What follows is a response to the conversational prompt at Wild Insurgency, “Humanism or Antihumanism?” For previous writings on the topic see “A Critique of the Concept of ‘Leftism’” and “Notes on Humanism and Progressivism.”
A number of ideologies and ideas are labeled “humanist,” which has resulted in some confusion. But in relation to primitivist politics, the humanism in question is a specific ideology that became the dominant philosophical position of technical elites post-WWII. It is best argued by the biologist and founder of UNESCO, Julian Huxley, who called the philosophy “evolutionary humanism.”
The philosophy is meant to legitimize the project of a world society. Huxley writes that “humanism must clearly be a world humanism, both in the sense of seeking to bring in all the peoples of the world, and of treating all peoples and all individuals within each people as equals in terms of human dignity, mutual respect, and educational opportunity.”
This humanism must also be “evolutionary” in the sense that it “allows us to distinguish desirable and undesirable trends, and to demonstrate the existence of progress in the cosmos… [I]t shows us man as now the sole trustee of further evolutionary progress, and gives us important guidance as to the courses he should pursue if he is to achieve that progress.” In other words, this version of humanism sets the stage for “post-human” ideologies.
Although Huxley has provided the firmest theoretical foundation for this philosophy of humanism, and was most responsible for evangelizing for it, a number of other individuals in the technician class have espoused essentially the same ideas, notably J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russel, and many of the scientists involved in atomic theory. It is, importantly, a philosophy of a technician class who, standing atop the massive technological infrastructure built during WWII, realized that man’s technological reach was now global in scope. The emotional aspects of this attitude are best represented by works of art such as 2001: A Space Odyssey or The Pale Blue Dot.
A Primitivist Critique of Humanism
Not all aspects of humanism are points of disagreement. For example, rejection of the supernatural and the emphasis on human interest as the basis for politics and philosophy are not in question. (A much more subtle take on both ideas is eventually necessary, but they go beyond the scope of this article.)
What is first in question is the moral basis of humanism: the idea that all human beings belong to a single moral community in which they hold equal moral standing. As Nietzsche points out, this idea is mostly a legacy of Christianity, and is betrayed by scientific humanism’s own rejection of the supernatural. Without God as a legitimizing agent, there becomes no way to assert the ultimate value of human beings, that is, to “objectively” justify concepts like equality, rights, or the idea of the human species as a single moral community. Of course, the most sophisticated humanists already recognize this, accepting morality as an evolutionary phenomenon. It is relevant only because it makes clear that the humanist concept of morality is a choice of ultimate values, legitimizing agents, a choice of gods. In its case, the ultimate value is, specifically, the human species, and, ultimately, the promise of progress.
This presents a particularly difficult problem in the modern age, because the humanist vision is still a vision, that is, it has not yet succeeded in creating a global society whose members see themselves as such. As a result, there still exist many groups in the world who do not, in fact, see themselves as part of a global moral community, whose ultimate values, legitimizing agents, and gods are much different from those of the humanist. The only way to change this state of affairs is through force, persuasion, and politics. The humanist must cultivate a humanist attitude in the parts of the world not yet developed, to bring them into the global moral community.
But the initial purpose of the progressive project is now no longer an adequate justification. That purpose was, at first, a religious, otherwordly inclination, brought about through a Divine command to evangelize. The humanist of today has no recourse to these standards, so must find a different set of arguments to preserve his project. In addition, it seems as though the humanist will eventually betray himself in another way: in order to fulfill the progressive project, he must develop rather than preserve the human animal. His ultimate value is not man as he is, but man as he can be made.
To illustrate the latter point, even modern industrial citizens have a difficult time truly seeing themselves as part of a global community. Still Stone Age creatures, their primary loyalties are to their families, their close friends, their reference groups. So far progress toward world society has only been made possible by manipulating these human tendencies or augmenting human behavior with institutional networks. In addition, the highly technological environments of today are experiencing a number of technical, ecological, economic, and human behavioral problems that make more extensive behavioral control, even genetic manipulation, a necessity. It is no wonder that Huxley asserted that humanism must have an “evolutionary” character.
In Eclipse of Man Charles Rubin explained these two concerns elegantly:
It becomes harder and harder for our authors to imagine what will be retained, hence where change will start from. And if the rate of change is accelerating, that simply means we are headed the more rapidly from one unknown to another, while the recognizable old standards for judging whether the changes are progressive are overthrown with our humanity.
In the midst of this “crisis of nihilism,” humanists all over are now attempting to devise new reasons for preserving the progressive project. Their strongest arguments include the decline of violence, the benefits of vaccinations and antibiotics, appeals to the egalitarian values of the educated industrial citizenry, and the awe-inducing qualities of many modern technologies like the internet.
Nevertheless, humanists are currently experiencing attacks from all sides, since the progressive project has also brought with it existential threats, political enmities from the destruction of cultures, ecological devastation, and a widespread revulsion toward technologies of genetic, psychic, and behavioral control. There is, in fact, very good reason to suspect that the progressive project will self-destruct under the weight of these problems.
But no attack against the progressive project can be valid unless people are also willing to dismiss the idea of human beings as a single moral community. This is why the critique of humanism is important to distinguish from the critique of progress as a whole. Arguing against technical and economic development because it violates standards of international justice, say, is actually precisely the attitude the humanist would like the populace to have, because it helps bring excluded, “undeveloped” communities into the world community.
Importantly, however, this is not the same as dismissing the value of the human being or human nature. After all, the central idea of primitivism is that people have a reason to reject progress because they have an interest in preserving their natures. Philosophies that could qualify as anti-humanist, then, like extinctionism or certain strains of philosophical pessimism, are distinct critiques.