forward and would love to know what readers think of the latest iteration....

I am excited to be giving this talk in a country that was the cradle of the Enlightenment. Although there were many different versions of the enlightenment as a movement, it had at its core three values; autonomy, universalism and humanism or freedom, justice and progress as we might refer to them today. Part of my argument is that we should question our modern interpretation of these values. But it is also apt to be here because the Dutch Golden Age vividly demonstrated the possibility of human imaginations and capabilities taking a leap forward.  I believe that now may be time for another important advance in human development.

Necessity, insight and idealism shaped the Golden Age. In the face of the threat of Spanish imperialism and from the sea – not to mention fire and plague - a small emerging country needed to both a sense of national mission and to identify and exploit its distinctive potential in a fast changing world.  It goes without saying that the enlightenment was a time of insight in which new ideas changed attitudes and new attitudes cleared the ground for further insight. The early Dutch state gave refuge to Galileo, a man whose scientific insights were seen quite rightly as a profound threat to religious doctrine. And the open inquiring culture of the nation then gave rise to a spirit of invention and ambition. And, as well as necessity and insight, the enlightenment was also a time of idealism, in particular a belief in reason and the possibility of man-made progress.

This evening I want to suggest that once again these ingredients – necessity, insight and idealism - could coalesce to shape what might be called a 21st century enlightenment.

Necessity, so it is said, is the mother of invention. Is there today a necessity for change? There are two answers to this question which cannot be lightly rejected. The first, cogently articulated by Matt Ridley in his book ‘The Rational Optimist’ is simply ‘no’. He celebrates a world where people live longer healthier lives than ever before, where global absolute poverty rates have halved in a generation, where citizens in the rich world enjoy experiences and opportunities unimaginable to their parents let alone grandparents. The average supermarket shopper today can buy better food than the Queen of England would have been served fifty years ago. For Ridley free markets, technological innovation and human ingenuity will solve tomorrow’s problems just as they solved yesterday’s, and this incudes environmental challenges.

On the opposite side is the argument that climate change, resource depletion and wider damage to the eco-system demand immediate and drastic changes in our attitudes and lifestyles.

If the optimists are right we can sit back and enjoy the journey, if the worst case environmental scenarios are accurate then change is likely to be extreme and perilous. But between free market optimism and apocalyptical prediction, I want to make a more modest suggestion; the existence and widening of a gap. This lies between the aspirations most of us have for the kind of world we want to live in, and in which  we want our children and grandchildren to grow up, and the future we seem likely to create if we rely on current ways of thinking and behaving. I call this the social aspiration gap.

Let me identify some dimensions of that gap. Take jobs. Over and again in every nation, surveys have found that paid employment is a critical factor not only for people's finances but also for their self esteem and wider well-being. As the worlds's population grows we need to be creating something like three billion formal jobs yet the current total is something around one point two billion. Mass unemployment - particularly among the young - now seems endemic in many parts of Europe

What about heath and old age? Putting aside the absence of adequate provision in the developing world, in rich countries the costs of health care as populations age is putting an ever greater burden on public finances and the economy more widely. We all want to enjoy dignity and care when we become old and frail but in a country as rich as the United Kingdom this is denied to many and with years of public sector austerity to come the situation is deteriorating.

Despite the genuine progress made in countries like the Netherlands we are still in the rich world impacting the environment in a way, which were it to be copied by the developing world, would be completely unsustainable.

We want to live in societies which combine freedom and tolerance with shared values and norms and a genuine opportunity for all to succeed. At its most simple we want to live good lives, but in the rich world there has been a facturing of the relationship between prosperity and well-being and surveys show populations ever more pessimistic about the social future.

There are many things which could help to close the gap between aspiration and current trajectory but, surely, one must be change in the ways we, the people, think and act. This can be described in different ways, and the analysis will differ from country to country, but in essence we need citizens better to align aspirations and actions in three domains, the political, the personal and the social.

One thing about which most people seem to agree - it is certainly something which tends to unite the extreme left and right - is that the problem of politics is one of leadership, or its absence. In a sense this is true, but I think it is more accurate to say the problem now is one of followership. Having been encouraged to think of politics as a form of consumerism, we demand what we want – even though what we want can be incoherent and impossible - and then became enraged when we don't get it.

The UK’s leading opinion pollster has summed this up neatly; 'what the British people want is simple' he says 'they want Scandinavian welfare on American tax rates'. Tax and spend is not the only example. Polls in the UK also show people want power devolved but are also indignant when service standards differ from place to place, that we accuse the state of interfering too much in our lives but the moment anything goes wrong our first inclination is to demand the government does something about it. We condemn politicians for failing to address the long term yet demand that they meet our demands in the short term.

Closing the social aspiration gap requires a political discourse through which we engage with the kind of choices that have to be made on our behalf and also appeciate the degree to which the choices available to leaders depend upon our own willingness to be responsible. For example if policy makers face a trade off point between economic growth and environmental sustainability, where exactly that point falls will depend on the choices we make as citizens and consumers.

In the next few weeks and months Dutch political parties will choose their leaders for the forthcoming election. An attribute we tend to prize in politicians is their ability to convince the public they can meet their demands and solve their problems. Today, instead, we need the opposite; the ability to persuade people that their demands are often unreasonable and that we must find ways together of solving our own problems.

Which takes me to the need for more personally responsible and resourceful citizens. With the funds available to the state limited and with demands on the public purse rising, and in a world where change becomes faster and competition more intense, we simply have to accept greater responsibility for meeting our own needs and building our own capabilities. This means looking after our health, renewing our education and skills throughout life, saving for our retirement. It means being more entrepreneurial, more risk taking. Greater resourcefulness may require a different mindset. There is much discussion around the world about the capabilities we should now be teaching children, for example, instead of educating young people to fit in to a job that already exists we may need to prepare them for a world in which they have to create and recreate their own job.

And in the social domain we need a citizenry that sees civic engagement, volunteering, philanthropy, or simply being a good neighbor – as an inherent part of living a proper adult life. The state and the market will not suffice, we must release the hidden wealth of sociability, solidarity and compassion. At the same time as geographical mobility and changes in family structure are creating an epidemic of isolation and loneliness, more and more evidence underlines the importance of face to face social networks as a source of resilience and opportunity for the individual and the community.

By now you may be asking: so what? If people were better the world would be better; is this anything more than a pious truism? Perhaps the reason something can appear self-evident but yet rarely articulated is that this perspective runs counter to two powerful intellectual perspectives in contemporary political thought, perspectives which also permeate everyday discourse. From a leftist viewpoint a focus on citizens obscures the determining effect of deeper social structure. It runs the risk of blaming the victims of alienation, powerlessness and injustice for their plight. From a free market perspective, the attempt to change people is in danger of legitimising social engineering when all this is needed is for the hidden hand of the market to transform individual utility maxmisation into progress.

Free market thought is underpinned by a simple and mythical theory of human decision-making. Debunking this theory brings me to the second condition for a new enlightenment; insight. The idea of a social aspiration gap suggests a number of areas for new thinking ranging from the way we do politics, to how we educate children to the design of public services and institutions – the kind of questions the RSA explores in its research and development -  but running beneath these inquiries is a deeper set of questions; about what makes human beings think and act as we do.

As I have said the model of human behaviour which has come to dominate public discourse and the assumptions of policy makers, especially in the US and UK is that of free market economics. Human beings are seen as rational, perfectly informed and utility maximizing. As an heuristic this idea may have its uses, but as a description of who we are and how we decide it is widely inaccurate. We are often not rational, we are rarely if ever perfectly informed, nor, unless one uses an entirely circular defintion, do we appear to we maximise our utility.

From a variety of disciplines but particularly behavioural economics and social psychology, there is ever more evidence of the complexity of our nature. And what behavioural economists and social psychologists observe in real life and research studies, neuroscientists can correlate with brain activity and evolutionary psychologists can in part explain from deductions about human development. As Daniel Dennett has said we are trying to navigate a fast changing modern world with a prehistorically evolved brain.

Here are some examples of how badly we fit the model of homo economicus:

When it comes to decisions including financial decisions we are driven by what Keynes called our animal spirits. This kind of herd mentality was displayed before the credit crunch but it is endemic in modern markets, something we should have learnt from the experience of 17th century traders in Tulip bulbs.

Reseach shows that our process for making moral judgements seems primarily to involve reason providing a rationale for our instinctive, unthinking response. As Robert Heinlien said ‘man is a rationalizing animal not a rational one’

Generally, the friends we have appear to make more differences to our behaviour than the individual resolutions we make. And by the way the number of active friends our brains can handle may have been set by evolution at the Dunbar number of around 150.

We tend systematically to exaggerate our own virtues and abilities, the vast majority of us think we are above average drivers, we over-estimate the amount go money we give to charity.When bad things happen to us we instinctively blame misfortune but when others suffer setbacks we find reasons in their character.

So bad are we at acting today in accord with our wishes for tomorrow that StickK, a successful web-site in America, helps people keep to commitments like giving up smoking or completing a book by pledging money to their least favourite cause immediately payable if they break their resolution. Apparently the George W Bush memorial library has been the biggest beneficiary of this scheme.

And, as Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo vividly demonstrated, in the right circumstances even the most humane person can easily be persauded to behave like a sadist.

The list of ways we don’t conform to free market’s theories model of homo economicus goes on and on. But two key, related, points stand out. Human behaviour is considerably more instinctive and more social than it feels to us or that modern culture encourages us to believe. This does not require us to abandon the idea of consciousness nor deny the uniqueness that lies in the human species capacity to think about thinking and to make meaning. But individual consciousness is an emergent capacity of a species that is instinctive and social. Plato talked about the wild horse of emotion and the wise charioteer of reason but it is more accurate to see our conscious will  as the rider of an instinctive elephant, its choice of route across the jungle highly influenced by the paths laid down by social habits, norms and clues.

New thinking about human nature has important implications for political thought. The challenge to free market individualism is pretty obvious but there are questions too for a liberal left which has tended to view traditon and convention as holding us back.

An important analysis is offered by the economic historian Avner Offer in his book ‘The Challenge of Affluence’. Offer explores that recent fracturing, I described  earlier, of the relationship between rising prosperity and well-being in the UK and USA. Why is it that being richer isn't any more a guarantee of being happier? Offer argues that since the enlightenment, society has developed norms, institutions and processes which help to protect us from some of the cognitive frailties I described earlier, and in particularly our tendency towards self centeredness and short termism. He calls these social inventions ‘commitment devices’ and we could include in them marriage, loyalty to church, trade union or civic association, and norms and rules limiting debt and credit. But as affluence increased in the post war decades and the shrill ideology of consumer capitalism became more dominant we come to see these devices as mere constraints on having what we want and having it now (which, by the way, the economics profession is helpfully telling us will lead to the greater good).

New thinking about human nature has important implications for politics. To an open minded right of centre thinker, a more instinctive and social model of human behavior makes it harder to ignore the impact of social arrangements on individual resilience, opportunity and well-being. To an open minded thinker on the left it leads perhaps to a greater respect for tradition, for social norms, for the importance of values of restraint and even deference.

But these are responses to the way we are now. If necessity says we must change and insight challenges us to develop different models of change, idealism lies in the conviction that human beings can achieve both a higher level of social functioning and greater individual fulfillment.

Perhaps we should see the world today, and the sense that we may lack the tools to solve some of our most pressing problems, as marking a stage between the conditions in which we evolved and the capabilities to which we might aspire.

We evolved in conditions of stable and unchanging social organization in which simple structures of authority and decision making authority. We aspire to wise and responsible self-government yet now find ourselves unwilling to be governed but not yet able to govern ourselves.

We evolved in conditions of homogeneity only knowing people exactly like ourselves and generally responding with suspicion and hostility towards those we did not know. We aspire to live in a world where each person is accorded the same worth and where freedom and pluralism are underpinned by a framework of shared values and mutual respect. Yet now we find – and this is a point I hardly need to make to this audience – that issues of identity, nationalism and conflicting world views are febrile and intractable while our increasing global interdependency has yet to be reflecting in anything resembling global citizenship.

And we evolved in a subsistence economy, where - if we were fortunate - we had what we needed but very little more. We aspire to live in a world where we can live the good life, having in and around us those things which provide the soundest basis for fulfilment and wellbeing. Yet now in the rich world we suffer from various forms of over-consumption. In the memorable phrase of Tim Jackson 'we spend money we don't have on things we don't need to make impressions that don't last on people we don't care about'.

Kant suggested that the enlightenment was the moment when the human race entered adulthood. But then we look around today's world and particularly full of change, confusion, self obsession, resentment sometimes it feels we are stuck in the stage of late adolescence. Whether we  grow up depends on many things - some of them perhaps not within our control - but history shows that ideas and their social expression in culture matter. When it comes to the values that might guide us to greater maturity, a starting point is those which were the well spring of the enlightnment.

Autonomy, that each individual should have the freedom to develop their own life (and their own relationship with God) was a revolutionary idea with revolutionary consequences. But in modern culture too often freedom is equated with mere possessive individualism. Instead, reflecting on our human nature, we need a richer idea of autonomy, one which is both self aware - in that it is a state not given to us but that must be earned through reflection and restraint - and socially embedded - in that genuine autonomy is a characteristic of a society not simply an attribute of individual.

Universalism, the idea that all human beings should be accorded dignity and respect, was not of course really universal at all in the 17th century, not if you were poor, not if you were woman and brutally so if you were not European. But since then the rise and rise of human rights - although far from  complete - has been perhaps the enlightenment's proudest legacy. But while the rights project has advanced, have we left human emotion behind, making a proejct of liberation easy to characature as a cage of political corectness? Remember, our evolution bequeaths us a tendency to find difference threatening. So the question how we live together in our communities, in our nations, in a shrinking world of depleted natural resources is not an easy one to answer, particularly as we become less obedient to the paternalism of a well-meaning elite.

The question for the future is not so much the rights of man as the cohesion of humanity. What are the competencies, institutions and frameworks which will provide the foundation of respect and reciprocity necessary for us not just to survive but to thrive in our growing interdependency? To take just one aspect of this challenge, how can we move beyond religious sectarianism and strident atheism to a deeper understanding of the spiritual dimension of life, one which allows those of different faiths and none to focus on what unites rather than divides them?

And finally humanism. The idea that human beings should arrange society in the way that maximises their wellbeing rather than according to the dictates of tradition or scripture. In the face of necessity and with insight into our human nature, can we create a space beyond the logic of markets, science and bureaucracy, a space to develop vivid, concrete and mobilising ideas of what the good society might be and what might be involved for all of us in moving toward it?

Perhaps the economic crisis will pass and health economic growth will return bringing with it full employment and expanding social provision. Perhaps climate change is an exaggerated threat and can be solved with a technological fix. Perhaps conflict betwen identities and beliefs will subside to a grudging stalemate. But perhaps not.

Perhaps a better future now relies on us becoming the people we need to be to create the future we say we want. Perhaps in this quest we can be guided by a more subtle, concrete and modest account of who we are as a species. And perhaps necessity and insight can be joined by idealism.

We have come a long way  since the Dutch golden age heralded the emergence of a new world view. But there is further we must go and some of it in new directions. For surely the very essence of progessivsm lies in the conviction that the greatest chapters of the story of human development have yet to be written.


Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

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