The world urgently needs more liberty and justice, and therefore more humanism. The ethical system of humanism prioritizes these ideals at a higher level than any belief system that precedes it, since it values the life of every person in this world alone. And this worldly life is one of mutual reliance, every person depending on so many others. No one is truly human alone.
As an ethical stance, humanism focuses on the individual and at the same time concerns itself with society; both commitments must remain bonded in mutual support, otherwise humanism makes no sense. History attests to the dangers of pursuing one to the detriment of the other, producing anti-humanist results. Societies that prioritize private liberty to excess, that let individuals accumulate all the powers they can, find that vast inequalities emerge. Those inequalities congeal into hierarchical social classes and rigid castes and severely restrict freedom of opportunity for all but the privileged and wealthy. On the other hand, societies that prioritize social justice too heavily, trying to equalize everyone’s wealth and status, find that vital initiative gets crushed beyond consolation. Where bureaucracy dictates investment and commerce, creativity goes unrewarded and opportunity is wasted.
Balancing liberty and justice in healthy proportions is wiser than naively supposing that both can be maximized simultaneously. Human potential is too fragile and precious to abandon it to the caprice of private liberty or to entrust it to the rules of social justice. The individual needs freedoms within a supportive society, while society needs individuals to support the whole.
Three general principles embody the mutual dependency of individuality and sociality for humanism:
1) Humanism emerges as individuals abandon submission to religious traditions and gods that their reasoning cannot justify. Humanists have no monopoly on rationality, a common possession of all human minds.
2) Humanism relies on traditions of ethical wisdom that no individual could personally invent, while at the same time humanism defends the priority of the individual which no tradition could invalidate.
3) Humanism seeks greater freedoms and opportunities for individuals as they expand their capacities, yet humanism also fights for social justice when novel social structures disempower peoples or entire societies.
Humanism at its core, at the heart of its ethical project, is the statement of a difficult problem, and not an elitist ideology offering simple platitudes. Humanism works best as a liberating ethos within cultures as they try to balance liberty and justice. In this sense it is fundamentally about responsibility: that which each individual owes others, and also what society owes to each individual. Every society has long had to balance these personal and social obligations, and humanism is not the first to offer an ethical resolution.
For as long as humans have lived in social groups using simple moral habits to supplement warm kinship bonds, these two forms of responsibility have had our species’ attention. Large social brains instilled moral habits that competed among many other habits into succeeding generations of young brains, so that a moral mentality got passed along with many other kinds of social practices. Morality was never our strongest capacity, yet by the time humans began living in sizable clusters as herding and agriculture expanded, morality was heavily burdened with maintaining social trust and order. Morality’s burden was soon assisted by cultural reinforcements in the forms of tribal loyalty and religious piety. This powerful fusion of virtue-loyalty-piety typically sufficed for social order even as tribes entered ever-shifting alliances to form kingdoms and nations, and larger empires that soon followed.
For most of this rapid trajectory, ethics has the same pattern the world over: the virtues endorsed by one’s culture are validated by a cosmic order assigning everything its proper place. This pious formula leaves each society to assign specific virtues and duties in its own way. No higher ethics than cultural piety has prevailed over most of humanity. Only rarely has its dominance been challenged, but it has been challenged. Humanism arose in several civilizations, from Greece to China, over the past three thousand years—precisely when thinkers questioned personal ethics and social ethics in an effort to criticize and improve traditional cultures. Humanism generated from both optimism in intelligence and disappointment with society. It is no coincidence that bursts of humanistic thinking appeared mostly during times of extreme stress, such as social strife and empire disintegration. In the West, modern humanism arose when civil and religious wars wracked Europe, gained momentum in its opposition to feudalism and slavery, and found maturity expanding democracy and civil rights. Nothing insults and enrages the humanist spirit like the irredeemable waste of precious human life.
The essence of humanism is one thing; the method of humanism is another. When one questions an established set of ethics, seeking what is genuinely best for people and sifting out perceptive wisdom from blind conformity, there can be no formulaic method. Cultures already supply plenty of ethical formulas, standards of justice, and ideal hopes for life’s success. Yet their pious rigidity sets the stage for the problem, and not its solution. Humanism is the expression of a core ethical problem, not the statement of its complete solution, and it cannot know the “ultimate good” in advance—that’s what each culture claims to know already. Humanism instead arises from the emotions of sympathy with human suffering and regret for humanity’s failures. It recognizes losses before it points toward gains. It recognizes injustices before it sets a new system of justice. It sees where moral ideals let us down before it discovers worthier ideals to pursue. Humanism avoids that simple fallacy—the petulant demand for proving a perfect standard before criticizing a poor result. The human heart well knows that undeserved suffering lies before us; we need not first look up to scan the heavens overhead.
By simply outlining its self-assigned problem, today’s humanism gets targeted by the older ethical wisdom traditions it criticizes. One can picture them saying, “Who is this young upstart, this bold humanism, to challenge us? We are the repository of all the answers to what it can mean to be an encultured human, and what human excellence could be. Were humanism to reach its lofty goals, it would merely stitch together a new system from borrowed ideals, and join our pantheon as yet another cultural ethics. Where do you think we came from? Our heroic statesmen, visionaries, and prophets boldly scolded and reformed us into what we are, long before humanism. And by humanism’s own admission, many of us have been quite humanistic already. Nothing original could come of this brashness.”
How could modern humanism reply to these fair challenges? First, humanism didn’t come from nothing. The high ideals of equal dignity and worth, of fair justice for all, and enrichment of every life, were forged in the crucibles of intense friction as earlier civilizations rose and fell. Could humanism really suppose that it could set aside all cultural and religious traditions as tribalistic and ethnic curiosities fit for social history museums? Would humanism really try to start from an anonymously skeletal human, innocently bare of cultural clothing and proudly guided by pure intellect?
The only reasonable humanism trying to gradually improve people’s lives is one that starts with actual people as they really are, culture and all. Humanism opposes tribalism in any form, but it can’t stand aloof from culture itself, especially because many cultures are helpful repositories of humanistic wisdom with proven practical value. Humanism can’t simply start over, in the manner of Plato’s plan for raising up a new society from kidnapped children, or plotting rules for inhuman simulacra engaged in strategic computer games. Many deep thinkers have tried to conceptually deduce the “true” ethics from the inspirations of ancient scriptures, the purities of logical thought, or the essences of “innate humanness,” and the results mostly reconfirm prejudices and dogmas of their own eras. Thinkers on some vain quest for intuitive or authoritative certainty won’t be able to see much ethical truth arise from tentative experimental reform. However, the aim of humanistic reform is not progress towards a static abstract truth, but rather the expansion of energetic vital thriving. It isn’t necessary to know what is ethically perfect before you can know what is morally reprehensible.
Submission to cultural pieties or conceptual certainties only distracts attention from real human suffering, degradation, and disempowerment. Exposing those hidden chains of social conformity, those boundaries of “proper” thinking locked tight inside minds, requires that we keep watch over what is right in front of us: the people denied equal dignity, the people unable to rise to self-sufficiency, the people sinking deeper into degradation, and the people at the mercy of a constitution and legal system blind to social justice. And then we should look more closely for cultural ideologies that try to explain away these troubles, telling you to look the other way, proclaiming that legal justice must prevail even where social justice is weak, and blaming the victim for not being good enough to deserve any better treatment. Cultures and their endless rules expertly categorize, separate, and rank the worthy apart from the unworthy, because that’s their job, as they preserve a rigid social structure at all cost. Don’t even think that the established system could be responsible for degraded and wasted lives! In a desperate attempt to distract attention away from the system—the hierarchy, the established order, the real social forces—those blatant ideologies try to keep the underlying social system invisibly all-powerful, so that the comfortable can stay so. The system demands cultural piety towards ideological dogmas, yet strict social conformity is always ultimately about the safe comforts of some at the expense of the rest.
The humanistic sensitivity to human degradation is simultaneously hostile to strict cultural pieties, yet it honors high cultural ideals. Today’s humanism didn’t privately formulate its principles from a piece of blank paper, nor can it invent a brand new culture; its proper work happens only within existing cultures. Humanism’s ethics of liberty and justice for all matured within certain cultures, and it invigorates more and more cultures as the centuries pass. As additional societies become more humanistic and perhaps fully humanist, this welcome convergence won’t be due to any non-cultural computations or extraterrestrial influences. Only the hard work of debating values and priorities in reasonable public discussion, and organizing against oppressive powers on the ground where people live, has ever made any real difference. And to the extent that humanistic reform proves to be intelligent, there should be no surprise that common problems find similar solutions. We don’t need one world government to rule us—we need more global deliberations to guide us.
There is vast potential power to humanism, yet it tells no tales about inexorable progress or manifest destiny, nor does it reach for some static, final shape. There is nothing more revolutionary than humanism: it is the mindful condition of permanent reform by nonviolent and democratic means (for it smartly keeps its means consistent with its ends). Humanism is the stance of vigilance for new forms of repression and oppression by novel social structures, whether patriarchal, religious, civil, racial, economic, legal, or political—regardless of any cultural pieties that stand stubbornly in the way. Humanism is the most radical of ethics possible; indeed, it already transcends its “human” foundations. The twenty-first century will witness the rise of an ecological humanism that expands protection to living systems beyond just the social, human systems. Only humans can practice ethics and politics, but these things can’t only be about us—our mutual dependencies extend far beyond the human realm.
When humanists propose specific reforms to their local social order, they’re trying to reconcile personal responsibilities to social responsibilities in a fresh way, to alleviate suffering and decay. These methods should only be experimental systemic adjustments—anyone who offers a complete utopian vision isn’t a humanist. Also watch out for reformers too narrowly centered on individuals alone, or widely entranced by society as a whole. The one who cries out for more private liberty, regardless of social equality, may really be advocating for those who already got theirs to just get more. The one who cries out for more collective justice, regardless of individual freedom, may really be advocating mindless conformity to the group. Humanism in action looks more like energetic democratic politics. Respect for individual ownership of society requires dynamic public participation, from neighborhood rehabilitations up to national elections to international humanitarian and reform movements.
Any list of principles and ideals from humanist manifestos and resolutions at most affirm priorities for constant vigilance and standards that work for humanistic cultures so far. Humanism is essentially a statement of an everlasting problem: how to maintain a just balance between the individual and society, despite the novel changes that liberty continually brings. The personal and social ethics of humanism in its details must be ever-changing, because the practical meanings to such things as “equal dignity and worth” and “social justice” gradually develop as cultures slowly transform across centuries. We wouldn’t want to abide by a past society’s ways of fulfilling these ideals; naturally, if things go well for humanity, people hundreds of years in the future will find fault with our ways. We may achieve better liberty and justice in our lifetimes, but cultural change runs ahead faster than ethical problem-solving. Even our moral successes today will be regarded as immoral compromises by distant generations; they’ll point to our fine ideals, our imperfect reach, and our impotent blindness. The best we can do is hope that they’re able to regard us as part of the ever-growing humanist heritage.
Those three initial principles for humanism contain some key wisdom in this proud heritage. Humanism asks everyone to question old pieties using common sense and an open heart, without forgetting that these human resources are within everyone. Humanism can’t respect blind cultural piety, but it does recognize that religion is hardly the only source of oppression. Escaping religion only burdens the humanist with confronting vaster forces against freedom and justice, so it would be wise to recall that sound minds and good hearts are always needed as allies. Humanism urges principles of ethical wisdom for each person, without demanding submission to some wisdom tradition. Humanism isn’t just a path to inner peace or a comfortable adjustment to outer lifestyle. To prevent humanism from degenerating into a self-satisfied culture impressed by its intellectual privilege, we must forcefully sustain its radical spirit of outrage against any degradation to humanity anywhere. Finally, humanism fights for greater opportunity and empowerment of each individual, which is so necessary for any expansion of liberty, without failing to recognize how fresh powers crystallize into new forms of domination and oppression. Because humanity deserves nothing less than liberty and justice for all.
John Shook, PhD, is the education coordinator of the American Humanist Association, and teaches for the Science and the Public EdM program of the University at Buffalo.