Counter-Enlightenment Goals

Counter-Enlightenment Goals

When I think about  The Enlightenment I think about rational thinkers making their best attempts to examine the world free from bias. I think of individuals who pursued new knowledge and truth and believed that life should be organized around reason. Many of them probably failed to live up to such goals, but their aspirations were virtuous in the sense that they attempted to live their lives not according to their own desires and pleasures but according to what science could show them was true and accurate about the physical world and man’s place within it.
 
 
Today, these Enlightenment values still exist and are with us, but they have dwindled to an extent. Science can tell us what is accurate and what is true. Reason can tell us what is good for ourselves, our society, and our planet. But neither can tell us how we should find enjoyment in our lives, how we should appreciate art and beauty, or what and who we should love. We can use statistical analyses, research surveys, and other tools of science and reason to determine a course of life that is likely to maximize certain values, but science and reason cannot pick the values we chose to maximize. There is something else, some intangible sense of a life worth living, of what we naturally gravitate toward and resonate with that science cannot answer for us. This is part of the heart of the counter-Enlightenment.
 
 
“A child of the counter-Enlightenment, then,” writes Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, “does not pursue a goal because it is objectively true or virtuous, but because it is a unique product of one’s creativity.”
 
 
American individualism is in many ways a product of this form of counter-Enlightenment. It is clear that drinking less, not smoking or vaping, driving less expensive vehicles, and exercising daily are good for us. It is clear that doing these things are likely to help us live healthy lives that are not overly financially burdened. But for many people, doing so is boring, hard, and unrewarding at an individual level. We want to be able to enjoy life with a vice or two. We want to have an expensive and unique car, even if it financially pushes us to the brink. We don’t want to spend all our free time exercising when there are such great TV shows and movies to watch and such great desserts out there to try. We are not motivated by what is objectively true, statistically likely to lead to a life that is healthy and financially stable, and what might be considered virtuous. We are motivated by what we can do to set ourselves apart, what we can do to be a uniquely creative individual, by what we can do to live a pleasurable and interesting life. The counter-Enlightenment fuels us to make decisions that rationally seem counterproductive to living a long, healthy, and successful life. But if we consider that our goals is to maximize our unique, entertaining, and creative life choices, then much of what we chose to do begins to make sense. We do not have Enlightenment goals, but rather our own counter-Enlightenment goals for life.
Reducing Government Violence

Reducing Government Violence

Human governance has been violent and bloody throughout much of our history. Whether we think about modern government violence, like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, somewhat older violence like the Holocaust, or much older violence like medieval kings using violence against peasants, images of government sponsored violence are easy to think of. Reducing government violence is one way to make the world a much less violent place overall.
 
 
Steven Pinker explains that reductions in state sponsored violence have been a major contributing factor to global pacification over human history. Despite the atrocities of WWII and other odious events in the 1900’s, Pinker demonstrates that we are gradually becoming less violent as a global population over time in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature. Part of the explanation for why violence has decreased is related to how we view government and what we expect from it. Changing our relationship to government has reduced government violence.
 
 
Pinker describes changing  views of government during the enlightenment by writing, “people began to think of a government as a gadget – a piece of technology invented by humans for the purpose of enhancing their collective welfare.” Government, or governance institutions, Pinker explains, had existed long before thinkers of the enlightenment began to reimagine them. People had long organized themselves in collective groups that held power, directed scarce resources, established rules, and had the capacity for sanctioning violence. Seeing these institutions as tools for collective welfare was a new jump, and changed the state from an extension of a powerful group or individual’s influence to an institution responsive to the population.
 
 
This shift began to make governments less violent. Obviously it did not take violence out of the equation entirely, as the 1900s demonstrated, but it did mean that kings and lords couldn’t direct government to use violence against people to maintain order and power to the same extent. It changed the mandate under which governance institutions operated, reducing government violence.
 
 
As Russia is demonstrating with its war in Ukraine, as China is demonstrating with its possible genocide of Uyghur Muslims, and as the Untied States has demonstrated through police use of deadly force, governments still do commit a lot of violence. But the general trend across the globe is toward more peaceful governments. This is a good trend and something we should continue to work toward to continue to reduce overall global violence.