We’re good, right? Rethinking a foundational era and idea

Some of the biggest problems facing the world today are rooted in the false idea that humans are egoists by nature, writes the author. Photo: Prazis Images
Some of the biggest problems facing the world today are rooted in the false idea that humans are egoists by nature, writes the author. Photo: Prazis Images
Published May 31, 2024

Two cheers for the Enlightenment, the great European intellectual movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. It bequeathed very real and substantial improvements in the human condition. But it also paved the way to the existential threats darkening our current horizons.

It was a time when Roman Catholicism was being shouldered aside as the dominant moral and intellectual influence in Europe, and when Protestantism blossomed along with political ideals of individualism and democracy.

Enlightenment-era reformers were inspired by the discoveries of scientists like Galileo and Bacon and Newton, and in the thrall of social and political thinkers like René Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, Baruch Spinoza and the early economists, including the putative founder of the “dismal science,” Adam Smith. It would not be long before Charles Darwin and his shocking theory of evolution would make it possible to imagine a world without a Creator, and to describe it scientifically.

It was in this time of scientific discovery, technical change and intellectual ferment that modern capitalism emerged, with its emphasis on growth, efficiency, markets and their dynamics, disciplined labour and the accumulation of capital.

The ancient Christian idea of redemption, of a return to Eden, was transformed by more modern, forward-looking notions of endless exploration and discovery in science, of limitless progress through technology.

Moral concerns were not ignored by materialist, rationalist Enlightenment thinkers—quite the opposite. For many of them, the emergence and maintenance of the good was guaranteed by the self-balancing dynamics of novel societal institutions modelled on divinely ordained natural law. Foremost among these institutions was the liberal capitalist market economy within which, as Adam Smith claimed, issues of justice and equity were always already taken care of by an “invisible hand.” Dextrous and supple, it generated moral outcomes in spite of humanity’s native wickedness. Workers, compelled by the system to overcome their otherwise incorrigible idleness, could be guaranteed income sufficient to ensure the continuing procreation of an adequate labour pool; greedy entrepreneurs could ensure wealth and success by producing high-quality goods that were in demand. Industrial civilization operated as a self-disciplining virtuous circle without the need for extra-rational, spiritual guidance of the kind that had for so long been provided by religion. The system would transform individual venality into collective welfare.

At least that was the idea.

Here we must pause to reflect on that phrase “humanity’s native wickedness.” A prominent Enlightenment perspective on humans was that we are innately and incorrigibly self-obsessed, that we are born egoists. Both Hobbes’ famous vision of primitive humans as constantly at war with one another, and Darwin’s evolutionary parable of vicious intra- and inter-species competition for scarce resources had seemed to confirm this.

But where the Church had seen such self-interest as aberrant behaviour demanding repentance, the modern social thinkers and proto-economists saw it as both an unavoidable reality and an opportunity. In their moral philosophy “good” was defined pragmatically, in terms of the satisfaction of human desires. Given that capitalist markets and the social and industrial practices that supported them addressed those desires, they were manufacturers of good.

And by extension, continuous evolution of technology, an important driver of economic prosperity, was also classified as morally good: a product of science and industry, it helped to satisfy human desires. As such, it provided a visible and tangible pathway to a certain kind of redemption—a transcending of the bonds of nature.

All of which brings us to our present predicament, on the doorstep of a future that seems likely only to accelerate an already pathological growth ethic, with an overheated planet and ongoing ecological disaster plus the prospect of apocalyptic nuclear warfare, all accelerated by inscrutable, all-powerful artificial intelligence.

What to do? How do we change paths?It’s a tall order, but not an impossibility if we can finally dispense with that perversely erroneous, discredited tenet of Enlightenment philosophy that defines humanity as irredeemably wicked, and instead remember that we are innately good. Born that way. It’s a truth that’s available to each of us through common sense and reflection. It is acknowledged and celebrated in classical Greek philosophy and all the great monotheistic religions. In my careers as a journalist and academic I’ve watched for decades as that ancient moral insight has gained the reinforcement of social-scientific researchers, reluctant though they may be to involve themselves with metaphysics.

With that truth firmly in mind we might see that nothing less than a new social contract is what’s necessary and appropriate to our post-modern condition: stronger market regulation to reduce the economic and political influence of industrial and commercial monopolies and oligopolies; a new ethic of corporate social responsibility that replaces hypocrisy with genuine commitment; more equitable distribution of wealth to replace the current winner-take-all ethic; and an improved and expanded social safety net perhaps founded on a guaranteed annual income, for starters.

We need to explicitly re-incorporate moral values into political and economic decision making. When we do, we’ll be capable of real progress, going with the flow instead of against the grain.


  • Wade Rowland

    Ranked among Canada’s leading literary journalists, Wade Davies Rowland has written more than a dozen books on subjects ranging from television journalism, organized crime, and international environmental law to his current concerns, which include communications technology, the philosophy of science, and technology and human values.

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