Two and-a-Half Cheers for Progressive Humanism

Paul Kurtz

Economics and Humanism

Does secular humanism have anything significant to say about economic issues or about the controversy that continues to rage between economic libertarians and social democrats? Libertarians advocate unfettered capitalism; they believe fervently in governmental deregulation and lower tax rates. Social democrats, on the contrary, wish to use the government to ensure social justice for all citizens; they are concerned with realizing the common good.

Economic libertarians emphasize the importance of entrepreneurial initiative, which they insist leads to economic growth. Many, including former Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, were influenced by Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Rand and other libertarians maintain that individuals are primarily self-interested—by seeking personal advantage they contribute to economic growth. Interestingly, Ayn Rand was an ardent atheist who wished to use reason in formulating economic policies. Fleeing the Soviet Union in 1926, she was a recalcitrant critic of altruism at the public’s expense.

Social democrats, on the contrary, believe that market economies are unable to fulfill all social needs. They point to the failure of the United States thus far to develop an adequate public transportation system or to provide universal health care. The test of social justice, they say, is fairness; a democratic society should encourage equality for all members of society. This includes the disadvantaged, who should be afforded opportunities to contribute to society.

Libertarians think that individuals are basically selfish in their pursuit of personal gain and wealth, which they applaud. Social democrats maintain that empathy is also an impulse in human motivation that should be encouraged. They point to the sacrifice of parents and grandparents for their children and grandchildren or to the helping professions which emphasize altruism and the good of their patients as the primary purpose of their efforts.

In the last three decades, there has been a powerful movement toward libertarian economic policies, especially since Reagan and Bush assumed power in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. The free-market ideology has spread even to China, Vietnam, and Russia, which have now embarked upon market policies, abandoning the stagnant state-run economies of the past.

Many libertarians wish to privatize virtually all public services, including the schools, colleges and universities, hospitals, highways, and police and fire departments. The disciples of the free market believe that the private sector is more efficient than the public. Their criteria are price and profit. They wish to transform human relations by reference to market forces: for example, paying a woman to be a surrogate mother—by entering into a contract with her to carry a baby to full term and then turn the child over to the parents who bought her services. Some critics question this practice, particularly in cases when the surrogate changes her mind and wishes to keep the baby. Mercenary armies have been used in Iraq and Afghanistan to supplement or replace citizen armies. This is a disturbing development, reminiscent of the Hessians hired by the English crown in America’s War of Independence. Many private HMOs and profit-making hospitals seem to evaluate their effectiveness by their bottom line first, not by the reliability of the services.

Harvard professor Michael Sandall deplores what he calls the reign of “market triumphalism.” He insists that free markets need to be evaluated on moral grounds, and he questions whether profit should be the primary test of the performance of all social institutions.

The recent global financial crisis has brought to public attention the following negative aspects of untrammeled free markets:

  • There is an overemphasis on greed. If a person amasses a huge fortune, he or she is heralded by the media, such as Forbes with its list of five hundred billionaires—no matter how that fortune was gained.
  • Unregulated free markets have awarded huge profits to speculators in financial markets, hedge-fund managers, and Ponzi schemers such as Bernard Madoff.
  • Gambling casinos are sprouting up everywhere. Suckers are beguiled every day in the quest of Lady Luck. Steve Wynn, famed owner of Las Vegas gambling resorts the Bellagio, Wynn, and Encore, confessed on 60 Minutes that he knows of no casino gamblers who have become wealthy—if they continue to play, they will give it all back to the casinos. Yet the public is still taken in.
  • Unregulated banking institutions have charged usurious rates. This has led in part to foreclosures and bankruptcies and has endangered the entire economic system.
  • There have been unequal tax policies where dividends and capital gains are taxed at lower rates than earned income—in order to keep the stock markets tilted upward. Many fat cats whose companies received government bailout funds reap huge bonuses.
  • Lobbyists continue to solicit Congress and state legislatures in search of special privileges for corporations and affluent individuals indifferent to the public interest.
  • These shenanigans have led to a disparity in income and wealth marked by huge gains for the top 1 percent of earners and stagnation for the middle class.
  • The consequence of these policies has led to the growth of a new plutocracy, with large fortunes amassed then passed on to future generations thanks to lowered estate taxes. This is leading to an entrenched class of absentee owners, all too reminiscent of oligarchies of the past.

Progressive Humanism

I submit that the ethics of humanism provides some grounds for criticizing these excesses.

Accordingly, we can appraise economic policies in the light of humanist values. Humanism is a purely abstract notion devoid of content if it cannot be applied concretely to economic issues. Economics may be the dismal science, yet it has much to contribute to our understanding of how the economy functions, and it should be used where appropriate to test the efficiency of a company or a society. However, economists differ sharply as to which policies to follow. Here questions of value play a central role. Humanists say that price should not be the sole determinant of value in all cases.

Many of the differences between economic theorists depend on alternative conceptions of human nature. Are human beings unalterably selfish or can they behave altruistically? My response is that both are true. A person should be concerned with advancing his or her own self-interest, but this does not preclude genuine sympathy and empathy toward others. That is why we need to focus on enlightened self-interest, which is mindful of our other-regarding obligations. If we consider every person equal in dignity and value, then each is entitled to help as the expression of our moral-social concern.

The classical economic libertarians mistakenly focus on individual entrepreneurs (Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, Ted Turner, etc.), yet the reality of the marketplace today is that it is dominated by global corporations, which cannot be considered as persons in the proper meaning of that term. Some regulation of their activities is essential if we are to guard against abuses.

All of this points to the merits of mixed economies, such as those that exist in all major democratic societies, including Europe, Japan, South Korea, and even the United States. We should be prepared to turn to the public sector to provide goods and services that markets cannot and to regulate markets that abuse the system or fail.

I submit that Progressive Humanism could provide the following moral guidelines:

  • The overemphasi
    s on price and profit has, unfortunately, led many to view “cash value” as a primary criterion of merit. Men and women of wealth are heralded, from celebrities and sports champions to financers, hedge-fund managers, and robber barons who are rewarded with huge incomes. Yet the public underappreciates scientists, Nobel Prize winners, teachers, statesmen, artists, poets, and dedicated members of the helping professions.
  • Several ethical principles are especially relevant here. One is expressed by Immanuel Kant’s second categorical imperative, namely that “we should treat persons as ends withal never as means.” This principle, according to Kant, is based upon reason; it provides an essential restraint on human conduct. For example, it forbids slavery and indentured servitude.
  • I submit that there is another important imperative that should govern human conduct—we should endeavor to develop a genuine empathetic attitude toward other human beings who are deserving of it. We should cultivate beneficence as a moral virtue, and we should endeavor as a society to educate our children to be genuinely concerned with the welfare of others. We need here to combine reason with compassion. In other words, reason must be supplemented by feeling, as David Hume recognized, else it may lessen the desire to act.
  • There is another vital imperative that places limits on unfettered free markets. I am referring here to a growing list of human rights that have developed in civilization and that we need to respect beyond the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yes, these are vital—but we must pursue them without engaging in discrimination rooted in gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or creed. We uphold the right to education of every child, the right to a job, to a minimum wage, to unemployment insurance, to adequate health care, and many more.
  • Progressive tax policies are essential in a just society. These policies have been adopted by virtually every democratic society in order to provide a level playing field so that equality of opportunity is made available to all individuals.
  • There is another imperative that is urgent today, and that is the need to protect the environment from destructive economic activities that poison our atmosphere and waterways. This imperative is planetary in its scope, superseding both national boundaries and unbounded free markets.

In conclusion, I am here speaking personally as the founder of the secular humanist movement. It seems to me that both libertarian and social democratic views have some merit, but they should be balanced. A progressive humanist is aware of the powerful contributions that free markets make to the prosperity of nations. But the principles of social justice should also be part of our moral concern: the fruits of a free society should be made available to as many members of society as possible. Although the gross national product is an important criterion of economic progress, we also should seek to elevate the gross national quality of life. We should encourage people to achieve lives of satisfaction, excellence, and dignity; to the extent that we can, we should persuade them by means of education to develop their aesthetic, intellectual and moral values and thus enhance their quality of living.

Health Care Is a Human Right

The United States is now embarking upon an intensive debate: Does society have a moral responsibility to ensure that every person in need of medical care has the right to receive it? My answer to that is in the affirmative, particularly in affluent societies where the GNP is large enough so that no one should be denied adequate health care. Virtually every major affluent democracy—except the United States—already provides universal health care.

The implementation of this right is high on the agenda of the Obama administration, although there are sharp differences of opinion about how it can best be achieved. We need to address the question of not only whether human rights include the right to health care but how health-care policy should best be implemented.

Many conservative critics object to assigning health-care costs to the public sector—they consider it part of a “socialist” agenda—but this is surely a misuse of language. To claim that health care is a right is to express a humanistic value that we wish to achieve—whether we are liberal or conservative, libertarian or socialist, capitalist or traditionalist.

Health care could be delivered by private companies and agencies as a supplement to governmental programs such as Medicare and Medicaid; it need not be all governmental. Thus it may be a mixture of the public and private sector, which includes individually paid insurance premiums and company plans.

The basic ethical point is that we have a moral responsibility to others. Some people have addressed the concern about assuring access for all people to health care by pointing out that if people become sick they can go to an emergency room, but this is palliative care after an illness or accident. Equally important is the need for prevention and for continuing health care. In the last analysis, every person is responsible for his or her own health. Proper nutrition, exercise, and safety precautions and practices are essential. Yet given advances in the medical sciences such as the discovery of new pharmaceuticals and diagnostic and surgical techniques, the cost of regular health care is prohibitive for most individuals. Universal health care should be available to everyone in society.

Many pharmaceutical and insurance companies have been lobbying ferociously against a health insurance plan from the public sector; yet private plans focus primarily upon profit rather than service. Without denigrating the private sector in health care, and recognizing the good that it has performed, I submit that the public sector needs to be used as well—see, for example, Medicare, which has done a commendable job for retirees. The role of each sector continues to be a topic for disagreement.

Given this, we need to make it clear that adequate health care is indeed a human right; it should be our first priority.

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


Economics and Humanism Does secular humanism have anything significant to say about economic issues or about the controversy that continues to rage between economic libertarians and social democrats? Libertarians advocate unfettered capitalism; they believe fervently in governmental deregulation and lower tax rates. Social democrats, on the contrary, wish to use the government to ensure social …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Subscribe now or log in to read this article.