A traditional society revers the wisdom of ancestors. In the earliest period of human history, the pace of growth was slow, and traditions—or received wisdom from ancestors—were good pointers on how one should behave. Not all traditions were fair. Some, like the caste system or feudalism, were atrocious. But in an era when change was slow, these traditions (good or bad) were persistent.
When technologies such as the printing press in Europe or lithography in India emerged in the early modern period, they became important mass communication technologies, that enabled diffusion of new ideas. Technological and economic progress gathered speed with new inventions and technology, and the lives of people transformed within generations. Hence, traditions passed on through the generations were no longer good guides of behaviour in this rapidly changing world.
While Asian civilizations were at the helm of progress for much of human history, Europe began to catch up in the modern age. Economic historian Joel Mokyr says that the key difference between early modern Europe and elsewhere was the former’s lack of reverence toward ancestors. As Europeans travelled in the age of exploration, and read ancient books, they discovered the gaps in knowledge of their ancestors. They began to question ancestral wisdom, and believing that their generation may well be smarter and wiser than those past. In place of tradition, people began to think for themselves, individually, and began relying on their rational faculty.
Of course, the ancient world had no dearth of rational thinkers. In Hindu traditions, two of the six schools — Nyaya and Vaisheshika relied heavily on logic to learn about reality. But in traditional societies, such logical schools faced tough competition from schools that relied on rituals and traditions, where testimony was highly valued. In the modern age, testimony from ancient texts and ancestors was given much less credibility than testimony of peers and inferences of one’s own mind. That inevitably gave rise to the scientific method.
Stalwarts like Newton and Darwin revolutionized human understanding of the world around us with the scientific method. But with such ‘enlightenment’ and rationality came dark realities. As Europeans became more technologically advanced, they left a trail of exploitation around the world. India faced several famines during colonial misrule. The unchecked power of European technological superiority was especially devastating for ordinary Europeans themselves as they fought two cataclysmic world wars.
The Nazis, fuelled by pseudoscientific ideas of a Darwinian race war, perpetrated unspeakable atrocities, including the Holocaust that systematically killed millions of Jews. So, the age of rationality, despite its ability to bring rapid technological and economic progress, reached a nauseating conclusion in World War 2, characterized by devastation, genocide and moral bankruptcy on a scale unheard of in human history.
Nazism was a natural side-effect of the age of rationality, which did not value human dignity. Consider the founder of modern statistics, Francis Galton. He was a polymathic genius who gave the world regression and fingerprints. But he was also the founder of eugenics, and believed human races were inherently different, and like breeds of animals, each race had unique characteristics that were hard baked by nature. With eugenics, the Nazis wanted to design a better race using ‘scientific principles’, while pre-selecting without basis the Nordic-Aryan as the ideal race to work upon. In the name of such improvement of racial stock, “impure”, “inferior”, “defective” or “deviant” groups were killed in gas chambers in a highly bureaucratic and organised operation.
While the Nazi obsession with purity may seem like a perversion, such ideas of group superiority were not exclusive to the age of rationality. Traditional societies were far from egalitarian. Gender, religious and caste discrimination were rampant in such societies for long, with fetishized notions of purity and pollution playing an important role in regulating conduct.
The 20th century saw a rapid expansion in human rights. World War 2 could not have been won without the contribution of armies people of colour and of factories run by women. After the end of WW2, there was greater reflection on the perils of Nazi-type ideologies that failed to acknowledge human dignity. In the 20th century, the women’s suffrage movement, civil rights, Dalit, LGBT and the several independence movements, most prominently in India, brought representation to marginalised groups.
As marginalised voices became more salient, reason in itself was no longer an appropriate guide for decision-making. It had to be coupled with the notion of dignity, and our social systems evolved gradually to reflect this change. The notion of ‘men’ in the American Constitution, evolved from including only land-owning white men in the 18th century, to all humans in the 21st. The Indian Constitution, especially its preamble, was one of the few masterpieces of this emerging age of dignity that reflected this concern for universal dignity at a time when even its elder cousin, the American Constitution, still did not acknowledge full equality. It was a Gandhian, Martin Luther King Jr, who led the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and shaped the United States as a “more perfect union.”
In traditional societies, everyone had a “proper” place. Consider the position of transgenders in Indian society. While being a transgender was tolerated, and at times transgenders were even worshipped, the social and economic roles they could take were limited. As societies became more rational, it did not spontaneously create an inclusive society. Labelling of “proper” and “improper” humans became common. For example, in Victorian England, the rights of LGBT persons were severely curtailed, and anti-LGBT laws and sentiments diffused in other colonies. However, in the modern era, both rationality and tradition are tested on the anvil of human dignity, offering natural rights to all people in participative and democratic systems of collective decision-making.
The ideals of such a society are codified in great constitutional texts such as the American and the Indian constitutions. Though these constitutions codify great and noble ideas and are great achievements of mankind, the application of these ideas nonetheless depends on those who practice and apply them in their daily lives. Do we give primacy to human dignity, and test our traditions and rationality on that anvil? Or are we comfortable in defending our traditions or reasoning even when they violate the dignity of fellow human beings? The answers to these questions will decide the fate of our society in the long run.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in Strategy, IIM-B and Junior Fellow, Stigler Center, Booth School of Business, University of Chicago)