What are Enlightenment Values?

Enlightenment values are a set of values that have their origin in the ideas developed by European thinkers from the Age of Enlightenment.

These ideas primarily involve a break from the Church-dominated Middle Ages in European history. Enlightenment values are the cornerstone of successful social models in the Western world, especially in Western and Northern Europe

Enlightenment values can be listed as empiricism, skepticism, liberalism, and individualism.

Empiricism is the belief in evidence produced by sense organ based perception and consensual validation (rather than the diktats of authorities or scriptures). Any claim that demands sole validation based on its presence in a text or its utterance by an authority is anti-empiricist.

Skepticism is a natural extension of empiricism- an attitude of belief in things only when the evidence is overwhelming and consistent. Skepticism and empiricism are the backbones of science.

Liberalism is an attitude of tolerance towards divergent views, unless the view impinges on the attitude of tolerance itself.

Individualism is the consideration of the individual’s right to personal liberty, with the individual considered the basic unit of society (as opposed to community or tribe being considered the basic unit). Here, the rule of law is considerate to the individual and ensures the protection of their basic rights. The State cannot abrogate individuals’ fundamental rights as long as they follow the rule of law.

Although these ideas have their origin in 18th century Europe, they were not completely formed at the time. The modern conception of Enlightenment values has fermented over centuries, refashioning early thoughts in ways that are barely recognisable from that propounded by their originators.

In other words, although we say that these values had their genesis in the Enlightenment-era in Europe, its modern conception is far beyond what its originators had conceived of. It required centuries of chaos, war, and destruction for the contemporary world to recognise it in the present form. The early Enlightenment values were bracketed for White Men. Its universality was recognised quite late in history. The organising principle of modern nation-states is derived from these values. Any serious digression from these values tends to initiate a series of degeneration that many a time lead to the progressive destruction or retardation of the nation-state. We shall examine this latter point in the course of discussion in this blog.

Stating that Enlightenment values are the organising principles of flourishing modern states is possible, because of a hindsight advantage. We could not have said this in 1800 or in 1900 or in 1940 or 1960s or in 1980s. But we can reasonably state it today because of the dynamics of the course of history in the last few centuries, especially in the last few decades of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Are we biassed in making such a statement? I think not. Tens of hundreds of social models have competed in the market in the freest manner possible in the canvas of modern history: communism, social democracy, free-capitalism, feudalism, monarchy, and various forms of rabid nationalism. These nations flourished to a certain extent and then collapsed one by one, except for a few striking examples. The three segments in the middle of the 20th century witnessed such a phenomenon. And after 50 years of downtime, we can confidently say that there are certain forms of social models that are better than others.

In many ways, the 20th century was a period when various social models had a historical free-run that led to the ultimate “selection” of certain social models over others. Enlightenment values have been validated time and time again in this historical experiment.The “effect-size” played out by these historical “experiments” is large enough to determine that these are the “social models” that are sustainable for human society.

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