how can we make it easier to ask, is it right?

Some big breaking news here.  It’s time, now the 21st century is upon us, to storm the walls of our most sacred institutions, especially biggies like individualism, progress and will.  How we have defined them is not working for us and this author – Matthew Taylor – shows how delinking one from another — individualism from narcissism, happiness from progress, for instance — can help to make our most revered ideas purposeful again.

First up, the unassailability of individualism is — assailed.  The author doesn’t dismiss it outright; he sets it straight:  our drives no longer rule us, rather we capture them to serve us.  Our political boundaries are broadened past self and kin, and difference and the other brought in and considered true and valid.

Next, happiness is delinked from progress.  The grand old institutions of progress – science, markets and bureaucracy – come up wanting: science and markets fail to address the general good of society and bureaucracy’s rules don’t care about results.  He recommends humanism and its concern for ethics be brought back in to soften and enrich how we define progress.

And finally, says this author, mere will isn’t enough.  He names three pillars of our triumphalist culture:  freedom, justice and progress, which have hardened into platitudes and abstractions around which a priesthood of flunkies has formed and nearly everyone else a blissfully ignorant adherent.

Who are we, who do we need and want to be?  Summon a new energy, spirit, leaders, thinkers to define a new paradigm for life in the new century.

The video with partial transcript below:

Partial transcript:

We are very very bad at predicting what is going to make us happy.  And we are even bad at describing what has made us happy in the past.  So I would argue that the moral and political critique of individualism now has an evidence base. And it’s with this in mind that I argue that 21st Century enlightenment should champion a more self aware, socially embedded model of autonomy that recognizes our frailties and limitations.

Now this does not mean repudiating the rights of the individual and nor does it underestimate our unique ability to shape our own destinies.  Indeed it is actually by understand that conscious thought is only a part of what drives our behaviour that we become better able to exercise self control.  All of this can enable us to distinguish our needs from our appetites, and our amazing human potential from the hubris of individualism.  It’s the basis for self aware autonomy.

The developmental psychologist Robert Kegan argues that successfully functioning in society with diverse values, traditions and life styles requires us in his words to have “a relationship to our own reactions rather than be captive of them.”

“To resist our tendencies to make right or true that which is merely familiar and wrong or false that which is only strange.”



Sometimes it feels as though the idea that progress should be designed to increase happiness has turned into the assumption that pursuing progress is the same as improving human welfare.

The success of the western post enlightenment project has resulted in a society like ours being dominated by three logics.  The logic of science and technological progress, the logic of markets and the logic of bureaucracy.

And the limits of the logic of science and of markets lie in their indifference to a substantive concern for the general good.  If something can be discovered and developed it should be discovered and developed.   If something can be sold, then it should be sold.

And the problem for bureaucracy is a tendency to put the rationality of rules above the rationality of ends.

And so it is in this context that the 21st enlightenment project demands a reassertion of the fundamentally ethical dimension of humanism.  How can we make it easier to ask, is this right?


Rationality can tell us how to best get from a to z, but without ethical reasoning we cannot discuss where z should be.


As Michel Foucault said of Kant’s own description of the enlightenment, it has to be conceived as an attitude,  an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us, and an experiment of the possibility of going beyond them.

To be responsible, to create a big society, to live sustainably, this is not simply a matter of will.  The 21st century enlightenment requires us to see past simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, of justice and of progress.

Perhaps it’s time to stop chasing those myths, to stop being transfixed by abstractions, and instead to reconnect a concrete understanding of who we are as human beings, to political debates about who we need to be, and philosophical and even spiritual explorations of who we might like to aspire to be.

Matthew Taylor, 21st century enlightenment, RSAnimate

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