The Enlightenment’s Cynical Critics

Katie Kelaidis in Quillette:

Tribalism and slavery are as old as humanity. The very first human records are records of human bondage. Reports estimate that today 60 million people are held as slaves. While each one of these lives represents an unacceptable tragedy, not one occurs with the approval of law. And that is revolutionary. For while slavery is as old as humanity, abolitionism is a relatively recent phenomenon that did not emerge until the ideas and ideals of the Enlightenment nurtured it into existence.

In a June 5 article for Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes of the Enlightenment: “At its heart, the movement contained a paradox: Ideas of human freedom and individual rights took root in nations that held other human beings in bondage and were then in the process of exterminating native populations.” In the context of an article largely aimed at undermining a “handful of centrist and conservative writers” who have taken up the Enlightenment’s defence, this appears to be a damning indictment of hypocrisy. That is, of course, unless one considers that, until the Enlightenment, it is nearly impossible to find a human society that did not, at least at times, practice slavery and engage in barbarous acts of conquest and colonization. It is even more difficult to find a society not engaged in these practices that reached a level of wealth and stability sufficient to allow non-survival related activities like political philosophy to flourish. The emergence of the kind of prosperous, moral societies that both Bouie and I wish to see flourish only came into existence with the moral and ethical revolution brought about by the Enlightenment.

While Bouie is correct that some Enlightenment thinkers, including Locke and Kant, did indeed advance theories of scientific racism that have had harmful consequences, he is wrong to argue that it was Enlightenment thinkers who invented scientific racism.

More here.