The Charter for Compassion
and a Second Enlightenment
Cynicism has a place in life, but sometimes it functions as a narcotic. It masquerades itself as intellectual sophistication but is really a kind of armor used as protection against disappointment. It is a way of hiding from hope.
The two videos above are the opposite of cynicism. They are signs of hope in a time of need. The first introduces you to people who have signed the Charter for Compassion. They come from many parts of the world and are committed to the view that people of all religions, cultures and nations can find a moral core in compassion. There's a freshness in their approach that is contagious. They are wise to the ways of the world, but they are not cynical.
The second situates their commitment to compassion in the larger context of a 21st century enlightenment. I borrow the phrase from the Royal Society of the Arts, based in London (www.thersa.org). The director of the RSA, Matthew Taylor, proposes that a 21st century enlightenment can move beyond the modern logic of the marketplace and bureaucracy into a post-modern logic of compassion and community. He makes a very strong case for such an enlightenment with help from advances in the natural and social sciences.
Together these two videos point toward an ethos -- an attitude toward life -- that can be found in many people in our world who are seeking a new and different way of living in the world.
In many parts of the world people have grown tired of the violence, of wide gaps between rich and poor, and of the environmental problems that permeate so many portions of our planet. But they have also grown tired of cynicism, which too often functions as a kind of protective armor masquerading as intellectual sophistication. They believe that true sophistication lies in recognizing that we human beings are not as fixed in our destinies as some might imagine, and that we contain within ourselves capacities for empathy that have not fully been tapped. They have the courage to hope.
Process East and West
Readers of this website around the world share and support their hopes. Many of us believe that the organic philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead can provide a foundation for such an enlightenment and that his philosophy leads to the kind of wise and compassionate living to which the Charter for Compassion points.
Whitehead's philosophy offers a new way of seeing the world and also a new way of thinking about the world. When we think in Whiteheadian ways, we think in terms of networks of relationships rather than substances in isolation; in terms of felt relations and not simply mechanical dynamics; in terms of the intrinsic value of all forms of life rather than human life alone; in terms of wholes and not simply parts. We believe that human beings can grow over time and cultivate expanding circles of empathy. We believe that empathy is a natural response to the way things truly are, because even as we are free, we humans are constituted by our felt relationships with others. The well-being of one person cannot be separated from the well-being of others. There is something very Confucian about all of this. And also very Taoist and Buddhst.
Happily, Whitehead's philosophy is now being developed in many parts of the world, including China. In China it is called constructive postmodernism and in the United States it is called process thinking.
Two of the leaders in the Chinese movement are Dr. Zhihe Wang and Dr. Fan Meijun, whose book The Second Enlightenment, published by Peking University Press in 2012 in Chinese, shows how many traditional Chinese approaches to life, when interpreted with help from Whitehead's philosophy, offer strong support for a 21st century enlightenment. For now it is only available in Chinese, but we can hope it will be translated into multiple languages.
Wang and Fan rightly suggest that a 21st century enlightenment can be nourished by Asian as well as Western ways of thinking, and they develop its implications for a wide array of subjects: education, ecology, economics, politics, and spirituality.
An Enlightenment for All Ages
As Wang and Fan make clear, the new enlightenment is not simply for elites. It is a people's enlightenment: indeed a young person's enlightenment. It celebrates the dreams of youth and the wisdom of old age, neither to the exclusion of the other.
For my part, I see something of this new ethos in the college students on the left, singing at a coffee shop in Harbin, China. Some of them attend Heilongjiang University in Harbin and others attend liberal arts colleges in the United States, including Hendrix College, where I teach. Their aspirations for cross-cultural dialogue, for empathic connections that transcend national boundaries, are part of the Charter for Compassion. They are singing their way into the 21st century enlightenment.
The 21st century enlightenment can include a sense of nationalism, but it is modified by a sense of world loyalty. The students in the photographs are patriotic in their ways. They love what is lovable about their nations and criticize what needs criticizing. We were in China in July and we celebrated the Fourth of July.
But their patriotism is qualified and enriched by a recognition that there is beauty in other nations and cultures, and by a wider sense of loyalty to the world. The Americans among them do not say "America is Number One." They say "America is a great nation, and there are other great nations. Let's work together." They want to make dumplings, too.
An Enlightenment that is Ecological
Most of these students are environmentally minded and so are their Chinese friends. For them the world is not only the human world of nations and ethnicities, religions and politics. It is the planet itself: a web of life that includes other living beings, too.
Whereas the first enlightenment emerged in the eightenth century in the West and focused on the human, the second enlightenment is more global. It is emerging in multiple places simultaneously, as enriched by multiple cultural points of view. It is emerging among people who want to live with respect for life and environment. It is an eco-enlightenment.
The eco-enlightenment is not anti-business. Quite to the contrary, it is pro-business. But it sees business as in service to community, not ever-increasing GDP. The new enlightenment moves beyond the logic of the marketplace to a logic of community, beyond a logic of greed to a logic of compassion. Markets are to be be in service to community, not the other way around.
Beyond the Limits of Bureaucracy
Back, then, to Matthew Taylor. I have said that he makes a very good case for it in the video on the 21st century enlightenment. He was formerly an advisor to Tony Blair. He is the executive director of the RSA, which is a 250 year old charity, based in London, whose previous members include Charles Dickens, Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin, and Stephen Hawking. Here's a description of its mission:
"The RSA is an enlightenment organisation committed to finding innovative practical solutions to today’s social challenges. Through its ideas, research and 27,000-strong Fellowship it seeks to understand and enhance human capability so we can close the gap between today’s reality and people’s hopes for a better world."
According the Taylor, the cor"e values of the 18th century enlightenment were human autonomy, reason, progress, secularism, and the centrality of economics in politics. These values formed an ethos, an attitude toward life, that influenced many in the West and have since been exported throughout the world. They had their good sides, but they brought with them three kinds of logic: the logic of technological progress, the logic of markets, and the logic of bureacracy.
The limits of progress and markets are that, while they are very productive, they are indifferent to "a substantive concern for the general good." According to the logic of technological progress, if something can be discovered and developed, it should be discovered and developed. According to the logic of markets, if something can be sold, it should be sold. The invisible hand of the market decides what is worthwhile.
The limits of the logic of bureaucracy are that it puts the rationality of rules above the rationality of ends. When people are absorbed in a logic of bureaucracy, it becomes more important to fit into the system, to follow the rules of government or the workplace, than to consider the ethical implications of their actions.
The hubris of individualism
Underlying these three logics, says Taylor, there has been a problematic image of the human self. It is that of the self as a skin-encapsulated ego, cut off from the world and other people by the boundaries of the skin, whose well-being can be separated from the well-being of society and who is master of his destiny. On this view there is a conflict between being fulfilled individual and dwelling in community.
According to Taylor, a 21st century enlightenment will challenge this view of the self with help from insights from the cognitive and social sciences. Both kinds of science provide much experimental evidence to suggest that our selves are integrally connected with our natural and social environments and that "happiness" itself partly consists in having rich relations with other people. The research is clear, says Taylor. If you want to be a happier self, have happier friends.
This is exactly the image of the self that is important to process thinkers in China and the United States. At our best, say Wang and Fan, we can be free individuals who enjoy creativity on our own, and we can simultaneously realize that our own well-being lies in being related to others in constructive ways. We can appreciate individual rights and community rights, seeing them as complementary not contradictory. We can approximate meaningful degrees of harmony in our societies and meaningful degrees of harmony with the earth.
We can evolve toward what China calls "ecological civilizations" that are free from the stultifying logic of the marketplace and bureaucracy, and free for a fulness of life in expanded circles of empathy. Wang and Fan are not cynical people. They are sophisticated, hopeful people. There is hope in their hope.
There's hope in the Charter of Compassion, too. Let's get going, blooming where we are planted.