Justifying liberalism and socialism without God (a commentary to Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens”)

There’s no need to invoke a belief in supernatural deity in order to believe that all humans are equally important and should be treated with as much equality as possible. In fact, striving for equitable treatment for all is one of the few solid conclusions we can draw from all philosophy.

I’ve been reading Yuval Harari’s bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. While I’ve been enjoying the book so far, I’m also somewhat let down by Harari’s apparent dislike of liberalism and “socialist humanism” (as he calls movements that seek greater equality for all humans). In a particularly egregious passage, Harari argues that both liberalism and humanism cannot be justified without a belief in a supreme being (pages 260 and 270 in particular in the Finnish translation). According to Harari, without eternal souls and a creator god who created all humans equal, liberals and humanists “have great trouble” explaining what’s so special in individual members of Homo Sapiens. Therefore, without God, there’s really no justification for trying to treat people equally.

I’m fairly certain Harari is wrong. While there’s no denying that the Christian tradition has influenced humanism, I for one find no need to believe in souls or creation to think that individual humans are special, have the same intrinsic worth and should be treated equally as far as possible. The reason for doing so is perhaps best formulated by philosopher John Rawls in his rightly famous principle, the Veil of Uncertainty.

The Veil of Uncertainty is a thought experiment that helps answer what is a just society, and it’s deceptively simple: what kind of society would you prefer if you didn’t know in advance where and with what endowments – such as looks, intelligence, health, or inherited wealth – you will be born?

Put simply, this is “just” a reformulation of the Golden Rule (treat others as you’d like them to treat you). While the Golden Rule is most famously known from Christian tradition, it has been developed by non-religious thinkers as well. The Golden Rule and the Veil of Uncertainty are not religious per se, and require no belief in supernatural to follow. Nevertheless, these two rules provide a sound (in my opinion, the soundest I’ve yet found) basis for making decisions that involve other people.

A desire for equality and a confirmation of intrinsic human worth flow directly from these two maxims. However we wish to implement them, the end result more or less resembles what Harari believes follows only (or even mostly) from a belief in undying souls that are equally important.

For example, if we healty people think of a society we’d prefer if we were born not with our current health endowment but with some significant disability, we’d most likely prefer a society where even the most grievously disabled are cared for, valued, and provided with the necessities for a life worth living. Similarly, if we didn’t know in advance where and with what inherited wealth (societal or family) we’d be born with, surely we should prefer a society where income differentials are moderate and even a very bad luck of birth doesn’t render us destitute?

Likewise for the Golden Rule: if I want that people would treat me equitably if I’m down on my luck, it’s probably the best to try to treat people who are down on their luck equitably.

No need to think about gods or souls, no need even for a “right” or “wrong.” What’s needed are only one belief and one desire: first, a desire to make a difference in the world, and second, a belief that environmental factors have an influence in person’s life. And that, it seems, is a fairly well-justified assumption.

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About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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3 Responses to Justifying liberalism and socialism without God (a commentary to Yuval Harari’s “Sapiens”)

  1. I’m not sure of your interpretation of Harari. Rawls has gone “to great trouble” versus the basic history. And the historical origins of your belief, no matter what else makes it justifiable, might still be your ideological predecessors beliefs in a creator god. You seem to be open to that when you say “there’s no denying the Christian tradition has influenced humanism”…

    A very short book you and Harari might be interested in is Margaret Atwood’s Payback. It’s also available as a lecture series. http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-2008-cbc-massey-lectures-payback-debt-and-the-shadow-side-of-wealth-1.2946880

    • As I noted, the historical roots of secular humanism are indebted to some religious thinkers. But that does not mean any need to postulate a God in order to defend liberalism and socialism; the intellectual structure is free-standing these days.

      My interpretation of Harari’s work is of course my own. I was put off by his suggestion that socialism, liberalism and in general a belief that every person has an intrinsic value require a belief in a supernatural being. I’m happily atheist and still believe every person has intrinsic value.

  2. You put it very well. Like Harari I don’t think humans have a “intrinsic” value – it is not endowed by nature, just an artificial human value. But values mean something from the perspective of a human. I have no intrinsic, nature-endowed right to live, but I want to live and that means something to me. A society that observes the veil of ignorance, where everyone has the right to live and pursue happiness means a lot to humanists, God or no God. And in the marketplace of narratives, humanist narratives – while rooted in fiction – are important to realizing this ideal of a better society.

    I’m not well-read or educated, these are just how I feel about it.

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