Why the Enlightenment Failed
And How Effective Egoism Can Revive It
Everything good in the modern world—science, technology, freedom—we owe to the Enlightenment. But the Enlightenment failed. It failed philosophically, making all of its achievements vulnerable to a rising tide of mysticism, primitivism, tribalism, authoritarianism, and nihilism.
In “God Is Dead…But Which One?” I argued that the Enlightenment failed because its thinkers could not offer a rational morality. In “Atheists, Stop Promoting Religious Morality” I explained that Enlightenment thinkers could not offer a rational morality because they tried to secularize Christian morality rather than replace it. And in “What Is Effective Egoism?” I showed how only a morality of rational self-interest can complete the Enlightenment project.
What I have not done is look closely at the attempts by Enlightenment thinkers to offer a morality of reason. What arguments did they make? Why, specifically, did those arguments fail? How, specifically, does Effective Egoism answer those arguments?
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To answer these questions, we can take our cue from one of the most influential works of 20th century philosophy: Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue.
The Failure of the Enlightenment Project
MacIntyre tells the story of the Enlightenment’s failure to define a rational morality mainly through an account of three philosophers: Kierkegaard, Kant, and Hume. I’ll follow MacIntyre in reviewing their arguments in reverse chronological order.
Kierkegaard’s failed morality of choice
Kierkegaard, in MacIntyre’s telling, argues in his book Enten-Eller (Either-Or) that we face a basic choice between two ways of life: the aesthetic life and the ethical life.
At the heart of the aesthetic way of life, as Kierkegaard characterizes it, is the attempt to lose the self in the immediacy of present experience. The paradigm of aesthetic expression is the romantic lover who is immersed in his own passion. By contrast the paradigm of the ethical is marriage, a state of commitment and obligation through time, in which the present is bound by the past and to the future. Each of the two ways of life is informed by different concepts, incompatible attitudes, rival premises. (40)
How do we choose between these two ways of life? We can’t appeal to aesthetic reasons or ethical reasons, since these only hold sway once we’ve chosen to pursue that kind of life.
You might say that ethics is precisely the field that offers “principles that have authority over us independently of our attitudes, preferences and feelings. How I feel at any given moment is irrelevant to the question of how I must live.” But that only pushes back the problem, since the question becomes “whence does the ethical derive this kind of authority?” (41-2)
And, concludes MacIntyre, Kierkegaard can offer us no answer to that question. We in fact have no reason to be moral. Living ethically is a basic choice we make for no reason at all: we should be moral because we choose to be moral, and we have no reason to choose to be moral. This entails a devastating contradiction: on the one hand, the ethical is to have authority over us, but on the other hand, there is no authoritative reason to choose to be bound by the ethical.
It’s important that, for Kierkegaard, “the ethical” means conventional Christian morality. According to MacIntyre:
In our own culture the influence of the notion of radical choice appears in our dilemmas over which ethical principles to choose. We are almost intolerably conscious of rival moral alternatives. But Kierkegaard combines the notion of radical choice with an unquestioning conception of the ethical. Promise-keeping, truth-telling and benevolence embodied in universalizable moral principles are understood in a very simple way; the ethical man has no great problems of interpretation once he has made his initial choice [to live a moral life]. To notice this is to notice that Kierkegaard is providing a new practical and philosophical underpinning for an older and inherited way of life. . . . It is certainly, so I shall argue, just this deeply incoherent combination of the novel and the inherited which is the logical outcome of the Enlightenment’s project to provide a rational foundation for and justification of morality. (43)
Kierkegaard’s argument assumes there is no reason to be moral absent our choice to embrace morality. Why does he assume this? To answer that question, we must turn to his predecessor Kant. Kant doesn’t believe that morality’s authority depends on choice. In his system, morality’s authority comes from the very nature of human reason.
Kant’s failed morality of duty
MacIntyre boils Kant’s complex moral theory down to two foundational claims: (1) that the rules of morality, to be rational, must be the same for all rational beings, and (2) that the rules of morality, to be binding, cannot pertain to the consequences of our actions, which are largely outside of our control, but to our motives: the good consists of doing our duty because it is our duty.
Which duties will morality prescribe? That’s no big mystery for Kant. Humanity may need philosophers to provide a rational basis for morality, but it doesn’t need philosophy to tell them what is moral.
Kant never doubted for a moment that the maxims which he had learnt from his own virtuous parents were those which had to be vindicated by a rational test. Thus the content of Kant’s morality was conservative in just the way that the content of Kierkegaard’s was, and this is scarcely surprising. Although Kant’s Lutheran childhood in Königsberg was a hundred years before Kierkegaard’s Lutheran childhood in Copenhagen the same inherited morality marked both men. (44)
Kant’s aim is not to discover new moral laws, but to ground moral rules he inherited from Christianity.
Kant rejects two popular approaches to grounding morality. First, he rejects the approach which appeals to happiness. That would make morality conditional: do what’s moral if you want to be happy. But Kant wants morality to be unconditional: do what’s moral, period. Morality cannot depend on human choice. It must consist of orders that bind us regardless of our choices.
Second, Kant rejects appeals to religion. If you claim that I should obey a moral rule because God commanded it, I would only have grounds to accept your claim if already knew that I ought to do what God commands. Yes, maybe I ought to obey God’s commands—maybe that is the moral thing to do—but the sheer fact that God commanded something cannot be the basis for morality anymore than the fact my earthly father commanded something can be the basis for morality. I need some independent grounds for knowing that an authority’s commands ought to be obeyed.
Morality cannot be based on the requirements of happiness or the dictates of a deity. What can it be based on? The dictates of reason itself. Observes MacIntyre:
It is of the essence of reason that it lays down principles which are universal, categorical and internally consistent. Hence a rational morality will lay down principles which both can and ought to be held by all men, independently of circumstances and conditions, and which could consistently be obeyed by every rational agent on every occasion. The test for a proposed maxim is then easily framed: can we or can we not consistently will that everyone should always act on it? (45)
MacIntyre is referring, of course, to Kant’s categorical imperative: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law” (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 4:421).
But Kant’s categorical imperative, however plausible it might be in the abstract, falls apart once you try to use it to generate specific moral rules. Remember, Kant isn’t interested in consequences. His point is not that we should reject moral rules that lead to distasteful outcomes when universalized—his point is that we should reject moral rules that cannot coherently be universalized. But there are plenty of manifestly immoral and trivial non-moral rules that pass Kant’s test:
So ‘Keep all your promises throughout your entire life except one’, ‘Persecute all those who hold false religious beliefs’ and ‘Always eat mussels on Mondays in March’ will all pass Kant’s test, for all can be consistently universalized. (46)
There is a deeper problem with Kant’s argument as well. Reason, he thinks, assigns us duties. And morality consists of doing our duty because it is our duty—not for any reward that morality offers. Indeed, to act for a reward is precisely to deprive your action of moral worth. But if that’s so, then there is absolutely no reason to be moral.
Kant senses this and tries to sneak in the promise of rewards through the backdoor. You can’t act morally in order to achieve rewards—but to motivate yourself to act morally you must believe it will bring rewards. You must have faith that doing your duty instead of pursuing your earthly happiness will lead to eternal happiness after death. This, MacIntyre notes, appeared to Kant’s “nineteenth century readers, such as Heine and later the Neo-Kantians, as an arbitrary and unjustifiable concession to positions which he had already rejected” (56). Certainly, it was far from the rational foundation for ethics Kant promised.
So Kant failed to ground a rational morality. And just as Kierkegaard’s failure came on the heels of Kant’s, so Kant’s came on the heels of Hume’s.
Hume’s failed morality of desire
Hume, MacIntyre notes, largely agreed with Kierkegaard and Kant about the content of morality. But whereas Kierkegaard tried to ground that moral code on radical choice, and Kant tried to ground it in the nature of reason, Hume tries to ground it in the passions and sentiments of mankind.
Hume believes that all of our actions ultimately spring from our desires, not our reason—specifically our desire to achieve pleasure and avoid pain. But we use moral reasoning to guide us in achieving the ends that our desires feed us. Hume runs into a problem, according to MacIntyre, when he tries to use this approach to defend his conventional, conservative view of the content of morality.
In the Treatise Hume posed the question why, if such rules as those of justice and promise-keeping were to be kept because and only because they served our long-term interests, we should not be justified in breaking them whenever they did not serve our interests and the breach would have no further ill consequences. In the course of formulating this question he denies explicitly that any innate spring of altruism or sympathy for others could supply the defects of an argument from interest and utility. But in the Enquiry he feels compelled to invoke just such a spring. Whence this change? It is clear that Hume’s invocation of sympathy is an invention intended to bridge the gap between any set of reasons which could support unconditional adherence to general and unconditional rules and any set of reasons for action or judgment which could derive from our particular, fluctuating, circumstance-governed desires, emotions and interests. Later on Adam Smith was to invoke sympathy for precisely the same purpose. But the gap of course is logically unbridgable, and ‘sympathy’ as used by Hume and Smith is the name of a philosophical fiction. (49)
Hume, in other words, has to invent a moral psychology for human beings that will lead to the moral rules he wants us to follow. He wants to preserve the notion that we should sacrifice for others while at the same time rooting morality in our desires—and so must insist that we have an innate desire to sacrifice for others.
Why does Hume try to build his morality around desire? Because he has already demonstrated (he thinks) that reason cannot ground morality. Reason, he’s claimed, can only be a slave to the passions—it cannot determine our ultimate ends. If morality is to have any foundation, therefore, it must rest with the passions, not with reason.
So our three thinkers have left us in this position. Each has made effective negative arguments against competing approaches to grounding morality, and each has tried and failed to make positive arguments attempting to ground morality. The net result is that morality was left without a secure foundation. As MacIntyre puts it:
Just as Hume seeks to found morality on the passions because his arguments have excluded the possibility of founding it on reason, so Kant founds it on reason because his arguments have excluded the possibility of founding it on the passions, and Kierkegaard on criterionless fundamental choice because of what he takes to be the compelling nature of the considerations which exclude both reason and the passions. (49)
Conclusion? The Enlightenment project failed to provide a “rational vindication of morality” (50). But it gets worse. Because, according to MacIntyre, the Enlightenment project not only did fail—it had to fail.
Why the Enlightenment Project Had to Fail
Enlightenment thinkers essentially agreed on the content of morality, insists MacIntyre. They inherited their conception of a moral life “from their shared Christian past” (51). And they also shared a view of what a rational justification of such a morality would have to look like.
For Enlightenment thinkers, we reason from human nature to the authority of moral rules. But, thinks, MacIntyre, there is only one path by which one can soundly reason from human nature to moral rules—and it’s a path not open to Enlightenment thinkers.
MacIntyre starts by examining how Aristotle argued for his ethical theory. Ethics, for Aristotle, guides human beings in closing the gap between how they happen to be living and how they could live if they realized their “essential nature.” This “essential nature” is determined by what’s distinctive about human beings: the fact that we are the rational animal. Rationality, therefore, sets our telos or proper end. To realize our essential nature is to live by reason. Just as a good watch is a watch that serves its proper end of keeping time, so a good man is a man who serves his proper end of living rationally.
The problem was that Enlightenment thinkers rejected both Aristotle’s view of reason and his teleology. Aristotle saw reason as setting our ends and governing our passions. Enlightenment thinkers held that reason “can assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more. In the realm of practice therefore it can speak only of means. About ends it must be silent” (54). As for teleology, this too came to be held in disrepute. “All [Enlightenment thinkers] reject any teleological view of human nature, any view of man as having an essence which defines his true end” (54).
To appreciate why this wiped out any hope for a rational ethics, we need only consider Hume’s famous is/ought argument, which MacIntyre sees as endorsed in different ways by Kant and Kierkegaard. The claim, in short, is that “no valid argument can move from entirely factual premises to any moral or evaluative conclusion” (56).
What is the basis for the claim? Not, as it is often thought, the truism that an Aristotelian syllogism can’t have any terms in the conclusion that don’t appear in the premises. No, Hume’s argument was more subtle and sophisticated than that. You could reason from an is to an ought—if you held a teleological view of human nature.
Recall the earlier analogy of a good man to a good watch. We can say what constitutes a good watch because we know the function of a watch: to keep time. Similarly, we can say what constitutes a good farmer because know the function of a farmer: to grow food. So what’s a good man? That depends on the function of a man.
Aristotelian teleology supplied an answer to that question. Man’s function was determined by his essence: rationality. But Enlightenment thinkers rejected Aristotelian teleology. Man is not endowed by nature (or God) with a function. And that’s why we cannot reason from an is to an ought.
If nature doesn’t set our ends and reason is necessarily silent about our ends, then our ends must be arbitrary, subjective, irrational.
How Effective Egoism Completes the Enlightenment Project
Enlightenment thinkers attempted to provide a rational basis for morality. They failed. And they failed for four deeply intertwined reasons:
Because they attempted to defend Christian ethics without appealing to a Christian metaphysics
Because they rejected the view that reason could establish ends rather than simply means
Because they rejected the teleological conception of human nature that had grounded Aristotelian ethics
Because they could not reconcile ethics and choice
Effective Egoism addresses all of these deficiencies.
A rational view of the world
Enlightenment thinkers started from the premise that they knew which moral rules were true and needed only to supply reasons for embracing them. They knew that the Sermon on the Mount was right and the only question was: why was it right?
But we cannot assume that. The project of justifying morality cannot be severed from the project of discovering morality’s advice.
No, we don’t start moral reasoning in total ignorance. By the time we approach ethics, we have a rich store of knowledge about how to live as a human being. There will be gaps and errors and imprecision in this knowledge. Much of it will not be well articulated. But the project of ethics is to make this knowledge more explicit, more clear, more consistent, to cleanse it of any errors we have made or taken over from others. For this to happen we cannot assume that the moral code our parents, teachers, and preachers taught us is true.
Part of the error correction happens at the level of basic philosophy. How we ought to live depends on what we are and what kind of world we live in. A rational philosophy dismisses any notion of the supernatural and the mystical. There is one reality—the natural, causal universe we perceive through the senses and understand through reason. This means that any code of ethics that relies on a supernatural, mystical view of reality is off the table.
Jesus said the meek shall inherit the earth, that we should love our neighbor and serve our enemy? Fine. What’s his argument? What earthly reasons can he offer for calling on individuals to sacrifice their life and happiness? None? Then to hell with his moral theory.
Reason as our valuing faculty
Enlightenment thinkers came to view reason as a highly limited tool that could “assess truths of fact and mathematical relations but nothing more.” We could reason about means, but not about ends. This wasn’t a discovery; it was a disaster.
Reason is a biological faculty with a biological function. Its naturally selected purpose is to guide action. This includes helping us identify the best means for our ends, but it also includes setting the ends themselves.
Lower animals pursue certain concrete values: a cat chases a mouse in order to eat it. But the cat can’t pursue nutrition as such. Human beings can. We pursue abstract values such as nutrition and education and job satisfaction and self-esteem. And more: we pursue these values over time: months, years, decades, a lifetime. And more: we can integrate these values into a conception of a whole life we dedicate ourselves to building. It is reason—our conceptual faculty—that allows us to project these abstract, long-range, cohesive purposes.
But it’s not only that reason is what makes it possible to project and pursue abstract purposes. It’s reason that evaluates and selects these purposes. Reason has to decide: is this a rational purpose or an irrational one? Is it right or wrong?
Ultimately, assessing purposes as rational or irrational requires an explicit moral code. But even before we reach the stage of a worked out moral code, we can still have reasons to embrace some purposes and reject others.
Some of our ends foster human life and happiness and others don’t. Some fill us with meaning, energy, vitality, capability, while others clash with our values, undercut our needs, and lead to pain, loss, anxiety, depression. When we build a productive career or a passionate romantic relationship or a deep appreciation of music, our lives become richer and more meaningful. When we drift passively through life, nurture our grievances and resentments, or manipulate and exploit those around us, our lives become dark, empty, and precarious.
Only someone with a PhD in philosophy can fail to see that one set of ends is rational and right and the other is irrational and wrong.
A rational teleology
Enlightenment thinkers rejected a teleological view of the world and replaced it with a mechanistic view. There was something right about that change: inanimate nature is not teleological. The ball does not fall in order to reach its natural resting place.
But dismissing teleology across the board was premature. You cannot understand living organisms if you do not understand that they act in order to achieve goals. The adaptiveness, the self-initiated action, the self-building, self-organizing, self-maintaining behavior that permeates every aspect of the simplest bacterium and the most advanced mammals demands a teleological perspective. If you do not understand that a squirrel gathers nuts in order to eat, then you don’t understand squirrels.
Mechanistic accounts for events explain how something happened, but only teleological accounts explain why. For the inanimate, mechanistic explanations exhaust the explanatory landscape. For living organisms and their behaviors, you need both.
Setting aside human beings, who can project the future and move consciously and deliberately toward a goal, how is it that living organisms as such can be goal directed? That is the question answered by natural selection. Neuroscientist Kevin J. Mitchell explains it this way:
The universe doesn’t have purpose, but life does. Natural selection ensures it. Living organisms are adapted to their environment—retrospectively designed to function in specific ways that further their persistence. Before life emerged, nothing in the universe was for anything. But the functionalities and arrangements of components in living organisms are for something: variations that improve persistence are selected for on that basis, and ones that decrease persistence are eliminated. (Free Agents, 42)
What does this imply for ethics? It does not mean that we can follow Aristotle’s reasoning in all its details. The argument isn’t that we are adapted for self-preservation and so we ought to pursue self-preservation—that our function is to live a human life and therefore we should live a human life. The argument is much deeper than that.
The argument is that the phenomenon of values—of entities pursuing goals—emerges only with living organisms. For something to be a value, it must be a goal sought by an entity acting in the face of stakes. Only living organisms can take such actions, and they must take such actions because they face the ultimate stakes: life or death. Values, then, are life-promoting ends: they are what living organisms pursue in the quest for self-preservation.
This is true for every living organism, including human beings. But other living organisms come pre-programmed to pursue values. Human beings don’t. Our actions are chosen—and they are chosen without the aid of inborn knowledge of our needs and the values that will satisfy those needs.
We aren’t born knowing how to live a human life. The purpose of ethics is to teach us.
A rational code of ethics doesn’t present us with a list of concrete rules dictating the course of our life. It presents us with a broad template of the human way of life, which we use to select all of the concrete values and make all of the concrete decisions that add up to our unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable life.
That template includes fundamental values, such as reason, purpose, self-esteem, love, and art. It includes fundamental virtues, such as rationality, independence, integrity, honesty, productiveness, justice, and pride. It includes our basic way of relating to other people: persuasion, cooperation, and trade, rather than brute force. It points us in the direction of true north: the reason-guided pursuit of our own earthly happiness, a happiness that can only be achieved by refusing to sacrifice ourselves to others and others to ourself. It is a morality of egoism—not the ineffective egoism of a thug or a con-artist, but the effective egoism of a thinker and producer.
The basic choice as non-arbitrary
Enlightenment thinkers saw choice as a problem for morality. Effective Egoism sees choice as the precondition of morality.
The reason we need a moral code is precisely because we have free will. We don’t automatically act to pursue values, and we don’t automatically know what values to pursue. Morality teaches us how to live a human life and we need that guidance—if we choose to live.
Morality does have authority, but its authority is conditional: if you choose to live, then you must dedicate yourself to a pro-life moral ideal.
No, you don’t have to pursue pro-life values, but there are no other values to pursue. Spurning life’s demands won’t achieve some “higher” value like the “good of society” or the “fulfillment of God’s will.” It will only lead to pain, suffering, destruction, and death. Not choosing to live isn’t some “get out of morality free” card. It is suicide.
Why choose to live? It’s a basic choice, and that means that in one sense, there can be no reason to choose to live: every reason presupposes that you already value your life, at least to some extent. But in another sense, there is every reason to choose to live. Death is not some alternative state that has to compete with life. It is a non-state, non-being, a total zero. It has nothing to offer; life has everything to offer.
The Enlightenment project failed because Enlightenment thinkers did not formulate a rational code of ethics—and they failed to formulate a rational code of ethics because they were afraid to question the Christian ethics of altruism. We, Effective Egoists, are those who aren’t afraid to question it. And if the Enlightenment is to be revived and reborn, it will be because the world has discovered that ours is the morality of reason and ours is the morality of life.
Effective Egoism 101
The conception of earthly idealism I champion was defined by Ayn Rand. Here are three key works that summarize her perspective:
Faith and Force: Destroyers of the Modern World by Ayn Rand
Causality vs. Duty by Ayn Rand
The Objectivist Ethics by Ayn Rand
And if want the full case for egoism, you can buy my book Effective Egoism: An Individualist’s Guide to Pride, Purpose, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
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