Humanism: Progressive Philosophy at Odds with Itself
ABSTRACT: Humanism is a longstanding intellectual tradition dedicated to moral, aesthetic, and social perfectibility. Classical liberalism and modern libertarianism are products of classical humanist thinking; so is Enlightenment humanism, which substituted science and secular reason for theological dogma and ignorant superstition. Today’s progressive humanist movement, by contrast, transcends freedom, liberty, and reason by seeking utopian perfection through flawed secular dogma and compulsory communitarianism. This article traces the development of humanist thinking and argues that humanism’s progressive values cannot be achieved via compulsory means, as evinced by the repeated failure of intellectual attempts to transform functioning societies into social utopias. Perfectibility—within the realm of inherent human possibility—is possible only through the philosophy of classical liberalism.
KEYWORDS: humanism, liberalism, libertarianism, progressivism, unitarianism
James A. Montanye ([email protected]) is retired from economics consulting. He lives in Falls Church, Virginia.
“[O]ne should not require precision in all pursuits alike, but in each field precision varies with the matter under discussion and should be required only to the extent to which it is appropriate to the investigation.” – Aristotle ([n.d.] 1962, 18)
“Men, almost certainly, are capable of more than they have ever so far achieved. But what they achieve…will be a consequence of their remaining anxious, passionate, discontented human beings. To attempt, in the quest for perfection, to raise men above that level is to court disaster; there is no level above it, there is only a level below it.” – Passmore ( 2000, 258)
Humanism is a longstanding intellectual tradition dedicated to the moral, aesthetic, and social “perfectibility of man” (the Marquis de Condorcet introduced the phrase; see Passmore  2000 for coverage). Today’s humanist movement bills itself as “a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity” (American Humanist Association 2003). Its declared mission is “to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe” (ibid.). The movement nevertheless has transformed classical humanism’s penchant for the humanities into the flexible set of progressive political beliefs and values espoused by self-styled humanists, for whom perfection entails a fanciful stream of something-for-nothing social benefits, financed from a perpetual endowment of national economic surplus that is presumed to flow regardless of the productive behavioral incentives that foster economic growth. Formal membership in humanist organizations at all levels is estimated to be less than fifty thousand; perhaps ten times that number access humanist websites via social media. These numbers are misleading in part: progressive humanist values presently are shared by a substantial majority of Americans.
The essence of contemporary humanism is summarized by the prominent academic psychologist, and self-identified Enlightenment humanist, Steven Pinker:
The goal of maximizing human flourishing—life, health, happiness, freedom, knowledge, love, richness of experience—may be called humanism….It is humanism that identifies what we should try to achieve with our knowledge. It provides the ought that supplements the is. It distinguishes true progress from mere mastery….There is a growing movement called Humanism, which promotes a non-supernatural basis for meaning and ethics: good without God. (Pinker 2018, 410)
Pinker’s embrace of humanism is in tension with his earlier stance against the progressive intellectual tendency toward “the denial of human nature” (Pinker 2002): he argues in that context that perfectibility must flow from human nature as it is; he opposes adopting hypothetical measures of perfection that are predicated upon normative imaginings of what human nature ought to be. The conflict between ought and is—between logic and experience—sets humanism at odds with itself.
This essay argues instead that human perfectibility cannot be achieved via progressive humanist means. Rather, it can be achieved—to the extent inherently possible—only through the philosophy and economics of classical liberalism, by which ordinary individuals remain free to perfect themselves and their societies through human creativity and voluntary cooperation.
Progressive humanist philosophies, when implemented, degenerate perforce into tyrannies that are regressive and dystopian. These ineluctable outcomes ironically preclude the possibility of true human perfectibility by obliging individuals to believe and obey normative creedal doctrines that are derived from false a priori axioms that run counter to inherent human nature. The upshot is social and political discord, domestic violence (alternatively characterized nowadays as “domestic terrorism” and mental illness), rising rates of suicide (particularly among the police and soldiers who are charged with enforcing progressive policies), alcoholism, drug addiction, and penal incarceration. These outcomes are inevitable for a variety of sufficient reasons, the principal ones being that the progressive intellectuals espousing humanist doctrines are neither omniscient nor Platonically passionless. The digitalization of homeland security, public finance, and regulatory compliance has facilitated progress toward the progressive movement’s warped vision of “true liberty” à la Rousseau (see, for example, Gupta et al. 2017).
The humanist movement has tempered its aggressive stance in recent decades, downplaying radical means for achieving perfection. The movement’s progressive ends nevertheless imply compulsive means. Tiffany Jones Miller, among many historians, explains how progressive intellectuals of all stripes have “discarded the Founders’ conception of individual freedom as natural rights in favor of a new conception of freedom synonymous with the fullest possible development or ‘perfection’ of human nature” (Miller 2012, 227). The conception of democratic citizenship has shifted, from being one of negative freedom (i.e., the absence of official compulsions), to one of compulsory, positive freedoms that ostensibly enable “the people” collectively to prosper and flourish at normatively higher levels. The meaning of “liberalism” became inverted (perverted) by Progressive Era social thinkers (especially Herbert Croly and Walter Lippmann) to suit this changed notion of freedom within industrial American democracy. Miller quotes the Progressive theologian Samuel Zane for the proposition that “true liberty is a positive thing, and to consider its negative aspects alone is to miss its high and divine significance” (227).
Humanism expresses itself through culture, “that uniquely human realm of artifice in which human beings escape their natural animality to express rational humanity as the only beings who have a ‘supersensible faculty’ for moral freedom” (Arnhart 1998, 64). To this end, progressive humanism emphasizes secular reason and science, accepts humanity as an evolved aspect of Nature, and (following Aristotle) recognizes that ethical values represent pragmatic means for satisfying individual needs and interests. It goes on to characterize stylized visions of human fulfillment, the moral significance of relationships, and the fundamental elements of happiness—a litany representing “not what [humanists] must believe but a consensus of what [humanists] do believe” (American Humanist Association 2003).
Progressive humanists ironically are willing, and often eager, to trade off human liberty—nominally a cardinal humanist value—for the sake of perfecting not only “the people,” but also the human species as a whole, and to do so regardless of the cost to discrete individuals. But why stop with perfecting humanity? Pinker notes that “[d]espite the word’s root, humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals” (Pinker 2018, 410). The balance of this essay confines itself to the human species alone.
Ideals of human perfectibility are neither universal nor consistent among humanists. The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain saw perfection in a fusion between spirituality and the humanities. Earlier humanists imagined that humanity could perfect itself as a species via active and passive eugenics policies. Modern humanists accept the necessity of social discipline and sacrifice, especially among other individuals. The French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle claimed that “[t]he self-sacrifice of individuals for the sake of the community, suffering made glorious—those two things which are the basic elements of the profession of arms—respond to both our moral and aesthetic concepts. The noblest teachings of philosophy and religion have found no higher ideals….Had not innumerable soldiers shed their blood there would have been no Hellenism, no Roman civilization, no Christianity, no Rights of Man and no modern developments” (de Gaulle  1960, 14, 69), and therefore no humanism. President Woodrow Wilson shared de Gaulle’s sunny view of militaristic perfection: “I am an advocate of peace, but there are some splendid things that come to a nation through the discipline of war” (quoted in Goldberg 2007, 107; see Pinker 2018, 165 for other examples). Humanism admits a broad range of values, and much of it is intrinsically contradictory.
Progressive humanists believe that even the most reluctant individuals would voluntarily embrace a perfected world in which secular authorities orchestrate, via combinations of noble lies, nudges, and coercion, a normative mix of compulsory economic cooperation and exchange, self-sacrifice, and arbitrary visions of social justice, culminating in a utopian “end of history.” Regrettably, attempts to effect perfected states of nature and grace—from the French Revolution to modern times—have ended in abject horror, followed eventually by regression to humanity’s inherently egoistic nature. The fanciful hopes and denials of progressive intellectuals nevertheless spring eternal. The economist and Nobelist F. A. Hayek observed that
Most people are still unwilling to face the most alarming lesson of modern history: that the greatest crimes of our time have been committed by governments that had the enthusiastic support of millions of people who were guided by moral impulses. It is simply not true that Hitler or Mussolini, Lenin or Stain, appealed only to the worst instincts of their people: they also appealed to some of the feelings which also dominate contemporary democracies. (Hayek 1976, 134)
Progressive philosophies that purport to “make democracy work for everyone” by establishing elected tyrannies have made most ordinary individuals worse off most of the time by leveling people downward rather than uplifting them.
Humanists, aided and abetted by an indefinitely large number of parallel progressive movements, are in the vanguard of modern intellectual excesses. Success and failure by their lights tends to be judged by the elegance of their theories and intentions, while foreseeable adverse outcomes are ignored. The historian and philosopher of science Timothy Ferris considers a parallel case:
French revolutionaries suffered two closely related misfortunes. First, they neglected the fundamental lesson of science and liberalism—that the key to success is to experiment and to abide by the results—assuming instead that the point of a revolution was to implement a particular philosophy. Second, they chose the wrong philosophy. (Ferris 2010, 113)
The economist Julian Simon explained that
Many unselfish well-off persons think they know better than do poor people what is good for the poor and for the world. Most of us secretly believe that we know how some others should live their lives better than they themselves know. But this belief matters only when it is hitched up with arrogance and the willingness to compel others to do what we think they ought to do.” (Simon 1996, 542)
Hayek explains the roots of this hubris:
The intellectual, by his whole disposition, is uninterested in technical details or practical difficulties. What appeals to him are the broad visions, the specious comprehension of the social order as a whole which a planned system promises….there can be few more thankless tasks at present than the essential one of developing the philosophical foundation on which the further development of a free society must be based. Since the man who undertakes it must accept much of the framework of the existing order, he will appear to many of the more speculatively minded intellectuals merely as a timid apologist for things as they are; at the same time he will be dismissed by men of affairs as an impractical theorist….If he takes advantage of such support as he can get from men of affairs, he will almost certainly discredit himself with those on whom he depends for the spreading of his ideas. (Hayek  1990, 20, 22).
Intellectual humanist philosophy persists, because it provides an efficient platform for signaling the professional, intellectual, and social virtues of conformity, cooperation, and trustworthiness.
The first two sections below illuminate humanism’s intellectual history. The third section critiques its false presuppositions, and the final section argues that humanism itself is perfectible only through classical liberalism.
1. CLASSICAL HUMANISM: MORE, COMTE, AND CROLY
Classical humanism unfolds along a bright line running through Thomas More’s sixteenth-century utopian vision, August Comte’s nineteenth-century “positivism,” and the progressivism of Comte’s twentieth-century American disciple Herbert Croly. These three visions are summarized below.
Humanist thinking dates to antiquity, although humanism per se is attributed to a handful of sixteenth-century Renaissance thinkers. Chief among them were the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus and the English philosopher and courtier Sir Thomas More; the latter was immortalized in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons (1966). Erasmus and More were friends and mutual admirers: Erasmus advised friends to read More’s novel Utopia if they “wished to see the true source of all political evils” (quoted in More  1806, 10).
More’s novel is styled as a colloquy between himself and a traveler, Raphael Hythloday, who recounts his impressions of life among the Utopians. The Utopians’ spirit of peace and brotherhood epitomized human perfection: few laws were needed to control these eusocial (highly social) people and their benevolent government, and economic resources miraculously were abundant despite economic prosperity generally being no greater than in antiquity (see DeLong 1998). Like the socialist author Upton Sinclair upon his return from a chaperoned tour of the Soviet Union, Hythloday believed that he had seen the future and that it worked.
More’s characterization of Utopia’s attainments echoes loudly within progressive humanist thinking. Consider, for example, this exchange between Hythloday, More, and a fellow interlocutor regarding political economy:
I must freely own that as long as there is any property, and while money is the standard of all other things, I cannot think that a nation can be governed either justly or happily: not justly, because the best things will fall to the share of the worst men; nor happily, because all things will be divided among a few (and even these are not in all respects happy), the rest being left to be absolutely miserable. Therefore, when I reflect on the wise and good constitution of the Utopians, among whom all things are so well governed and with so few laws, where virtue hath its due reward, and yet there is such an equality that every man lives in plenty—when I compare with them so many other nations that are still making new laws, and yet can never bring their constitution to a right regulation; where, notwithstanding every one has his property, yet all the laws that they can invent have not the power either to obtain or preserve it, or even to enable men certainly to distinguish what is their own from what is another’s, of which the many lawsuits that every day break out, and are eternally depending, give too plain a demonstration—when, I say, I balance all these things in my thoughts, I grow more favourable to Plato, and do not wonder that he resolved not to make any laws for such as would not submit to a community of all things; for so wise a man could not but foresee that the setting all upon a level was the only way to make a nation happy; which cannot be obtained so long as there is property, for when every man draws to himself all that he can compass, by one title or another, it must follow that, how plentiful soever a nation may be, yet a few dividing the wealth of it among themselves, the rest must fall into indigence. (More  1806, 62–63)
More, speaking as himself, and foreshadowing the tenets of classical liberalism, responded skeptically to Hythloday’s rosy account:
it seems to me men cannot live conveniently where all things are common. How can there be any plenty where every man will excuse himself from labour for as the hope of gain doth not excite him, so the confidence that he has in other men’s industry may make him slothful. If people come to be pinched with want, and yet cannot dispose of anything as their own, what can follow upon this but perpetual sedition and bloodshed, especially when the reverence and authority due to magistrates falls to the ground? For I cannot imagine how that can be kept up among t
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