Enlightenment thinkers tell us “all men are created equal” while simultaneously owning slaves, disenfranchising women, and supporting colonialism. The article offers solutions to overcome problems of racism and sexism, citing the people’s understanding of rationality as its root cause.
The Enlightenment ushered in a world in which all men are supposedly created equal. At the time, of course, these newly found universal rights applied only to men. Women lacked most of the political rights guaranteed by men’s equality, a fact which concerned very few intellectuals of the time. Today we are much less blind to the literal meaning of “men”. Less noticeable has been the fact that “all men” never actually meant all men. As the history of colonialism and slavery attests, universal rights are not granted to most men. Why is it that the age of equality has produced such radical inequality? And can we overcome the sexist and racist legacy left to us by Enlightenment thinkers?
The answer to the question concerning overcoming the narrowness of Enlightenment thinking requires understanding why it is so narrow in the first place. With the scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries, modern thinkers come to trust a mathematical, quantifiable understanding of reality much more than what their senses tell them. Such attention to the ways in which we intellectually come to understand the world leads philosophers to gaze away from the world and toward our ideas about the world. In other words, philosophical interest shifts inward. The result is that knowledge comes to rely solely on ideas and the resources the mind has to understand these ideas.
This may sound like no big deal, but it is indeed a big deal. By the latter part of the 18th century, philosophers are aware of a problem, and it is a significant problem, one with deep and abiding moral consequences. The problem is this: If our knowledge of the world depends upon how it is we think, what happens if people think differently?
Philosophers have always understood the threat relativism poses to our understanding of the world.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, they managed to avoid cultural relativism by arguing that reason must operate according to certain rules and procedures.
These rules were, not surprisingly, ones followed by white, male, European philosophers. Anyone who failed to meet the standard established by philosophers was taken to be reasoning incorrectly. But since the capacity to reason is closely linked to our capacity for moral thought, to reason incorrectly means to lack full possession of moral rights. Even thinkers who touted the equal rights of man could be untroubled by owning black slaves. They could be content to leave women disenfranchised and uneducated. After all, those whose skin was not white or whose sex was not male simply did not reason in the correct way and, thus, were not entitled to the same sorts of rights.
Deborah Heikes is professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. In addition to many journal articles, she has written three books: Rationality and Feminist Philosophy (2010), The Virtue of Feminist Rationality (2012), and Rationality, Representation, and Race (2016).