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Three Rival Humanisms

I’m very much enjoying reading the new book by historian Yuval Noah Harari, titled Homo Deus: A Brief History Of Tomorrow.  [1] I’m taking notes on it, and find good insights on many pages, but half as many statements and analyses that are way off. I don’t think Harari is the kind of thinker who ever considers that he might be wrong. I’ll be blogging more about the book when I’m done with it, but first, I want to share with you an interesting part of the book I completed last night.

Harari is an atheist, gay, and a man profoundly invested in secular modernity and what you might call the ideology of technology. He has the kind of view of religion that you would expect from someone like that. He actually praises Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (though not by name) as a realistic accommodation by religion to modernity. But he tweaks progressive Christians for telling themselves that their form of Christianity comes from the Bible, when really their prophet is Foucault.

Harari says Nietzsche is right: God is dead, at least in the West, and we have killed him. The body of the 19th century’s deicide victim is finally starting to cool, and we see the world it has left behind. Harari concedes that all the material progress, and progress in liberating the individual will, has come at a steep price. He praises the rise of humanism for creating a Man-centered way of making meaning in a meaningless universe.

Toward the end of his Humanism section, he talks about “schisms” within humanism. He writes:


In fact, humanism shared the fate of every successful religion, such as Christianity and Buddhism. As it spread and evolved, it fragmented into several conflicting sects. All humanist sects believe that human experience is the supreme source of authority and meaning, yet they interpret human experience in different ways.

Harari contends that “humanism split into three main branches:

  1. Orthodox Humanism: The belief that the individual is sovereign, and that “we should give as much freedom as possible to every individual to experience the world, follow his or her inner voice and express his or her inner truth. Whether in politics, economics, or art, individual free will should have far more weight than state interests of religious doctrines.” This orthodox humanism is what we have come to call “liberal humanism,” or just plain “liberalism” (N.B., in this sense, even the right-of-center parties in the West are liberal). The problem is that inevitably the desires of all these individuals will conflict. In the 19th century, liberalism led to nationalism, as people began to think that nations had their own individuality, and should express that without being bound to a transnational empire.
  2. Socialist Humanism: According to Harari, socialist humanism resolves the conflict within liberal humanism by faulting it for focusing too much on the individual, and not enough on the collective. Liberal humanism, on this view, blinds individuals to the needs and wants of others. Socialist humanism focuses more on social forces that prevent human flourishing, and advocates collective action through strong institutions to shape those social forces towards collective liberation.
  3. Evolutionary humanism: This is a very different way of addressing the conflict problem raised by liberal humanism. Evolutionary humanism says that conflict is not always a problem to be solved, but something to cheer, because it pushes evolution forward. “Some humans are simply superior to others, and when human experiences collide, the fittest humans should steamroll everyone else,” Harari writes (though I hasten to say he’s describing this worldview, not necessarily endorsing it). Those humans who excel in various areas are worth more to society than its failures, and ought to be privileged and rewarded, because they are the drivers of progress.

Harari says that Stalin is the prime example of socialist humanism gone berserk, and Hitler is the same for evolutionary humanism. But neither terrible example obviates the insights of their rival humanisms. The historian — stating what I believe is his own view — writes:

Not all evolutionary humanists are racists, and not every belief in humankind’s potential for further evolution necessarily calls for setting up police states and concentration camps.

Auschwitz should serve as a blood-red warning sign rather than as a black curtain that hides entire sections of the human horizon. Evolutionary humanism played an important part in the shaping of modern culture, and is likely to play an even greater role in the shaping of the twenty-first century.

I am sympathetic to the “Christian humanism” [2]of the Renaissance, though given what it opened the door to, I keep one foot in the Middle Ages. Unless something radical and unforeseen happens, Christian humanism is not on the table for the West in the 21st century. The three rival humanisms above are. It ought to be obvious to orthodox Christians how none of these humanisms are fully compatible with the Christian faith, but it ought to be equally obvious that we are going to have to learn to situate ourselves within one or more of them, and bear faithful witness.

To better explain the claims of the rival humanisms, Harari takes the example of four of the sound recordings placed on the Voyager I space probe, to give aliens a sample of what auditory life is like on Planet Earth. The ones Harari considers are:

  1. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony
  2. Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode”
  3. A pygmy hunter of the Congo’s tribal initiation song
  4. A wolf howling in the Canadian Rockies

Which one of these recordings is the most valuable, according to the rival humanisms? According to Harari:

    1. The liberal view is that all three human expressions are equally valid.
    2. The socialist view is that “the real value of music depends not on the experiences of the individual listener, but on the impact it has on the experiences of other people and of society as a whole.” Therefore, says Harari, because Beethoven wrote music for rich white Europeans who were about to go plunder the world with colonialism, his music is probably not as important as Chuck Berry’s, which represents the black American experience, including having black America’s music appropriated by white musicians and turned into rock and roll. As for the pygmies, it only serves to uphold a primitive patriarchal order.
    3. The evolutionary view is that the question itself is stupid. There really is a hierarchy of values, and we shouldn’t apologize about it. Harari: “The Taj Mahal is more beautiful than a straw hut, Michelangelo’s David is superior to my five-year-old niece’s latest clay figurine, and Beethoven composed far better music than Church Berry or the Congolese pygmies. There, we’ve said it! According to evolutionary humanists, anyone arguing that all human experiences are equally valuable is either an imbecile or a coward. Such vulgarity and timidity will lead only to the degeneration and extinction of humankind, as human progress is impeded in the name of cultural relativism or social equality.”

Which one do you most agree with? With me, that’s easy: the evolutionary view. But I would not put it in the language of “degeneration and extinction of humankind,” not at all. Because I am grounded in Christian faith and thought, I affirm hierarchy, but also affirm the innate dignity of all men, as bearers of the image of God. The “progress” I seek is not towards humanity becoming Übermenschen, but towards humanity growing in sanctity and love, which is to say, towards greater unity with God.

Similarly, a Christian humanism could embrace in part liberal humanism and socialist humanism (though not evolutionary humanism, which denies the imago Dei and devalues the sanctity of life), while tempering their harsher aspects (e.g., the relativism of liberal humanism, and the way socialist humanitarianism renders individuals as abstractions, and tends to justify injustices against individuals on the basis of class, race, and other classifications.

Anyway, I put all this out there for y’all to think about and talk about.

55 Comments (Open | Close)

55 Comments To "Three Rival Humanisms"

#1 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On March 30, 2017 @ 12:52 pm

Hariri’s three schools of humanism are not the worst I’ve ever seen, although the reliability of his system is already modified by the introduction of a fourth category, “liberal humanism” to evaluate one or more of the three. We should keep in mind that any system of analysis like Hariri’s takes a mass of individuals in motion, and artificially imposes a grid over them, to categorize them. Near the edges of each square in the grid, are individuals who don’t really fit in any one category. Same for ideas and principles.

Hariri’s socialism is not mine, and I don’t much care what the social context of Beethoven’s work was, I’m more interested in whether I enjoy hearing it now. My view of the moral calculus at the moment of revolutionary upheaval is, our ancestors shed sweat and blood to build or pay for all these fine luxurious edifices, are we going to tear them down now when we are finally taking control of them away from the oppressor classes, and can now enjoy them for ourselves?

I favor what Hariri calls “Orthodox Humanism,” within a socialist framework, which defines the limits of “as much as possible.” The impact of one’s choices on other human beings and communities is something to be given considerable weight. That’s why, for instance, I don’t buy giving free reign to the “trans” individual expression, because it imposes on legitimate concerns of almost everyone else.

The evolutionary view has modest merit, in that some people are more skilled in one way or another than other people, and some modest rewards for making an effort to use these skills for the benefit of the general community are reasonable. But those unskilled in one respect may be quite skilled in another. I don’t expect a super race to emerge, and if it does, it should build a hyper light speed space ship and head for the stars.

In it HAL represents the corrupted, grandiose, Self. And is destroyed.

But in 3010. HAL gladly sacrifices his own personal integrity to save mankind from misguided destruction at the hands of an advanced interstellar race indulging too much hubris about the quality of their own judgment, and the data available to them.

#2 Comment By Fred C. On March 30, 2017 @ 3:35 pm

Rod, you wrote “Church Berry” in the paragraph about the evolutionary view. It could be foreshadowing your choice of it as closest to yours, but I guess it’s only a typo.

#3 Comment By Craig On March 30, 2017 @ 6:53 pm

Orthodox Humanism seems to be a luxury afforded by a fairly advanced, wealthy civilization, one that is stable with a long functioning systems of laws. The sovereignty of individuals is quickly replaced by the law of the jungle when civilization goes away.

Socialist Humanism seems to be most compatible with hunter-gatherer tribal life: the tribe lives or dies according the success of the group. That how humans lived for most of the existence of our race.

Not sure where to place Evolutionary Humanism, except to say that it is a reality that some humans are more capable and functional than others, and there will often be benefits that accrue to individuals from that. But a society built solely on that would be a pretty ruthless meritocracy.

#4 Comment By JonF On March 31, 2017 @ 6:33 am

Re: But a society built solely on that would be a pretty ruthless meritocracy.

Which would rapidly degenerate into a garden variety aristocracy where merit is determined by birth not by ability since A) reversion to the mean over the generations is pretty much the norm in these things and B) People want to make sure their children have the same life they do whether the children merit it or not.

#5 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 1, 2017 @ 11:24 pm

People want to make sure their children have the same life they do whether the children merit it or not.

One of the weaknesses of any communist party to date, particularly that of the People’s Republic of China.