The Enlightenment of America

How might Lynn Hunt’s treatment of the 18th-century change of opinion on torture apply to the still festering question in the U.S. of the ethical legitimacy of capital punishment? Is this country heading in the direction of abolishing the death penalty—as the Enlightenment was heading in the direction of abolishing torture (and, after that, slavery)?

On one hand, I believe this country is heading in the direction of eventually abolishing the death penalty— just as the Enlightenment was heading in the direction of abolishing torture (and, after that, slavery). Attitudes about torture of prisoners for example, or rather enhanced interrogation techniques, have changed since the Bush administration and all of the public fear mongering that went along with it, during that time.

However, the pessimist in me tends to think that unfortunately America will not abolish the death penalty any time soon. Enlightenment took place during an enormous rise in literacy; unfortunately, literacy and education seem to be on a decline. Even politicians who occasionally speak of education only focus on the importance of technological education, such as vocational schools. In my view, a proper comprehensive humanist education that is grounded in humanities and literature is absolutely necessary, if a society wants its people to enjoy a sense of social awareness and empathy for those who are less fortunate.

Unfortunately, empathy is on the decline in America. A recent study found that empathy levels have been declining over the last 30 years, and that the decline in empathy has been particularly steep since the year 2000. For example, it found “college students today show 40% less empathy vs. students in the 1980s and 1990s.” As a result, I do not feel optimistic about the likelihood that America will reevaluate its position regarding capital punishment.

HUNT 2 – General Question

What, in your view, is the next stage of human rights development? Will we now (and ought we now?) to strive beyond adult human rights to rights for other people and/or creatures?

In my view, the next stage of human rights development in America should be those rights that people in Europe currently enjoy. People are entitled to life thus guns should be heavily regulated, especially those that are used to kill people. The prison system should be reformed (private prisons should be outlawed) and sentences should not be so long. Capital punishment should be outlawed. People should not be able to hit or assault their children and call that “teaching them a lesson,” just as adults are not allowed to legally assault other adults in order to teach them a lesson. People should be entitled to know what is in their food, whether it is genetically modified or filled with preservatives that probably cause cancer and other defects. And the animals that we eat should be treated humanely, at least as humanely as possible. It is without doubt that we can treat them more humanely and still eat them because there are countries that are currently doing so. There are a million other human right issues that should also be addressed and reformed (right to a living wage, right to free or almost free healthcare, rights of people in America and other countries to not be exploited for our companies’ profits) but these are just some off the top of my head. Unfortunately, just as we were about sixty years behind abolishing slavery, I don’t think any of these changes will come to America anytime soon. As I have stated in my other post, ideas about human rights require empathy and empathy is on the decline.

A recent study found that empathy levels have been declining over the last 30 years, and that the decline in empathy has been particularly steep since the year 2000. For example, it found “college students today show 40% less empathy vs. students in the 1980s and 1990s.” As a result, I do not feel optimistic about the likelihood that America embarking upon the next stage in developing more comprehensive human and animal rights.

True or false (or mostly true or most false); Thomas Paine is a much more characteristic “Enlightenment” thinker than Edmund Burke is. Defend your position with reasons based on material in the texts.

Yes, Thomas Paine is a much more characteristic “Enlightenment” thinker than Edmund Burke is. Burke is much more conservative. He wants to prevent “the evils of inconstancy and versatility,” which, to him, are “ten thousand times worse than those of obstinacy and the blindest prejudice” (Williams 519). Paine’s vision of government is a lot more idealistic than Burke’s. Paine believes in social unrest and revolution if it is for a good cause. Burke does not. Burke argues for safety and security. As a result, Paint appears to be much more of a typical Enlightenment thinker than Burke does.

Linear Approach to the Enlightenment

OUTRAM 1 – Chapter 9

What does Outram mean by the “linear” approach to the Enlightenment? Do you agree with her that this approach is problematic? Why?

What Outram is referring to when she argues against the “linear” approach to the Enlightenment is the idea that there was one particular result or point to the movement as a whole. Outram argues that part of the problem with certain accounts of the Enlightenment is that “‘the Revolution’ has been seen as the terminus of ‘the Enlightenment’” (133). This position views the Enlightenment as some sort of linear movement that has a defined starting point and a defined ending point. The ending point is the French Revolution. Since the French Revolution is characterized by its brutality and war, the linear approach to the argument then somehow negates or diminishes all of the underlying reasons that led up to the revolution. Outram points out that it is impossible to approach the Enlightenment linearly. It is a movement, and like many movements, is characterized by social pressures, ideas, and historical incidents. As a result, the movement as a whole is too complicated to be analyzed comprehensively using a simple linear approach.

OUTRAM 2 – Chapter 9

What clarifications does she provide about the term “revolution”? Why are these clarifications useful? How did it change your sense of what “revolution” means?

Outram’s analysis of the Enlightenment shows that the movement is more than just something that ended in the French Revolution. Her book shows us that there were in fact many influences and ideas that all came together in a kind of perfect storm that unfortunately resulted in the brutality, which was the French Revolution. Furthermore, she also points out that the term “revolution” also underwent a number of changes, in terms of its meaning, throughout the years. During the 18th century, the term referred to “a change” that brought back “a former state of affairs” (Outram 137). This definition implies that something was going wrong in society when the revolution occurred and the revolution serves the purpose of returning things back to normal. In the 19th century, the word came to mean something slightly different which resulted in a completely different way of looking at revolutions. In the 19th century, the term revolution meant “an upset in the established order,” implying that the revolution is no longer a symptom of what was going on, but the sickness itself (Outram 137). I found these clarifications very useful in that they clarified my feelings of the current revolutions in the Middle East. Unlike most Americans who tend to associate a lot of positive feelings with the notion of revolution, I was born in the Soviet Union (Kiev, Ukraine) and my associations with the word revolution are quite negative. (Like Burke, I often think that things could be worse and that the bloodshed may not be really worth it). I imagine that many people felt the same way in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and that it wasn’t until the consciousness of the western world as a whole moved on and saw the positive in the American Revolution that some of those associations were forgotten.

“Fair sex” during the Enlightenment

So, what about the place and participation of the “fair sex” during the Enlightenment? What observations by Outram do you find interesting? What observations in my own writing on the Bluestockings interest you? What do you think of the obvious differences between Outram’s arguments and mine?

What is interesting about the Outram chapter is how the chapter shows that while the Enlightenment sought to create equality between different men, it also sought to create distinctions between men and women (distinctions that argued that women are something less than men). Men classified women according to their role in the home. They then used that classification to argue that women are inferior intellectually (without realizing that intellect often comes with education). Women did, however, play an important role in the Enlightenment (especially, rich widows) as salon organizers. As widows, they were older (past marriage eligibility) and endowed with all of the inherited money to do with as they wished. The salon was a place to explore and discuss ideas, and there women engaged in discussion along with the men. In Dr. Heller’s paper, we learned that the Blues was something of a negative word used by many writers of the time (i.e. Samuel Johnson). It is likely that this resistance to women as intellectuals resulted from jealousy. Women who ran salons were rich and relatively powerful, a position that many men (especially, male writers) were not used to.

Misconception about the Enlightenment as Irreligious

One prevailing misconception about the Enlightenment is that it is an irreligious or mostly secular age. How does Outram in chapter 8 challenge or complicate this overly-simple view?

Outram challenges the prevailing misconception that the Enlightenment was an irreligious or mostly secular age by portraying it as a time period of tremendous changes in thinking. Instead of discussing the Enlightenment as a mainly secular age, Outram discusses the rise of different religious practices that were found during the period. The Enlightenment was a period of tolerance and therefore a period in which many religious denominations and practices were embraced. For example, Frederick the Great wrote, “all must be tolerated…everyone must be allowed to choose his own road to salvation” (Outram 117). Though these changes challenged the dominance of the Catholic Church, they did not necessarily make the time period irreligious.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Taxonomic Impulse

Michel Foucault

Michel Foucault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is the “taxonomic impulse” as discussed by Outram on page 68 and elsewhere?

Michel Foucault introduced the term “taxonomic impulse” to describe the scientific impulse to classify and categorize the objects in the natural world (Outram 68). This desire allowed scientists to distinguish between human beings around the world, but instead of allowing them to learn about the differences in a positive way, this impulse led to the conclusion that certain races are inferior to others. This consideration, as a result, led to less rather than more open mindedness about those races and cultures. Once something is classified as inferior, it demands

very little interest. Thus, it was reasonable (if you agree with the originally flawed premises of this argument) to then argue that blacks were inferior, as many Enlightenment thinkers unfortunately did.

To me, taxonomic impulse seems to be only the beginning stage of understanding or categorizing the world. At some point, we need to move past categories and superficial elements like external characteristics and go deeper in our understanding. Research in sociology, education, and psychology have elevated our understanding of the world around us and how similar we all can be given certain conditions. But this work is yet to be done in relationship to other creatures on earth.  For example, we are still only mainly talking about animals in terms of group dynamics and what their species tends to or tends to not do. Thus, we only understand them on a basic categorical (species-only) level. However, there are now beginning to be some psychological and social studies on animals as well. Pet owners already know that no two animals in their household are alike in personality, much in the same way that children vary in personality and temperament. But now science is discovering this as well. Thus, it is natural to infer that no two tigers or sea lions or elephants are exactly alike. These animals, like people, are influenced not only by their natures, but also by the kind of family group that they were raised in and the kinds of environmental factors that influence them. For example, many dogs who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering with PTSD, just like other (human) veterans.

What we need now are more of these studies and more of this kind of holistic thinking when it comes to animals. That way, we can move away from classifying and understanding other creatures on a classification or categorization level (that is driven by taxonomic impulsiveness, which can and so far does result in us thinking that animals are inferior to humans and that certain animals are inferior to other animals) and toward a more wholesome study of animals (one that considers their psychologies and sociologies). But as with slavery and the Enlightenment, this will also mean that we will have to reevaluate our farming/food consumption practices.

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Why 18th Century individuals considered African people racially inferior

To what extent did 18th-century individuals in Europe, England and America think of enslaved African people as racially different or inferior? Cite evidence from her chapter.

Individuals in 18th-century Europe, England and America thought of enslaved Africans as the Other. Even though many argued for the abolition of slavery, African people were still considered racially inferior to whites. As a result of this perceived inferiority, many prominent whites argued that white people should not mix with black people. For example, Jefferson stated that African people “are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind” (Outram 70). Thus, he argued that freed slaves should be removed from society, “before any sexual relation with white people can occur” (Outram 71).

18th-century individuals in Europe, England and America tried to use science and classification to find justifications for their beliefs. For example, they examined Africans’ outside and inside appearance, i.e. skin color, skeletons and craniums, but did not find the justifications that they were searching for (Outram 69). The problem with their methodology was that they assumed that their conclusions about the inferiority of black people were correct and went around trying to find proof. What they needed to do instead was to examine the evidence first and then draw conclusions (this is the way real science rather than pseudo-science is conducted).  If they had only examined environment and culture of European versus African societies then they would reach the conclusion that the differences were mainly environmental rather than intrinsic (fortunately, they did this later).

Outram, Dorinda. The Enlightenment. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Print.

Slavery and Enlightenment

On page 63 Outram talks about the “intractable paradoxes in the relationship between the existence of slavery and the Enlightenment.” Explain what she means, evaluating her statement in the context of her larger discussion.

Slavery was essential to the globalization, “the increasingly integrated world economy,” of the Enlightenment (Outram 64). It was highly profitable, especially for colonial plantation production, and these profits “primed the economic pump, and provided higher tax revenues to the ever-expanding governments”(Outram 65). Slavery affected all aspects of world’s economies and people could not imagine the costs that would accrue if they were to abolish it. The institution of slavery was a highly profitable business and like any business, which other businesses depend on for survival, slavery was very difficult to get rid of. A contemporary equivalent might be the oil business. Many people agree that it is damaging to the environment and expensive for consumers, but many businesses depend on it for survival; thus, it is very difficult to get rid of (or transition it into green technologies).

But as Enlightenment ideas grew in popularity, the movement faced an increasing and powerful paradox. Slavery was totally against any notions of the Enlightenment in that the Enlightenment was a movement that aimed to promote equality and universal rights. True equality could not exist within a country that supported or had slavery. Similarly, I predict we will at some point reach a saturation point in consuming oil and other environmentally hazardous things for energy. At some point, people will choose to pay more for more environmentally friendly solutions because other choices will just be considered irresponsible. Thus, there will be a need for companies that sell these products and the world will be better for it.

Outram, D. The Enlightenment. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University. 2005. Print.