Although the technology may be new, the underlying issues we face today have not changed from two centuries ago — and well before that.
We are still challenged to use our own reason and to work our way out from under the yoke of those who would do our thinking for us and thereby rob us of freedom — whether it be religious or political or medical or media authority figures.
The ideal of the Enlightenment was called by Kant “autonomy of the will” — which he identified with freedom. He said we ought not to defer to authority figures uncritically — including medical authorities:
“If I have . . . a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.“
This is not to say that Kant was for revolution or blind rebellion, because there too one could easily fall sway to the authority of the mob. For this reason, he was critical of the French Revolution.
Instead, he advocated the movement towards a more enlightened and egalitarian society in which freedom for everyone is paramount — meaning that in exercising my own freedom I must also take into account the freedom of everyone else. There is thus a sense of social responsibly built in the ideal of autonomy of the will.
This ideal is reflected in the idea of a republic of individuals working in concert. But there are no shortcuts. We cannot achieve it by limiting the freedom of others. Those who would advance the ideal society by force or deception have already undermined it.
It is actually an ideal that can never be fully achieved, but we can strive to attain to it in degrees. And there is nobility in this moral striving. It absolutely requires freedom of speech and thought.
Right now, the world is in grave danger of losing ground to collectivism and tyranny – which stem from an error in the use of reason that Kant would term “heteronomy of the will.”
This error is letting others bend your will to theirs, to serve their self-interest — even though they will tell you it is for your own good. This is nothing new. It has always been thus — just never on such a grand scale.
The Enlightenment ideal is one that our forefathers strove through great effort and wisdom to attain. We need to find the courage to do the same.
The text below in bold is from Immanuel Kant’s “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment” (1784) http://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/What_is_Enlightenment.pdf
Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity . . .
the inability to use one’s own understanding without another’s guidance.
This immaturity is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s own mind without another’s guidance . . . Have the courage to use your own understanding . . .
Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance.
They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor.
If I have [an authority figure to think for me] I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.
Those guardians who have kindly taken supervision upon themselves see to it that the overwhelming majority of mankind . . . consider the step to maturity, not only as hard, but as extremely dangerous.
First, these guardians make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them.
Then they show them the danger that would threaten them if they should try to walk by themselves.
Now this danger is really not very great; after stumbling a few times they would, at last, learn to walk.
However, examples of such failures intimidate and generally discourage all further attempts.
Thus it is very difficult for the individual to work himself out of the immaturity which has become almost second nature to him. He has even grown to like it, and is at first really incapable of using his own understanding because he has never been permitted to try it.
Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use–or rather abuse–of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting immaturity.
Philosophers and thinkers from the eighteenth century Enlightment had many good lesson to share with us today regarding the importance of distrusting state tyranny and authority figures and the use of one’s own reason: