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RSA Animate: Matthew Taylor - 21st Century Enlightenment

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RSAnimate www.theRSA.org Matthew Taylor The RSA has a new strapline and that strapline is 21st Century Enlightenment. The original Enlightenment in the 18th century was not, of course, a single cohesive movement. It didn't have a simple start and finish. So when we think about the core ideals of the Enlightenment it is not simply a kind of historical process. It's in a way when we think about how those ideals shaped modern values, norms and lifestyles. It is a kind of process of cultural psychotherapy. We are delving into what has shaped the collective consciousness of modern people. And that enables us to explore critically whether those values and what they have come to mean to us, still work for us and whether they meet the challenges that we now face. So, whereas I don't underestimate the ability of human beings to invent and to adapt in the end, on balance, I do favor the view that we do need to live differently in the 21st Century. And as the architects of the Enlightenment understood to live differently involves thinking differently, involves seeing the world and ourselves from a new perspective. In critically examining what Enlightenment values have come to mean to us what we can now bring to bear is powerful new insights into human nature insights that have emerged from a variety of scientific disciplines social sciences over the last 20 or 30 years. Copernicus, Galileo and Newton helped to lay the ground for the Enlightenment by revealing that the laws of nature not only failed to conform to religious doctrine, but also they failed to conform to intuition. So, the Pope might have said the sun went round the earth. It might have felt like the sun went round the earth, but science showed otherwise. And I think that insights into human nature have a similar double impact, also unsettling our intuitive sense of ourselves in the world. Most of our behavior, including social interaction is the result of us responding automatically to the world around us rather than the outcome of conscious decision-making and in this sense, it's more realistic to see ourselves as integrally connected to the social and natural world rather than as a separate, wholly autonomous entity. The research is clear, if you want to be a happier person don't read a self-help book. Just have happier friends. And, there are other lessons that we can learn from the more subtle and holistic model of human nature now emerging. You know, we're not very good at making long-term decisions. We're much better at understanding relative than absolute values and as we found out in the credit crunch we are enthralled to what Keynes called "animal spirits". Perhaps even more startlingly we are very, very bad at predicting what's going to make us happy and we're even bad at describing what made us happy in the past. So, I would argue that the moral and political critique of individualism now has an evidence base and it's with this in mind that I argue the 21st Century Enlightenment should champion a more self-aware, socially-embedded model of autonomy that recognises our frailties and limitations. Now this does not mean repudiating the rights of the individual and nor does it underestimate our unique ability to shape our own destinies. Indeed, it's actually by understanding that conscious thought is only a part of what drives our behaviour that we become better able to exercise self-control. All of this can enable us to distinguish our needs from our appetites and our amazing human potential from the hubris of individualism. It's the basis for self-aware autonomy. The developmental psychologist Robert Kegan argues that successfully functioning in a society with diverse values, traditions and lifestyles requires us, in his words, to have a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive of them. I quote "To resist our tendencies to make right or true that which is nearly familiar and wrong or false, that which is only strange." Now, the good news, and it is really good news, is that there is every reason to believe that we can expand empathy's reach. Despite major departures from the trend, most terribly in the 20th Century the history of the human race has been one of diminishing person-to-person violence. Since the advent of modern civil rights we've seen a revolution in social attitudes based on race, gender, sexuality. Furthermore, real-time global media brought the suffering of distant people into our living rooms and immigration, emigration and foreign travel all provide us with opportunities to put ourselves in other people's shoes. There are reasons to ask whether the process of widening human empathy has stalled, and at just the time when we need it to accelerate. After 4 decades of post-war progress levels of inequality have risen in the rich world. Tensions between different ethnic groups persist and have taken on new dimensions. Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown arguably reflecting a failure by policy makers to balance the imparities of globalisation and the idea of universalism with the empathic capacity of the communities most affected by change. From gangs to the impact of violent video games there are worries about young people. Globalisation and public deficits may mean that future generations in the West face tougher challenges than their parents. So the stalk of global empathy upon which democratic leaders can draw has to grow, if we are to reach agreements which put the long-term needs of the whole planet and all its people ahead of short term national concerns. But the chain linking inter-personal, communal and global scale empathy is complex. Intellectuals, politicians and interest groups and think tanks spend an enormous amount of time debating what should be the content of universalism. Which rights? Which entitlements? Which capabilities? But shouldn't we perhaps just spend a little more time exploring the foundation of universalist sentiment? What is it that enhances, and what is it that diminishes our empathic capacity? Policy implications range from a continued emphasis on the earliest child-rearing to developing schools as intelligent communities to exploring the way popular culture inclines us to think of other people. For example, a culture which prized empathy would be one which distinguished the healthy activity of public disagreement from the unhealthy habit of public disparagement. It's become a cliche that education is the most valuable resource in a global knowledge economy. I would argue that fostering empathic capacity is just as important to achieving a world of citizens at peace with each other and with themselves. But even were we to have more self-aware and more empathic citizens they would still face dilemmas and differences of opinion. I want to encourage us to recognise that the question "What is progress?" raises substantive and ethical questions which we should be more willing to acknowledge to honour and to debate how are we to make those decisions. Of course, the utilitarian answer lies in maximizing human happiness and if the progress is measured in those terms we have done well since the Enlightenment. There is little doubt. The poorest citizens of the developed world now have better health longer life spans and many more resources and opportunities than those who would have been considered well-off a century ago. But sometimes sometimes it feels as though the idea that progress should be designed to increase happiness has turned into the assumption that pursuing progress is the same as improving human welfare. The success of the Western post-Enlightenment project has resulted in a society like ours being dominated by 3 logics: The logic of science and technological progress the logic of markets and the logic of bureaucracy And the limits of the logic of science and of markets lie in their indifference to a substantive concern for the general good. If something can be discovered and developed, it should be discovered and developed. If something can be solved, then it should be solved. And the problem for bureaucracy is the tendency to put the rationality of rules above the rationality of ends. And so, it is in this context that the 21st century Enlightenment project demands a re-assertion of the fundamentally ethical dimension of humanism. How can we make it easier to ask "Is this right?" Is it to be a world where so many of us feel that the shape of our lives is dictated not by the idea of a life fully lived but by social convention and economic circumstances? Why should we cram education into the first quarter of our lives desperately balance work and caring in the 2nd and 3rd quarter and then feel that we're going to suffer second class status and the fear of neglect in the final quarter? You see, rationality can tell us how best to get from A to Z but without ethical reasoning, we cannot discuss where Z should be? So what we aim for can be as important to our well-being as what we achieve. As Michel Foucault says of Kant's own description of the Enlightenment "It has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment of the possibility of going beyond them. To be responsible, to create a big society, to live sustainably this not simply a matter of will. The 21st Century Enlightenment calls for us to see past simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, of justice, and of progress. Perhaps it's time to stop chasing those myths to stop being transfixed by abstractions and instead to reconnect a concrete understanding of who we are as human beings to political debates about who we need to be and philosophical and even spiritual exploration of whom we might aspire to be. Creative people who want to make a difference have a million and one opportunities and distractions. To engage them means an ethic which is intolerant to negativity rigid thinking and self-promotion and instead keeps people constantly in touch with the words of the anthropologist Margaret Mead true to the spirit which created the Enlightenment true to the spirit which moved the founders of the RSA, 256 years ago. Margaret Mead said simply this: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Video Details

Duration: 11 minutes and 12 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
Genre: Animated
Producer: Matthew Taylor
Views: 1,064
Posted by: julius on Sep 13, 2010

Matthew Taylor explores the meaning of 21st century enlightenment, how the idea might help us meet the challenges we face today, and the role that can be played by organisations such as the RSA.

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