We need to urgently renew the Age of Enlightenment

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Yesterday, at the UK Government’s daily news conference it was announced that the deaths from Covid-19 in the UK is now the highest in Europe. Ministers and Scientific Advisors have used the same chart almost since the beginning of the crisis. This shows a comparison of UK deaths with those of other countries. Yet those same Ministers and Advisors say it is too early to conclude anything about death rates, fearing (I suspect) critique of the Government response to the coronavirus.

I have a background in mathematics and big data, so I do understand the issues. Not every country measures things the same way, there are differences in population density, age, ethnicity and so on. But – and it is a big but – the data is what it is. The chart is the chart. How can the same people that started showing the chart, now say we should not fully consider it? Sadly this is accompanied with varnishing of the truth, which frankly is just not necessary. The UK has not ‘succeeded’ (Johnson, on Monday). We are still in the middle of this crisis. We have made progress, of course, and things are moving gradually in the right direction. But such glosses detract from positive things going on, and undermine trust.

I can only surmise that it all underlines a reluctance to admit mistakes, and discuss how they will be rectified, in an adult manner.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this morning Government-supporting media pursued what is euphemistically known as a ‘dead cat’ strategy, making headlines of the indiscretion of a  senior Government scientific advisor rather than examine the appalling loss in human life. But that’s for another post on the media.

We live in an era of extreme views. You are either ‘for’ something or ‘against’ something. Populism, Nationalism, Brexit, Trump, anti-lockdown, anti-globalism. Pick an issue – or its opposite – and draw the battle lines. This is exacerbated by the megaphone of universal social media. Outrage is everywhere. The Right dislike the ‘other’, the immigrants. To them, the ‘left’ are socialists and snowflakes. To the Left, the ‘right’ are fascists. Everything must be said with political correctness – except of course when Remainers criticise Brexiteer ‘gammons’.

Today on social media I see people being hyper-critical of the books in the libraries behind politicians and celebrities on video chats. First, what does it say about our ‘celebrity culture’, where that seems to take precedence over real news and commentary. And, second, are we moving to an era of banned books? I might dislike Ayn Rand’s selfish views, for example, but she had a right to publish and people have a right to read. Why should outrage be an accepted response?

Whatever happened to the ability to debate issues with civility, with critical thinking, and with respect for the views of others? Why do we need insults?

There are very few right or wrong answers to ‘wicked problems’. Such a problem is one that is difficult or even impossible to solve easily because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing contexts. The only way to deal with such problems is with reason and logic, with innovation and collective energies. You do not solve wicked problems with outraged opinion.

Sir Charles Dikes, 1873. John Stuart Mill. National Portrait Gallery. Wikimedia licence.

John Stuart Mill, the champion of liberty and enlightenment liberalism, saw that opinions can become tyrannical. In On Liberty, Mill argued for everyone to become ‘eccentric’, to use critical reasoning and not to pander to the crowd.

‘Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric’. (pg. 66. Chapter III: Of Individuality, as One of the Elements of Well-Being).

Mill considered us social animals, and saw benefit in social living. But he was a fierce champion of the individual. Applied today, to what degree do we hold our individuality in check, and to what degree does our (social) media and political class terrorise us into conformity? Are we eccentric enough?

It seems to me that in the world today, and especially during the current pandemic, the essence of Enlightenment liberalism remains increasingly in question. Mill, again:

‘With respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases‘. (pg. 74. Chapter IV: Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual).

Applying Mill’s thinking today, he would argue that the current regime of ‘social distancing’ is a public good, outweighing individual liberty – he would not be protesting. It is a regime of minimising public harm.

But he would also argue that if an individual is not harming others, they should be free. In other words, he would think his way through the issues, and not be either ‘black’ nor ‘white’. His principle of ‘minimal harm’ has much bearing on our current predicament, and in particular how to exit lockdown.

From another era, Mani was an Iranian born in 216, into a family with Jewish Christian Gnostic beliefs. (Gnostics believed that God wasn’t responsible for the creation of our world, essentially because there is much evil in it). Mani went on to found Manichaeism, teaching a complex but highly dualistic cosmology. Life was always a bitter struggle between the ‘good’, the spiritual world of light, and ‘evil’, the material world of darkness. Manichaeism was hugely popular for many centuries – even Augustine was attracted in his early years, although he later refuted those beliefs.

To quote Wikipedia:

‘[Manichaeism] was briefly the main rival to Christianity before the spread of Islam in the competition to replace classical paganism. Manichaeism survived longer in the east than in the west, and it appears to have finally faded away after the 14th century in south China, contemporary to the decline of the Church of the East in Ming China’.

We live in a different kind of Manichaean era, one that threatens the Enlightenment view which has been at the foundation of our (Western) culture since the 17th century. By Enlightenment, I mean the sovereignty of reason; the power of empiricism, logic and the scientific method; the ideals of liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity; constitutional government; and separation of church and state.

I have just finished reading Russell Blackford’s excellent book, The Tyranny of Opinion. He seeks to remind us that the values that built our society are at severe risk. Perhaps many of us already know that. But what is different about Blackford’s work is that he argues that those same values could also be essential to the recovery of civil discourse. No one should be afraid of speaking out. But, as Mill argued, this should be in measured and rational ways. Blackford:

‘Today left-wing and liberal thought (in the American sense of liberalism) is often in flight from Enlightenment liberal ideas. In their place, we can see something remarkably different: a social and political ideology, perhaps historically continuous with liberal traditions, that is increasingly centred on identity politics. To be more precise, it is built on glorifying or sanctifying (not merely assisting) historically oppressed cultural and demographic groups’. (pg 165-166)

In the book, Blackford discusses ideology, the power of propaganda, outrage politics, the problems in cyberspace, and our blame / victim culture. He includes the perils of no-platforming on free speech issues. Blackford sees fault on all sides. But he does offer a possible pathway forward.

‘If we stand in the tradition of Enlightenment liberalism, it means standing for secular government, individual liberty free inquiry and discussion, due process for people accused of wrongdoing, and more generally the rule of It means that we value reason, individuality originality; creativity spontaneity and the search for truth. To protect these, we value privacy. We value equality rather than hierarchies and subordination. We defend people and speak in uniquely individual ways, rather than as who live, think, representatives of communities, cultures, religions, political tribes, or demographic groups. We tolerate all ways of living and speaking that are freely chosen by those involved and not straightforwardly harmful to others.

As Enlightenment liberals, we won’t insist on a single, valorised template for the good life, or even offer a small group of templates to choose from. We’ll accept that even wrong ideas and even ways of life that prove untenable or unattractive have a part to play in the advance of knowledge, understanding, conduct, creativity, be. As far as possible, we’ll favour tolerance and social pluralism’. (pg 196)

Put that another way, we all have the right to an opinion, to free speech – although within the overall bounds of Mill’s liberal principles of non-harm. Blackford argues that we should defend the rights of those that we disagree with just as much as we would defend our own right to an opinion. And he’s absolutely correct.

In my use of social media, I enjoy the conversation. I have tried to offer a platform for opposing views, although the bubble effect makes that extremely difficult. I also try to stop any name calling, though that seems to be increasingly hard to do.

Social media makes it too easy to fall into what I would define as neo-Manichaean outrage. I do not mean in matters of religion, but in the continued drive for either black or white. Yet, we can all hold more than two ideas in our heads simultaneously, even apparent contradictions.

For example, I truly value what the UK Government is now doing to help solve the Covid-19 problem, both in the arenas of health care and in securing individual economic livelihoods. But I also have been critical from the beginning of the speed of action, especially the slowness to take things seriously (Johnson shaking hands with Covid-19 patients, Cheltenham races etc). The UK has also been slow to embrace other country’s prior experience with the virus. Too often, expression of criticism has been met with ‘you must support the Government’. On the other hand, support of the Government can lead to cries of ‘don’t you know the terrible things they have done?. Why is it binary?

As I mentioned above, everyone needs to stop varnishing the facts, on BOTH sides. It annoys the hell out of me.

Blackford accepts how hard it is to re-create an ‘enlightenment agenda’ (my words, not his).

None of this is the existing social consensus. On the contrary, it’s a position with surprisingly few contemporary defenders. It is, however, an intellectually coherent and attractive approach once it is set out explicitly and in sufficient detail.

If I’ve accomplished nothing else in the preceding chapters, I’ve at least described and attempted to defend a Millian viewpoint on liberty of thought and discussion that is currently almost forgotten and merits a full restatement. This Millian viewpoint connects with Enlightenment liberal ideas of liberty individuality spontaneity originality and intellectual and social progress that have never been much favoured by the political Right and have largely been abandoned by the Left (which is increasingly focused on avoiding offence to members of historically oppressed groups).

The Millian viewpoint on liberty and free discussion is not just intellectually pleasing. It offers the best future for liberal democracies and liberalism itself‘. (pg 215)

We live in challenging times, which are in many ways paradoxical. The virus, sadly, might serve as an accelerator of reduction in civil liberties and privacy, as well as a power driving isolationist politics. It might drive yet more outrage.

We want safety and we want liberty. We want free speech but we want our own views to prevail. We cannot handle paradox, so we tend to say that it must be ‘either / or’.

But I would submit that the only way to properly deal with social paradox is by saying ‘yes / and’.


Cabinet Office Slides. May 5th 2020. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/slides-and-datasets-to-accompany-coronavirus-press-conference-5-may-2020

BLACKFORD, Russell. 2019. The Tyranny of Opinion. London: Bloomsbury.

MILL, John Stuart. 1859. On Liberty, Utilitarianism and Other Essays. 1991, 2015 Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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