The Enlightenment was a unique period from the mid-seventieth to mid-eighteenth centuries that provided a paradigm shift in the western world. The memes birthed during the Enlightenment shifted western cultures away from the authoritarianism and mysticism of the feudal and religious centric social structures towards a more rational mode of thinking and operation. The concept of the nation-state with a government founded on principles of individual rights, systems of justice, democratic systems, etc. evolved during this period. The scientific method of validating models of the world by testing them was born during this period; which accelerated every aspect of human development since.
It is difficult to make a sweeping generalization of all the Enlightenment thinkers but I’m going to anyways. The Enlightenment thinkers who focused on the problem of morality were aiming to seek one moral truth or law that could be applied using rules of logic to any circumstance to derive the correct ethical truth in any situation. Many of the philosophers we remember provided useful concepts in specific situations, but ultimately the thinkers of the Enlightenment failed at this task, and this failure to properly define a single foundation for ethical judgement has had a lasting impact on Western culture.
The thing is, ethics is definable and the correct ethical decision can be determined for a given circumstance; the Enlightenment thinkers never cracked the code. A large part of their failure was the way they framed the question. They were looking for thee answer or better yet, thee question. They were a bit off on thee question and their method was also off a bit. They were looking at ethics as binary – something is either “A” or “not A”; when in fact ethics exists in a grey world wear the analog approach of judging something as better or worse is a more accurate way to weight an ethical act. The Enlightenment produced, “I think, therefore I am”, but it missed the ever so critical, “I feel, therefore I know ethics”.
Lacking a universal foundation of ethics from which to judge acts, systems of individual rights and laws were constructed which evolved (and in some cased devolved) into our current systems of justice. The patchwork of individual rights provided to citizens are a mixture of Enlightenment concepts and moral memes common to the sub-cultures that make up the nation. While there are ethical principles imbedded in moral and cultural memes; the systems of laws we have are not founded on ethical principles per se; rather the whims of elected officials and they have changed over time as the ethical climate of the nation have changed. Laws are provided the stature of sacred, in part because of necessity; they need to have authority over people and obedience by the majority to work. Citizens are indoctrinated to have faith in the justice system by appealing to purity/sanctity of the justice system and to honor its authority with respect and obedience. Justified respect is one thing; blind obedience leaves the justice system beyond reproach which leads to abuse of power and moral decay.
If there is one thing about the U.S. that makes it great it is that the U.S. has been able to evolve overtime to undo the wrongs of the past. That said, many of the once trusted institutions in the U.S. have decayed over time, leaving people disappointed and apathetic. Specifically, our political system and our justice system need large transformations. We need a paradigm shift to correct the ship.
Paradigm shifts occur when a person or groups of people understand something about the world all at once. Understanding is ‘know-why’. Understanding typically takes time to build but then there’s that ah-ha moment when it clicks. There are many concepts in this world that are Elusive Obvious concepts… things that fly under the radar without notice until one day some clever person describes them in a way that’s easy to understand and all of a sudden everyone magically gets it; and can’t seem to remember a time when they didn’t. What was elusive then seems obvious now. That’s what happens when you replace your old faulty model of the world with a more accurate model of the world that works better; that’s a paradigm shift.
Here’s an few elusive obvious statements about our justice system in the U.S..
Obvious: Our system of justice is broken. Elusive: It is broken because it is modeled wrong.
Our system of justice does not rely on sound ethical understanding to pass judgement and determine reciprocity. It relies on strict adherence to laws which are not ethically based to begin with.
Elusive Obvious: Our system of justice would be greatly improved if we could recalibrate it so that the laws were founded on ethically valid concepts; this would require a review of existing laws through an ethical lens and modification were necessary. Our Justice system would provide just verdicts if sound ethical judgement was brought to bear by weighing the circumstances of the case framed through an ethical lens instead of strict adherence to imperfect laws.
Most people have an innate sense of justice based on their knowledge and understanding of ethical principles such as harm/care and fairness/reciprocity. Discovering the justice system is currently designed to disregard sound ethical arguments is quite disheartening; it’s maddening if you are a victim of its injustice.
While it may be difficult to change the bureaucracy of the justice system, a paradigm shift in how we look at moral matters can occur much quicker. And once we all get it, then the bureaucratic structures would likely follow… with some helpful kicks in the ass by effective leadership as it typically the case.
Morality is a culturally based framework for judging if something is right or wrong in an ethical sense. Because morality is only knowable through culture and is defined by culture, it is ethically relative. Morality deals with concepts of harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, authority/respect, in-group/loyalty, and purity/sanctity.
Ethics on the other hand is universal. Individuals can derive ethical truth on their own. They can do this in spite of cultural influences. Ethical knowledge is innate. We know-how to derive ethical truth because of the axiom, “I feel, therefore I know ethics”. If you can feel physical and emotional pain, then you have all the information you need to determine if an unethical act is being perpetrated against you. If you have the intellectual intelligence to know that another person or creatures can feel pain the same as you, and the emotional intelligence to empathize with their pain, then you can fully understand when an unethical act is being perpetrated onto another person or creature.
Determining ethical right and wrong, or in more vague circumstances the ethically better or worse path can be derived by asking some very basic questions, “How would I like it if that was done to me?” and framing it in terms of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity; which are core ethical spheres of influence. This methodology is all that is needed to derive the correct ethical response. It’s the scientific method applied to ethics; where the testing and validation is performed by individuals using their innate knowledge of ethics (based on their sense of feeling physical and emotional pain).
The Enlightenment Thinkers provided us with a huge paradigm shift in the right direction. Maybe they did not fail us, maybe we failed them by stopping where they left off. The ultimate enlightenment is ethical understanding. Let’s pick up the torch and light the path towards a more perfect union.