Can a humanist be a conservative? Likely not.

Posted on May 6, 2012

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Epicurus probably would have voted NDP.

Prominent are often quick to point out the political diversity of their movement. There is a lot of truth to this claim-atheists range across the political spectrum from Bill Maher to Penn Jillette and the late Christopher Hitchens, but a brief survey of the atheist movement shows that despite this diversity, the vast majority of atheists support progressive political causes. PZ Myers argues that this position should be intrinsic to atheism, but the real reason for the skewed demographics probably has more to do with political contingency. Religious fundamentalists tend to align themselves with conservative political parties, and this has created an reason for atheists, many of whom feel marginalized within the Conservative movement, to align themselves with the left.

If the secular movement is honest with itself, however, it should consider its progressive tendencies in a political and historical vacuum. Is there anything about lack of a belief in god that logically leads to left-wing political goals? The immediate answer to this question must be a resounding no. Atheism, strictly defined, is the lack of a belief in the supernatural, and one need not believe in the supernatural to believe in conservative ideals. One can be a fiscal, social, and foreign policy conservative without the need for a supreme being.

There is more to the story than that, however. Atheists have begun to identify as humanists, rather than mere atheists.  This implies an ethical code code focused on human well-being as the primary measure of good, in addition to non-belief in God. The relevant question, then, is can a person hold conservative views on social, foreign policy, and fiscal issues while having a humanist ethics.

The answers to the first two on that list are rather simple. Social conservatism is almost exclusively rooted in ethical systems that prioritize religious values, tradition, or abstract moral commands over human goods. It is very difficult to see how anybody could oppose free access to contraception, comprehensive sex education, or gay marriage if they take human well-being to be the ultimate measure of ethical action. The same thing goes for foreign policy: A country that adopts an aggressive, interventionist foreign policy places the interests of its own citizens over the safety and livelihoods of citizens of other countries, meaning that national identity is valued over human identity. A humanist does not necessarily have to be a pacifist, but the initiation of military action can only be consistent with humanism if shown it to be in the interests of all people involved, rather than the citizens of only one country.

The last point is a bit more tricky. Fiscal conservatives tend to cite a human right to property and the fruits of one’s labour in favour of their belief in low taxes and smaller government. If property deserves the same ethical status as health and happiness, then humanists might in fact be compelled to favour lower taxes and reduced government spending. Everything hinges on whether property rights can be considered a genuinely humanist value that can trump rights to things like education and health.

The answer to this question is a resounding no. Property rights are not entirely worthless and should be respected as much as possible, but there is no harm done to basic human well-being when a multi-billionaire is taxed so as to become just a regular billionaire. If this is done to that children in lower income brackets can afford proper schooling, then it is thoroughly consistent with humanist principles.  Taxing people into poverty is, of course, a conflict with human values, so tax rates must be arranged progressively, so as to buy the maximum possible amount of human welfare for the minimum impact on peoples’ livelihoods. This implies a push towards greater income equality, where government policy draws resources away from those who can afford it, to support those who cannot. Minimum wage laws, progressive taxation, and social spending are all ways to secure the right of all people to provide for themselves, at the expense of the right of the most successful people to fully enjoy the fruits of their success.

Libertarians would argue that such policies are an infringement on the rights of all people, not just the wealthy, because they eliminate the possibility of us being able to enjoy the fruits of our labour if we are so fortunate as to become very wealthy. This falls very quickly if it is analysed using John Rawls’ veil of ignorance: If one does not know which position they will occupy in society, they are far more likely to prefer a guarantee of a minimal standard of health, safety, and well-being, rather than the right to massive amounts of wealth in the unlikely event that they are highly successful. A humanist ethical code demands that we look at all people as equally deserving of the basic resources necessary for life and dignity, regardless of their skills, luck, or place in the economy.

None of this suggests that one must be an atheist to be a humanist or a progressive. There are, in fact, very good reasons to be found within religious traditions for an emphasis of human goods, and progressive government policy to promote them, and there are a number of religious organizations that take this fully to heart. This discussion also does not suggest that all humanists are progressives as a matter of fact-there is plenty of philosophical inconsistency and argument within both atheism and humanism. This discussion only considers the political and economic implications that result if humanist principles are taken to their logical conclusion.

Humanism is fundamentally about compassion, and  requires us to place our empathy for other human beings above our adherence to abstract moral commitments. Humanism thus requires a progressive world-view which includes high taxes for the very wealthy, and generous social spending to permit the less fortunate to enjoy a basic standard of dignity. Opposition to this requires either an elevation of property rights above human welfare, which violates the empathy central to humanism. A philosophical analysis of the issue suggests that the humanists of the atheist movement are well-justified in their bias towards progressive politics.

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