Dr. Stephen Quilley response to Steven Pinker’s talk ‘Enlightenment Environmentalism’

Dr. Stephen Quilley (School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, of the University of Waterloo) attended the E4A Ethics Research Group’s discussion titled Enlightenment Environmentalism, with psychologist Steven Pinker. It was held Thursday, March 29th, 2018. Dr. Quilley wrote a [very quick] response to the discussion (see below).

Well done for hosting a very good session. It threw up so many ideas and opened up many intractable, but interesting questions.

It strikes me that rather than thinking of being either for or against someone like Steven Pinker, a useful intellectual strategy – especially for people in the process of formulating their ideas – is actively to seek out intellectual, cognitive and ethical tensions not only in the ideas and propositions of the interlocutor in question, but also in our own responses. Every one of us has an intellectual ‘shadow’ – an area of tension or inconsistency that is usually repressed, invisible and inaccessible to us. People with whom we disagree are often able to provide a real service by rendering such wicked or paradoxical truths visible. And because we find this uncomfortable and even painful, we rarely thank them for it (and of course we are in a position to reciprocate). In this case, consider Pinker’s proposition that the path to modernity has often been bloody and cruel – not least in relation to processes of colonial exploitation and slavery; but that at the very same time (he points out), it is also significant that the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution produced both the body of ideas and the material means to abolish slavery from the repertoire of state-sponsored political economy. This is enormously significant argues Pinker – a unique moment in global history. If, as Pinker does, ones believes that the ecological costs are in the end bearable and sustainable over some given time-frame, then it is at least possible to understand that kind of optimism. And at the same time, bear it mind that if you are speaking the language and concepts of human rights, the sanctity of individuals, and liberal-democratic constraints on the power of the state, the rule of law, prohibitions on torture, ‘cruel and unusual punishment’, etc., then at least in part, you are speaking the same language as Pinker: the language of Enlightenment progressivism. Pointing out that states often (always) don’t live up to those ideals provides a profoundly important corrective, but it doesn’t put you in a different boat to Pinker. Using the standards of Western liberalism to critique Western industrial-democratic politics is not at all the same thing as rejecting the Western tradition.  Nor is it consistent with the wholesale rejection of the idea that inadvertently, or by design, Western modernity gave rise to a bunch of ideas (and linked social realities) that most people are overtly or implicitly attached to (the sanctity of the individual). Without this tradition, it is highly unlikely that we would be viewing the world through the lens of individual human rights or cosmopolitan shibboleths of global citizenship (however sociologically illiterate such a proposition is).

If (as I am) we are of the view that the ecological (or other) costs of modernity are too great, then, by the same token, we should be very, very clear as to the kind of constraints that puts on our collective and individual futures.  Such constraints do not evoke a liberal world. It may be that we can contemplate an illiberal, more tribal, more place-bound world – but most campus (post-colonial, gender, sexuality, anti-racist) leftism, though often illiberal in practice, is at least ostensibly rooted firmly in a liberal sensibility and philosophy – it is in fact in many ways quite laudably hyper-liberal.

In this context it is notable that ‘illiberal’ is a pejorative adjective. Must any post-liberal society be illiberal?  Perhaps a more eco-place-bounded society that doesn’t depend on growth would/could be less liberal, less focused on individual rights, more communitarian, more ‘we-oriented’, more focused on duties and obligations….and perhaps that need not be illiberal but may be conducive to greater flourishing of individual ‘I’s through the ‘we’. Who knows? Really knows?

To my mind, this presents a really wicked dilemma – and I have yet to hear of any really plausible ‘solution’. There may be a sweet spot out there – but it really helps to have one of the horns of a dilemma laid out so clearly and coherently. And I think Pinker did a great job in that respect.

In any case, I just want to reiterate that the opportunity to engage with world renowned public intellectuals, like Steven Pinker, is not to be taken for granted. It is the privilege that comes with attending a great university, with resources and reputation. People with whom we disagree are likely to have a much better handle on our own blind spots and Jungian shadows.

Can I suggest John Medaille (a social catholic, distributist, anti-capitalist, anti-socialist, third way person) as a possible contributor. He wrote this essay in 2010 that is astonishingly congruent with a lot of deep green collapsing writing of the same period. I guarantee you will be irritated by some of what he says, and perhaps honestly shocked and irritated at yourself for grudgingly agreeing with some of it also.

And even more so this essay, which is a sort of Mennonite/Kropotkinite political economy for Catholics – but hold fire and imagine whether/how this might speak to other groups (First Nations?), and what it implies about these questions of Enlightenment universalism.

One might be interested in this BBC show with philosopher Michael Sandel, and a crowd of students in St. Paul’s Cathedral  – Citizens of Nowhere. He leads them through a very clever Socratic meditation on the morality of social solidarity at various scales.

Finally, I haven’t read Adam Webb – but he is on my hit list. However, he seems very interesting because he argues for a kind of peasant localist political economy (like the Distributists – and all manner of peasant populists before them), but argues also that the tension between global cosmopolitan universalism and local/particularist solidarities of place/community is more apparent than real, and that there is in peasant life a different kind of pre-modern, less Eurocentric ‘deep universalism’. John Médaille writes:  

“In formulating his solutions, Adam Webb draws on Western agrarians and distributists like Wendell Berry, Chesterton, Belloc, Schumacher, and the Mondragón experience, as well as Eastern distributists like Liang Shuming and Mohandas Gandhi. But Webb does fault these thinkers as being too devoted to place and particularity to the detriment of the universally held values that each of these particular places expresses. As he puts it: The ethos of traditional peasant life is one of no-nonsense self-reliance, austere morality, self-command amid adversity, duty towards kin and neighbors, generosity, hospitality, participation, and the anchoring of one’s livelihood in an atmosphere of decency and fairness. These virtues have been universally valued among peasant folk all over the world. The peasant community and its customs reflected such virtues and created the conditions for people to exercise them”.

You can find some of Adam Webb books here: A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow’s Economy of Values and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalization.

If anyone gets there first, let me know what you think.

All best,

Dr Stephen Quilley
School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability
University of Waterloo
200 University Avenue West
Waterloo, Ontario
Email: squilley@uwaterloo.ca

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