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An Examination on How Enlightenment Values and Science Have Impacted the 20th Century Society

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Explain how science and enlightenment values (E values) produce various kinds of social engineering in the 20th century that are designed to produce a better world.

The Enlightenment values espoused by the philosophers of the 18th century were a significant shift for Western culture, and guided individuals and governments to carry out both good and bad decisions. The core Enlightenment values were based in freeing humans from the old order, or Acien Regime, using reason and power of human intellect. Kant’s essay “Was ist Aufklarung?” describes the fundamental principle that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his…inability to use [his] understanding without another’s guidance…Have the courage to use your own understanding is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.” The notion that the standard of living and human happiness could improve through greater knowledge and progress fueled Rousseau’s argument for a society based on reason, and a new civil order based on natural law and science. During this period, politics began to focus more on the citizenry and the protection of individual rights through a fair rule of law by democratic process, shown in documents such as the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Declaration of Independence. Such political freedom was hard to come by in the feudalistic system. One proponent of such ideas was John Locke, who argued for democracy, individual liberties, and the eradication of religious authority – all opposing the old order of Feudalism and religious rule. Locke also proposed an idea that all Enlightenment thinkers could agree on: liberty is impossible without a guarantee of property, which the state must protect. Locke said that “the State…is a society of men established for the sole purpose of the establishment, preservation, and promotion of their civil interests…life, freedom, the possession of external goods, such as are money, land, houses, furniture, and things of that nature.” This is based on the idea that only those owning property can defend and take care of the state. Enlightenment thinkers hoped that all could own property, an impossible concept in previous centuries where property ownership was limited to certain echelons.

The progress of man could come through better policies and a better use of reason through not only political thinking but also science. The “enlightened” saw science’s potential to improve the standard of living through harnessing nature via industrialization and the liberation of man. Andrew Ure theorized that steam-engines not only employ many workers, but also leave “thousands of fine arable fields free for the production of food to man, which must have been otherwise allotted to the food of horses.” Through industrialization, man could have a better life and consume more. The rise of science and technology through an increasingly literate population contributed to the downfall of religious authority as they delivered tangible benefits in a manner controllable by humans, unlike religion. Additionally, the availability of technology allowed some to gain more wealth from their property. Science and technology resulted in the success of many industries in countries that adopted Enlightenment values. They were embraced by many “enlightened” politicians and leaders, as it gained them support from the improved lives.

For some, science was a means to better technology and a better standard of living, and for others science was practiced to discover more and advance reason. Charles Darwin fell into this second general category, and while his work became the basis for evolutionary studies it was also perverted by those who turned Darwin’s natural evolutionary theory into “Social Darwinism.” Simply put, Darwin proposed that members of a species that were more suitable for an environment and responsive to change would more likely succeed and reproduce. Species could evolve through changes in populations, not through individuals, and nature is unable to determine who is fit and who is not. His ideas contradicted the Lamarckian Theory of Inheritance of Acquired Characteristics, which state an individual’s changes due to its environment could be passed on to its offspring. Interestingly, both theories of evolution would be used to justify social engineering in the 20th century.

Through the Enlightenment and its accompanying values, Europeans produced new standards for humanity through quantifying the presence of democracy, social mobility, and individualism for all. One problem with the Enlightenment and factors for the future manipulation of its ideas was their Eurocentric nature. People, namely Europeans, could use reason and could therefore use it to reform less perfect societies into utopias. Those embracing Enlightenment values considered themselves superior to the “uncivilized,” and believed that the triumph of Europeans was due to a natural superiority in their political and financial skills, which was thought to be grounded in science. Some elites adopted Lamarck’s theory of evolution to justify their position, since they believed their acquired cultural skills could be passed on to offspring, marking the beginning of population genetics. Enlightenment values implied that humans could control their destiny, and had a right to earth and its resources. While nature could not determine who was fit, the appropriate combination of reason and science could identify the fit (Europeans) for their protection to produce a superior human being. It was through this thought that the success of science and technology began to be used to legitimize social systems/policies and ideologies.

The European superiority in science and technology jumpstarted the carving of empires in Africa and Asia through the mission to “civilize.” Then Prime Minister of France, Julien Ferry, championed colonial expansion using social Darwinist and Lamarckian ideas when he declared la mission civilisatrice: “indeed the higher races have a right over the lower races…because they have a duty…to civilize the inferior races…I maintain that European nations acquit themselves with generosity, with grandeur, and with sincerity of this superior civilizing duty.” At the same time, however, it was intended to spread French civilization, and therefore a better life, freedom, and ownership of property. This was the beginning of the twisted application of Enlightenment ideas to legitimize superiority abroad and domestically.

The beginning of Enlightenment-fueled superiority complexes came through a mixture of the idea that man could progress through advancements of science and reason, and the idea that only finite resources and property exist. As a population depletes resources and takes property, competition will ensue and only the best adapted will survive and possess the right to the available property. Through an interpretation of Darwinist evolution, it was proposed that all populations have a distribution of characteristics, and some members have exclusive advantages making them an elite, favored group that is adaptable to change. Once a favored group became so distinct, it could no longer breed with the original, now deemed lesser group, and the new group became a higher species. It was through prejudices and the previously mentioned quantifiable Enlightenment traits (i.e. democracy, reason) that Europeans could identify the superior group and use social policies to advance it. One glaring issue with Enlightenment values was that the emphasis on celebrating reason led some to classify non-homogenous belief systems (i.e. indigenous beliefs) as irrational, therefore making them illegitimate.

A divide materialized as some Europeans thought those who were inferior to them could be civilized through education or colonialism, whereas others saw a lack of successful characteristics as a lack of a qualification to breed. Herbert Spencer, who coined the term “survival of the fittest,” and strongly supported Social Darwinism said that “the forces which are working out the great scheme of perfect happiness, taking no account of incident suffering, exterminate such sections of mankind as stand in their way, with the same sternness that they exterminate beasts of prey and herds of useless ruminants,” with a comparison of the inferior to beasts of prey and herds of useless ruminants. From here, the tenets of Nazi and Soviet social engineering emerged.

While the Nazi and Soviet political elite had differing views on the definition of a perfect society and what the standard of humanity should be, both used Social Darwinism and Enlightenment values to justify social planning and their respective ideology. The NSADP saw value in Social Darwinism, and the perversion of the Enlightenment values manifested themselves in Nazi ideology as they believed they were applying scientific facts to produce the Übermensch. While the application of the Übermensch in Nazi Germany was racial, the concept of the Übermensch from Nietzsche derived from the Enlightenment struggle to free the population from the old religious order. Nietzsche himself declared “God is dead. God remains dead,” and the “Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth!” Humans now created new values, as the value system given by the religious order was dead. To the Nazis, politics was simply applying science to further the struggle for Lebensraum by removing “lesser” peoples and repopulating the land with the Aryan Übermensch. Hitler stated that “this earth is a trophy cup for the industrious man. And this rightly so in the service of natural selection. He who does not possess the force to secure his Lebensraum…must step aside and allow stronger peoples to pass him by.” The Nazis manipulated science, in this case, natural selection to justify their ideology and programs of racial superiority. From here, the Nazi eugenics program was born to select favorable characteristics for the ideal Aryan and proliferate those, while deselecting unfavorable ones through the extermination of weaker peoples. Another domestic program following this science was the Lebensborn program, which had “pure-blooded” Aryan women mate with SS officers to birth Aryan children along with kidnapping Aryan-looking children from occupied countries. The Nazis had a vision of the Übermensch and specifically had an image of what the master race would look like, and sought to create that. On the other end of the political spectrum, the idea of the Soviet man came from the Communist Manifesto, which defined liberation through a proletarian revolution, resulting in the rational allocation of property by the state. Soviet planning revolved around the idea that enlightened people could accelerate transformation of the unenlightened to an enlightened, elite, cooperative race through re-programming as according to Kant “reason…requires trial, practice, and instruction…to progress gradually from one stage of insight to the next.” Ideally, communism strives for the equality espoused by Enlightenment thinkers, but Soviet materialism sought to create a definite social group. To achieve these goals, the Soviets used Lamarckian theory (genetics was looked down upon), determining party officials could reprogram a society that could pass down cooperative traits. Lamarckian theory and evolution was the science used by Stalin to legitimize his policies when he declared the “Party…undergoes a process of metabolism: the old and obsolete passes away, the new and growing lives and develops…and leads the cause forward…it will merely rid the Party of people who are getting in its way and hindering its progress.” This was attempted through the creation of gulags and the disappearances of noncompliant individuals by the NKVD. This thought that the government could control man to control his destiny is reminiscent of Enlightenment ideals of man’s ability to use reason to reform a more perfect society.

Based on A, consider whether or not the 19th and 20th Century actions and policies of ‘little e’ has actually resulted in the achievement of “big E” goals in the real world. Is the current world Enlightened in the manner that E principles would have anticipated. If so, how. If not, why not?

The current world is both in some ways Enlightened and not as anticipated by Enlightenment values. Indeed, many first-world citizens enjoy liberty to an extent, can own property, have their individual rights protected by law, and are not under religious law. These were impossible under the Ancien Regime. Yes, social security, welfare, and insurance are present now in many societies. Science and technology mostly make life better for individuals in the world through technological and medical advances, and the standard of living has greatly increased since the 18th century. However, it is important to note the significance of “many first-world citizens” and the word “mostly.” Enlightenment values envisioned equality for all, and that is very much not the case. The equality gap is massive in the current world, and is growing larger through the very means that guarantee Enlightenment-envisioned rights for some. Citizens here in the U.S. can struggle to own property and receive care that improves their standards of living and guarantees their rights. Citizens abroad may not be liberated at all and subject to oppression by the government or an entity that considers itself superior. Similarly, science continues to be abused just as it was in previous centuries to either harm individuals (i.e. weaponization of diseases) or to raise individuals above others. While many live under a society that grants them Enlightenment values, even more live under conditions opposing Enlightenment values. Ultimately Enlightenment values are about the relationship between humans, and as a whole we have not, and may not, fully realize these ideals yet.

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