Beyond Right and Left: A Humanist Approach to Politics

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon, Humanist in Canada (Winter 1995), p.18-21.

KEY TERMS: political dogmatism -- libertarianism -- socialism -- bureaucratization -- natural rights -- idea of progress -- liberty -- equality -- naturalism -- the universality of scientific inquiry -- genetic-cultural co-evolution -- instant gratification -- "tragedy of the commons" -- incentives -- "anomie" -- the rule of law -- justice -- democracy

Do humanists have anything distinctive to offer where politics is concerned? Judging from our past record, it would seem not. In general, our movement has tended toward a strong social libertarian bias within a somewhat dogmatic left-wing stance. It is a dogmatism that does not serve us well, for politics is about nothing less than the process of determining social and economic objectives for society as a whole, as well as workable means of achieving these. In the realm of politics humankind is inevitably operating on the basis of too little firm knowledge of the probable results of policy decisions, along with a surfeit of contradictory information and opinion as to effective means for accomplishing desired ends. Surely the scientific inquiry method is a more appropriate approach to politics for humanists than is the kind of ideological certainty that we have long since renounced in philosophy!

For an overview of our current propensities, one need look no further than the Free Inquiry magazine published in the Fall of 1989. A number of thoughtful essays in that issue dealt with the two opposing ideological currents within modern humanism -- libertarianism and socialism -- and with the consequences of our deepening internal political chasm for the approach of the movement as a whole to social issues. Interestingly, these commitments and quarrels are not distinctively humanist at all. Rather, they appear to be mere reflections of the political bifurcation within modern society at large. The essays in Free Inquiry would seem to indicate a need for humanists to take a fresh look at the problem.

I suggest that we attempt to forge a new definition of the political philosophy informing and guiding modern humanism: one that would enable us to move beyond the traditional struggle for a balance or compromise between two irreconcilable ideologies. It is time we buried both libertarianism and socialism as world views, and sought an approach to politics more compatible with the premises of modern scientific humanism. Let us show the rest of society that we can do better!

Doing better means moving beyond right and left in politics; that is, beyond libertarianism and socialism. Modern humanists can be rightfully proud to be direct intellectual descendants of the Enlightenment. But we should be aware that we inherited both the best and the worst of that great revolution in world view. Along with a laudable respect for reason and evidence, and for the dignity and potential of the person, came certain non-negotiable beliefs concerning the teleological role and "essential" nature of humankind. These beliefs were the foundation stones of the ideologies that cripple us still. They are crippling because they blind us to the real problems facing humankind today: problems difficult to recognize and impossible to define accurately within these obsolete idea systems.

At least four threatening and pervasive trends within all technological societies are crying out for acknowledgment and for preliminary analysis of the problems created by them. These are (1) increasing bureaucratization along with an accompanying decrease of organizational accountability and effectiveness; (2) an increasingly impermeable social stratification based on ability to access, comprehend and apply information and knowledge; (3) an accelerating erosion of public places, biodiversity, and all sociocultural forms of "the commons"; and (4) a downward spiral in the quality of leadership in modern democracies, with leaders tending increasingly to represent the lowest common denominator within the population, to appeal to the basest of motivations and to seek the shortest-term of ends.

The above problems did not exist two centuries ago when libertarianism and socialism came into being as explanations of political/social reality. Both of these ideologies are offsprings of the Enlightenment. The former traces its intellectual lineage back to Locke and Voltaire (via Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill) while the latter demonstrates direct philosophical descent from the theories of Rousseau (as explored by Saint Simon, Owen, and Proudhon, and compellingly redefined -- and, some would say, perverted -- by Marx and Engels). The differences between these two perspectives are familiar to us all. Too often overlooked, however, is what they have in common: Enlightenment concepts of absolute "natural" rights and of "natural" laws of history and economics implying that progress is inevitable, plus a naive notion of society as coincident with the state.

On the one side we have freedom of the individual seen as an essential right; on the other we have the essential priority of the collective -- usually viewed as the state or tribal/ethnic group. On the one side we have the absolute ideal of liberty -- defined as "sovereignty"; on the other, we have the similarly absolute ideal of equality -- viewed as "sameness" of essential qualities and social outcomes. These "rights" are considered limitless, inalienable and inherent in the nature of things. Accordingly, libertarians and socialists also share the distinctively Enlightenment conclusion concerning an inevitable contradiction between the welfare of the individual and that of the group; or between the interest of the member and that of the ethnic tribe; or between the rights of the private person and those of society. All this makes for a considerable area of shared assumptions. Because we fail to recognize this common ground we seldom focus on the similarly obsolete nature of the ideals underlying both ideologies.

Many humanist philosophers and theorists seem unaware that there is now a considerable body of highly confirmed knowledge in the life sciences and certain branches of the social sciences that completely undermines these older philosophical assumptions. It had its beginnings in yet another current of Enlightenment thought: one that eschewed the notion of "natural law" and inherent rights and instead emphasized the openness of continuing inquiry into the nature and origin of the human condition. It blossomed in the work of Thomas Hobbes and David Hume on the nature of human understanding and morality, and was considerably enriched by Darwin's revolutionary breakthrough -- and subsequent confirming research in evolutionary science, genetics and molecular biology. It was enhanced by Herbert Spencer's theory of "family altruism" (more recently defined by biologists as "kin selection"); some of Freud's research on the "unconscious"; Pavlov's findings concerning the nature of learning; the insights of Dewey and Mead on the social nature and sources of knowledge and values; the contributions of Emile Durkheim, Julian Huxley, and Karl Popper to our understanding of the process of sociocultural evolution; and ongoing research in these areas within behavioral, social and cognitive psychology, and neuroscience. Without going into details, we now know enough about these matters to discredit once and for all the outmoded "essentialist" fictions undergirding both libertarianism and socialism.

This means that we now have the opportunity to ground our political positions in well-substantiated (albeit tentative) scientific knowledge, rather than on the certainties of well-meant illusions and wishful thinking concerning the human condition. And who is to take the lead here if not humanists? Our philosophy is one of naturalism and of the universal applicability of science that naturalism implies. This means that we are committed to the scientific approach to problem solving in all arenas of life. Continuing failure to apply this approach to our own ideologies will only undermine the credibility of our movement in society at large.

We could begin by jettisoning the notion of the "right" to sovereignty: whether of the individual, tribe, nation or species. Whatever we are as humans, we now know that we are not, and never can be, sovereign. As individuals, our every value, belief and behavior is the result of an incredibly complex process of genetic and cultural co-evolution. To a large extent the accidental biological history of the species has formed and shaped us. And to an even larger extent, we are products of our society or culture; just as the human culture, in turn, is an ever-evolving result of the actions, thoughts and value judgments of individuals. The old notion of an essential contradiction between the welfare of society and that of the person has been rendered meaningless by modern knowledge. How could one interacting unit -- one level of a hierarchical nesting system -- one tentative trial in an ongoing evolutionary process -- be in inevitable conflict with the whole?

Only in the short-term sense of an individual's desire for instant gratification is a conflict between the two social entities likely to exist, and that is a desirable and necessary conflict in terms of the long-term welfare of both. Surely the major task of education or socialization is to extend the individual's perspective from obsession with immediate gains to a consideration of the more distant consequences of action! As Freud and Durkheim pointed out in their different ways, it is the society within us that allows us to function in terms of values and concerns beyond mere animal appetites and drives.

Moral reasoning consists largely of coming to recognize that whatever makes for a meaner, more corrupt, more violent or more totalitarian culture -- or a more self-indulgent, short-sighted or destructive personality -- is bad for both individual and society in the long run. The looming "tragedy of the commons" has brought home to all thinking people the long-term cost of short-term self-aggrandizement. It has opened our eyes, as well, to our inextricable interdependence and connectedness with the social and physical environment, and to our evolutionary inheritance and future prospects as a species.

Another idea to be discarded is that of equality as "sameness". Again, whatever we are as humans, we know that we are not, and never can be, the same. We differ from one another in terms of character, temperament, intelligence, physical and moral strength, sexuality, specific skills and talents, pigmentation, facial and bodily characteristics, socioeconomic privileges and rewards, and the role expectations placed upon us by biology and tradition.

Our experience during the twentieth century has also provided a wealth of evidence to indicate that incentives matter. This means that, regardless of the intent of the social policy, any society will get more of the behaviors that are highly rewarded -- whether by notoriety, power over others, or enhanced income. Legislated equality of outcome, regardless of performance, cannot work. As Herbert Spencer pointed out so long ago, socialism is based upon two conflicting assumptions about human nature. On the one hand, it requires people to be so noble that they willingly expend effort in order to see their hard-earned gains go to undeserving others; on the other hand, it requires them to be so ignoble that they will happily, and at no cost to self-respect, benefit from the social good while contributing nothing to it. It denies the wisdom of our grandmothers, as expressed in the story of "The Little Red Hen". Spencer could have added that libertarianism is rooted, just as fatally, in assumptions about human nature that cannot hold up to reasoned scrutiny.

Blind faith in the inevitability of progress must be jettisoned as well. Both modern evolutionary science and recent history provide compelling evidence that natural selection and social change -- if unguided by human reason and wisdom -- are just as likely to lead to disaster as to improvement. The concept of Progress is essentially teleological: the product of a belief in guiding forces above and beyond nature. It would seem to have no place in modern humanism.

Yet another harmful idea embedded in both libertarianism and socialism is that of the state and society as one all-encompassing entity. This is the source of the libertarian idea that all external controls on the individual are inevitably rooted in centralized state power, and serve to promote it. And it is also the source of the socialist idea that all necessary controls on the individual are the sole prerogative of the state. Durkheim, as well as many sociologists after him, explained that the two levels of social organization are quite different. Society is the all-encompassing context of social interaction out of which all humans create their "selves" and have their being. It contains a number of key authority structures or institutions, only one of which is that of the governing body, or state. The fact that all behavior is rule-governed to some extent does not mean that all behavior must be controlled by state-instituted laws. There are many sources of constraints on anti-social behavior in a well-integrated society other than the top-down, authoritarian ones administered by the state. Most important, there are the bottom-up norms of community. These need to be strengthened rather than weakened if we are to avoid the twin dangers of totalitarianism and social anomie. Democracy cannot survive in the absence of a general understanding concerning the inevitable shaping function of a society's culture, and therefore of the crucial importance of democratic, communal control of the content of that culture.

If the notion of the existence of some sort of "natural right" to either liberty or equality is out -- along with that of "natural laws" guaranteeing progress, and belief in the state as all-encompassing -- what can modern humanism offer in their place? Most important, we can emphasize humankind's responsibility for constructing orderly, fair and democratic social arrangements. Nature guarantees us nothing.

I think that we can begin by agreeing on one overriding prerequisite -- the rule of law -- and two fundamental higher-order principles: justice and democracy. We all recognize the need for fairer and more democratic social relations within a context of social order. We can agree, as well, on the need for a broadly scientific approach to the identification and testing of effective and workable means to achieve and enhance such relations. All of the existentially possible and viable aspects of the ideals of individual freedom and equality can be accommodated within these four realizable and interconnected humanist objectives.

The rule of law ensures that (1) laws cannot be changed arbitrarily by a powerful leader; (2) laws are universally communicated and applied; (3) contractual obligations among citizens and between state and citizenry are upheld; and (4) social order and security of life and property are maintained. The concept of justice that I am proposing stems neither from the older notions of "natural law" nor the modern ones concerning "retributive" and "distributive" justice. Because of its emphasis on fairness to individuals interacting in the here and now, it denies the validity of the idea of "collective" or "inherited" guilt -- and therefore of the kind of ethnic- or race-based compensatory "affirmative action" which that idea implies.

For me, justice involves simply (1) equality before the law; (2) equality of responsibility for the health of the social fabric and of the cultural and physical environment, and for the economic stability of the group; and (3) equality of opportunity to achieve roles commensurate with one's ability and talents. The latter implies equal access for all women to means of preventing and/or terminating unwanted pregnancies; to prenatal and child-care; and to education and health services. It also requires equal access to a non-corrupting and non-crippling environment for socialization during childhood -- including safe public places for leisure-time activities.

Democracy can best be conceptualized as one end of a continuum, the other end of which is twentieth-century totalitarianism. The more the power to influence governmental decision making is shared among all the people -- and the more the values and interests of the governors reflect those of the governed -- the more democratic is the society. Conversely, the more such power becomes concentrated in the hands of a ruling elite whose values, interests and benefits differ radically from those of the populace, the more authoritarian the system will be. Totalitarianism is the ultimate form of authoritarian government. Here the state, in fact, usurps the function of every other institution, including the family. Indicators and guarantors of democracy are universal suffrage, the secret ballot, and an institutionalized procedure for peaceful change of government. The latter requires regular elections, the consistent and vocal presence of a viable opposition party, and a knowledgeable and reasoning citizenry.

The problem inherent in democracy is that it is absolutely dependent upon that knowledgeable and reasoning citizenry. As the social system served by government becomes more complex, democracy requires a continuous growth in wisdom, farsightedness and problem-solving capacity in the population at large . If, on the other hand, a society's culture and socialization process is exerting destructive selective pressures on cognitive ability and emotional stability -- if it is reinforcing a general increase in ignorance and gullibility -- democracy will actually function to further a downward spiral. This means that the quality of the generally available socialization (including formal schooling) is far more critical in a democracy than in an authoritarian system. We simply do not have the option of neglecting to instil in all of our children the scientific way of being in the world.

The scientific approach in politics involves a willingness to see political policies as hypotheses to be tested and evaluated in reasonably controllable contexts before being implemented in any wholesale, nation-wide manner. It implies a rejection of "holistic" programs that are impossible to evaluate until great harm has been done -- regardless of the "motherhood" terms in which these may be proposed. It requires a steadfast commitment to clearly articulated ends, and to skeptical pragmatism concerning all projected means.

The guiding principles outlined above address the concerns of feminism as well as those of humanism. I am confident that their recognition by our movement would serve to unite us and to extend our influence in the broader society. It would move us decisively beyond the futile posturing of right and left, toward a future in which naturalistic humanism might just possibly provide the political leadership now so sadly lacking in our fragile democracies.