Humanism and Global Issues: A Heretical View
A discussion of Humanism in a global context raises some difficult issues for me, especially when the discussion is to be among American Humanists. In any case, my perspective here may be of interest for two reasons. First, I have had the recent experience of working with Humanists in many other countries as the editor for six years of the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s magazine International Humanist. Secondly, although I am a North American, my culture is not American.
The following questions are touched upon in this article:
- what are the global issues that can, or should, be the concern of Humanists?
- of these, what priority do they merit as against the priorities demanded by the domestic problems that face Humanists in their own countries?
- in these international concerns, can we presume to define specifically Humanist perspectives that are valid when discussing values in a global context?
With the collapse of the Soviet empire, it is clear that the Western humanistic values of democracy and human rights are in the ascendancy. But it must be emphasized that these values are not specifically American; they are deeply embedded in Western European culture, of which the United States is only one part. It is also important to note that these humanistic values are held across Western culture; they are not values which are held solely by us Humanists.
Similar observations apply for the humanistic notion of ‘freedom.’ It is interesting to note that Americans are more likely to refer to ‘liberty,’ a fact that reflects the unique libertarian individualism of American society. This cultural difference between Americans and the rest of the world is an important issue that surfaces in what follows.
‘Equality’ is a humanist value that is less likely to be emphasized by Americans, perhaps because of its obvious inherent conflict with the primary American value of ‘liberty.’
Cultural, Moral, and Value Pluralism
A key point of this article is that these and other such values can only be discussed meaningfully within a social or cultural context, and that this context can differ significantly from one society to another, even among Western countries–a fact to which Americans, including American Humanists, often appear insensitive.
This point is related to a central concern of the renowned British philosopher, Isaiah Berlin–the clash between different ideas of the good. In his latest book, The Proper Study of Mankind, Berlin brings the clarity of traditional English thought to bear on the vast array of ideas in the European pantheon of thinkers to point out the impossibility of creating a unified view of the essential values or goals of life. An example is the clash between ‘freedom’ and ‘equality’–the fact that we cannot have more of one without sacrificing the other. This particular example, by the way, calls attention to the cultural difference between American society and the rest of the developed world. In their emphasis on ‘liberty,’ Americans tolerate a far greater degree of social and economic inequality than is to be found in other developed societies.
As I write this, Canada’s Prime Minister is returning from an official visit to Washington, where a top issue on his agenda for discussion with President Clinton and Congressional leaders concerns a serious trade problem between our countries. The dispute involves the long-standing Canadian regulation of the distribution in Canada of American magazines and other mass media, where the intent of the regulation is to create a level playing field for indigenous Canadian culture and cultural media. It was to protect Canadian culture that Canada insisted that cultural industries be excluded from the terms of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Recent American pressure to remove these regulations reflects American insensitivity to this critical social issue for Canadians. For Americans, culture is a business, an industry; for Canadians, our culture includes all those factors that reflect our unique social values and way of life.
Cultural pluralism is an issue to which American Humanists clearly need to pay attention. If they are to promote and celebrate a Global Humanism, then I submit they must be prepared to acknowledge and accommodate a high degree of Humanist cultural pluralism–an even higher degree of diversity than they now seem able to live with amicably among themselves!
I assert that a key component of the Humanist project must be the socio-political task of bringing into effect humanistic changes in one’s own society. When we put our priorities on working towards greater political and economic democracy at home (and we all have much further to go in this regard), we contribute directly to the Humanist goal of giving our fellow citizens greater power and control over their own lives. In this regard, it is clear that there is much to be done in American society–much more, indeed, than in other developed countries. I have made the point elsewhere that experience shows that the growth of secular attitudes in a population is proportional to the degree of social and physical security that the citizens enjoy. For this reason alone, aside from the ethical imperatives, this socio-political work is key to the advancement of Humanism.
I regard the International Humanist movement as a resource that can be drawn upon for support in accomplishing this task in each of our countries. Meanwhile, to speak enthusiastically of a ‘Global Humanism’ is, I submit, fanciful rhetoric when poverty and superstition remain rampant in our own backyards.
When I helped to form the first Humanist group in Ottawa in 1967, it was clear from the start that there were two distinctly different kinds of people coming into the movement–those who wanted to do something and those who preferred to philosophize about “what should be done.” Among the activists, our objective was to lobby and cajole the politicians to secularize our public policies and the political system generally. I made it clear to my group that I did not just want to sit around and talk, and was elected to represent it on the executive of Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s fledgling Humanist Association of Canada, which in those early years met quarterly under his presidency at his home in Montreal. Later, when he began to do abortions, our movement became Dr. Morgentaler’s first backer and supporter.
At this time I was a middle management public servant in a government science and engineering laboratory, and could not act politically in public as I would have wished. Consequently, most of my free time then was spent as a behind-the-scenes organizer for the New Democratic Party–Canada’s social democratic party. I wrote the first science policy for Canada, which was debated and accepted nationally by the NDP, introduced into Parliament by one of our opposition Members, and subsequently taken up virtually intact by the Liberal government. The Liberals adopted many NDP policies in this way. Thus, although it has never elected enough Members of Parliament to be the governing party at the national level, the NDP has been a constant political threat on the left of the Liberals, with the result that it has had an enormous humanizing effect on the Canadian social and political scene. In light of this, it should come as no surprise to his many American friends to know that Henry Morgentaler was also an NDP activist in those early years in Montreal, and was a social democratic candidate in several elections. Most of the Humanists that I have worked with in Canada have been NDP activists and supporters. Of course, when active politically, we find ourselves working with much larger numbers of non-Humanists–small-l liberals and social democrats from all religious backgrounds.
The result of this political work is now apparent. Canadians are among the healthiest and best educated people on earth, and we have that sense of national community that characterizes a social democratic society. While retaining the opportunities for self-advancement and growth that are inherent in capitalism, we have established a universal system of decent, minimum living standards for all. For Humanists, it is important to note that the resulting sense of community and security felt by its citizens leads to an absence in Canadian society of the kind of large-scale social alienation that is so obvious in American society–as evidenced by widespread crime and drug abuse, and by widespread reliance on superstition and other-worldly religious escapes and palliatives.
This, I submit, is a proper agenda for Humanists everywhere–at least as individuals. There is still much more to do in Canada, and humanists (the activists are generally not interested in the official Humanist movement) are still deeply involved politically–for example, in the many initiatives to protect the environment, or to promote the rights of our First Nations peoples.
Let us be frank. Where it exists, Humanism is a movement of the comfortable, liberal, middle-class, intellectual elite. There is nothing inherently wrong about this, but it is a fact of which we should be constantly aware. I submit that it ill becomes such a movement to aspire to global pretensions unless it demonstrably represents a cross-section of the colours and ethnicities that make up our societies at home. When we tend our own gardens well, the rest of the world will surely be more inclined to follow our example.
Meanwhile, there are valid international concerns that should concern us as Humanists, and with which we can deal here at home. The United Nations is a great humanistic initiative, and such Humanist stalwarts as Julian Huxley and Brock Chisholm were involved in the founding of its major agencies. Humanists everywhere can help to promote the goals of this great international undertaking by supporting the UN organizations in their own countries.
Today’s great international developments relate largely to trade and regional economic development. While with major environmental caveats we may find this commendable, we surely cannot ignore the huge ethical issues involved. Much of this development is based on the exploitation of labour serving the interests of multinational corporations, many of which are under the direction of faceless managers in head offices in our own countries. In the past, such great ethical issues were taken up by liberal religionists. I suggest that if Humanism is to have a global agenda, then activist politics to deal with these ethical issues should be high on that agenda. It is entirely within the ethical mandate left by our international Humanist forbears for us to advocate and work towards an international system of laws under United Nations jurisdiction to control the activities of transnational organizations.
It is by such this-worldly activities that Humanists can lay the basis for a new secular world that works for its people. In the process, the secular example set by the leaders of this new word could be the mechanism needed to drive the spread of secularism and Humanist philosophy.
© 1998 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.