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The Enlightenment Ideal Of Reason Has Absolutely Vindicated Itself


Nathanael Blake invites me to “discuss our differences over a bottle of whiskey and a large stack of books.” I’ll say yes to the whiskey, although I have a few additions to his list of books. This is his introduction to a case that the Enlightenment ideal of rationality is “discredited” and a “dead end.”

The argument seems to be entirely based on Alasdair Macintyre’s book, “Whose Justice? Which Rationality?,” which argues, in Blake’s summary, that “philosophers have been unable to establish a shared standard of public reason,” and so, in Macintyre’s words, “the legacy of the Enlightenment has been the provision of an ideal of rational justification which it has proved impossible to attain.” This is a pretty standard argument among traditionalist conservatives, so it requires a serious answer.

This is also a claim that can be tested by reference to history and the real world. Enlightenment ideas have a long track record, and a review of that record demonstrates that the ideal of rationality is not an illusion. It is a commonplace reality that has transformed human life vastly for the better.

Here’s where I’m going to add a book to the discussion: Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now.” I criticized Pinker for his shallow understanding of Enlightenment philosophy, which reduces it to a mere precursor of conventional 21st-century, center-left liberalism. But his book is invaluable in its exhaustive demonstration of 200 years of progress in improving the human condition. As I put it in my review, “Can all of this really be ascribed to the Enlightenment? Certainly it can be ascribed to beliefs and ideological goals that were central to the Enlightenment, such as science, markets, commerce, individual rights, and humanistic values.” Let’s expand on that a little.

The drivers of the past two centuries of progress include, first and foremost, science and technology. This is what really gives the lie to the notion that universal standards of rationality have failed. Is this even supposed to be taken seriously? There is a vast international scientific community capable of speaking to each other clearly, and while there are disagreements and errors, as there always will be, they are capable of being resolved by appealing to common standards.

Anyone who has worked in a scientific or technological field knows that it is common to see people of all races, religions, nationalities, and cultural backgrounds sharing a universal language of rationality. This universal rationality has manifested itself in dramatic and undeniable results, more than doubling the average human lifespan and improving the quality of life in a million small ways.

I will grant that the triumph of reason is much easier to see in science than in politics or morality. Yet certain universal standards have made significantly headway. In the middle of the 18th century, at the peak of the Enlightenment, the ideas of representative government, religious freedom, free speech, and individual rights were still radical and largely speculative. They had not been fully embraced or implemented anywhere. Today—after fits and starts and the disastrous backsliding of the 20th century—these ideals are embraced and implemented over more of the earth than they have ever been.

These moral and political ideas are directly tied to the ideal of reason. Representative government requires that political disagreement be resolved by persuasion rather than by raw force. Free speech and religious freedom require that when people don’t come to a common conclusion, or even a common standard of rationality, they have to keep on talking until they do—or compete against each other in the marketplace. By banishing coercion from the realm of politics and religion and ideally (though not enough, these days) from commerce—individual rights force people to solve their problems and achieve their goals through persuasion and consent.

The benefits are measurable, particularly in one stark statistic: the collapse of war over the past 70 years, a Long Peace that coincides with the defeat of two major dictatorships and the spread of political freedom. Doesn’t it seems a little strange to be denouncing the futility of universal standards of reason at a time when such standards have never been more widely accepted?

Obviously, reason still has a long way to go to being accepted in principle, much less consistently practiced, as an organizational base for human affairs. But it has come far enough to provide practical proof for the speculative hopes of the Enlightenment.

There is also a continued need for revision and improvement to understand the exact nature of reason and provide it a firmer defense. A good deal of that has already been done by a very few philosophers whose main qualification for the job is that they were actually trying, as opposed to the many other philosophers who simply set out to tear reason down. But given the evidence of history, the question of exactly how reason works has to start with the recognition that it does work.

That seems like a much better approach than what Blake, by way of Alasdair Macintyre, is offering, which is a non-universal “rationality” conditioned by “tradition and religious authority.” To begin with, this doesn’t solve the main problem it is supposed to solve. If you think that tradition and religion” provide a reliable basis for peaceful agreement and cooperation, I will simply point you to the current state of the world, where precisely this things are major sources of conflict.

Worse, doubling down on traditionalism, particularly the traditionalism of “small communities,” as Macintyre does, is a recipe for disaster. This is basically egging on the rising identitarianism of the left or right. Logically, it points us either to the narrow identity politics of the social justice left—in which people of different races or sexes, or whatever other categories of identity, are practically incapable of speaking to one another or sharing common values—or to the politics of nationalism, and I hope I don’t need to remind you how horribly that can go wrong.

I find it interesting that Blake chooses to rest his case on Macintyre, whose whole career as a philosopher is an attempt to reconcile Marxism with Catholicism, all organized around his lifelong rejection of “modern liberal individualism.” Macintyre is a perfect example of the kind of philosopher who marches along with his own preconceived prejudices and declares that something cannot possibly exist and cannot possibly work—when the evidence for its existence and success is all around him.

There is one grain of truth in his claims. Reason is not and never can be “universal” in the sense that there will always be some people who resolutely refuse to listen to it. But that is all the more incentive to work on establishing reason as an ideal and a standard.