Enlightenment week wrap-up

It’s been a great first week for my book Enlightenment 2.0, and obviously I owe an enormous debt to both the Ottawa Citizen and the National Post for running substantial excerpts (the Citizen last Saturday, and the Post every day this week). Looking over these different pieces, however, it occurs to me that a casual reader might be left wondering, “What the hell is this book about?”

So in the interest of making it seem less disjoint, I thought I might present a short summary of the argument – and how the various pieces hang together.

I take Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity” as the point of departure, in order to make the point that many people have been concerned by the recent trend towards increased irrationalism in politics. Stewart is not alone in having called for a return to sanity. At the same time, there have been a huge number of recent books published by psychologists telling us that reason is useless, that we are hopelessly biased, etc. (Daniel Kahnemann, Dan Ariely – and of course Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, which popularized a lot of this research). As a result, there is no “off the shelf” concept of reason that one can appeal to, when calling for an increased role for reason in politics. On the contrary, people like David Brooks have been pointing to all the recent psychology literature and saying “Look, conservatives were right. Liberalism is nothing but rationalist hubris. Conservatives are the ones who understand human psychology, who realize that all great schemes to improve the human condition are destined to fail.”

So the first part of my book is dedicated to the task of trying to present an updated conception of reason, that takes into consideration the findings of 20th century psychology and cognitive science. Such a conception will clearly be more modest than the original Enlightenment one. (This is the most philosophical part of the book. My view is something of an amalgamation of Michael Dummett, Keith Stanovich and Andy Clark.) I also take some pains to show that, despite being hopelessly biased and underpowered, reason nevertheless remains indispensable for human happiness, because it is the only cognitive system capable of detecting its own errors and correcting them.

The second part of the book deals with the question of whether our political discourse is actually becoming more irrational. This is a trickier issue than one might at first think. I am very much aware of the problem that I refer to as “old fogeyism,” of thinking that everything in the culture is always going downhill. This typically involves mistaking changes in perspective that are a consequence of one’s own ageing (e.g. growing cynicism) for actual changes in the surrounding culture. In an effort to avoid this, I develop a little cultural-evolutionary model, which suggests that cultural innovations that exploit human irrationality are likely to survive and prosper, thereby accumulating or “pooling” in the culture, making it more difficult over time for us to be rational. The short discussion I present of advertising is one of several that illustrates this trend.

In this section, I also track the rise of “common sense conservatism,” which encourages people to trust their intuition over the “fancy theories” peddled by intellectuals. For Canadians, I think that understanding the extent to which this privileging of intuition, or “gut feelings,” has become the unifying ideology on the right helps to explain some of the more puzzling behavior of the current federal government. (Consider, for example, Jason Kenney a couple of weeks ago, who got caught defending the Temporary Workers Program through appeal to some bogus statistics. This is after the government had imposed draconian, and seemingly arbitrary cuts to Statistics Canada, so that good data was increasingly hard to find. When Kenney was criticized by economists for using the bad data, this was his defence: “I would just invite some of these economists – who sit in front of their spreadsheets of inadequate data trying to figure out the world – I wish they would actually go out into the real world and talk to employers like I do all the time.” The thought that the Minister of Employment and Social Development actually thinks about policy this way – by going out and gathering a few anecdotes instead of looking at nation-wide statistics – is quite disconcerting. It even seems a bit crazy, until one sees how it is connected to a larger political ideology.)

Finally, part three deals with the question of what to do about all this. The most immediate temptation on the left, when dealing with the kind of viscerally compelling but ultimately irrational politics coming out of the right, is to want to respond in kind – what I call the “fight fire with fire” response. The most explicit proponent of this approach is George Lakoff. (In Canada, one can see this tendency most clearly in the NDP, which has adopted a variety of “populist” policies designed to tap into public anger, but which don’t make any sense as policies – such as wanting to regulate bank ATM fees, or offering people a GST exemption on home heating. Jeffrey Simpson wrote a very good piece about why this is bad strategy.)

I try to show that this strategy is not just episodically bad, but necessarily doomed. This is because not all political positions are created equal. Most progressive policy positions rest on an appeal to reason, and so can seldom be formulated in a way that is viscerally satisfying. In particular, policies that involve solving large-scale collective action problems (ranging from environmental protection to building public transportation) require what is ultimately a rational insight into the structure of the interaction. We are often called upon to suppress many of our more intuitive reactions.

The only to advance a progressive agenda, I argue, is to find ways to change the political discourse, so that rational arguments have a better chance of prevailing. This is, of course, something that many people have been calling for. Typically, however, they are still presupposing a first-Enlightenment, individualistic conception of reason, and so do not have much more to say than “just think harder” or “we need more education.” I have a moderately more original suggestion, because the concept of reason that I develop puts much greater emphasis on the way that reason depends upon an appropriate environment in order to function correctly. I therefore call for a “politics of rationality,” focusing on improving the environment in which debate and deliberation occur.

I end the book by presenting what I call a “slow politics” manifesto (since one of the central characteristic of reason is that it is very slow, the general acceleration of political discourse is inimical to its exercise). If the manifesto sounds strange, that’s because it’s actually a parody of the “slow food” manifesto. I hope people will get the joke.

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