The Failure of the Enlightenment

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.

4 thoughts on The Failure of the Enlightenment

  1. You almost have the right idea. Enlightenment is understanding, and understanding leads someone to redefine capacity. Once the person has a new and different understanding of life and human nature they are in a position to manipulate people more easily. Because of this dicotomy, ethics become more important the more enlightened someone is. When someone becomes more enlightened the understand themselves and life and basic human nature and they form a new understanding about what happiness and contentment is to themselves, which gives them more power, because with more understanding, the more power someone has, and with power comes responsibility and with more power and more responsibility, ethics becomes more important, because power corrupts, and therefore the more awareness someone have, the more understanding they have, the more they have to guard against personal corruption, and ethics becomes important so that a person does not take advantage of others, and they must be on guard against doing no harm to others.

    • Luke,

      That’s a dizzying set of interconnected wordplay. Defining words helps clarify things but equating multiple terms can add to confusion. I’d like to better understand what you are trying to say.

      My reference to The Enlightenment, was to a period of time, not a state of mind, which is how I believe you are using it. “Enlightenment is understanding”… is equating to terms but OK so far as I’d agree that when you know-why something exists (understanding), it provides personal enlightenment. I’d change “redefined capacity” to “increased capacity”, but ok so far. “New and different (different than previous understanding)”… ok, but then you start to loose me a bit with the manipulation angle.

      I suppose any tool can be used as a weapon, knowledge is a tool… so OK… I’ll go down that road even though I’d argue that ethical understanding should prevent malicious actions. I’m OK with the dichotomy statement. The last run on sentence is a bit circular but OK I guess. I’d parse a few things out maybe…

      I would agree that personal enlightenment requires introspection, “To know thyself.” Learning to know yourself gives you greater understanding of human nature (the good & the bad). This knowledge should provide a level of contentment. I’m not sure that provides power per se, but maybe, depends on how you define power. I typically define power as authority over others.

      I’d agree that more power means more responsibility, and the greater power you have the more important ethical understanding is. The corrupting influence of power is certainly a reality. The paradox with “moral authority” and those with moral authority becoming amoral is quite interesting. When one becomes “holier than thou,” they certainly tend to track bad.

      Personally, most of the literature on morality and ethical understanding to some degree is by people claiming moral authority. For that reason, I tend not to agree with it. I’ve tried to avoid that when discussing ethics. I’m not trying to tell people was is right and wrong; rather I’m trying to education people on how to derive the correct ethical truth for a given circumstance. I have no more moral authority than anyone else.

      I’m claiming an understanding of the basic principles of deriving ethical understanding… and it’s quite basic knowledge. “I feel therefore I know ethics” is the axiom with ethical knowledge is based on. The golden rule, posed as a question, “How would I like it if someone did that to me?” allows one to use introspection to derive the correct ethical coarse with any given circumstance.

  2. I made some minor errors in my first post. What I meant to say is that once a person understands more about themselves and human nature it is possible that the nightmares stop when asleep, and then it is possible to teach other people this understanding that stops the nightmare when someone is asleep. This redefines unconditional love because once the nightmares stop and we understand what causes nightmares, the person that you want to help may not want your help. As the nightmares stop, we redefine what unconditional love is, in that we find happiness and contentment when the nightmares stop. This creates a need to learn about ethics so that we do not harm someone that is not interested in what we call contentment and happiness. A simple example of ethics would be to imagine you are in the Vietnam War and you Sargent orders you to go into a village and rape and pillage and to kill women and children. The ethical question would be would you blindly follow the order of the Sargent, or would your unit come back and say they did the act, when they actually did not harm the women and children. Would you risk your own life when your superior tells you do something bad to stop a bad thing from happening.

    • Luke,

      You dove into a dark place with you clarification. Your simple example is actually quite complex. War is not a place where normal ethical rules allow for easy application.

      Wars occur when one group sends young men and women to exert political authority over a non-submissive ‘other’ group. They empower and encourage these young men and women to kill the ‘other’ group as a means to their ends of submission. It takes a substantial amount of training and dehumanization to get good people to kill other people. It’s far too complex a subject for this post, but I’d recommend a good book called “On Killing” by David Grossman. It’s an excellent book that discusses the psychological cost of learning to kill.

      Soldiers are placed into many difficult and impossible situations and the psychological toll this takes can break them. When to sides face off with the explicit intent to kill each other, it is not unethical to kill the ‘other’ because you are doing so in self-defense. That said, the act of war itself is typically unethical, especially from the point of the aggressor nation.

      Vietnam was a civil war that became a proxy war over political ideology. The US certainly caused a lot of unnecessary damage, and the means of war used, especially but not limited to the use of chemicals and mines has had lasting negative consequences on the population of Vietnam and the soldiers that fought in the war.

      Killing innocents is a war crime. That said, its not hard to imagine or understand how young men, with limited training, poor group cohesion (due to how individuals were sent over to war in Vietnam, not groups like in WWII and other conflicts), fighting in a jungle environment where the enemy hides among the population could start to see the population as the enemy. The north Vietnamese who were apolitical peasants where in an impossible situation and they became victims of both sides.

      I have great empathy for the Vietnamese and the US soldiers sent to fight in that awful war.

      Good people can do bad things. Nobody is as bad as their worst act. Learning to forgive yourself is a difficult thing to do; especially when you can’t undo a bad deed. That said, everyone ultimately deserves forgiveness, especially if they come to realize and feel remorse for past bad deeds. I’m not religious, but one of the very powerful and useful aspects of religion is the concept of confession, repentance, and forgiveness. Knowing right from wrong does not prevent someone from doing wrong. Being submissive to authority, be it a person, or idea is understandable; and to some extent you can defer some responsibility for you actions to the authority figure that commands a bad deed. That said, personal responsibility is never completely absolved when one acts.

      Your simple example is one of the most complex ethical situations I can imagine. I think all of us would like to believe we would have the moral fortitude to disobey the orders, or even lead a mutant against the sergeant. That said, I’m not sure most would.

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