Our geopolitical world seems increasingly unstable, and some see this instability as a threat to Humanist values. But I’m optimistic that these values will ultimately prevail. Before I justify that optimism, let me clarify what I mean by Humanist values.
The twin pillars of Humanist morality are values about epistemology (how we should understand the world) and social behaviour (how we should treat others). The epistemological kind are easier to define, because they’re essentially just ‘believe in science and reason’. Humanists believe that the scientific method is the best tool for revealing objective truth, and that problems should be solved through evidence-based reasoning and applied knowledge. The other side of this coin is a rejection of concepts like divine revelation, and of the idea that problems can be solved via belief in falsehoods or supernatural forces.
Humanist social values are somewhat more complicated to define, mainly because human social behaviour is itself complicated. Humanists tend to endorse prosocial values such as compassion, fairness, individual freedom and dignity, and belief in human progress and potential. Accordingly they tend to reject bigotry, oppression, exploitation, and other regressive sociopolitical attitudes. Humanist social values are highly prosocial, so much so that at first glance they may seem to view human nature through rose-coloured glasses. It would be absurd, however, to suggest that Humanist morality implores us to never experience negative social emotions—such as anger or punitiveness—towards others. It does implore us, however, to apply negative social values primarily in the service of positive ones. Anger may be perfectly appropriate, for example, when motivated by compassion for the greater good, or in defence of people you love or your value system itself.
I actually think the best way to comprehend Humanist social values is not by trying to define them, but rather by considering how they have empowered societies over the course of cultural evolution. Since agriculture emerged 12,000 years ago, societies have grown progressively in qualities like size, wealth, complexity, and power. Not every aspect of cultural evolution has been unequivocally wonderful for humanity, nor has the trajectory of this evolution always been perfectly linear—it has often been a case of three steps forward, two steps back. Still, humanity has clearly made some massive net gains in 12,000 years, especially in terms of epistemological and social attitudes (more on these points below). And equally importantly, cultural evolution has not just been about improving existence for humanity, it’s been driven by competition between societies. Societies have had to evolve—they have had to become larger and more technologically advanced, for example—in order to compete in balance-of-power races with other societies.1,2
Humanist-type values have contributed hugely to societal success in these balance-of-power competitions. This contribution is especially obvious in the case of epistemological values: knowledge truly is power, and societies that have embraced the scientific method have advantaged themselves technologically, economically, and in many other ways. But Humanist-type social values have been equally important in enabling cultural success, because what these values have really been about, functionally, is allowing and encouraging people to be as brilliant as they can be, in pursuit of both their own happiness and in their ambitions to contribute to society. Humanist-type social values strive to overcome the regressive bigotry that, by rejecting contributions from members of particular social categories (based on ethnicity, class, etc.), would prevent individuals from giving the most they had to offer. These values also increase individual motivation to contribute productively and cooperatively to society, by allowing people greater freedom to pursue their own happiness (as opposed to being a slave, for example, or the pawn of a dictatorial state). Over the course of cultural evolution, reductions in bigotry and increases in personal liberty have allowed societies to become increasingly cooperative,3 nonviolent,4 and more powerful in every sense: when you maximise individual ability to contribute, you generate a society that is maximally motivated, inventive, productive, stable, and strong.
That, then, is why I’m optimistic that Humanist values—specifically, those which promote science and unleash individual potential—will ultimately prevail. These values have been key engines of progress over millennia of cultural evolution, and we have every reason to expect them to retain these functions in the future. No matter how severely they may be tested in the short term, if the past is any indication, then what doesn’t kill them will only make them stronger.
- Alexander, R. D. (1987). The Biology of Moral Systems. Aldine de Gruyter.
- Turchin, P. (2016). Ultrasociety: How 10,000 of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth. Beresta Books.
- Wright, R. (1999). Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Pantheon
- Pinker, S. (2011).The Better Angels of Our Nature: The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes. Penguin.