Humanism and Politics: are they separable?
August 27, 2015
For better or worse, the practice of most of our active philosophies takes place in the context of some political system. Whether your personal politics are authoritarian, libertarian, democratic, socialist, or anarchist, you live and communicate in some public sphere that is guided and restrained by laws, rules, and regulations developed under some regime on some part of the political spectrum. Even on the high seas, we are subject to international treaties as members of states, as passport holders, as subjects of the nations that enter into those agreements. We are all necessarily immersed in politics, even if we feel apolitical.
Like many of you, I consider myself a humanist. Humanism has a long and rich philosophical history, and has expressed itself in modern polities to varying degrees. Modern liberalism, by which freedom, reasoned rule-making, and a human-centric concern with the here-and-now reflects many of our humanist values. How much variety in types of politics can exist consistent with humanism?
Paul Kurtz once reflected that Marx was the foremost humanist of the 19th century, and also that the failure of Marxist states cast the future of political humanism into turmoil. Humanist Manifestos I and II reflected many of the political doctrines of Democratic Socialism, although III appears to make a conscious effort to shy away from it. To be honest, most of my humanist friends appear to consider themselves to be on the “left” of the political spectrum, though some are left-libertarians and some are social democrats. I have had debates with friends and colleagues since the Bush era as to whether one could be a humanist and hold political views consistent with the political “right.” As we enter another presidential election season, it is worth revisiting the question: can humanism be apolitical? I believe it can, to a point.
Counter-examples of humanists on the political “right” do exist historically, but analysis is complicated by the apparently shifting nature of the political spectrum in the United States. Sidney Hook, who was a humanist and fervent anti-communist, allied himself more closely with the then political right. Modern pundit George Will considers himself a “none” and embraces policies that have long been associated with the political right, though one might debate his attachment to humanism. Christopher Hitchens would comfortably fall into the same part of the spectrum as Will, and was an outspoken and self-identifying humanist. Among other things, Humanists abide by a reason-guided, secular, ethical life-stance grounded in experience, contingency, and action. There is no one litmus test to see whether someone is a “good” humanist, and voting records are not a clear indicator. Humanists did not universally oppose the Iraq War, for instance, and have voted for candidates from either of the two major political parties without relinquishing their humanism, and likely in part inspired by it.
The trouble is, as I mentioned above, the spectrum appears to be shifting. The modern “right” isn’t what it used to be. Even Barry Goldwater, “Mr. Conservative” would have a hard time justifying his conservative bona fides among the crowd of those seeking the Republican nomination this year. Nearly all appear to embrace an anti-humanist conflation of church and state as well as some anti-science positions. In some ways, Nixon and Reagan too would be to the left of the current slate of GOP candidates. (I recommend Rick Perlstein’s trilogy on Goldwater, Nixon, and Reagan for a good picture of how the politics has significantly shifted the GOP center of gravity).
Which is not to say that the Republican Party is exclusively anti-humanist, and I have humanist friends who are still registered Republicans who bemoan the theological shift in their party. As humanists, we should seek to broaden our impact on the political process, help maintain our philosophical outlook in a robust public debate, and yet feel free to abide by any variety of political philosophies. Humanists on the right and those on the left should collectively strive to save the political sphere from being subsumed by retrograde tribalism and anti-liberal (with a small ‘l’) forces. But we should also be respectful and mindful that we need not all share the same political leanings, we need not vilify those who disagree, and that at the heart of our debates about the future of the republic are common concerns for human well-being, enlightenment values, and liberalism in its most positive, non-partisan forms. Justice John Paul Stevens noted that political parties themselves ranked high on the list of evils contemplated by the framers, citing Federalist 10 as a source (California Democratic Party v. Jones, 530 U.S. 567, 592 (2000)). In my experience, and in this day of immediate unfiltered global discussion via social networks, I’d say he had a point.