Humanism and Civilization’s Moral Idols

The following is a condensed summary of my thoughts on humanism and nihilism. It pulls sections from essays, notes, etc. that regular readers may have already come across, and I apologize for the repetitiveness. Consider it a necessary consolidation phase before The Idols of Progress.



In Repent to the Primitive I explain that human nature is a landscape, “and like a landscape, the highs and lows of its terrain limit how, exactly, it can be modified.” One can, for example, run a train through a mountain, but the hardness of the rock makes this possible only at certain technological levels; and in any case, one cannot run a train through all mountains, because their structural soundness might be compromised. Human nature is similar, making all questions of human modification about trade-offs.

Human nature is not suited to the technological conditions of civilization, so it has had to become “civilized, tamed — though not quite domesticated.” This process of taming — the civilizing process — has given man manners, has arranged him into economic patterns of behavior, has regulated his sexuality, etc. The result is now a smorgasbord of psychological and ecological problems, especially at our contemporary technoindustrial stage of development. Today we in industrial nations may have lots of material comfort and an unprecedented ease of living, but we are also wracked with psychological discontent. Civilization, I argue, is no longer worth this trade-off.


One aspect of the civilizing process is expanding man’s sphere of moral consideration. In The History of European Morals Lecky writes:

The moral unity to be expected in different ages is not a unity of standard, or of acts, but a unity of tendency … At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity, and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.

This only makes sense. As the technological basis of a civilization expands, it includes in its fold bigger and bigger populations of people, often from disparate cultures with incompatible values. But the different groups cannot compete too violently — they must be able to cooperate to some extent — or else their conflict would damage the functioning of the overall civilization of which they are a part.

At first, civilizations dealt with this problem by forcing conquered cultures to convert to new ways of life. But as civilizations have grown in size, they have become more tolerant and democratic as a means of congealing members under one community. Greece and Rome are early examples of this; the Enlightenment era codified the philosophy for the modern world; and today multicultural movements are providing an ideological basis for world unity, under a morality I will call “humanism.”

The Rise of Humanism Post-World War II


The term “humanism” has referred to a variety of ideologies and been used in contradictory ways. But let’s assume from the outset that the kinds of humanisms I refer to are united mainly by the belief that humans belong to a single moral community in which each member holds equal moral standing. Usually, the “moral standing” of each individual imbues him with certain rights, which conveniently includes the right to live industrially; and places in front of him humanitarian ideals, like peace, justice, and equality.


“The idea that all human beings have rights which entitle them to a good life is contained in the UN Charter of 1945 … It is repeated in several declarations since then, most recently in the Millenium Declaration, adopted by almost all states in 2000.” — Rethinking the New World Order, Georg Sorensen

Humanism came to the forefront of industrial moralities around the two world wars, and it is intrinsically tied to post-war efforts toward international cooperation, like the League of Nations and the United Nations. It became especially dominant after WWII because of the technological feats achieved during and shortly after that period, such as the internationalization of scientific and technological research, the beginnings of the internet, the spread of new communications and transportation technologies, and, especially, the moral implications of the Third Reich and the Bomb. The latter completely shattered 50s hopes that moral progress was linked with technological progress. The horrors of WWII made clear that the new technological powers humanity had in its grip were incompatible with the dangerously divided state of international affairs; that a project of world society was necessary.


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 inclusion, pockets of resentment form at the margins of society and grow into destabilizing forces.

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 inclusion still conflicts with material interests. For example, sweatshops 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 obvious that the major institutions of world society want to see development in the third world, and are working diligently toward that end.


The main philosophical problem of humanism is its claim that humans have intrinsic value that we are obligated to respect. Originally, this was justified with the being of God, who, existing beyond the natural realm, had the capacity to imbue ultimate value on whatever he wished, and then to reveal his Divine aims to humanity. But God has been dead for at least 150 years. Philosophers tried to resuscitate the moral force of intrinsic values with a concept of “natural law,” that is, the idea that one could reason out universally applicable rights from nature alone. These theories underpinned the whole Enlightenment project and is the source of Jefferson’s most famous lines in the Declaration of Independence. But natural law, too, has floundered, not least because it depends on a universal interpretation of nature as much as it depends on a universal nature; but people clearly interpret differently.

Some modern moral theorists, like Singer, have attempted to outline a “morality of reason.” In these systems, however, “reason” is just a stand-in for “God.” Singer writes:

A dog may growl at one stranger and wag her tail at another without having to justify the apparent discrimination; but a human being cannot so easily get away with different ethical judgments in apparently identical situations. If someone tells us that she may take the nuts another member of the tribe has gathered, but no one may take her nuts, she can be asked why the two cases are different. To answer, she must give a reason. Not just any reason, either. In a dispute between members of a cohesive group of reasoning beings, the demand for a reason is a demand for a justification that can be accepted by the group as a whole. Thus the reason offered must be disinterested, at least to the extent of being equally acceptable to all.

He justifies this approach with Hume, who wrote that a man making moral judgements must:

depart from his private and particular situation and must choose a point of view common to him with others; he must move some universal principle of the human frame and touch a string to which all mankind have an accord and symphony.

But Hume was not arguing that this is how ethical judgments can be assured as good, only that it is how they must be made if they are to hold sway. In other words, even if a moral principle is popularly held, it may be a bad moral principle, and, in any case, it may not be held by all. The sciences of human social behavior demonstrate that the urge to expand the moral circle doesn’t come naturally. Instead the obligation is produced and reinforced by technical progress. The humanist could certainly say that he is nevertheless committed to expanding the circle, knowing full well that the commitment has been manufactured into him. But this essentially leaves man with a choice of gods: wild nature, or the idols of progress?

The Deep Ecology Alternative


The radical environmentalism of the late twentieth century hoped to respond to the problems of humanism by espousing variants of Deep Ecology, a philosophy formulated by Arne Naess in the early 1970s. Deep Ecology included several disparate ecological tendencies, but in general it responded to humanism in one of two ways: it either claimed that nature had intrinsic value that should be respected regardless of human needs; or it claimed that human well-being was dependent on the well-being of the natural world and therefore humans had to expand their moral circle from all of humanity to include nature as well. Both have intractable philosophical problems.

The claim that nature has intrinsic value suffers from the same problems as the claim that humans have intrinsic value: there can be no value without a valuer, and only God can save us from that reality.

The second response — that we must include nature in our moral circle — is easier to justify philosophically, but only if one is a progressivist. Recall that even Lecky argued that the moral circle will soon include “the dealings of man with the animal world.” Most humanists today at least dabble in animal rights and some variant of environmentalism. To claim that we should again enlarge the moral circle is in complete harmony with the continued development of civilization. The ecomodernists have even demonstrated, powerfully, that more technological progress may very well lead to more wildlands. As a result they advocate shuffling more people to the cities and putting large regions of the earth off-limits to development. This vision will become ever-more-attractive to states as problems like climate change demonstrate the necessity of a more vibrant natural world.


The problem is that even the current size of the moral circle is sustained by civilized infrastructure, like mass communication and transportation systems. Without it, humanism is untenable. Deep Ecology’s ecocentrism would be similarly untenable, because it further enlarges the moral circle to include non-humans. The trick, however, is to reject the artificial moralities completely. It is to hold human nature to the same wild standard of well-being as non-human nature.

There is much evidence to suggest that civilization degrades human as much as non-human nature. Consider the case of the Oji-Cree. Up until the 1960s, the Oji-Cree people of the Hudson Bay maintained their indigenous way of life even while in contact with modern society. But then the 60s hit, and industrial technics took a stronger hold. With this transition came many of the benefits of civilization: the Oji-Cree now no longer work as hard to build transportation technologies and winter is not as difficult or deadly. But, as one writer explains:

. . . in the main, the Oji-Cree story is not a happy one. Since the arrival of new technologies, the population has suffered a massive increase in morbid obesity, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. Social problems are rampant: idleness, alcoholism, drug addiction, and suicide have reached some of the highest levels on earth. Diabetes, in particular, has become so common (affecting forty per cent of the population) that researchers think that many children, after exposure in the womb, are born with an increased predisposition to the disease. Childhood obesity is widespread, and ten-year-olds sometimes appear middle-aged. Recently, the Chief of a small Oji-Cree community estimated that half of his adult population was addicted to OxyContin or other painkillers.

Of course, the symptoms are not confined to the Oji-Cree. In fact, most are widespread problems in industrial societies, and evolutionary psychologists have come up with a few explanations for them. Diabetes and obesity, for example, are probably common because in evolutionary history, sugar was hard to come by but a necessary nutrient, so humans evolved a special taste for it; but this only causes health problems in sugar-rich modern societies, which also include corporations who exploit the human sweet-tooth for profit.

Conversely, most hunter/gatherers are neither struck by degenerative disorders or diseases to the degree industrial humans are, nor are they struck by many now-prominent mental health issues. One article in The American Journal of Medicine explains, “There is increasing evidence that the … mismatch [between our hunter/gatherer biology and civilized conditions] fosters ‘diseases of civilization’ that together cause 75 percent of all deaths in Western nations, but that are rare among persons whose lifeways reflect those of our preagricultural ancestors.”

If, then, we are to claim that civilization degrades nature, including human nature, and that human well-being is dependent on a functioning ecosystem, then we must be able to go beyond the very artificial moralities that civilization has produced. We must have the bravery to appraise man in his fullness, even when this transgresses the most deeply-held of modern values — like the belief in the moral unity of humanity.

Let me be clear. Solidarity, cooperation and altruism in small, natural social groups, is necessary for human flourishing. The human animal needs mates, parents, peers, elders to go beyond simply surviving and to live well. But civility must be instilled; it is a technological modification. Consider Freud’s thoughts on the matter in Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he writes that one of the characteristic elements of civilization is “ … the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated — relationships which affect a person as a neighbor, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State.”

Freud warns that the repressed elements of human nature may express themselves in two ways. On the one hand, these desires might be redirected toward problems within civil life “… and so may prove favorable to a further development of civilization.” On the other hand, these desires “may also spring from the remains of their original personality, which is still untamed by civilization and may thus become the basis … of hostility to civilization. The urge for freedom, therefore, is directed against particular forms and demands of civilization or against civilization altogether.” Rewilding cannot be about trying to create a particular form of civilization, like expanding its concept of justice to include non-humans. Rewilding will involve casting off the chains of artificial regulations that currently bind our “original personality, which is still untamed.”

The Nihilist Alternative


Hume’s is/ought problem holds. One cannot determine what ought to be simply from the way things are. One might say,

Premise: If one leaves the house unlocked while out, thieves will steal from the house.

Conclusion: One should not leave the house unlocked while out.

But there is no logical reason why a person should or should not do anything about the thieves. Morality can never be wholly empirically and rationally derived. Instead, moral attitudes are in large part due to sentiments and feelings. Regarding things we consider wrong, Hume writes, “You never can find [the vice], till you turn your reflexion into your own breast, and find a sentiment of disapprobation, which arises in you, towards this action.”

Morality, then, is a question of human nature. We might say that understanding moral evaluations is a function of a “moral sense,” an innate mechanism that allows us to assess morality in a similar way that our eyes allow us to assess hues. Like eyes, all moral senses have an underlying, universal structure, but where they diverge, where they “see” different things, individuals must either agree to disagree or find some way to resolve their fundamental differences.


The relativistic implications of the moral sense are not as terrible as might first be assumed. As Kaebnick writes in Humans in Nature, “If we are committed to our commitments, then we need not relinquish them just because somebody else disagrees with us.” Furthermore, this account of values adequately describes and explains the way moral reasoning occurs in the real world, by, for instance, making clear that appeals to the value of something are impotent among those who do not accept that value. In truth, even if moral value existed independently of a valuer, nothing about an independent value would cause it to be enforced outside of normal social methods, like persuasion or force.

It is also quite clear that morality is descriptively relative. That is, whether or not we can abstract an objective moral system from our condition, or discover it through empirical investigation, the world as it stands contains individuals and groups who differ widely in their moral attitudes.


In contrast to humanism, and indeed all civilized moralities, I posit nihilism. That is, if we are to have clear eyes about our modern state, then we must accept that there is no supernatural God, there is no value without a valuer, our realities are unavoidably contained by interpretations, and although there seems to be an “out there,” a world we call “Nature,” we do not yet fully understand how it links to consciousness.

The moral implications of nihilism have nothing to do with who you give your compassion to. In fact, the point is precisely that you choose your values. But it does mean that you are unafraid to set moral priorities. You are unafraid to protect yourself or your group even, when necessary, at the expense of others. Others are not inherently imbued with value; you decide if they have value to you. This would betray any sense of moral obligation or the “problem of guilt” that Freud believed is intrinsic to civilization. Humanism, for example, assumes the inherent value of every human and therefore imbues in humanists a sense of shame when they hurt another being; it also imbues a sense of pity toward those who live in ways that do not match the humanist standard for well-being (although the humanist will call this compassion). Nihilism roots our moral decisions more truthfully in our actual conditions of existence, and therefore disposes of any sense of shame or pity. Neatly, it can be summed up as “do what you will,” but with an acknowledgement that will depends on the biological, psychological, and environmental aspects of the individual’s character


Rewilding is important to the nihilist outlook because it may provide a means of rooting the currently unrooted masses of the industrial world. Humanism exists to ameliorate this problem by binding man to the ongoing project of world society. The UN, the EU, NGOs, universities, and states all over are working to join the world into one, uprooting traditional communities and modes of life, and isolating the individual, who, valueless and horrified at the vacancy, is left with no choice but to cleave to the new institutions. As a result, those who cannot accept the dominant institutions have only the natural world to turn to.

It is clear that anyone who wishes to live must take nature into account: our biologies and the social, sexual, and nutritional needs they breed; our geography; our technological context… Ironically, the great daughter of the Enlightenment, science, has provided a framework for humans to understand this world and therefore undermine the technological elements of the civilizing project. Marx and the cultural ecologists laid the foundations, revealing that the technological basis of a society props the whole thing up: pull the technological rug from under its feet, and it collapses. Similarly, the human ecologists demonstrated that man has been degraded from his natural condition. But with work, we can restore his health, firm his mind, and make him a dignified animal again. The two tasks — social and individual — are inseparable. Man needs land to fully rewild his nature, and he must become as strong as possible in the meantime to prepare for the protracted battle that has already begun: the battle of civilization.

Leave a Reply