An enlightenment fit for the 21st century

The Tories’ “big society” challenges the people, and not just governments, to embrace change. To eff

The Royal Society of Arts has a new motto: 21st-century enlightenment. It pays tribute to the 18th-century founders of the society and is a statement about the RSA's role today. We have been asking how Enlightenment principles have come to be interpreted and whether they should be rethought in the light of today's challenges and important new insights into human nature. Although this may sound a long way from the more prosaic debates in Labour's leadership campaign, perhaps that process might benefit from imagining a radical politics that seeks not merely to respond to modern values, but to shape them.

To think about the core ideas of the Enlightenment, and how they gave rise to modern values, norms and lifestyles, is a process of cultural psychotherapy, delving into the collective consciousness of modern people. The rise of science and technology, the growth of market capitalism, the expansion of social tolerance and personal freedom - all these drew on the impetus of Enlightenment thought.

Self-aware autonomy

In his recent book In Defence of the Enlightenment, Tzvetan Todorov suggests three ideas were at the core of the Enlightenment project: autonomy, universalism and what he calls the "human end purpose of our acts".

The principle of autonomy holds that human beings should be free to use their reason to create self-authored, valuable lives. Ever since the Enlightenment, debate has raged about the implications of the ideal. But by the end of the 20th century, a combination of ideas (notably free-market economics) and changes in society (including the perceived failure of the postwar settlement and the rise of consumer capitalism) had led to the apparent triumph of an individualistic conception of autonomy and a highly rationalist view of human nature.

This ideology of possessive individualism has shaped the way we think about democracy. With the decline of deference- and class-based politics, the principle that the customer is always right has been imported into the political sphere. But the voter is not always right. The pollster Ben Page has summed up voters' preferences in the phrase "we demand Swedish welfare on American tax rates". But the preferences people express in polls are different from those that they have after a process of group delib­eration. When politicians and commentators genuflect to public opinion, it is generally to superficial individual preferences, not the outcomes of informed collective deliberation.

Individualism has been subject to a variety of philosophical, sociological and political critiques. Meanwhile, public opinion and public policy have moved to and fro on the individualist/collectivist spectrum. But in recent years, research in areas as disparate as economics, evolutionary psychology and neuroscience have provided new grounds for questioning our interpretation of autonomy. The 21st-century enlightenment should involve a more self-aware, socially embedded model of autonomy. This does not mean repudiating the rights of the individual. Nor does it underestimate our ability deliberately to shape our own destinies. Indeed, it is by understanding that our conscious thought is only a part of what drives our behaviour that we can become better able to exercise self-control.

Most of what we do is the result of automatic responses to the world around us, rather than the outcome of conscious decision-making. Practically, it turns out that changing our context is a more powerful way of shaping our behaviour than trying to change our minds. If you want to be a more virtuous person, don't buy a book of sermons - choose better friends.

The brain uses a whole set of short cuts to make sense of the world and sometimes these mislead. For example, we tend not to be very good at making decisions for the long term and are better at understanding relative than absolute values. The panic of the credit crunch was a reminder of how we are in thrall to what John Maynard Keynes referred to as our "animal spirits". We are poor at estimating our own capacities, predicting what will make us happy, or even describing accurately what made us happy in the past. The moral and political critique of an individualist, rational choice model of autonomy now has an evidence base.

Empathic universalism

Building on the idea of natural rights, which can be traced back to the ancient Stoics, Todorov's second Enlightenment principle, universalism, is generally taken to mean that all human beings are born with inalienable rights and are equally deserving of dignity. But what is it that drives us to act on the principle of universalism? It is one thing to sign up to the ideal, another to put it into practice. The emotional foundation for universalism is empathy.

In Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs, people deemed to have reached the highest level, self-actualisation, are interested in problem-solving, are accepting of themselves and - most significantly for universalism - lacking in prejudice. The developmental psychologist Robert Kegan goes further, arguing that a higher, more empathic level of functioning is essential to meet the practical demands of 21st-century citizenship. This "requires us to have a relationship to our own reactions, rather than be captive of them". In a 2002 overview of survey evidence for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Kegan concluded that only one in five people across the world has achieved what he calls a "self-authoring" order of consciousness.

The good news is that there is every reason to believe we can expand empathy's reach. Despite notable departures from the trend, the history of the human race has been one of diminishing person-to-person violence. Since the advent of modern civil rights, we have witnessed a transformation in social attitudes based on race, gender and sexuality. Immigration, emigration, foreign travel, global culture and communication all provide us with reasons and opportunities to appreciate our similarities and respect our differences.

Yet are there reasons to fear that the process of widening human empathy has stalled, and just when we need it to accelerate. Levels of inequality have risen across the rich world. Tensions between ethnic groups have taken on new dimensions. Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown, arguably reflecting a failure by policymakers to balance the imperatives of globalisation with the empathic capacity of the (usually disadvantaged) communities most affected by change. There is concern about gang culture and about young people living more in the virtual world than in the face-to-face one.

Despite the growing interdependence of the world, the national frame for political interests, which became dominant around the time of the Enlightenment, shows little sign of weakening. The stock of global empathy upon which democratic leaders can draw has to grow if the long-term needs of the human race are to be put ahead of short-term national interests.

It is reasonable to presume that those most relaxed about outsiders in their midst would also be those most inclined to be sympathetic to the plight of strangers far away. But the chain linking interpersonal, communal and global-scale empathy is complex. We need to understand better what enhances and what diminishes our empathic capacity. The policy implications range from child-rearing to popular culture.

Ethical humanism

Todorov describes the third Enlightenment principle as "the human end purpose of our acts". In other words, the basis for social arrangements should be what increases human happiness and welfare. There is little doubt that we have succeeded in this area. The poorest citizens of the developed world now have better health, longer lifespans and many more resources and opportunities than those who would have been considered well-off two centuries ago.

But sometimes it feels as though it is taken for granted that the very act of pursuing progress is the same as improving human welfare and happiness. The success of the western post-Enlightenment project has resulted in ­societies such as ours being dominated by three logics: of scientific and technological progress, of markets and of bureaucracy.

Sometimes these logics clash; often they reinforce each other. In politics and in the media, the abandonment of principle is excused by pressure to compete for power, votes or audience share. The voluntary sector (in which I work) might be thought of as a haven from competitive values. Not a bit of it. Charities compete for philanthropy, government contracts and media profile. From the hedge fund to the NHS internal market, from The X Factor to the Turner Prize, the imperative of competition has become all-pervasive. The decision somewhere in BP to drill for oil a mile below the sea, even though the firm apparently had no certain way of dealing with a possible leak, could be seen to combine the logics of technological progress, bureaucracy and competition.

A utilitarian approach to human progress leaves us without a framework through which we can inquire more deeply into what kind of future we want. Surveys suggest that the Danes are the happiest people in the world not only because of their material circumstances, but because they say what matters most in life is good relationships. The most miserable nationality, the Bulgarians, say money is the key to happiness. Living the good life may be as much about what you aim for as what you achieve.

Ethical thinking is also part of our human ­nature. In a recent Yale University experiment, babies between six and 12 months old watched a simple coloured geometric shape ascend a slope. When other shapes intervened, apparently either helping or blocking the circle, the children's responses showed a clear preference for the helping shapes. The evolutionary biologist Marc Hauser has conducted a huge global online survey of moral judgements. He argues that subtle - but, from a modern perspective, idiosyncratic - moral distinctions appear to be "hard-wired" in human beings.

The logics of progress are themselves dependent on an often unrecognised ethical framework. Markets rely on trust, bureaucracies on duty and scientific progress on collaboration. Indeed, as life becomes more complex and fast-moving, and using external regulation to shape behaviour is consequently more onerous and less effective, our reliance on benign motivation becomes greater. But is it becoming harder to acknowledge our ethical nature or to find ways of talking about substantive differences in aims and values?

Just as sexual repression spawned hypocrisy and vice in the 19th century, so the suppression of ethical discourse leads to the strange coincidence of an era that combines social tolerance and cultural relativism with an almost continuous drumbeat of public indignation against everyone from bankers and celebrities to welfare cheats and immigrants.

Mature ethical discourse is the foundation for multiculturalism, mutual respect and conflict resolution. As we face tough policy dilemmas, recognition of legitimate ethical differences is necessary for an authentic and engaging politics - an enlightenment politics of human ends rather than a technocratic politics of regulatory means.

Moral reform

Does the RSA's exploration of what might con­stitute a 21st-century enlightenment have any relevance to practical politics? The historian Peter Clarke first made the distinction between the "mechanical" model of state-led change in Fabian socialism and the "moral" model advocated by social liberals such as Leonard Hobhouse and T H Green. It is an idea often referred to by David Miliband, among whose favourite books is The Progressive Dil­emma, in which David Marquand makes the case for reintegrating the two traditions.

If Labour does have a debate about moral reform, it may involve asking why recently the Conservatives have been more willing to discuss how people, not just government, have to change. This, after all, is one of the themes of David Cameron's "big society"; as the state recedes, individuals and communities must be more willing to meet their own and each other's needs. In the dire warnings about the Budget deficit, too, there has been a theme that we will have to change our lifestyles, weaning ourselves off dependency and debt.

There are some searching questions to be asked about the thinking behind Tory rhetoric. Strong services and good local government are more often the foundation for civic action than its antithesis. And what of Labour's own account of good citizenship? Tony Blair sought to remoralise the Labour message with an emphasis on responsibilities as well as rights, along with a tough stance on crime and antisocial behaviour. But the tone of New Labour's rhetoric often seemed punitive and populist, while the underlying account of human nature, in this and broader economic policy, was hard to distinguish from the self-interested rational man of economic orthodoxy.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when feminists were asserting that "the personal is the political", there was much talk of consciousness-raising. People were invited to reconsider their beliefs, social identity and most deeply held assumptions. Some of this may have been self-indulgent and even silly (I should know, I was chairperson of a men's group in Leamington Spa), yet this approach contributed to major advances in social attitudes on gender, ethnicity, sexuality and disability.

Is it time for another consciousness-raising mission? There has been a greater emphasis in recent policy debate on what is called "behaviour change". The focus is on the contribution we, the people, must make to social progress. What I have called the "social aspiration gap" can be seen to have three aspects.

First, as citizens, we need to be more politically engaged and self-aware, acknowledging the dilemmas policymakers face, giving permission for the right long-term decisions and recognising how our own behaviour shapes policy options. Second, with the cost of labour-intensive public services bound to rise, citizens need to be more resourceful, looking after our health, investing in our education, saving for our retirement. Creativity and risk-taking are also vital. Third, we need to be more pro-social, contributing to what the social scientist David Halpern calls the hidden wealth of nations, our capacity for trust, caring and co-operation.

To get noticed and mobilise activists, Labour needs to find a way back to its old radicalism, but its message must also be relevant and attractive to voters. The idea that people can change, need to change and, through changing, would be able to live more fulfilling lives should be part of the story. It is an idea that builds from political values and science-based accounts of human nature and provides the foundation for new policy priorities and models of governance. The original Enlightenment sowed the seeds for modern social-democratic politics. Might a renewal of the progressive project benefit from imagining a 21st-century version?

Matthew Taylor is chief executive of the RSA. He writes here in a personal capacity.
His lecture and pamphlet on 21st-century enlightenment are available to download from .the RSA's website

Matthew Taylor became Chief Executive of the RSA in November 2006. Prior to this appointment, he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister.

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas