Notes on Humanism and Progressivism


Humanism is the dominant ideology of world society. “Humanism” here means a morality that sets justice, equality, and peace as its ideals, and that considers the sphere of moral consideration to be the whole human species. “Dominant” here is a measure of power, not popularity. Most of the world population, by numbers, may not espouse humanist values, but most powerful institutions do, including the United Nations, major research universities, mass media institutions, most federal governments in industrial nations, most major NGOs, most transnational corporations, etc.


Humanism has superseded moralities like nationalism or tribalism, with their more restrictive sphere of moral consideration, their more restrictive “moral circle.” It is, in other words, simply the next logical phase for the moral history of civilization, which has demonstrated a tendency for civilized societies to expand their moral circle as they themselves expand. Peter Singer provides what is perhaps the foremost account of the expanding circle phenomenon, but many other writers have recognized the trend. See Repent to the Primitive, pp. 60-61, 73, 109-110.


Already humanism is being superseded by ideologies with yet a more expansive moral circle. Specifically, animal rights ideologies have succeeded in including at least some non-human animals into the moral fray. Some environmentalists have succeeded at the same in regards to non-humans in general. Some futurists have argued that artificially created sentience will soon be included as well, and so will humans who have been sufficiently modified by technology to go beyond traditional humanism’s definition of a human being. Altogether these ideologies can be referred to as “posthumanism.” Posthumanism is not so much a concern now (although L. disagrees with me on this point). But conceivably it will soon become the dominant ideology of world society.


Today, in the humanist age, “progressivism” is the belief that civilization has improved, is improving, and will improve the human condition. But, as has been demonstrated, the moral sphere changes with each new stage of progress, so in previous eras improvement was for “the nation” or “the race.” Contemporary advocates sometimes argue for improvement of “the world” in general, including the non-human world, and advance theories for how civilization might move in that direction. As I demonstrated in Repent to the Primitive (chapter 4, “The Idea of Progress”), progressivism is empty in terms of values; it transgresses every age’s values for a relentless march forward. It can therefore best be described as a belief that the development of civilization is an inherent good.


L. argues that progressivism is the real dominant ideology of world society, whereas humanism is simply its “delicate” side, a means of legitimizing it. To an extent I agree: clearly progressivism undergirds, or has undergirded, any of the various ideologies of tribalism, nationalism, humanism, etc. But there is a reason the moral circle expands alongside the march of civilizational progress. Civilization’s expansion takes in more people as it takes in more territory, and updated standards of civility is the only way that the social fabric of society can be maintained. For example, as Norbert Elias points out in The Civilizing Process, the birth of state-based civility was largely borne out of a need for new social norms as feudal territories were consolidated. Today’s movements toward multiculturalism are a similar means of updating standards of civility to suit the new conditions of world society.

It is tempting to point out this or that occasion where a major institution betrays humanist values, then use this as evidence that humanism is only a pretty mask for an ugly society. But this would be a grave error. It is clear that Survival International really does want rights for indigenous people; that the NAACP really does fight against racism; that the UN really does want multiculturalism; that corporations really do want more gender equality; that research universities really do want their students to believe in social justice; that the World Bank really does want improved conditions in the third world. Without these projects of inclusions, pockets of resentment form at the margins of society and grow into destabilizing forces. This is why UR argues that a feature of humanism is sympathy for victimized classes (although he refers to humanism as “leftism”).

Of course, because the process of social change is evolutionary, not a sudden or discrete event, there is only a general movement toward inclusion, and it will move most slowly where it still conflicts with material interests. For example, sweat shops remain an issue so long as development has not properly met the third world. Private businesses clearly have a profit motive to continue the practice. But it is quite obvious that the major institutions of world society want to see development in the third world, and are working diligently toward that end.


To reject humanism does not necessarily mean rejecting that there is value to equality, justice, and peace. There are only two elements to our rejection of humanism. First is a rejection of the expanded sphere of moral consideration. This should not be understood too drastically. Regardless of one’s ideological convictions, material reality does still join large masses of people together, so for purely practical purposes, if nothing else, there must be some account of the others on whom we are dependent. For example, those in a small town of a few thousand people may not have any obligation to include the entire town as equal in their sphere of moral consideration, but an amount of cooperation is still necessary for at least the material necessities of life that each person in the town is joined together in acquiring.

The second element of rejecting humanism is a rejection of the idea that the values of justice, equality, and peace are necessarily our values, “as if the past were some sort of educational factory for manufacturing a moral mankind.” It is a recognition that values are much more a result of an individual’s nature, his character, which is given to him, and for society much more a result of material conditions, which are not determined by any human will, than values are a result of choice in the Christian sense of free will. But both the needs of our characters and the demands of our material conditions are changing rapidly, calling forth a project of establishing new values, which may very well transgress the dominant ones in horrifying ways. Our rejection of humanism, then, is a sort of Nietzschean project, with all its implications.

“But the conclusion which you all fear is, ‘from the world with which we are acquainted quite a different God would be demonstrable, one who is not humanitarian in the least’ …i.e., you cleave fast to your God and invent for him a world with which we are not acquainted.” (The Will to Power, §1036)

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