Humanist Egalitarianism Puts People First

Editors' Note: This article is part of the Patheos Public Square on Consumerism Gone Wild. Read other perspectives here.

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.

Rejecting Ideology

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.

On the left, Marxian ideology sees virtually all economic interactions through the lens of class conflict, explaining the underlying historical forces as a dialectical process that will lead to the eventual demise of capitalism. Humanist egalitarianism doesn't rely on these theories, but is more concerned about practical, hands-on efforts to build a better society with the tools available today.

Humanism assesses current realities and rationally considers the best end result that is achievable with all relevant values in balance. Ideology is not needed to question the wisdom of a system that allows a tiny sliver of the population to amass the vast majority of material wealth while others go without basic needs. Instead, practical questions are asked: What allows the wealthiest to amass such fortunes? Does the One Percent contribute to the greater good in such a way as to justify its lopsided wealth, or do systemic flaws allow for such accumulation?

Putting People First

In answering such sensible questions, humanists see systemic defects that obstruct human-centered policy. Clearly, America has serious fundamental problems that result in government catering to wealthy and powerful institutional interests, not real humans. The legal, political, budgetary, and regulatory environments all slant in favor of the large institutions that control them, and we live with the results, from enormous military budgets to trade deals that export jobs and essentially give corporations veto power over health, safety, and environmental regulations. Average citizens can do little.