A hybrid vision of humanism

The following is an excerpt from Chapter Five of David McKnight, 'Beyond Right and Left: New Politics and the Culture War', (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2005).

Why humanism?

Humanism emphasises a commitment to the interests and needs of human beings. Placing human needs at the centre of this world view means establishing a concrete reference point for measuring well being, rather than an abstract principle, whether it is liberty or equality. It also means acknowledging an inevitable complexity. The good society must satisfy needs which pull in opposite directions - for diversity and autonomy as well as for solidarity and community. The good society is thus a balance between state, markets and civil society. Human needs are both physical and psychological and arise from our status as evolved creatures. Making our needs foundational not only means aspiring to fulfill them at the personal and social level. It also means rejecting the social theories that suggest that human beings are completely malleable and therefore perfectible. This is because our needs are an expression of our evolved nature which has limits and is not completely plastic.

Humanism expresses a moral idea of the preciousness of all humans. It is statement that the value of humans derives from worldly circumstances and not from divine origin nor the possession of a soul. Humanism asserts the equal worth of all humans. It expresses a belief that human reasoning is a better guide to knowledge that relying on custom or religious belief. It is a claim that in determining the truth no one has a special claim by virtue of their authority. It favours equality of people and autonomy of individuals.

Humanism emphasises the fundamental similarities between people and emphasises that whatever nationality or culture in which we grow up, we are members of a common humanity. It is a planetary vision. It favours tolerance because it recognises diversity and difference without ignoring commonalties. As a set of ideas humanism is the possession of neither the Right nor the Left.

But why new humanism?

Traditional humanism of the Enlightenment is not enough and certain interpretations of humanism can be wrongheaded or even dangerous. There are at least four ways in which this has occurred. First, focussing on human needs exclusively can reinforce the attitude that humans should and can conquer the natural world with impunity. A narrow, short term human-centred worldview can lead to the disregard of the ecological interdependence of all life forms. This approach to humanism, for example, has little to say on cruelty to animals. We need a planet fit for humans and this means that human needs must be moderated to fit in with the requirements of the planet. Among other things, creating a sustainable society based on human values will necessitate stopping the growth of human population and accepting limits on human material desires.

Second, like many other sets of ideas, humanism can be ethnocentric, expressing a view, for example, in which 'humans' are defined as living in European and Christian societies and others are less than fully human. The ideal of a common humanity which is the common ground of the planet's people regardless of the enormously diverse cultures in which they live is vital here.

Similarly and thirdly, a pseudo-humanism has existed for a long time which assumed humans were males. Masculine qualities and tendencies were accepted as the norm against which women were judged different and inferior. The autonomous individual with calculating self-interest conforms to a masculine model whereas the person enmeshed in webs of relationships who feels obligations of care conforms to a feminine model. These opposite tendencies need to be re-balanced in favour of the feminine so that we can reach a humanist world view which is a hybrid of both. Reason and rationality are not enough to explain the world or to give humans a moral sense. Emotions and instincts are real and central to the human experience

Fourth, by damning religious dogma, humanism also tends to reject any spiritual dimension to human life although this is a core characteristic of humans and their societies. This spiritual dimension is most obviously expressed in religion but it also appears elsewhere. Creativity and an aesthetic sense are often expressions of this. So too is a sense of transcendence and interdependence with the natural world. The belief in a higher ethical good is often tied to the various senses of a spiritual dimension to life.

In proposing the ideas of new humanism I have identified valuable aspects of liberalism, socialism and conservatism. These are important in fleshing out new humanist values. I now want signal two new sources of ideas from which a new humanism can be enriched. These sources are, first, caring values, sometimes expressed as an 'ethic of care'; second, conservation values associated with ecological sustainability and humans' interdependence with other living things on the planet.

Caring values

I touched on the idea of an ethic of care and caring values in Chapter 7. The idea developed out of a particular strand of feminism which supported a wider role for women, but also saw great value in the caring and nurturing traditionally performed by women. Such feminists argued that a central problem of patriarchal societies is that this caring activity is under valued and denigrated both at the level of the family and the society.

Caring is important because it names a human activity with a deep moral dimension which is often invisible in daily life and which is ignored in much political and social theory.

A focus on caring values is vital in any new philosophy beyond right and left. It enriches the more traditional notions of equality and justice as well as adding a new concept to the idea of a good society involving emotion as well as reason. Some have argued that it provides a new dimension to social and political theory and to philosophy in general. Caring is a deeply human practice, more basic than production, exchange or contracting and such a recognition can be 'a painful, worrying and ultimately humbling fact'.

While caring values have not yet been integrated into a political philosophy, some forms of social caring have been with us for a while. I would argue that it underlay a variety of social reforms around the welfare state, for which both the traditional left and the social liberals fought.. Some early founders of the welfare state consciously argued that the 'maternal' values of care and compassion from the family should be extended to the state while the 'masculine' values of autonomy and equality were extended into the family. The idea of caring values has a wider applicability than the family, the caring professions and the welfare state. The ethos of caring can be applied to the relationship between humans and nature, embracing the need to care for the complex biological systems which sustain life on the planet. This kind of caring values is an important new element in an outlook like new humanism. It involves a far broader notion than existing notions of caring which often insist that women must always prefer to perform caring labour before considering their own individual needs.

In an outlook like new humanism the philosophic ideal of caring would become as frequent and as important as the philosophic ideal of equality. And like the vexed notion of equality there will always be a continual debate about what it means in given circumstances.

Conservation values

Conserving the biological bases of life is not a problem which any traditional political philosophy has ever had to deal with until recently. For a series of obvious reasons any new philosophy beyond Right and Left must deal with this difficult problem. At its most profound level this involves thinking about humans' relationship to nature. Or rather, human's position as part of nature, since the ecological crises reminds us that we are a species of animals and as inescapably dependent on clean air, drinkable water and productive soil as all other animals. We live on the skin of a planet within a biosphere consisting of the lands, seas, atmosphere, rivers, forests and all the living organisms they support and within which we survive. All these interact to produce oxygen, to nurture life and recycle wastes (such as carbon dioxide). In both an evolutionary sense and a practical sense they are central to defining who we are as a species. They are a heritage par excellence.

Conservation values emphasise that the current inhabitants of the planet are stewards of the biosphere which is part of a heritage for succeeding generations of humans. This is actually a very old idea, expressed in conservative philosophy most famously by Edmund Burke's view that society was a contract 'not only between those who are living but between those who are living, those who are dead and those to be born.' This is the opposite to the short term view of neo-liberalism which discards traditions of all kinds, including that of our environmental heritage.

Conservation values are those which deem as right actions which tend to protect and sustain the biosphere. They deem as wrong those actions which permanently damage the biosphere. They emphasize the holistic and interconnected nature of the biological heritage of which we are part. Conservation values entail being guided by the intrinsic logic of these natural processes, for instance in designing an economy, rather than solely relying on imposed rationalistic measures. Conservation values promote empathy with the natural world and see it as having intrinsic value. Conservation values may actually have some basis in the human psyche. Some speculate that humans need to relate to nature for reasons other than physical sustenance and that this innate need encompasses 'the human craving for aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual meaning and satisfaction'.

The conservation or 'green' values which will enrich a new humanist approach are found in neither liberalism nor socialism which have a shared view of endless progress and which assume no limits should be placed on the economy or on humans' needs. By contrast conservation values involve a recognition of limits and the concept of 'enough'. Conservatives prefer the 'sufficient to the superabundant', as Oakeshott said. The concept of 'enough' is an important assertion in the face of the radicalism of neo-liberal economics and their growth fetish. The intersection of conservation and 'green' values with aspects of conservative philosophy is paradoxical yet it is a sign of the new times we live in. Conservatism of a 'green' kind and conservation values are opposed to 'the ever more invasive intrusions of a world system that can afford to leave nothing alone, but that must open new pathways to profit deep in the still unexploited fastnesses of the heart, the secret depths of the psyche,-to be radical now is to say that we have had enough of the industrialisation of humanity.' To be radical now is to be conservative, in some sense.

The new humanism is a broad philosophical view of the world. For it to be relevant to politics and contemporary society it needs to be expressed in a more concrete, less abstract form which has an application to politics. In my view this is best described as a new moral framework as a basis for political action.