In his new book ‘Enlightenment Now’ (2018), Steven Pinker gives a workable and practical definition of the Enlightenment. Humans have as sentient beings the potential to flourish. So, the Enlightenment is a continuous knowledge-based enhancement of human flourishing. (I) Sympathy and (II) Reason are the main drivers of this enhancement:
(I) If we have a close contact with other human beings we feel sympathy for the other because we recognize ourselves in the other. We experience equivalence (the self-other-equivalence).
(II) Reason is the pursuit of valid knowledge.
If we combine (I) and (II) we create an expanding experienced community because the pursuit of valid knowledge obtains a better life for the included members of the expanding community.
This old principle sheds a new light on hot issues as representative democracy, science, humanism et cetera. Which are the crowned children of the Enlightenment. But, they are no values in themselves. The question is: “Given a concrete output, do they enhance human flourishing?”. Not every result of a democratic process enhances human flourishing. Not every science generates solutions towards human flourishing. And so on.
A prerequisite is a science of humans because human thinking can be illusory and short sighted. A decision can generate a positive emotion (which seems to equal with flourishing), but the decision can have a long term effect which generates a new problem. The result is a diminished flourishing because the decision was based on a dysfunctional idea. An evident solution is a continuous assessment and re-assessment of ideas in the light of human flourishing.
In the contemporary political state of affairs there’s an important lesson to learn. The link between ideology and politics is disastrous because it is an emotion based form of decision-making which excludes the lessons learned of the prerequisite science of humans. Left and right-wing populism are known exponents:
(I) Left wing populism maintains the myth of a structural unjust society.
(II) Right wing populism maintains the myth of a sole identity, authority and sanctity.
Both are static and examples of progressophobia, the lack of power to recognize human progress and the tendency towards left and right wing conservatism. In a fast evolving world these two forms of conservatism become dysfunctional views because they recuperate old views. The result is the opposite of human flourishing, human suffering:
(I) Although human rights are stronger than ever (evidence-based), we maintain the myth of an unjust society.
(II) Although society is more diverse than ever (evidence-based) we maintain the myth of a sole identity, authority and sanctity.
There’s no correspondence between myth and reality and the painful result is an emotional turmoil which equals with human suffering. Any kind of populism becomes untidy (immoral?) because it enhances human suffering in a fast evolving world. Both kinds of populism are too short sighted (temporal dimension).
Is there a solution or only the political desert full of human shortage and suffering? The answer is obviously “yes” if we return systematically to the essence of The Enlightenment:
(I) An epistemic dimension: “Is an idea knowledge or just an opinion?”’
(II) A moral dimension: “Will this knowledge, when used, enhance or diminish human flourishing on the long run?”
(III) A pragmatic dimension: “What’s the result of the decision?”
(IV) An evaluative dimension: “What can we learn from the application?”
These four key points may become core skills which make us more human after all.