Last week Matthew Taylor launched the new RSA strapline: 21st century enlightenment. The accompanying speech and pamphlet asks whether Enlightenment principles that have shaped the way we think about society – and on which the RSA was founded – can be reimagined for the present.
We are living through a period of political, economic and environmental change, but the way we think about these challenges is outdated. Without questioning our bigger thinking, the "Big Society" and the Labour leadership debate risk tinkering around the edges of more fundamental questions about the kind of future we want. Matthew Taylor argues that by revisiting the Enlightenment ideas that shaped the way we think today – ideas like freedom, fairness and progress – we can imagine a radical new politics which seeks not merely to respond to modern values but to shape them.
For too long we have associated freedom with individualism. This idea has even affected the way we think about democracy – the principle that the customer is always right has been imported into the political system. But the customer is not always right – the preferences people express in opinion polls are systematically different to those which they reach after a process of deliberation. As new research in neuroscience, economics and psychology shows that our individual desires are not always correct and what we do and think is hugely influenced by circumstances and social networks. We are social, connected animals and by recognising that our individual preferences have limits, we can develop a better understanding of our shared needs and potential.
In some ways we have become a fairer society, evidenced in the extension of civil rights on gender, race and sexuality. But signing up to an ideal of fairness is not the same as putting it into action. What drives us to act on the principle of fairness? Taylor argues that we need to extend our capacity for empathy to help tackle enduring injustices.
Top portion of a lightning rod, designed by RSA Fellow Benjamin Franklin, The Frankliniana Collection, The Franklin Institute, Inc., Philadelphia, Photo by Peter Harholdt
But at the moment it feels like our empathy is stalling. National interest continues to usurp global interest when it comes to issues like aid or delivering a deal on climate change; anti-immigrant sentiment seems to be growing; global governance is weaker. The stock of empathy upon which democratic leaders can draw has to grow if the long-term interests of the human race are to be put ahead of short-term national interests.
The final – and perhaps most important – enlightenment idea to revisit is progress.
Currently progress is mainly driven by markets and technology. Taylor argues that there are risks involved in such an approach – drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico because markets allow or even encourage this fails to take account of the ethical dimensions and consequences of such decisions. We need to think about who is driving progress and, crucially, what destination we are driving towards. This means asking difficult questions about what kind of society we want and what kind of people we want to be.
The Labour Party and the coalition government need to confront these questions, and so do we.
This blog post by RSA Projects Senior Researcher Emma Norris first appeared on Left Foot Forward
Read Matthew Taylor's The 21st century enlightenment