Libertarianism, Humanism, and escaping Liberal Trap: Insights from Pragmatism
Humanism is often touted as a "progressive philosophy" and, in the U.S. at least, is often associated with "progressive politics" (e.g., AHA's definition of humanism). In that context, however, humanism often gets drawn into what we might call the "liberal trap," in which we declare that we value the opinions of everyone equally, so long as they agree with us. If you don't know what I am talking about, it is usually some variant of this: "We are tolerant of all people here, and if you can't be tolerant too, then you will have to leave."
For example, despite being overwhelmingly positive in its phrasing, the American Humanist Association's "Humanist Manifesto III" (2003) cannot help but make it clear what a large proportion of people are excluded from their club. This distancing moves include:
· They unnecessarily take a stand for the belief in evolution. Why would that be necessary to have a humanist outlook?!?
· They declare that "Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals." Surely there are individuals for whom that is not true, right?!?
· They declare that "Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness." Try defining "society" in that sentence and you will quickly exclude most good deeds.
How do those statements reconcile the parts of the Manifesto that are clearly more inclusive? Those include:
· “We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.” And
· “Humanists are... committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.”
Ultimately the more inclusive statements do not reconcile with the prior moves to exclude large swaths of the population. The borderline autistic person who would rather fix old radios than aspire to "humane ideals" and who helps his neighbors but could care less about "society," cannot gain the same respect for their "informed free choice" and as those who believe in aspire to humane ideas, and work to help society. The person who does not believe in evolution (perhaps recognizing problems in the way the theory is espoused by many of its proponents), are apparently not included into “commitment to diversity.”
The truth is that though most modern humanists are, I believe, honest in their desire to value the diversity of human views. But that desire is not grounded in some deeper principle that would explain why diversity-itself should be valued. In the absence of this, most humanists discount the value of those with whom they disagree.
Libertarianism runs into a similar problem, and this similarity will form the context for my initial discussions about the relationship between Humanism and Libertarianism.
Amongst libertarians, the value of Liberty, of individual autonomy, is typically treated as a first principle. In such a context, it is easy to use the fact that you value freedom to discount the value of people who take advantage of that freedom in order to disagree with you. That is, while you might value a world that could be full of those who disagree with you, there is no obvious reason to value a world full of people who do disagree with you. Certainly there is no reason to form coalitions with those who think different than you; that is, no reason to go out of your way to engage with those who will challenge your beliefs.
In the current political climate, humanists and libertarians are typically seen as antithetical viewpoints. How did that happen? While I am sure there are many interconnected answers to that questions, one reason is surely in their reaction to the challenge outlined here. Modern humanists tend to react to liberal trap by doubling down on their hypocritical claim to embrace all. When this happens, those not embraced become confused, but those who are in the fold get to feel good about the group. In contrast, libertarains tend to react to this challenge by turning ever-further towards hyper-individualism. They might not value another person’s view, but they value the right of that person to hold that view. When this happens, those seeking a group become confused, and those in the fold become isolated. It is, I believe, largely due to this difference in reactions that libertarianism and humanism seem so irreconcilable.
For both groups, I believe, the problem is attempting to simply hold freedom of belief as a first principle. Much would be clarified, I think, if valuing freedom could be derived from some wider belief in the types of processes that make the world a better place. To find consistency, both groups need an explanation for why they should value the beliefs of those who disagree with them.
I have been working for some time determining whether such a foundation can be created through the “American Philosophy” of Pragmatism. The sources that have inspired me to work on this are decidedly the “classic” pragmatists, such as Peirce, James, and Dewey, rather than the more recent pragmatists or neo-pragmatists. Because of the types of issues these philosophers were wrestling with, a grounding in their work will, I believe, help accomplish a secondary goal that I have: A component of my desire in these efforts is to explain the broad appel of libertarianism to so much of the U.S. population, as I do not think most explanations of libertarian ideas serves that purpose. Though they will get you to some variety of libertarianism, common citizens don’t care about Classically Liberal Economics, know little of Ayn Rand, and would have difficulty understanding the deeper implications the Non-Aggression Principle. Rather there is a feeling that libertarians are promoting something “American,” something in the fabric of our national heritage. In part, I think that thing is a hard-to-explain belief that not only should we broadly allow people a generous amount of freedom, but that good things result from that process. The classic pragmatists are particularly relevant to such a discussion because they understood how startling it was that “the American Experiment” of democracy had been successful, and felt some obligation to try to explain it.
The American Experiment
“The American Experiment” is not much talked about any more, people do not just think that democracies are better than the alternative, they think that superiority is obvious, and does not need to be explained. In contrast, 140 years ago, as Pragmatism was being born, the experimental nature of our endeavor was palpable, especially given that it had almost failed; there were still people alive who had fought in the revolutionary war, and the experiment has almost been ended by the just-finished civil war. However, the United States was not just an experiment because the machinations of war endangered it. It was an experiment because most approaches to politics, or philosophy more broadly, would claim that the best system was on in which the individual most qualified to make any given decision was put in charge and given free reign. Hobbes’s Leviathan famously presented entire nations as mere extensions of the king, and Plato’s Republic cemented the ideal of the Philosopher King, who was identified through process of elimination as the single least-corruptible person in a country. If that was the accepted wisdom of political philosophy, what would you make of a representative democracy? The proposal to let rural farmers or urban sales men select, from amongst their own ranks, a man to re-present their opinions in the halls of government, and to be one of many who had a vote on the passage of any law, would seem experimental in the grandest possible sense. Even if it worked for a short time when limited to educated, white, land owners, surely it would fail at some point if you slowly extended the vote to everyone!
And not only was it a democracy, it was a hierarchical democracy, in which different levels were (generally speaking) free to contradict each other. With a few exceptions, local governments were free to pass laws that contradicted state and federal laws (for example, declaring gun-free zones around schools). And federal laws did not necessarily control state and local law enforcement (for example, state officials might refuse to aid in enforcing drug laws that exist only at a federal level). Could such a mess ever hold together? Note that this is not just proposing that different states can try different things, with the federal government eventually selecting the best outcome and rolling it out for everyone. Though such decisions might sometimes be made, the underlying rule is to, within certain limits, allow different state and local governments to maintain radically different rules.
The experiment seemed in the mid-nineteenth century, to have been generally successful. This was not something to be taken lightly. If it wasn’t a fluke then so much of political philosophy needed to be rethought.