Tag Archives: Enlightenment

A New Social Contract

Time Magazine recently ran an interview with a top global economist, who has authored a book about what humans owe each other–in other words, about a new or perhaps renewed social contract. Several of her concerns mirror my own; as readers of this blog are aware, my last book, Living Together, was focused on the same question.

The notion of a social contract was first introduced by John Locke and his formulation became a foundation of American law and culture. The U.S. Constitution was heavily influenced by Enlightenment philosophers like Locke, who rejected the divine right of Kings in favor of a belief in a theorized “contract” in which citizens grant government an exclusive right to the exercise of coercive power in return for an obligation to provide for their safety and welfare–the “law and order” required for civilization. Citizens could revoke government’s authority if government failed in its mission or breached the bounds of the contract.

Most European nations have subsequently adopted social contract theories that are considerably more expansive than the version embraced by most Americans. Those versions interpret government’s obligation to provide “social goods” broadly,  including access to healthcare.

Several years ago, I collaborated with colleagues in  on an article intended to probe America’s limited view of the proper role for government in social welfare, and to demonstrate that the Affordable Care Act–and for that matter, single-payer health insurance–really was consistent with Locke’s view of a social contract. (We noted that a deficit of civic knowledge poses a significant barrier to efforts to revisit social contract theory–revisiting a theory is impossible for those who have never visited that theory in the first place.)

Take the contemporary debate over healthcare reform. This fight cannot be understood without recognizing the continued potency of the country’s foundational assumptions, and especially the continued relevance of social contract theory most directly attributed to John Locke. In this paper, we echo arguments made by historians and legal theorists like Daniel Boorstin and Louis Hartz who noted that Americans who may never have heard of Locke or the Enlightenment, have nevertheless internalized Locke’s philosophy in ways that make social inclusion and extensions of the social safety net particularly difficult. In a very real sense, John Locke doomed more comprehensive healthcare reform, at least in the short term, and made it far more difficult to extend unemployment benefits, increase payments under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), or raise the minimum wage. If we are to have any success in changing the long term prospects for these and similar reforms, we will need to go beyond the academic, moral, and fiscal arguments, no matter how persuasive some of us find them, and directly engage the need to update and expand our basic understanding of the social contract.

We were writing during the initial debates over the ACA, which we noted was yet another iteration of America’s deeply embedded conflict between Social Darwinism and the Social Gospel.

No matter how logical or effective, programs requiring extensive government involvement, or that include “mandates” of any sort, trigger an almost visceral reaction in those who tend more to Social Darwinism, a belief that “productive” people’s rights are thereby violated, and that such approaches are contrary to freedom, to “real” Americanism. In other words, at a basic—perhaps unconscious—level, many people believe that government involvement in healthcare, or government intervention via provision of a social safety net, is somehow un-American and therefore must be rejected. It does no good to point out how deeply government is already involved in providing a social safety net through Social Security, or in providing health care in particular (e.g., the Veterans Administration which is the largest integrated health care system in the country serving more than 8.75 million Veterans each year) — the issue is emotional, not factual. The passage of Medicare generated cries of socialism, and the New Deal—even in the midst of the Great Depression—was aggressively opposed. It is the rare social program that hasn’t had to contend with accusations of incipient communism.

Our article explored the reasons for that “emotional” response, and those of you with time and temperament to wade through its scholarship can agree or disagree with our analysis, but I think it is fair to say that the underlying issue has become considerably more salient.

Humans around the globe are faced not just with a pandemic, but with the existential threat posed by climate change.  Individuals are powerless to address those threats. Collective action is required, and government is our mechanism for collective action.

A workable social contract requires government to protect individual autonomy, provide a supportive social infrastructure and take decisive action to protect the common good.

I’m convinced John Locke would agree.

Looking Back…..

Three years ago, I was asked to deliver what is billed at IUPUI as the “Last Lecture.” The series is so named because it is intended to be a reflection by an older faculty member, sort of a “summing up” of life lessons learned. (Obviously, it wasn’t my last opportunity to pontificate…) At any rate, I recently had occasion to re-read what I’d said, and was struck by fact that–three years down the road– we are even more deeply enmeshed in the world I described in the final few paragraphs.

I decided to share those unfortunately accurate concluding observations. Happy Sunday…..


There’s a credit card commercial that says “Membership has its privileges.” Membership in society should have its privileges as well. That’s not necessarily an argument for massive welfare programs or redistribution of wealth. It is an argument for fundamental fairness, an argument that recognizes that we all benefit when inclusive social structures operate in the interests of all of our members.

From time to time, greed and fear obscure the reality of human interdependence. Unfortunately, we seem to be living in one of those times–an era characterized by an intentional refusal to recognize that there is such a thing as the common good, and a willful ignorance of the importance of mutual social obligation.

Addressing that willful ignorance is what social justice requires, but that is easier said than done.

I’m painfully aware that cultural institutions, folkways and intellectual paradigms influence people far more than logic and reason, and that culture is incredibly difficult to change. Structural barriers and ingrained privilege don’t disappear without significant upheavals or outright revolutions.

We may be approaching such a period of upheaval, not unlike the Sixties. When I look around, I see a depressing revival of tribalism, and widespread expressions of a racism I thought we’d moved beyond. The election of an African-American President was a sign of progress, but it clearly lifted a rock—and what crawled out is unbelievably ugly and destructive. The growth in inequality threatens to exceed the inequities of the gilded age, if it hasn’t already, and it is hard to argue with those who look around and see not a republic, not a democracy, but an oligarchy.

When I look at America’s politics, I’m reminded of a 1999 movie called “The Sixth Sense.” The young boy in that movie saw dead people; I see crazy people. I know that isn’t politically correct, but how else would you characterize some of the voices dominating our public discourse? How else explain the “birthers” and conspiracy theorists, the “Faux News” pundits and the websites peddling nativism, paranoia and propaganda? In what universe is Sarah Palin a potential Vice-President, or Roy Moore a state Supreme Court Justice or James Inhofe Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment? On what planet do people pay attention to buffoons like Donald Trump or Ted Cruz or Louie Gohmert?

If I had to guess why so many of our fellow-citizens appear to have gone off the deep end—why they are trying to stockpile guns, roll back women’s rights, put gays back in the closet, stigmatize African-Americans and stereotype Muslims—I think the answer is fear. Change is creating a very different world from the one most of us grew up in, and the pace of that change continues to accelerate. As a result, we have a lot of bewildered and disoriented people who find themselves in an increasingly ambiguous world; they are frantic for bright lines, clear rules, simple answers to complicated issues, and especially, for someone to blame. People who are confounded by new realities, and especially those who are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives, evidently need to attribute their problems and disappointments to some nefarious “other.” So the old racist and sexist and homophobic tropes get trotted out.

Unfortunately, the desire for a world where moral and policy choices are clear and simple is at odds with the messy reality of life in our global village, and the more these fearful folks are forced to confront that messy reality, the more frantically they cling to their ideological or theological touchstones.

It may be that this phenomenon is nothing new, that there aren’t really more crazy people than before. Maybe, thanks to the Internet and social media, we are just more aware of them. I hope that’s true, but I don’t know–I only know that a scroll through Facebook elevates my blood pressure.

At the end of the day, what will prevent us from fashioning a social order that promotes and enables human flourishing is continuation of this retreat into anti-intellectualism, bigotry and various kinds of fundamentalism. We villagers only become fully human—we only flourish—through constant learning, by opening ourselves to new perspectives, by reaching out and learning from those who are different.

I do see some welcome signs that the fever is abating, at least in the United States and at least among younger Americans. I would turn this country over to my students in a heartbeat: they may not be the best-informed generation, but they are inclusive and intellectually curious, and they care deeply about the planet and about their communities. For my grandchildren’s sake, I hope they can salvage this “village” we call Earth from the mess my generation is leaving them—and despite the fact that this has been my “Last Lecture,” I hope I hang around long enough to see if they succeed.


I’m still hoping…..









The Circle of Political Life

When we study history, it isn’t difficult to see repeating patterns. Not that events or eras actually recur, but–humans being what we are–contending impulses and beliefs about the proper way to construct a society often create situations that look familiar. Sometimes, eerily so.

The other day, I was reading an essay on Spinoza, and I was struck by the following paragraphs:

Much of Spinoza’s philosophy was composed in response to the precarious political situation of the Dutch Republic in the mid-17th century. In the late 1660s, the period of ‘True Freedom’ – with the liberal and laissez-faire regents dominating city and provincial governments – was under threat by the conservative ‘Orangist’ faction (so-called because its partisans favoured a return of centralised power to the Prince of Orange) and its ecclesiastic allies. Spinoza was afraid that the principles of toleration and secularity enshrined in the founding compact of the United Provinces of the Netherlands were being eroded in the name of religious conformity and political and social orthodoxy. In 1668, his friend and fellow radical Adriaan Koerbagh was convicted of blasphemy and subversion. He died in his cell the next year. In response, Spinoza composed his ‘scandalous’ Theological-Political Treatise, published to great alarm in 1670.

Spinoza’s views on God, religion and society have lost none of their relevance. At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear.

The ability of our own era’s “Prince of Orange” to capture the GOP nomination is evidence that the assault on Enlightenment values is alive and well these many centuries after Spinoza.

Whether enough of us are willing to “boldly defend” those ideals–which lie at the very heart of America’s constitutional system–remains to be seen.

Reason and Its Rejection

The most formidable weapon against errors of every kind is Reason. I have never used any other, and I trust I never shall.

Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself–that is my doctrine.

To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.

Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.

It is error only, and not truth, that shrinks from inquiry.


A friend recently sent me these and several other quotes from Thomas Paine, and I was struck–once again– by how far we Americans have come from the insights of the Enlightenment and the basic, foundational principles and values that motivated so many of this country’s founders.

Last night, there was another debate among people aspiring to occupy the Oval Office, and anyone trying to evaluate their fitness for that position had to be appalled.

When did we lose sight of the essential role of reason in human affairs? When did we allow fear to overcome logic, distrust of “the other” to trump recognition of our common humanity? When did expertise and intellect become suspect, nuance and ambiguity a threat, moderation and intellectual modesty evidence of cowardice?

And the million-dollar question: can Americans recapture reason and sanity? Or is our country going to spectacularly self-destruct?

Tilting at the Enlightenment

Some people go through life like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills.

Then there’s Rick Santorum. He wants to repeal the Enlightenment.

I’ve been mulling over Santorum’s recent attack on higher education, part and parcel of his rejection of so many aspects of modernity: evolution, reproductive autonomy for women, separation of church and state, equality for gays and lesbians…There really isn’t much about  the 21st Century (or the 19th or 20th, for that matter) that he seems willing to accept.

I think Santorum’s hostility toward education is very real, despite his own MBA and Law Degrees, and it is at the very heart of his worldview (I hesitate to call it a “philosophy,” a word he would obviously consider “snobby.”) Many people have suggested that his own degrees are evidence that he doesn’t really believe his charges that colleges and universities “indoctrinate” young people, make them lose their religion and become more like the hated Barack Obama–i.e., intellectual. I don’t agree; Santorum’s degrees are professional ones–high order job training. (I”m not throwing rocks; I have a law degree too.)

What Santorum loathes and fears is education. Real education doesn’t “indoctrinate,” of course–it does something more pernicious. It questions.

Education is the arch-enemy of certitude.

If I do my job properly, my students will leave my classes a bit more confused, a bit less sure they have “the answers” and a lot more aware of the magnitude of the questions. They will encounter the diversity with which we mortals approach the uncertainties and complexities of the world we inhabit. They will have a greater appreciation of what they don’t know. If I do my job well, they will also have some “critical” tools with which to assess the credibility of the information with which they are increasingly bombarded.

That is the education Santorum detests, because he is cut wholly from Puritan cloth.

The Puritans came to America for religious liberty–defined as the right to practice the True Religion, and the even more important right to impose that Truth on their neighbors. They approached education much like TV’s Jeopardy–you started with the correct answer, which the Bible provided, and then you went looking for the explanations that would justify that answer. Usually, in the early colonies, those explanations came from the preachers and biblical scholars who’d preceded you.

The philosophical and scientific movement that came to be called the Enlightenment changed the nature of knowledge. You no longer began with the answer; instead, you examined the world around you, based some initial conclusions on careful empirical observations, and then tested those conclusions, which were always considered conditional and subject to change if new information emerged. The Enlightenment gave us the scientific method–as well as a more scientific approach to questions like “how should governments be constructed.”

The U.S. Constitution was a creation of the Enlightenment. So was ambiguity. If all truth is provisional, if all conclusions are subject to revision based upon new information, how can anyone really, really be sure of anything?

Education–real education, as opposed to job training–prepares students to live with that ambiguity.

Puritans find it intolerable.