I’m a supporter of modernity, by which I mean the process, driven by science and reason, of interrogating tradition and building societies focused on well-being, democracy, human rights and individual autonomy.
But modernity has its flaws. Over-emphasis on a purely rational approach has created a modernity too limited in its conception of human nature. This does not mean that we should reject rationality, but we should allot it a more proportionate role, alongside other important human potentials, like love and compassion, which are equally essential to human flourishing. We need to develop a more human-hearted modernity.
Reason and science have helped liberate people from the grip of dogma, improved material living standards, driven rapid progress in science and technology and generally supported people’s freedom to explore new ways of living. But purely rationalist approaches have failed to address other human needs and can exacerbate some of the causes of human suffering.
For instance, today’s most influential, rationalist-inspired ideology is free-market theory, which assumes that we are all members of the species Homo economicus—rational agents each of whose goal is maximizing individual economic self-interest. This model has underpinned economic growth that has benefited millions of people. But by prioritising material wealth over all other concerns, such as social connection and meaning, this model has also trapped many people in unfulfilling lives in which more money does not increase meaning and fulfilment, and to those who don’t succeed financially, it has offered only poverty and a sense of failure.
The idea that humans make decisions based purely on reason is clearly flawed: while we are capable of reason, we are not purely rational creatures, as many have observed—from the Romantics, who led the revolt against reason in the nineteenth century, through Nietzsche and Freud, to contemporary scientific researchers such as Daniel Kahneman and Antonio Damasio, who have described the role of emotions in decision making, and shown that human beings are neither driven nor made happy by reason alone.
Indeed, were one to try to live a purely rational life, it would not be happy and fulfilling, but bizarre and inhumane, as it would fail to satisfy emotional needs, such as the needs for playfulness, love and adventure. Nor are personal goals generally based on reason—instead, reason is often used only as a means of achieving those goals, such as making a friend or climbing a mountain. Reason is an evaluative tool, rather than a generator of goals.
But the limitations of the rationalist outlook are not the only problems of modernity.
By undermining faith in religion and tradition, modernity has also undermined the sense of meaning and purpose they offered, while offering little more than economic competition in their place. This can leave some people with a sense of existential emptiness, hopelessness or purposelessness. It is unsurprising, then, that many modern societies have rising rates of depression and anxiety.
Some have attempted to fill the emptiness with romanticism, nationalism, religious revivalism, new religions and New Ageism. These approaches may have benefits for some, but they have a major flaw: they tend to rely on a belief that the goals of an entity other than (and higher than) individual human beings—such as God, or the nation—are more important than the goals of individual human beings, and therefore they run the risk of seducing people into attacking their fellow humans in the name of that higher entity. Although, in modern societies, religion tends to contribute less to this dynamic than it once did, nationalism has often taken its place, and has become for many people a key bulwark against a sense of emptiness. People may express their nationalism by advocating a withdrawal from international cooperation, as, for example, MAGA and Brexit supporters have recently done—or by engaging in outright warfare.
Modernity also undermines people’s sense of a secure social identity. One of modernity’s greatest achievements is that people’s social positions are no longer completely defined by the circumstances of their birth. While modernist societies are not paradigms of social mobility, the contrast with traditional societies is immense. In traditional societies, a person became a peasant if born into a peasant family, an aristocrat if born into an aristocratic family, and that was that. The question commonly asked of children today—What do you want to be when you grow up?—was not asked in traditional societies, as the answer had been decided at birth.
But with this liberation has come a host of new problems. People can now spend their whole lives trying—and often failing—to create a specific identity, such as musician or writer. The resulting sense of failure is exacerbated by the knowledge that others have succeeded. Consider, for example, Instagram influencers who make daily posts to seek validation for their curated identities and risk spiraling into despair if they are attacked or lose followers.
The Disappearance of Command-Based Ethics
Modernists rightly reject the idea that moral rules gain their force from the commands of a god. Early modernist thinkers tried to show that moral rules could be derived from pure reason. However, as Elizabeth Anscombe has discussed, this attempt met with little success, since reason alone cannot dictate what one’s goals should be. It makes more sense to explore the conditions of human (and animal) flourishing as a basis for ethics, rather than continue the impossible search for a new set of commands—a quest whose repeated failures to provide real answers have allowed visions like that of Homo economicus to trump any vision of ethical living.
While not denying the benefits of modernity, it makes sense to acknowledge the problems associated with it and explore solutions consistent with the best it has to offer. We need to acknowledge that rationalism and science are not everything and explore a more human-hearted modernity.
The Remedy: A Human-Hearted Modernity
A human-hearted approach acknowledges that neither a god nor pure reason can mandate a set of values. Instead, it accepts the uncertainty of life and focuses on what really is available to humans; realising our best human qualities—such as our potential for compassion and love—as the most effective ways to find meaning and fulfilment in the face of an indifferent universe. Reason and evidence still remain crucial—to help us understand human nature and to analyse how we can meaningfully and realistically extend our sympathies to humans and other creatures.
This is human hearted in the metaphorical sense that such prosocial qualities as sympathy, compassion and love come from our human nature rather than from an external source. It could equally be called potentialism or humanism. But I wanted a word to denote some specific ideas in earlier thinkers that are being confirmed by recent scientific findings.
I have four key principles in mind.
The first is that human beings have evolved as social creatures able to build positive relationships with each other. The second is that human happiness and fulfilment come through realising our potential for sympathy, compassion and love. The third is that ethical rules can be based on an understanding of what promotes social flourishing—and on extending sympathy and understanding rather than insisting on obedience to arbitrary commands. The fourth is the recognition that uncertainty is an inevitable part of life.
Historical Roots of Human Heartedness
Mencius (372–289 BCE)—perhaps the most important thinker in the Confucian tradition after Confucius himself—was an early promoter of a human-hearted approach. He argued that compassion for others was like a seed within us, a sprout of our humanity, which we could either cultivate or repress. He illustrated this principle with a story about people in a village who see a child fall down a well: initially, they feel spontaneous concern and alarm, and even though other motivations for rescuing the child—such as a desire for gratitude or praise—might follow later, that initial feeling is always present. It is a seed of ethical behaviour and kindness. Mencius saw this seed (which he called ren, one of four seeds of humanity he identified) as part of our sociality and thought that developing it in oneself would lead to better social relations with others, more happiness and more ethical behaviour. (“Human-hearted” is sometimes used to translate ren. I’m using human-hearted, however, to indicate a shared general outlook that goes beyond Mencius’ specific concepts).
The eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume argued that sympathy was the key driver of ethics, because reason in itself could not provide a justification for ethical behaviour. Hume acknowledged human beings’ limitations, but pointed out that we can build on our innate feelings of sympathy, compassion and good will to guide us. Thus his outlook was a positive one: in the absence of guidance from a god or pure reason as to how to live well, we can still rely on the best parts of our human nature.
Charles Darwin provides a scientific grounding for this claim in his 1871 The Descent of Man:
Any animal whatever, endowed with well-marked social instincts, would inevitably acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers had become as well developed, or nearly as well developed, as in man … As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to men of all nations and races.
Darwin thus showed how our pro-social emotions can be understood as a product of human evolution, and explained how and why they result in the development of shared pro-social ethical norms.
Much recent scientific research has also focused on human heartedness. For example, there have been studies showing how co-operation and positive sociality played a role in human evolution, and studies showing that prosocial behaviour, such as acts of kindness, triggers the release of feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine. Other examples abound: reports of new research on human happiness, compassion and altruism are regularly posted online by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley.
Contemporary Writers on Human Heartedness
In his 2009 book, Born to Be Good, Dacher Keltner notes that humans have evolved social emotions such as sympathy and love because individuals benefit from social cohesion and cooperation. He explores the ways in which positive social emotions and prosocial behaviour contribute to a happy and fulfilled life.
Jonathan Haidt has written extensively on the role of prosocial emotions in human happiness, for example, in his books The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind. Like Keltner, he shows that positive social relationships are a key contributor to happiness. He argues that our ethical intuitions are an important source of our kindness to others, and that the role of reason is to help us evaluate whether to act on those feelings. He describes five basic intuitions—which he calls the five foundations of ethics—and suggests that they can be understood by analogy to our taste buds: they don’t determine our actions, but they give us a sense of satisfaction and reward, as well as an inclination to act in ways that will produce those positive feelings. Of particular interest is the intuition he calls care, and defines as the ability to sympathize with others, to be distressed by their pain and suffering and to act with kindness towards them.
Patricia Churchland’s 2019 book, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition explores what neuroscience can tell us about human moral intuitions. Like Keltner, she notes that our moral intuitions and, in particular, need for attachment and connection with others, are products of human evolution—one of her chapters is punningly entitled “The Snuggle for Survival.” Our conscience, she argues, is driven more by empathy and desire for connection than by externally imposed rules.
The work of researchers like Keltner, Haidt and Churchland shows that a human-hearted model of human behaviour and motivation is consistent with current research in evolutionary biology, psychology and neuroscience, and that any model that describes human beings as purely competitive, individualistic or rationalist is fundamentally flawed.
The four principles of human heartedness emerge consistently in these thinkers’ works. First, we are innately social creatures, with moral intuitions. Second, human happiness and fulfilment stem most reliably (though not exclusively) from engaging in prosocial behaviour motivated by sympathy, compassion or love. Third, it is primarily our ethical intuitions (rather than enforced obedience to external commands) that enable us to engage in prosocial behaviour, though empirical knowledge and rational analysis can help us decide how to achieve prosocial goals. And fourth, because life is inherently uncertain, engaging in prosocial behaviour is a more reliable way to find happiness than conforming to preconceived, externally generated standards.
A human-hearted modernity would focus on human flourishing and positive sociality, rather than on material wealth. And it would reframe the idea of self-actualisation (or self-fulfilment) as a social project (which involves realising our social potential by building prosocial relations with others), rather than an individual-centred one. This would offer a possible antidote to the experience of existential emptiness, a bulwark against anxiety and insecurity and a secure and constructive sense of identity rooted in the recognition of our common humanity. On a policy level, it would emphasise the importance of ensuring that everyone’s basic needs, such as housing and healthcare, are met.
A human-hearted approach to ethics would focus on flourishing, rather than on establishing rules. This has much in common with virtue ethics, but has a clear primary focus on care and compassion towards others, and emphasises the basic dignity of all sentient beings. It does not require us to believe that human beings are purely good or that we automatically act out of compassion and sympathy to support the flourishing of others. Rather, it suggests that we can choose to act in this way. And it suggests that such choices are better supported by accepting the inherent uncertainty of life than by adopting an ideology that provides the illusion of certainty.
Starting the transition from a rationalist to a human-hearted modernity should be a priority. It is time for supporters of modernity to start working out ways to achieve that change.