Consumerism and Wealth
Humanist Egalitarianism Puts People First
Humanists don't believe that any god dictates morality or public policy, but they nevertheless are outspoken on issues of economic justice. With no grounding in divinities or religion, humanists take progressive positions on issues such as wealth disparity, universal health care, access to education and housing, and the rights of workers. This egalitarianism comes not from any divine commandments or revelation, but from the naturalistic and pragmatic principles underlying humanism.
From a naturalistic standpoint, humanists understand that the human animal, a product of evolution, has innate impulses that are both desirable and undesirable in a modern social setting. People can be cooperative, creative, and compassionate, but our species also has horrifically destructive capabilities that are well documented throughout history. As such, humanists believe public policy should be used to nurture the more desirable tendencies. We need to encourage the good.
From a pragmatic standpoint, social stability requires that all segments of society enjoy some level of material security, because experience shows that systemic injustice destabilizes society. The exact standard of necessary material comforts can be debated, and will inevitably change as technology advances (for example, even though aristocrats lived without electricity a few generations ago, we expect even our poorest neighbors to have it today), but certain minimums should be expected.
For most humanists, these naturalistic and pragmatic considerations lead in an egalitarian direction that would allow a reasonable level of freedom and prosperity for all. This not only reflects the better aspects of our nature — compassion, fairness, and good will, among others — but it also encourages stability and security. Such egalitarianism doesn't require absolute economic equality, but it rejects perverse levels of wealth disparity and it assumes that important technological progress (medical advancements, for example) should be available to all.
While it's easy to see that naturalistic humanism differs from supernatural religion, humanistic egalitarianism can also be distinguished from other secular approaches. Unlike libertarians on the right and Marxists on the left, humanists reject ideology by emphasizing balanced values and practical results.
A strict libertarian would scoff at the notion of publicly funded health care, for example, even if just for the poor, saying that market forces and charity should dictate care. The libertarian exalts one value, freedom, above all others. The pragmatic humanist, however, understands that numerous values must coexist — freedom, fairness, compassion, security, and others — and therefore approaches issues not by exalting any one value, but by considering what end result would be best with all the relevant values in mind.
David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association, is author of Fighting Back the Right: Reclaiming America from the Attack on Reason (Palgrave Macmillan). Visit his site here.