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Wednesday November 14 2012

So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment.  (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)

So.  The Enlightenment.  This is a word I have heard all my life.  But what did it, does it, mean?  It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing.  But why, exactly?  I guess that, until now, I was not educated.

What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind.  This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other.  For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans?  Pinker answers this question.

image

I found that picture of Pinker here.

Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question.  There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse.  But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.

In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.

Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.

My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.

I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.

It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).

We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.

Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.

The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.

By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.

The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.

This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.

I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations.  And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.

An interesting and thought provoking article, yet, to me, it falls almost at the first fence, when it mentions “African slavery”. I guess this phrase is the product of of a mindset opposed specifically to Africans enslaved by Americans and in the USA. So, what are they objecting to, African slavey as such, or the USA as such? And isn’t the African slavery thing just a tool to attack the USA?
I am neither for nor against the USA, but I am certainly against weasel arguments, by which I mean an argument supposedly against a perceived evil “A” whereas in fact it is a cover, a camouflage, for an even greater argument against an unstated {evil} “B”. And of course in the present case, “A” is African slavery, “B” is the USA and {evil} is the principal of the USA, perhaps the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Republicanism, you name it.
Now, in remarking upon “African Slavery”, one ignores the fact that in the first case, many of the slaves were purchased, as slaves, by African slave owners, in, guess where? Africa.
So perhaps this phrase might be more honestly stated as “African slaves and slavery in Africa”.
But half a mo’. What about slavery in Arabia? It is almost certain that slavery in Arabia then was a far, far more extensive thing than ever existed in Africa. It was so extensive that it was taken for granted, that’s what Arabs did. There are well documented reports written by American seamen of their experiences after being shipwrecked in Africa, being taken into slavery, being routinely traded and sold just as any other slave, until some circumstance occurred which enabled them to obtain or be given their freedom or have it paid for.
And of course the Enlightenment only discussed events of the 19th century. What about 21st century enlightenmentists, if they exist? Will they take into account that slavery still exists, and yes, it is still the Arabs doing it. Google “slavery”.

Posted by Peter Melia on 15 November 2012

Peter Melia

This isn’t an article, it is part of a book.  And both in this chunk, and in the rest of the book (what I have read of it so far anyway) it is made very clear that Pinker does not mention African slavery for the reasons you wrongly guess.

Pinker certainly does not object to “the USA as such”.  You need only consider his admiring reference to the American Declaration of Independence, in the final quoted paragraph above.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait on 15 November 2012

I have ordered this book, and admire what I have read about it, and your extract confirms this.

It is interesting that “Enlightenment” is the same word, if not the same meaning, as the aim of Buddhism, and that so much of the Buddha’s teachings fit comfortably with the aspirations of Western enlightenment.

Posted by Ian Macmillan on 15 November 2012

Thanks for this - I have purchased the Kindle versopm. I love technology.

Posted by Frank Black on 16 November 2012

You are quite right Brian, I am mistaken, your excerpt was from a book by Pinker and as such did not originate from your goodself. Pinker’s output is an extraordinary achievement. If simply collected into a list of items, it would make a very long document indeed. We can do nought but have unstinting admiration of such an achiever.
Might I be forgiven in mentioning your last remark, about Pinker’s admiring reference to the Declaration of Independence. The quotation you gave is, “The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence”.
It is my understanding that the USA was not just one of a bunch of democracies, but the first true one. To include the USA in a statement about the first liberal democracies, so that the USA seems to be just one of a bunch, which happened to have invented some “self-evident truths”, seems to reduce the American achievement. To bring home the extent of that achievement one only has to consider what the modern political world would be like if the USA had never existed, if the British had won. The colonies would have remained British, the people British Subjects. The French a few years later would not have had a role model, no Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Napoleon? Who he?
Or perhaps not. We’ll never know.
Now then, suppose you consider the African slavery remark together with the diminishing of the USA’s true place in the democratic pantheon, would it not be possible to detect perhaps a certain attitude to the good old USA?

Posted by Peter Melia on 17 November 2012

Am I the only one who sees this claim as sheer folly?

“The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge).”

I’m willing to accept that there is a universal human biology which broadly places our pleasures and pains on a common footing; but I don’t accept the conjecture that there is a true commonality of basic human responses across cultures.  Even the simplest commonality of basic human responses across cultures is suspect:  it’s a readily observable fact that humans in warm climes use more and stronger spices than humans in cooler latitudes (thought to be related to the anti-bacterial qualities of many common spices such as garlic, cumin and peppers).

The propensity of Muslim nations to thrive under democracy is being tested around the Mediterranean in the early 21st Century - we’ll get to see how that turns out in the coming decades.

Posted by nobody much on 18 November 2012

Crosspost from Samizdata:

---

I belive that you and Pinker both cut away the strands of post-enlightenment thought that would be currently seen as… problematic.

I.e:

- What followed the first grand triumph of enlightenment was… the Terror. Was this a coincidence?

- The pinnacle of rationalist humanism enthusiastically embraced by the vanguard of enlightenment was… Communism. No comment necessary.

- The enlightenment paved the way for the post-enlightenment, I.e. Hitler et al.

The core issue is that the actual moral foundation offered up by enlightenment thought is weak stuff.

You write regarding the foundation for enlightenment morality:

“You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests.

You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly.

Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. “

In short, the moral foundation of enlightenment is an appeal to self interest.

That´s not exactly strong stuff to build a moral system on, especially if you compare it to the moral system from which enlightenment thought has copied its core ‘values’.

Posted by Okes on 20 November 2012

Short bonus comment:

“and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge).”

Having a propensity for vengance is not “folly”, but as Pinker nicely points out in The Blank Slate, a system to prevent doormatification.

Posted by Okes on 20 November 2012
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