A clever quote about looking but not being able to see would come in handy about now, Rescuing the Enlightenment from its exploiters – a book review of In Defence of the Enlightenment, by Tzvetan Todorov with some ranting reviewer Tim Black.
What’s curious about this denigration of the ideal of autonomy is that it is far from new. While the criticism might be dressed in the new-fangled lexicon of behavioural psychology, it’s as old the reactionary sentiment itself. We are still being deemed too in thrall to an irrational set of impulses.
I’m not sure who Black’s reactionaries are. The “ideal” of autonomy in this context is individual freedom versus any constraint by the state. There is no political theory and certainly no historical example of a state that was absolutely free of some kind of coercion. Even in libertarian wunderland there is the cruel and unforgiving coercion of social-Darwinism combined with the collectivism formed between the corporation and the state ( ditto for conservatism except throw in some authoritarian religious dogma). Liberalism is coercive, but from it’s ancient Greek traditions, it’s rocky rediscovery through the years and adjustments to evolving cultures, the ideal has been to coax the majority into making moral choices that find some middle ground between individual freedom and being mindful of the public good. We’re none of us islands, as Hemingway once said. Is Black or Todorov saying acting on irrational impulses is not a problem in modern culture. That is a pretty wild assertion and hard to justify in light of the Wall St meltdown and fighting a war in Iraq based on a campaign of disinformation meant to exploit fear for political and monetary gain.
It was this distinction between inclination and autonomy, between necessity and freedom, that Kant seized upon to develop his formulation of moral reason. This meant the ability of every rational being to act, to exercise their will, according to our own, rationally generated idea of the law, of what it is right to do. In the domain of ethics – not physics – we, as rational beings, are potentially a law unto ourselves. ‘Will is the kind of causality belonging to living beings so far as they are rational’, wrote Kant in his 1785 volume Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals: ‘Freedom would then be the property this causality has of being able to work independently of determination by alien causes.’ To act according to one’s own reason, and to act morally, to be one’s own cause in the world, is to be self-determining. It is to be free.
Kant, like Rousseau, like Voltaire, in fact like any other person who has thought seriously about freedom, was not naive. He did not believe that we always act rationally, that we always, as rational beings, do good, let alone adhere to the categorical imperative: ‘Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.’ This was why the moral imperative takes the form of an ‘ought’ and not a will. There was – and is – no inevitability about people’s actions and decisions. There was – and is – no way of guaranteeing people’s judgement is correct. But – and this is what separates Enlightenment thinkers from their current epigones – they knew that the only people who can decide how they ought to live their lives are those people themselves. ‘Nothing is required for this enlightenment’, wrote Kant in 1784, ‘except freedom; and the freedom in question is the least harmful of all, namely the freedom to use reason publicly in all matters’.
Black is a senior writer at Spiked. There is no way of knowing that people will exercise good judgment. Who is he arguing with, his fellow class mate in first grade at Pseudo-Intellectual Elementary. Various political and cultural cohorts may use different language to say the same thing, but we all agree in principle that damn straight people do not always use good judgment. This is the sentence, the keen insight – judging by the building tension – which is supposed to make the reader swoon – “they knew that the only people who can decide how they ought to live their lives are those people themselves.” In terms of moral or social theory that sentence is like reciting your numbers 1 through 10. The devil is in the details – we have some interesting quotes from a few philosophers, yet he offers no rational justification. Personal autonomy and what exactly that entails, is and has been one of the on going arguments about democracy and personal freedom from before Kant – and the road ahead looks just as contentious. Who is Black arguing with – “Militant secularists, New Atheists, advocates of evidence-based policy, human rights champions… ” which leads one to infer he is arguing from the extreme Right against the straw men of his primary school delusions. How can one argue for the existence of some primal truth, something whose existence has the ethereal qualities of a soul, yet feel one is making a rational argument. No wonder the contempt for anything evidence based.
I may not be finished with this post, but I ran out of time.