The Problem with the Enlightenment

I’ve always been a big fan of the Enlightenment. When I came across a quote in a paper by Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, however, I began to wonder if all that emphasis on reason and rational action had left us with a problem. In discussing the impact of that earth-shaking period in the 18th century, the two moral psychologists wrote:

Where the Greeks focused on character and asked what kind of person we should each become, modern ethics focuses on actions, trying to determine which ones we should do.*

An emphasis on rationality is wonderful, especially when you’re battling to break through a culture that restricts, restrains and ignores reason. But I worry that we’ve gone too far in ignoring the Greek call for an emphasis on character. Too many people seem to subscribe to the idea that we can merely think our way to ethical action. All we need is the right set of rules and the right intellectual training or the right moral or religious codes.

However, us mere mortals can’t think our way through our emotions, our gut reactions and the prejudices we absorb from our culture. The evidence of that is all around us. No matter what philosophy or code we follow, people can find a way to twist it into something hateful. Even The Bible has become an instrument of violence in the hands of some believers, a point Robert Wright made recently.

If the problem of prompting right action, of doing good, isn’t in our codes or our philosophies, then it’s in us. That means the only solution is in us and in perfecting us. If this is all true, then how do we teach human beings to circumvent our own flaws?

*Jonathan Haidt and Craig Joseph, “The Moral Mind,” 2006, in P. Carruthers, S. Laurence, and S. Stich (Eds.) The Innate Mind, Vol. 3.

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3 Responses to The Problem with the Enlightenment

  1. Darrell Icenogle says:

    I read another Haidt article about “elevation.” It describes a dimension of our being that isn’t really rational, but is extremely motivational — e.g., witnessing an act of courage, of kindness, of excellence, of beauty. I’m focused on this right now because I know that it something that the non-religious share with the religious as the basis of morality. Elevation is a warmth in the chest that inspires us to do good. For the religious, it is closer to God. For me, it is closer to Good. It offers an answer to the problem of a morality that isn’t inspired by religion, but rather is innate within all of us.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Fascinating and very true. Perhaps we can honor both the God and the Good?

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