Social Justice and Humanism: Embracing Pluralism in Value Theory

December 8, 2014

There is some disagreement as to whether “we” as humanists ought to take stands regarding social justice, as a group, with some vocal opponents correctly pointing out that atheism provides no basis for making moral judgments. Indeed, even humanism provides no one, solid, scientific basis for making moral judgments. It is among the many embarrassments of philosophy in general that we have failed to solve the problem of “the good” in any satisfactory way. Philosophical humanism does indeed have a history of addressing the problem, but any honest skeptical and scientific approach to existing disagreements about the nature of “the good” leads to the conclusion that the solutions that exist are provisional, contingent, subject to debate, and ultimately still in flux. Unless we wish to adopt a “faith” in a particular set of moral principles, standards, or measure, we must admit that we cannot know the answers to moral questions with certainty, and that to be honest brokers we must admit of debate and disagreement. However, this is not the end of moral theory, nor does it mean that “the good” does not exist. When pressed about my own moral sense, I admit I have embraced a pluralistic approach.

Let's consider physics. For decades physicists have been trying to reconcile at least two views of the physical realm: general relativity vs. quantum physics. One pluralistic response to the “disunity” of the sciences is simply to admit that while there are obviously fundamental universal laws that govern the natural universe, our various incommensurable models describing the universe at various levels (the micro, vs. the macro, for instance) pose no threat to each other when describing their individual domains. Simply put, we can recognize the usefulness of various models without necessarily concerning ourselves with their ultimate “truth.” Indeed, numerous attempts to create unifying models exist, some of which might turn out to be better than the currently incommensurable yet generally accepted models, and each of these attempts may yet have worth. One might argue that this disunity, the various schools of competing theories and approaches and pluralism in the marketplace of ideas in the sciences drives forward actual discoveries through competition. It could well be that we will never reconcile the various models at various levels of reality, or perhaps all our existing theories are only rough approximations that never got it quite right to begin with, and future physicists will look back at the naivety of early physicists. In any event, science proceeds pluralistically, even while many assume there is fundamental unity at its core, somewhere in nature some truth exists that we seek to understand. Meanwhile, let a thousand schools of thought contend.

In ethics, we are in a similar situation, I'd argue. Certainly philosophers have attempted to create grand, universal theories of the good and the philosophical literature and various traditions have benefitted mostly by those attempts. As well, there may in fact be a “truth” somewhere in nature regarding the existence of the good, as any good skeptic must admit given the absence of its falsification at a theoretical level. Several major schools of thought contend for the title of grand ethical theory, including Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism. Anyone who has taken an introductory ethics course has been exposed to these, and would have also been introduced to the problems and contradictions involved among them, as well as unsatisfactory cases involving the application of each. The “truth” of the matter could well be that there is no “good” and philosophers have argued for moral nihilism or relativism in the face of philosophy's failure to reconcile competing views as well as our failure to observe the good in action or in thought in any coherent, universal, scientific way. Nonetheless, many of us act as though there is a good, that it matters, and that we are somehow responsible to each other in ways that are not purely instrumental. There is a such a thing as society, and talk of justice resonates in our societies and over time as though there is such a thing as the good, and that it can come to be reflected both in our behaviors and in our institutions. Underlying our systems of justice at every level (private, public, and social) is the assumption that we are guided by some notion of the good which these institutions should reflect. As in physics, where we assume that nature has truths we try to model however imperfectly, a pluralistic approach to the good admits that despite our competing and sometimes conflicting notions about ethics, there is a there, there. Numerous forms of social objects (created by our collective intentionality) exist, including the many institutions we have devised to try to apportion justice, to try to distribute fairly benefits and losses, and to redress harms. Social justice is certainly something that we as human beings living in social arrangements must grapple with, and humanist approaches to the world suggest certain commonly accepted “goods” attached to the notion of social justice, including at the very least that we are all entitled to be treated equally and with dignity. Beyond that, a pluralistic approach to the problem of the good also suggests that regardless of your own intuitions and moral approach, it is worthwhile to try express them, to debate their values, to instantiate the good as we each feel best, and to coordinate our investigation and action in ways that tend to lead to the good despite our differences of approach.

I feel passionately that social justice is at the heart of humanism, inasmuch as the search for the good and bettering the plight of humankind is central to humanistic philosophy and has been for centuries. My pluralism means I am not dogmatic about any particular philosophical approach to the problem of justice, but I personally cannot embrace nihilism or relativism because each leads to unsatisfactory ends which conflict with my strong intuitions. I don't think this ultimately any less scientific than embracing string theory as a solution to the disunity of the sciences. We're not (as humanists and skeptics) all going to agree on the measure of the good, nor whether it even exists or could be measured, but physicists disagree about some pretty fundamental things too. In contending, in debating, in arguing, and in acting even where we disagree, we improve and we move the fields to which we commit ourselves forward, and who knows, maybe we'll get closer to the truth, or even better, a more just world.


#1 melvin on Wednesday December 10, 2014 at 12:04pm

“It is among the many embarrassments of philosophy in general that we have failed to solve the problem of “the good” in any satisfactory way.”

Perhaps we cannot solve a problem which we cannot frame in intelligible language. “The Good” tries to locate an entity so vague and abstract that philosophy should abandon the “analytic” problem in in favor of fresh language providing helpful descriptions and narratives of moral behavior from an actual point of view situated in an actual environment. 

Following the suggestion of the pragmatist Richard Rorty, perhaps what we should be asking instead is: “what are our purposes and interests in relation to specific circumstances and what practices, always subject to pragmatic-empirical revision, are likely to facilitate our purposes and interests.”

I would also warn secular humanism against the overuse of laudatory abstractions like “social justice” which in themselves are referentially vacuous but ripe for subversive propaganda use.

The demagogue can too easily use the term to enforce her own self-serving ideology while numbing or proscribing the critical conscience of her audience.


#2 David (Guest) on Friday December 12, 2014 at 9:27am

Indeed, thus my careful explication and defense of the contingency of the good, for the very fears you rightly express. Thank you for your comment.

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