Interesting and provocative talk by Graham Bell at Central London Humanist Group meet-up last night.
A bit of a curate’s egg: Partly a call to humanists to be political – involved in policy of what should be done – and partly his own idiosyncratic call to socialism a la Cuba, at least as a case study. The connection being the overlap of interests between socialism and humanism where, barring the atheistic element, either might be a sub-set of the other (Discuss).
The non-partisan call to political action focussed on a survey of third-party perceptions of humanism. Fairly clear in terms of what it claims to be against (the dogmatic, the supernatural, the irrational, etc), but massive confusion over what it is for, with part of the confusion arising from the difference between humanism (its substantive content) and humanists (their functional actions), the latter often used to infer the former.
Quite rightly and naturally, many different individual humanists and humanist groups have their own agendas, from militant campaigning to more thoughtful developments. Humanism defined by this functional variety couldn’t be anything other than broad and confused – even paradoxical (and perversely, if you are a campaigning organisation, that divide & conquer effect might suit your agenda). What is missing (*) is any substantive agreement on what humanism itself is and what it should be for policy-wise.
Freedom(s) – sure. Democracy – sure, if you can arrange the real thing. Natural Rationality – sure, but as defined how and by whom. Mostly, but not entirely, the humanist audience such as last night’s espouses a “left-leaning (social), free (democratic)” political stance, with different levels of reaction against the risks and excesses of also espousing capitalist, market arrangements, from zero to militant. My response to this is as follows:
The freedoms of thought and expression aspect is reasonably well captured, though that is not definitively humanistic. Democracy is inevitably imperfect in practice in terms of freedoms to influence, which raises the question of how “should” free democratic arrangements be improved. Addressing “should” questions with natural rationality leads us straight to natural ethics or morality, as Graham also noted. Partly that’s about the process (as free, and as democratic as you can make it work, see above) and partly it’s about values, things with inherent worth. ‘Twas ever thus.
What is missing is a set of values to which humanism subscribes. Remember these are “values” not fixed targets or definitive aims, more principles and guidelines. If we believe morality evolves naturally, then we need to allow values to evolve. I picked-up two examples to illustrate the kinds of things that need to be covered:
(1) A topical discussion in “left-leaning, free-democratic”circles is that the intellectual left does not properly value conservatism, or in Graham’s words “tradition” cited as an anathema to rational thinking. It’s a common knee-jerk to reject it. Freedom and natural rationality says that all “should” decisions are open to free consideration of all possibilities, debated on their own values, merits, evidence and consequences. However, natural evolution relies on both fidelity and fecundity. New arrangements mutate from old arrangements, but must mostly be near copies of previous arrangements, on each cycle of implementation and change. Natural rationality recognises the natural value of conserving “traditional” arrangements – questioning them sure, but not rejecting them out of hand, or relegating them to the same level as all other conceivable options, simply for being traditional.
(2) Another example came out of a contentious difference of opinion over income disparity in capitalist market economies. Hilary Leighter (a humanist celebrant) commented from the floor that the “worth” of a human was their humanity, not their bank balance or income, and therefore wealth disparity was really only a secondary humanistic concern … except (apparently) where such differences were between “huge” and “tiny” cases. Clearly financial wealth differences are value judgements not numbers. What they really value is relative freedom and influence in the “free democratic” social-econo-political arrangements. Wealth disparity is a surrogate subjective measure of the success in the complex workings of the whole system. There is a value lurking in there, worth making explicit, but it’s not going to be defined (and certainly not agreed) as a quantifiable difference or ratio.
[Post Note : couldn’t help noticing in the post-talk discussions in the pub afterwards, that Wittgenstein rules. So little of the language of free discourse can be definitive. Still fun though.]
[Post Note (*): IHEU statements on “What is Humanism” – better than BHA paraphrases, some detail worth working to improve – following the “when it comes to values, less definitive is better” approach.]