Enlightenment values and the politics of transformation

Transformation implies renewing the core values of the enlightenment and placing them at the centre of political discourse.  

Matthew Taylor
19 August 2013

William Blake/Wikipedia.

The philosopher Tzvetan Todorov argues that, notwithstanding its many varieties and fuzzy boundaries, the Enlightenment centres around three radical ideas: ‘autonomy’, or the idea that individuals should be free to be the authors of their own life stories; ‘universalism’, a recognition of the dignity of all human life from which emerges the idea of human rights; and ‘humanism’ which in this context can be taken to mean the possibility of progress defined in terms of increased human welfare.

Much of what matters in politics comprises explicit or implicit debate about how to interpret and rank these enlightenment values. Furthermore, drawing on the work of Mary Douglas and her followers, these ideas can be linked to three active ways of thinking about and pursuing social action, which can be seen at play, and in tension, whenever people try to do stuff together; the individualistic (linked to autonomy), the solidaristic (linked to universalism) and the hierarchical (linked to humanism and the imperative of progress).

The goal of transformation can be grounded in both a critique of the way in which enlightenment principles have come to be interpreted, and also by fostering a debate about alternative, more progressive, forms of interpretation. In this task we are aided significantly by the insights into human nature that are offered by a range of disciplines including behavioural economics, neuroscience, social psychology and anthropology.

The transformative project bemoans the shrinking of the idea of autonomy into the pursuit of preferences in the market, or – worse still - preferences outside the market (in relationships or in politics) that are described as if they were akin to market choices. The “homo economicus” idea of freedom rests on populism – ‘what right does anyone have to tell me that being able to pursue what I want right now is not true freedom?’ - and economic theory in the form of the hidden hand that turns individual choices into economic and social progress.

Drawing on evidence of the fallible and idiosyncratic nature of human decision-making and the disastrous unrealism of free market fundamentalism, a different account of autonomy insists that while ‘negative freedom’ (or ‘freedom from’) must be protected, autonomy (or ‘freedom to’) must involve self-awareness and self-discipline, on the one hand, and the cultivation of a benign social and institutional context on the other. In contemporary societies the goal of freedom has tended to become rhetorically associated with the political right but the questions ‘what is individual freedom?’ and ‘how is it attained?’ should be questions that progressives confidently explore both philosophically and empirically.        

If autonomy/freedom has tended in recent times to be the domain of the right, then universalism/fairness has tended to be the natural territory of the left (although in its toughness on criminality and welfare ‘scroungers’ the right has successfully privileged procedural notions of fairness  - playing by the rules - over distributive ones). It is important to assert fairness as an essential aspect of the good society and to debate which entitlements or capabilities could and should be universal. However, the project of transformation can add a new question to the fairness debate: what is it that inclines us to behave fairly?

In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, the capacity for ‘empathy’ is a vital human capability, defined by Roman Krznaric as ‘the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives and using that understanding to guide your actions.’

The definition of fairness is inherently contested, for example in the procedural/distributive dichotomy or in debates between global and nation-state based models of entitlement. In most circumstances it is possible to offer a reasoned case against compassion based on an appeal to fairness. Indeed, we can use notions of fairness in order to legitimise either a lack of empathy or simply narrow self-interest - for example, justifying cuts in benefits to the working poor through a distinction between ‘strivers and skivers’ based on procedural or ‘just dessert’ ideas of fairness.

Transformative politics sees that the case for progressive action cannot be furthered simply by appealing to fairness; it must add the weight of human empathy to win the case for more inclusive and generous interpretations. This in turn means understanding empathy - what it is and how it differs from sympathy, where it comes from, and how it might be heightened.

Finally comes humanism, the very idea of progress. Whatever its philosophical limitations, utilitarianism is the common sense way in which we think about progress: as Martin Kettle famously said, ‘common sense is the clitoris of middle England.’ In the pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number we have climbed on board a chariot pulled by three horses: science and technology, business and markets, and bureaucracy. Without this horsepower we would not have enjoyed the many fruits of modern living. However, while scientific advances, market innovations and bureaucratic management are not incompatible with ethical debate, for each such debates can seem marginal: ‘if it can be discovered it should be discovered;’ ‘if it can be sold for a profit it should be sold for profit;’ and (pace Weber) ‘what matters is the observance of the rules and not whether the rules make sense.’

The transformative project does not try to stop these horses, but it seeks to whisper in their ear: ‘in what direction are you taking us and why?’ In doing this it is reinforced by the growing evidence that human beings are inherently receptive to ethical concerns. Recognising the vital importance of institutions as the places where people learn and practice norms and behaviours, the transformational imperative in all institutions is to insist on a living and continuously interrogated account of the ethical ends to which the institution is in service, the means by which they are to be achieved, and whether its institutional form is compatible with those ends and means.

Freedom, fairness and progress are ideas and ideals deeply rooted in human evolution. The enlightenment freed those ideas from the bounds of fatalism and traditionalism, and made them unstoppable forces for human development. But, partly as a reflection of their success (enlightenment hubris) those ideas have been narrowed, distorted and made inflexible. The transformational project involves recovering the core values of enlightenment, renewing them, and placing them at the centre of political discourse.  

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