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.

About J. M. Korhonen

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6 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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  4. I was surprised by that passage too, and much of that section. It made me doubt much of what had come before, that I had thought very good points. If he can be so far off here then perhaps also on other points I know less about.

    A connected part insists that communism is a religion. It seems, if we are playing with semantics (as he notes) that we may say this is true – or rather, was true. In the sense that communism ‘believed’ in the super-human law of dialectical materialism, that a communist society WOULD come about via inevitable historical process. As these are beyond human control then communism is a ‘natural law’ religion, much as buddhism is. However, how many communists now actively assert that? It’s very rare in the last 30 years or more. Almost all communists and socialists now think that type of society will come about by us making it so, via human effort. Therefore communism, socialism and anarchism now are not natural law religions, and certainly not ‘from a supreme god’ theist religions.

    Also soon after that he writes: “Whereas liberal humanism seeks as much freedom as possible for individual humans, socialist humanism seeks equality between all humans. According to socialists, inequality is the worst blasphemy against the sanctity of humanity…”

    This seems wrong in two parts, and quite fundamentally so. The idea that socialism or communism or anarchism dont seek freedom is a very crass cliche, the kind of rubbish Ronald Reagan used to come out with. They do seek individual freedom. That is the basic point of those approaches.

    According to most people who have made the effort to study Marx, inequality (or equality) is not the main aim. Allen Wood (2014) says: “Marx thinks the idea of equality is actually a vehicle for bourgeois class oppression, and something quite distinct from the communist goal of the abolition of classes.” So, in a communist society there would still be differences between people, its just that it would aim to achieve the full development of all, a decent and satisfactory life for all, even while those difference continue in some ways.

    “…in place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all”.- Manifesto of the Communist Party, Marx and Engels, 1848….

    “But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time…unequal individuals (and they would not be individual if they were not unequal)…” – Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875

    Therefore communism goes beyond the concept of equality, as we think of it now, to a state where everyone can develop their individual freedom fully. And it recognises that some differences between individuals will remain. So both parts of what Harari said seem incorrect, or largely so.

    • Thanks, good points!

      Harari’s works in general are full of sweeping assertions with surprisingly little evidence. The first of them makes for a good read, but for facts, one needs to turn elsewhere.

      Equating ideologies with religion is an old trick and it cuts both ways. It’s very easy to find features of religion in almost every aspect of human life – the standard example used by scholars of “secular religions” is soccer – but it’s more tricky to assert that some ideology is a religion.

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