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This U of T writer won the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize

Professor Joseph Heath's Enlightenment 2.0 aims to spark conversation about reason in public life

“Conservatives have become enamored of the idea that politics is ultimately not about plans and policies, it’s about ‘gut feelings’ and ‘values’,” says Professor Joseph Heath

Mere weeks after winning the Writer’s Trust of Canada’s prestigious Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing, Professor Joseph Heath of the department of philosophy and the School of Public Policy & Governance has been shortlisted for the Donner Prize.

Heath’s book, Enlightenment 2.0: Restoring the Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives (2014) attacks the irrationalism he finds entrenched in Canadian and American conservatism and takes a fresh look at how to build reason back into our social and political institutions.Three other books are in the running for the Donner including Faculty of Law Professor Michael J. Trebilcock's Dealing With Losers: The Political Economy of Policy Transitions, published by Oxford University Press. 

[Editor's note: Trebilock won the award April 29, 2015.]

Relaxing in his office at University College amidst neatly overflowing bookshelves, Heath admits surprise at being shortlisted for the Donner Prize, which tends to award scholarly works of public policy. Enlightenment 2.0, Heath’s fourth book aimed at a general audience, is less intent on recommending policies than on sparking a conversation about reason in public life.

In some ways, this conversation continues one begun in The Rebel Sell (2004), which Heath co-wrote with alumnus Andrew Potter, now Ottawa Citizen editor-in-chief. While The Rebel Sell attacks the anti-institutional impulses latent in the counter-culture, it doesn’t answer leftist anti-rationalism with a positive account of reason.

Enlightenment 2.0,” Heath explains, “fleshes out what we mean by reason and what a rational politics would look like.” This time, however, the target is anti-rationalism on the political right, which he writes has become “unhinged from reality.”

Heath begins Enlightenment 2.0 in a diagnostic mode, recalling television satirist Jon Stewart’s Rally to Restore Sanity, held on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 2010. That rally, Heath writes, “was the first time, perhaps since the French Revolution, that reason had become the object of large-scale political mobilization in the West.” The problem, he says, is that “conservatives have become enamored of the idea that politics is ultimately not about plans and policies, it’s about ‘gut feelings’ and ‘values’.” They frame political discourse in simplified, base terms to appeal to our unreflective intuitions and sidestep rational thought.

Heath argues that the left cannot compete on these terms: many progressive ideas are inherently too complex to justify on the basis of gut feelings alone. Restoring sanity to public discourse means restoring a place for reason.

How do we restore reason? Heath thinks we need to begin with a better grasp of what it is. The reigning enlightenment idea locates reason entirely in the heads of autonomous individuals, and the public discussion of reason today, “dominated by psychologists and economists,” reflects this view. On their account, Heath says, “if you want people to behave more rationally, they just have to try harder and maybe be educated better.” However, in Heath’s view, if we want to reboot the enlightenment project, we need a better notion of rationality, one that recognizes its linguistic, social and cultural dimension. No matter how well educated we become, we are stuck with a set of easily exploited limits and biases built into our cognition. For example, our beliefs tend to serve our base interests rather than reflect reality. The lesson is that we need to “pay much more attention to whether the social environments we create are going to enhance rationality.”

To level reason’s playing field is to create a kluge, one of the more memorable concepts from the book. For Heath, a simple box of vegetables delivered to your door can be a kluge, a trick to ensure that he acts rationally. Knowing he should eat well doesn’t yield good choices at the grocery store, so Heath exploits other tendencies.

“I have the kind of ethic where, goddamn it, if I bought it I’m going to eat it. So I order a vegetable box entirely as a pre-commitment strategy.”

Even his office is a kluge, as Heath notes: a quiet, distraction-free space designed to enable concentration and clear thinking.

Heath is ultimately pessimistic about the conservative and anti-rationalist climate gripping our politics, but he does believe that we can realize small, gradual changes to improve our lives. The key is to design our institutions and the human environment to empower our rational abilities rather than exploit our inherent weaknesses.