Can Humanism Heal the World?

Humanity faces a myriad of challenges both big and small. While the size and complexity of our problems are varied, they are often rooted in the rampant inequality that exists in many forms both at home and abroad. While progress has been made against economic, political, and societal inequalities, new approaches are needed if we wish to do more than just win skirmishes against racism and homophobia, against the cycles of poverty and ill-health, and against hunger and disease. It's not enough to tunnel vision toward meager victories; we need to develop big picture approaches that reinforce a vision for a better future.

Philanthropists, advocacy leaders, and others who aim to make the world a better place struggle to determine the best way to do this. Some focus on meeting the immediate needs of those in critical distress while others seek to change the underlying politics that cause deficiencies to persist, but nearly all address very specific issues by breaking off subsets of our behavior into smaller groups that include race, national origin, health, gender, sexual orientation, poverty and wealth, age, religion, body type, and various disabilities, among other things.

This ongoing uncoordinated series of campaigns to effect change have led to some gains (often modest) in equality for women, rights for same-sex couples, equal treatment of the disabled, elimination of diseases, and in other areas. While these sorts of gains shouldn't be understated, they don't build upon each other, and sometimes even compete for funding and public interest. While the piecemeal approach may seem like the only way to address the multitude of massive scale issues that are before us, some visionaries are starting to consider other avenues.

Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, recently wrote in the New York Times that our current economic system is one that "just keeps the existing structure of inequality in place." Buffet goes on to note that those who have made lots of money and are now interested in solving inequality through charitable giving are often inspired by a sense of "Philanthropic Colonialism," the idea that people who have "very little knowledge of a particular place would think that they could solve a local problem," can even make a problem worse for those that receive aid. According to Buffet, "nearly every time someone feels better by doing good, on the other side of the world (or street), someone else is further locked into a system that will not allow the true flourishing of his or her nature or the opportunity to live a joyful and fulfilled life."

It is no wonder that after writing these words, Buffett asserted that he's "really not calling for an end to capitalism; I'm calling for humanism." We've got to stop playing whack-a-mole with the world's ailments, because making donors feel better about themselves for giving without having lasting impact is an enormous waste of potential.

People benefit personally from helping others. We see this from the richest suburbs of America, where a wealthy businessperson creates a local charity to help out those that have fallen on hard times, to the poorest slums in a developing country, where residents with little to their name band together to help a neighbor in need. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Viewing humankind as a global community in this way means that by helping others we help ourselves to feel happy through giving our lives a purpose, that of helping others. Humanistic giving, unlike philanthropic colonialism, requires us to listen to local communities about their problems and work with them toward solutions instead of imposing our own "superior" and independently derived solutions upon them.

While we certainly have to keep up efforts to fight poverty and disease, it's long past time to pay attention to the bigger picture, something that humanists have long asserted. At the end of the day, no one is independent from humanity; we all survive based on the actions of others. To have an attitude or take actions that support biases and systematic inequality, even if done with the best of intentions, only benefits a few and may actively harm those who need our help most. Hopefully, philanthropists will listen to Buffet and other humanist givers out there who are striving for more overarching and lasting change.

8/7/2013 4:00:00 AM
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  • Roy Speckhardt
    About Roy Speckhardt
    Roy Speckhardt is the Executive Director of the American Humanist Association. He is also a board member of the organization providing Humanists leadership training, the Humanist Institute, and an advisory board member of Secular Student Alliance. Follow him at