Modernity: Love it or Leave it. Redux.

I’m going to catch some shit in the comments for endorsing this (though she’s a little too friendly to religion for my tastes), I know. It’s from the wonderful philosopher Susan Neiman in New Humanist.

Most important bits (but really, read the whole thing) (emphasis mine):

The first step in reclaiming moral language for progressive use is to show that while moral needs may be furthered by religion, it is not what keeps them alive. Rather, morality is grounded in the structure of reason itself. Moral inquiry and political activism start where reasons are missing. When righteous people suffer and wicked people flourish, we begin to ask why. This point is crucial for believers as well as atheists. Atheists cannot dismiss morality as easily as they dismiss religion, for moral principles are prior to religious ones. Nor can believers take faith as a substitute for moral reasoning: religion may sustain their search for moral values, but it cannot be the source of them.

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Abraham’s sense of justice was clearly not derived from God’s commandments. Is there a source on which moral judgments can draw – today, for most of us, whatever our backgrounds? In Moral Clarity I argued that there are roots in the Bible, for believers, and in the epics of Homer, for secular readers, which reached their best expression in the much-maligned Enlightenment. We must take back the Enlightenment from the clichés that surround it: that the Enlightenment held human nature to be benevolent and progress inevitable, faith to be a worn-out answer to the questions of the past and technology a solution to all the problems of the future. In fact, no era was more aware of the existence of evil, no era took more care in probing human limits and bounds.

The Enlightenment took aim not at reverence but at idolatry and superstition; it never believed that progress is necessary, only that it is possible. With patience, you can find some 18th-century quote to express the crudest versions of these claims; you can find second-rate thought about anything. But you needn’t be a scholar to find something better; all it takes is Candide to recall that the standard attacks on the worst version of Enlightenment came from the heart of the Enlightenment itself. The idea that life is not as good, and the world not as simple, as we’d like to believe just might have been news to Candide himself, but hardly to his creator, who wrote the book as part of an Enlightenment effort to examine the world as it is. Yet critics like Isaiah Berlin and John Gray proceed as if Voltaire and his fellows had never put pen to paper.

Why turn to the Enlightenment? There is no better option. Rejections of the Enlightenment result in premodern nostalgia or postmodern suspicion; where Enlightenment is at issue, modernity is at stake. A defence of the Enlightenment is a defence of the modern world, along with all its possibilities for self-criticism and transformation. If you’re committed to Enlightenment, you are committed to understanding the world in order to improve it. Twenty-first century Enlightenment must extend the work of the 18th by pointing out new dangers to freedom of thought within our own culture as well as without it, and extend social justice by expanding older attacks on injustice.

These are crucial commitments, but they are also formal ones, like the tolerance and scepticism often cited as crucial to the Enlightenment core. Scepticism and tolerance will not take us very far; while it’s possible they may prevent harm, it’s unlikely that they can inspire anyone to do good. Reclaiming the Enlightenment must entail reexamining other values that derive from it, and these must include at least four. One of them is the idea that human beings have equal rights to happiness on earth. Earlier ages viewed disease as a sign of divine disfavour, or poverty a condition to be remedied in heaven; only Enlightenment thinking allowed us to view them as things human beings might overcome. A second Enlightenment value is the commitment to reason – not as opposed to passion, which was as riotous during the 18th century as at any other period, but as opposed to blind authority and superstition. A third value is more surprising, but equally important: reverence for Creation is a form of gratitude, and a sign of humility: whatever you think made the world, you had better remember it wasn’t you. Hope, a fourth Enlightenment value, is what drives all the others, but it is not the same as optimism. Hope is not a statement of fact but a foundation of action: if you think everything has been getting worse since the old days, you are unlikely to do much to stop the decline. If you insist on the fundamental depravity of human nature, you are unlikely to do anything more vigorous about it than shaking your head.

This is quite possibly the best thing I’ve read all year, and the most obviously right.

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One Response to “Modernity: Love it or Leave it. Redux.”

  1. Kallan Says:

    I subscribe to the New Humanist and while the big draw this time were the God Trumps cards, that article really jumped out at me too.

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