Is the Enlightenment a Moral Free-For-All?

As a Christian, I was always suspicious of the Enlightenment. I associated it with the idea that “man is the measure of all things” and a rejection of God.

If man is the measure of all things, we must be in a moral free-for-all, right? Why should your moral ideas take primacy over mine?

Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the wonderful Plato At the Googleplex, recently wrote a review of a book by Matthew Crawford in which she sets the record straight.

[Crawford] believes that Enlightenment thinkers, in rejecting the old sources of authority, left every person with nothing to resort to but his particular point of view, muddling through both the “is” and the “ought” all on his own.

Such an extreme warping of Enlightenment ideas about knowledge is a bit like saying that the Catholic Church has just got to stop pushing its radical atheist agenda on us. The last thing the Enlightenment aimed to do was overthrow the very idea of intellectual and moral authorities. Rather, it was about insisting that any authority must be established by arguments that can be evaluated by others exercising their cognitive capacities—the antithesis of subjectivism.

Lately, the project of using Enlightenment ideas to derive “ought” from “is” has gotten a boost from books such as Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape and Michael Shermer’s The Moral Arc. They are in line with Goldstein’s characterization of Enlightenment thought:

[For Enlightenment thinkers] only certain kinds of justification for beliefs would be countenanced—namely those that were, in principle, accessible to all humans relying only on our shared cognitive capacities. Insisting on this standard was the Enlightenment’s revolution. There could be no privileged knowers who appealed to special sources of knowledge—available to them by way of heavenly revelation, or authoritative status, or intimations to which their group was privy.

How about you? Can you justify your ethical convictions with reasoning and evidence that are available to all? Or do you feel that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” and morality can only come from God?

Next time: What if an Enlightenment thinker were to be struck by an apparent divine revelation? Should he believe it?

One response to “Is the Enlightenment a Moral Free-For-All?

  1. Pingback: Can You Find God on the Enlightenment’s Terms? | Path of the Beagle

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