Andrew Copson: Politics and Humanism
In the aftermath of an unusual and dramatic general election, Andrew Copson considers the origin and the importance of our political values.
Not believing in any post-mortem existence where all wrongs will be righted, humanists think of politics as incredibly important. The obligation to provide a better future falls on human beings in the here and now and politics is the mechanism we have at our disposal to attempt this.
Human politics, just like human ethics, is also a simple necessity – we are social animals, we cooperate, and so we need frameworks in which to make the decisions this requires. But political thinkers in the humanist tradition, from Perikles to John Stuart Mill, see the endeavour of politics as more than a necessity. It is an opportunity to promote the availability of a good life for all, enabling individuals to make rational decisions, take personal responsibility and develop as people. Engagement in these politics is based, as the humanist philosopher Karl Popper said, on ‘reason and humanitarianism’ and assumes the equal dignity of each human being.
Against what sort of ethical standards do we need to judge our politicians (and ourselves as participating citizens) as we engage in these politics? Utopia is never attainable and a rational approach to our common life must accept that, but a progressive amelioration of the condition of all people is an essential aim of politics. So, we can judge our politicians as to how far they advance us towards an open society that will prize equality, justice and freedom. Our criterion for judging politicians can be how far they work to promote and sustain the conditions required for individual human beings to be free and to flourish. They can be judged by the extent to which they contribute to promoting and defending a society in which everyone’s individual rights and freedoms are guaranteed and our mutual responsibilities accepted. What sorts of arguments are our politicians making in Parliament in favour of or against legislation; as ministers what sort of policy decisions are they making, why and with what consequences? How are they voting on particular pieces of legislation and why? Do their actions and their reasons for them demonstrate to us as their fellow citizens and electors that they are truly committed to the outcomes of greater equality, justice and freedom which we aspire to? Is the content of their arguments informed by ‘reason and humanitarianism’? Are they doing what they’re doing because they genuinely wish to promote the availability of a good life for all and defend human freedom and dignity? Are they working to maximise this and oppose those forces which would diminish it?
These are very different sorts of ethical test from the recent judging of politicians according to whether they have claimed expenses for a duck island or a flagpole, but the ephemeral expenses scandal at Westminster should not obscure these higher ethical standards to which we need to hold our politicians and ourselves as active citizens. Similarly, public anger at an economic crisis caused by a profession granted too much freedom to act selfishly, should not make us turn away from freedom in general. The humanist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre said ‘When we say that man is responsible for himself, we do not mean that he is responsible only for his own individuality, but that he is responsible for all men,’ and the defence of human responsibility as much as of human freedom is an important part of any responsible political ethic. The ethical objection to under-regulation of bankers was that it gave them too much freedom with scant regard for the negative effects on the freedom of those whom their irresponsibility would harm.
Secularism is also an important part of a humanist political ethic. The only viable common framework of civic values in a society that is diverse in terms of thoughts and opinions is one entailing tolerance of all views and lifestyles, where no one is privileged or discriminated against solely because of their religion or non-religious worldview; in short, a secular framework. This is not a framework that imposes specifically non-religious, atheist or humanist values and behaviours on everybody, but a state which maintains a disinterested impartiality between people of different religious or non-religious beliefs so long as they are not harming others or the exercise by others of their own rights and freedoms.
So, religious practices such as the wearing of certain religious dress or ornamentation in public don’t engage the state’s interests, whereas the state can, on grounds of the damage it does to children’s education, the wearing of a burqa by a nursery school teacher. Individual ethical choices such as the decision to have an abortion or be assisted in ending one’s own life when unable to do it for oneself, should not be regulated on the basis of the unshared metaphysical beliefs – whether held by a majority or a minority – of a certain grouping in society (because God doesn’t like it, for example), but because of dangers to individual freedom and dignity. In the specific examples, because a foetus is meaningfully to be described as a person and hence to be protected from harm, for example, or because the legalisation of assisted suicide would mean that granny will be bumped off for her mansion. In many ways, we in Britain are far from having a genuinely secular state, still maintaining the medieval rubble of an established church with its concomitant legal discrimination ways that significantly disadvantage non-Christians – for example in employment and admissions state-funded religious schools. And the unjustified privilege still held by the Church of England in our diverse society is clearly demonstrated by the presence in our parliament of 26 men (always men, of course) who are there because they are appointed to the job of Bishop in one denomination of one religion – a religion whose active adherents are a minority in the population. A good ethical test for the conduct of politicians for humanists would be how far they pursue a secular model of the state when such questions as reform of these areas arise.
Because a secular state allows people with different ways of living and different beliefs to coexist and cooperate in the same society, it is not just a goal for humanists but can be an aspiration for religious people who accept that they must live cooperatively on a basis of mutual regard with people whose other beliefs they do not share and who do not share theirs. At the heart of a specifically humanist commitment to the secular state, however, is a strong regard for human dignity as bound up with individual human freedom, and an expectation that individual freedom leads inevitably to diversity. Closed or totalitarian societies, where conformity and uniformity are what is striven for, are the sort of societies that humanists reject and fight against. So it was with humanists in Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia and so it is today with humanists in Iran or exiled from it. This is how it is also in the West – humanists are inclined towards promoting that political principle of Mill that ‘The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection’ and recognising that the diversity of ways of living which flourish in consequence are a symptom of the open society’s greatest benefit.
That it is the sort of society in which we can feel free. The ethical standards by which we judge our politicians – at least in part – must be to what extent they bring us closer to that ideal way of living.
Andrew Copson is the Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.