The Enlightenment, Humanism and Morality with Dr Stephen Law

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In Part 4 of this interview series, Dr Stephen Law speaks to Conatus News about the Enlightenment, Humanism, Morality and more.

Scott Jacobsen: New data and analysis make arguments for humanism and positive progress based on Enlightenment values and scientific discovery easier now. Some of the most prominent humanists, including Professor Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now (2018) make arguments of these forms. Do these arguments seem valid and more reliable than in previous centuries to you? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

Dr Stephen Law: It’s an empirical question whether the post-Enlightenment world is getting better in various respects. I have not read Pinker’s book or looked at much of the research, so not well-placed to comment on that. I am aware of the fact that you will likely get differing answers depending on exactly which question you ask of the available data, of course.

My interest in the Enlightenment has tended to focus particularly on those who want to blame the Enlightenment for various ills.

There are some post-modern thinkers who do this – who blame the Enlightenment for the Holocaust, for example. Lyotard is one of them. There are also religiously conservative thinkers who blame the Enlightenment for the Holocaust. Journalist Melanie Philips does so quite explicitly, and I seem to remember historian Michael Burleigh made a TV programme which also made that argument. Here’s Philips:

The Enlightenment gave us freedom and liberal values, but it also gave us … The Holocaust.

Philosopher John Gray says about Count Joseph de Maistre, a staunch defender of the Church and Pope and one of the Enlightenment’s most vigorous critics, that:

[w]hen he represents reason and analysis as corrosive and destructive, solvents of custom and allegiance that cannot replace the bonds of sentiment and tradition which they weaken and demolish, he illuminates, better perhaps than any subsequent writer, the absurdity of the Enlightenment faith [for such it undoubtedly was]that human society can have a rational foundation. If to reason is to question, then questioning will have no end, until it has wrought the dissolution of the civilization that gave it birth.

So someone like Pinker, or me, who thinks that reason and the Enlightenment value of thinking independently and for oneself should lie at the heart of raising good citizens will come under attack from two different directions. We are criticised by post-modern thinkers who think that this elevation of reason turns it into a highly oppressive authority. We are also criticised by religious conservatives who blame the kind of independent critical thinking espoused by Enlightenment thinkers for undermining traditional sources of authority, promoting relativism, and unravelling the social and ethical fabric.

Neither of these critiques is correct, of course.

Jacobsen: Continuing from the previous question, how does the humanist framework provide a way in which to think about ethics practically, especially with all of the technology involved at every level of decision-making now?

Law: That is an enormous question. Humanism does not really offer a specific philosophical ethical theory. Some humanists are utilitarians; some are not, some humanists are moral realists, some are not. One thing humanists do have in common is a rejection of the thought that some special texts or people must be deferred to because they are sources of divine guidance.

Hume was probably right that science reveals only what is the case, not what one ought to do, and one cannot rationally support an ought conclusion using only ‘is’ premises. So science alone cannot answer moral questions. Many humanists accept that (not all – Sam Harris disagrees, for example). However, that still leaves a great deal of scope for science to inform our moral thinking. If I believe women should not get the vote because I believe dim people should not get the vote and that women are dim, my moral position can be demolished scientifically, because it’s based in part on a false empirical claim: women are dim.

Almost everyone agrees that, whether or not science alone can justify moral positions, it can be hugely helpful with moral judgements. Almost everyone agrees morality has at least something to do with human flourishing in this life. And it’s an empirical matter what helps humans flourish in this life, so scientific investigation of what helps us flourish will be very valuable, morally speaking. What we think will help us flourish often turns out to be incorrect.

Jacobsen: With these positive gains in the scientific world and the expansion of the moral sphere, what new values that are now fringe considerations in ethical decisions will in the coming decades become mainstream and even central in moral choices?

Law: Well one obvious candidate is genetic enhancement – designer babies. As the technology develops, we will have some hard decisions to make. I was also recently involved in discussion with John Danaher about robot sex. That is already a thing, apparently (robotic sex dolls are on sale). That also raises lots of interesting questions about human relationships, freedom, the law, etc.

In my opinion, what should now come to the fore, but probably won’t, is class. We are all acutely aware that racism, sexism, homophobia are forms of discrimination that hurt our fellow human beings badly. “I’d suggest a form of discrimination that hurts our life prospects at least as much as these other forms is class discrimination: classism if you like.”

Of course, this is controversial. Currently, more on the right are beginning to voice publicly what many think privately – that the lower classes are genetically inferior, and that this is overwhelmingly what explains their lack of social mobility. Whether this is true is an empirical matter, of course.

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr Law.

Dr Stephen Law is Reader in Philosophy at Heythrop College, University of London. He is also the editor of THINK: Philosophy for Everyone, a journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy (published by Cambridge University Press). Stephen has published numerous books on philosophy, including The Philosophy Gym: 25 Short Adventures in Thinking (on which an Oxford University online course has since been based) and The Philosophy Files (aimed at children 12+). Stephen is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts. Our prior article, here, and main interview, here, and sessions in this series here, here, and here.

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Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. Jacobsen works for science and human rights, especially women’s and children’s rights. He considers the modern scientific and technological world the foundation for the provision of the basics of human life throughout the world and advancement of human rights as the universal movement among peoples everywhere.

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