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Chapter 7: Applying Humanism To Social Problems

Applying Humanism to Personal Problems

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Humanism as a Spur to Action

Humanism gives a point of view not only valid in personal and psychological matters but in the social and economic situations of our time. It is a stimulus and a guide to making better sense out of our complex, jumbled world.

“Our supreme responsibility is the moral obligation to be intelligent,” according to humanist pioneer Oliver L. Reiser. He believed that this is the obligation to know what is going on in the world and to see, insofar as we can, that social change is headed in a right direction. The world is going to continue to change, and those of us sufficiently stout of heart and head can help in the grand undertaking.

If ever there was a point of view which inspires considered action, and the application of theory to practice, it is that of humanism.

Consider these central ideas. We ourselves must take responsibility for making the world a better place in which to live, as there is no being or power, called by whatever name, to whom we can shift this task. We have the means to improve the world through effective use of our human abilities.

This viewpoint badgers us by saying that we can look only to ourselves for help and then encourages us by saying that we do not need any other help. What other articles of faith are so likely to stimulate purposeful action?

The Dream

Humanists are interested in making this a better world. There is no doubt as to that. What kind of a world are they working toward?

They dream of a world in which people can feel self-esteem, find outlets for their energies and opportunities to use their capacities, and have meaningful employment. They seek a world in which reasonable physical and economic needs can be satisfied, a world enriched through cultural diversity. In that world, democratic method and scientific method will be more often merged, for in essence they are relatively similar—both are based on freedom to find and to weigh new courses of action, both are opposed to giving weight to arbitrary prestige or tradition. This improved society will not be a soulless, mechanistic one left to the management of so-called experts.

Most of the citizenry will have the opportunity to take part in selecting capable representatives. The right to be different, to be oneself, will be respected. People will be ready to have more thoughtful and rational methods applied in the educational systems. Courts, hospitals, and other institutions including recreational facilities, will be available to help those requiring their services. Preventive medicine and health care will gain new ascendancy. When social and health workers and social scientists agree on ways of helping individuals and society, it will be the practice to make use of such information. As a result, much of the present mystery shrouding questions as to how humans can be more content, maintain a higher level of personal activity and well-being, and have satisfactory human interrelationships will be dissipated.

The money god and rabid consumerism will have retreated and there will be general appreciation of that ideal whereby free time for creative expression or recreation is valued as highly as mere pieces of silver.

Freedom for All

Whether or not one considers humans as pivocs (poor innocent victims of circumstance) is largely a matter of temperament. We are beset on every side with forces which crowd in on us. In the January 1, 1949, New Yorker, the liking and respect for the individual which is at the very heart of humanism was vividly expressed:

In 1949, the individual was busy fighting to retain his status. The tide was strongly against him. He fights for the security of his person, for the freedom of his conscience, for the right to speak and the right to listen and the right not to listen when the speaking is too dull or too loud. Everywhere the individual feels the state crowding him, or the corporation crowding him, or the church crowding him, or the home crowding him. The enigma today is not the energy locked in one atom but the strength stored in a single man—the ability of this man to survive when he is always half submerged in something bigger (but not really) than he is. Here, at the end of 1948, we stretch out our mitt to this fellow.

Is it not a source for wonder that humans are so magnificently resilient? Deep within us is the urge to affect circumstance, to change. The suppression of this impulse leads to personal unhappiness and dis-ease, and, in a way, to a blocking of the evolutionary process. There are psychological limits beyond which society and the environment should not press or crowd an individual.

Above all else, perhaps, humanists believe in freedom; they believe that not only is it a human’s right to speak and act freely—within the limits of public safety—but that freedom is the means by which one can develop one’s potentialities.

Behind the humanist’s convictions is the faith that life can offer much contentment and be a satisfying experience for those allowed self-respect and freedom. For some humanists the right of each person to be different, and to be comfortable in this difference, is the essence of their philosophy. For others, the emphasis is on how one’s behavior and actions affect other people.

The humanist is a profound believer in protecting the rights of all individuals, in seeing that they have equal civil liberties. Whereas there are wide differences of opinion as to the degree to which the state should regulate the lives of citizens—in such matters as regulation of private industry, labor, and price and wage controls—there is no real disagreement among them over the need of giving each citizen as much freedom as is practically possible. A wide range of kinds of government can be useful to their citizens. So long as others are not harmed, individuals should express themselves as they choose, read or watch what they choose.

We are reminded here of what Henry David Thoreau said: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music he hears.”

And remember Aldous Huxley’s observation: “Among many other things, democracy is non-interfering, is leaving other people alone.”

Humanists are in agreement that no strong country, not even the United States, should take advantage of its strength to dictate to a weaker nation how it should run its affairs. The Western world has no right to assume that it has been ordained in the heavens to be the leader and teacher of the Eastern or Southern worlds. The humanist recognizes aspects of all cultures as appropriate ways in which societies have built up reaction patterns to life.

Social Action

Humanism’s active concern for social reforms has sometimes led to its even being called applied Christianity. An evangelical Christian and a humanist often share similar emotions and practical goals in social action, though the philosophical underpinnings are different. It is noteworthy that usually where there is a vigorous effort to effect any basic social reform, such as a court case in defense of someone’s civil liberties, there is at least one acknowledged humanist actively involved.

Rational thinking is basic in the humanist philosophy. Before turning to see how this approach might be employed by someone deeply concerned with social problems, let us consider some of the activities in which many humanists are now at work. It is only fair to mention that some of these programs and causes are not approved or actively participated in by all humanists.

(1)  They encourage scientific research into the underlying reasons for social tensions and personal ill health. They encourage the widespread use of new scientific knowledge. This interest in science for humanity might be considered particularly far-reaching and characteristic.

(2) They work for civil liberties. They believe that those who would limit certain phases of our civil rights, who would spread suspicion, distrust, and dissension among ourselves, are often unaware of the harm which results from their methods. Each individual of the United States, each individual of the world, has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is the preservation and extension of these rights for which humanists fight.

(3)  They work to lessen racial antagonisms and prejudices. They consider the barriers which separate people to be primarily psychological and open to change. Education of many kinds is needed to combat the ignorance which lies behind racial hatreds and jealousies.

(4)    They are apt to give support to the United Nations and to the work of its divisions including the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the World Health Organization, and the Food and Agriculture Organization. The United Nations is not regarded as perfect but as having accomplished great good in keeping open avenues of communication and bridges among nations, and in keeping alive certain ideals. The strengthening of the United Nations will go a long way toward lessening international tensions.

(5)  In the United States they work for the continued separation of church and state. To them this separation is an underlying concept in many countries, and they exert every effort to keep it so. In public schools in the United States there are instances where children have been separated for special released-time religious classes, and it has been tragic to see the mounting hostilities and class consciousness which have resulted. Children discover sometimes for the first time that they are Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or without religious affiliation. When a public school program focuses on one type of religion, the atmosphere of democratic community can be destroyed.

(6)  They encourage all efforts to increase the world’s food supply. Growth, preservation, and distribution are equally important. It is disheartening to see food surpluses destroyed when elsewhere hunger stalks. Any controlled economy which destroys these surpluses is not functioning for the benefit of all humankind. Attention is given to distributing leftover and outdated restaurant and grocery store surpluses.

(7)  They work to extend understanding of the values of family planning and birth control. They do not believe in arbitrarily controlled parenthood but in the extension to fathers and to mothers the right to plan their own families, to have children when they can best take care of them and give them love and security. The right and ability to plan one’s own family has not as yet become universal.

(8)   They work to improve health services of all kinds, to encourage preventive medicine, to use centuries-old practices and substances from many cultures, and to awaken people to a recognition of the importance of psychological factors, including stress. A little understanding and intelligent preventive therapy can avert much mental and physical suffering and family tragedy.

(9)  They tend to have a vigorous interest in establishing and strengthening free public school systems. They resist attempts of special groups to influence public education, whether they be political or religious, business or labor. Opportunities for all children—boys and girls—should be offered on the basis of their abilities and needs and not on the basis of the color of their skin or the social background of their parents. Universal literacy and education are global concerns.

(10) They believe meaningful employment for young people is essential and recognize the shortcomings of overwrought materialistic consumerism.

(11)  They are concerned to provide education for girls and broader opportunities for all women.

(12)   They work for environmental integrity with realization that our global home has to be maintained so that it can be habitable in future centuries.

These twelve fields have one thing in common. They help individuals to enjoy greater freedom and well-being. Yet not every humanist entirely agrees on these or any other courses of social action.

It is not specific social action that is the heart of the humanist approach to social problems. Problems are endless and vary in different cultures and locations. And some problems influence other problems. For example, population increase hastens the diminishing of some natural resources; climate stresses and changes hasten the pollution of the earth, water, and sky. Moreover, people of goodwill can disagree on the best responses. So the heart of the humanist approach is to be found in the application of rational methods. This is what is fundamental.

Humanist Principles That Bear on Social Problems

Let us pause for a moment and consider four principles underlying social action.

(1) Humanists believe it is the welfare of the individual and society which counts. By this standard a humanist may examine the appropriateness of laws, governments, churches, customs, and other institutions. All institutions are measured in terms of the quality of life they promote. They are successful as they make for better living for humans.

(2) Humanists express their conviction in the value of individuals through a strong stand on human equality. They believe that no gender, race, nationality, class, or other group “is inherently qualified to ride herd over any other.” This does not mean that in some areas, cultural and economic patterns do not lead to differences. Greater equality in educational and living opportunities lessen these differences.

(3) Humanists are concerned that we all should be free to think, free to speak as we like so long as it doesn’t harm others, and free to act independently. They are concerned that no one be “pushed around.” They are opposed to totalitarianisms that impose arbitrary authority on individual thought and conduct. They are mindful of what Woodrow Wilson said in New York in 1912:

The history of liberty is a history of the limitations of governmental power, not the increase of it. When we resist… concentration of power, we are resisting the powers of death, because concentration of power is what always precedes the destruction of human liberties.

(4) Humanists are convinced that through cooperation and the intelligent use of knowledge, we can create a more satisfactory life for all.

These convictions come naturally, of course, to those who believe that there is intrinsic value in human feelings and that the happiness and the welfare of others are goals. If this life on earth is all we can look forward to, it is unthinkable that we should not make life for ourselves and others relatively satisfying and free from anxieties. By the use of our resources we can partially solve many of our problems. This has become a firm hope, almost a slogan.

And because of faith in the human ability to solve problems, it is natural that the humanist lives vigorously. We know we must and can depend on the intelligent cooperation of individuals of good will to continue to remove conditions and change attitudes which breed poverty, under-employment, hunger, war, violence, disease, fear, and prejudice.

Tackling a Social Problem

Humanists, in tackling a social problem, strive to use the scientific-democratic method. They also envision, while remaining open-minded, certain goals which they can look to as a guide and check. These would be the well-being of humankind and concern for individuals as individuals. There are no more important goals over and beyond these.

To start with, information and points of view are considered. Those that seem the most relevant are set apart. Our old friend the scientific method is in high gear.

No matter how emotionally charged the atmosphere, no matter how “close to home” the issue, the humanist would attempt to look at it freshly, honestly, objectively. When necessary, desirable, and possible, there would be an attempt to search out the opinions and experience of those on differing sides of the controversy.

They would try to weigh the effects of bias, of limited experience. If one or another solution had been tried elsewhere, they would try to ascertain how it had worked in practice. For example, let us say the desirability of changing tariffs is under discussion. They would consider what actually happened when tariffs were raised or lowered by our own and other nations. Or again, in considering the treatment of persons, they would check to find out how other states and counties handle rehabilitation projects, disciplinary measures, and parole problems.

What have been the results of the particular policy in other places?

They would attempt to remain open-minded, flexible, to face squarely the truth that what works at one place, at one time, may not work well at another place, at another time. They would be conscious of the complexity of our human life in the twenty-first century. They would not generalize on such a matter, say, as government ownership of gas, water, and electric companies. They would see that circumstances might make it an excellent policy in one country and a very questionable one in another which has a different culture and political bureaucracy.

Because of this flexibility, this dislike of generalizing, of jumping to conclusions, humanists would not be blocked or upset, for example, by hearing someone allege that such and such a policy is “un-American” or “un-German.” Our interest would be in considering what the results of such a policy might be. How would they affect citizens in different cultures?

We know that words are dangerous though necessary tools—meaning different things to different people. Sometimes words, or the meanings hastily applied to them, serve to discourage us from carefully looking into what is happening, or may happen. Tensions mount when dog-matists confront cat-egorists.

What about those cases where the humanist has little time to study or reflect, little opportunity to observe at first hand?

In those cases, we are inclined to suspend judgment, to make no pronouncement at all. We will have respect for those who have taken time and pains to investigate, or who are through training and experience fitted to make predictions more objectively. We would not go to the extreme of Ronald Reagan, who noted during his presidency that he was not an expert in matters of philosophy and ethics and so he would defer to the judgment of the pope.

At this point, someone may wonder whether humanists believe they have a monopoly on use of a kind heart, common sense, and rationality in social affairs. Certainly not.

They may, however, have a kind of advantage. For they hold in mind two things when attacking a problem: the well-being of all individuals and the necessity of using the scientific method. People generally tend to employ but one or the other of these—or have other goals entirely.

Faced with making a judgment about a political regime, a humanist would ask: Are the citizens, as individuals, subservient to any person, any class, any institution? Is there any group of citizens cut off from participating in the life of the country because of national origin or membership in any particular class or race?

So far as political party allegiance in our own country is concerned, educator and humanist pioneer William Heard Kilpatrick wrote:

A humanist may belong to any reputable party, provided that in his acceptance of this party affiliation he consistently maintains his respect for human personality and its full development, his acceptance of democratic freedom and equality joined with commitment to the common good and his determination to find out by the free play of intelligence what to think and do as he faces the successive situations of life.

Many individuals have summarized their outlook on social issues. In 1989 Ted Turner listed ten “Voluntary Initiatives” which might have been written by most other humanists:

(1)  I promise to have love and respect for the planet earth and living things thereon, especially my fellow species—humankind.

(2)  I promise to treat all persons every-where with dignity, respect, and friendliness.

(3)  I promise to have no more than two children, or no more than my nation suggests.

(4)  I promise to use my best efforts to save what is left of our natural world in its untouched state and to restore damaged or destroyed areas where practical.

(5)  I pledge to use as little nonrenewable resources as possible.

(6)  I pledge to use as little toxic chemicals, pesticides, and other poisons as possible and to work for their reduction by others.

(7)  I promise to contribute to those less fortunate than myself, to help them become self-sufficient and enjoy the benefits of a decent life, including clean air and water, adequate food and health care, housing, education, and individual rights.

(8)  I reject the use of force, in particular military force, and back United Nations arbitration of international disputes.

(9)  I support the total elimination of all nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction.

(10)  I support the United Nations and its efforts to collectively improve the conditions of the planet.

Turner became the Humanist of the Year of the American Humanist Association in 1990.

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