Philosophy & Ideas

The Rise of Anti-Humanism

boot on headThe Enlightenment project postulated rationality as the highest normative principle, and humanity (not limited to Homo sapiens but inclusive of all beings possessing rational agency) as the ultimate value. Today humanity is no longer the ultimate value for the Humanities (rebranded with the pre-Enlightenment term Liberal Arts) and this practical devaluation implicitly negates humanist ethics. The Liberal Arts still capitalise on the humanistic sentiment, but it is clear that humanism is no longer regarded as a priori normative but as subordinate to other, more obscure value-commitments.

It is the mainstay of public discourse to regard the present size of human population as a problem that may require non-voluntary control; an unthinkable judgment from the point of view of Enlightenment rationality. The judgment of overpopulation is more or less arbitrary, based on the desire for better quality of life rather than on some concrete existential threat, but it pervades the Liberal Arts, Environmentalism and Social Justice Activism no less than it does the Racial-Supremacist model. The only objection to this odd consensus seems to come from traditionalist, religious folk of various denominations. Respective arguments for population control are nevertheless motivated by different aims. Racial supremacists may be seeking racial purity and the highest attainable standard of living just for the master-race; the social justice camp may be concerned about the effect of overpopulation on the welfare of children and other vulnerable members of society, usually with strong emphasis on indigenous rights, animal rights and abortion rights. The environmentalist movement may be motivated by protection of endangered species, preservation of biodiversity and establishment of human exclusion zones for fauna and flora. According to many environmentalists, the Earth would be better off without us.

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Humanist ethics is grounded in universal recognition of the value of one’s own existence (limited to beings capable of rational thought and intentional action) and in the a priori determination that the capacity to endow value on anything entails unconditional value of rational agency. It does not, on a strictly rationalistic interpretation, entail rights, obligations, or the equality of treatment or outcome, but only that we are rationally committed to value agency of others as much as we value our own agency, and above all else. Conversely, the recent departure from the premise that “humanity is the ultimate value” is essentially ungrounded. It is simply assumed (by some) that reward based on need is more just than reward based on contribution, that extinction of non-human species must be prevented at any cost, that sustainability is more ethical than total exploitation and resource substitution, that species egalitarianism is better than anthropocentrism, or that humanity is the greatest threat to the Earth. It is unclear why we should accept any of these value judgments, but it seems that many who hold to them are driven by what I call sentimentalist-hedonic motivation, a radical-subjectivist position with an impossible aspiration to normative universality on the basis of purely subjective sentiments.

In Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals Immanuel Kant argued that rational ethics is conditional on universalisation: “a principle is ethical only if we would wish it to be the Law onto ourselves as well as onto others”. The thesis of universalisation does not of itself satisfy the desiderata of rational ethics, as it allows for universalisation of any arbitrary belief or irrational claim. This was precisely the problem, typical of religious morality, that the Enlightenment arose to challenge. Universalisation yields rational ethics (that is, normative ethics) only in conjunction with some a priori valid or commonly affirmed value-commitment. Only then can the conclusion of a universal principle rationally obtain. The humanist project has derived a robust normative structure from the value-commitments shared by all humans (defined as beings capable of rational thought) and from the constitutive relations between humans: the value of humanity being the source of all meaning and of every value.

Karl-Otto Apel (Selected Essays, 1996) took this line of reasoning one step further, arguing that meaning and value are conditional on relating to other beings capable of rational thought as beings of the same kind, with equal right in a discourse and subject to a common normative structure (discourse-rationality). This entailed that we are not only committed to value humanity because it is a condition of our capacity to value anything at all, but to maintain the attitude of kinship with other beings capable of rationality because it is a condition of our own capacity for rational thought.

This structure is nowadays often rejected in favour of either personal sentiment (with hedonic caveat) or group-ideology, marking a definite push against discourse-rationality. Subjective judgment, feelings and intuitions, if universalised in the same manner as the objectively common value-commitments, can only lead to irreconcilable conflict. If my subjective judgment is true and your (opposite) subjective judgment is also true, then conflict can be resolved only by accident or by force, which are thus implicitly enshrined as universal values: power and luck as the universal good. It follows that proponents of radical-subjectivism, who are often overtly motivated by interests of the nominally abnormal and the most vulnerable, implicitly act against their own aims.

Subjectivist determination of right and wrong is no longer subject to the norms of ration­ality. The resulting confusion and tribalism about values herald regression to violence as the only arbiter of truth. Radical-subjectivism, social ideology and sentimentalist ethics bring back to life the archetypal Tyrant whom the Enlightenment theorists regarded as the antithesis of humanism. Tyranny is perfectly consistent with the bare universalisation thesis if the objective norms are rejected. The Tyrant does indeed will a universal law: that power is the ultimate virtue, a moral obligation of every agent to try to dominate all other agents. “Kill or enslave me if you can,” thinks the Tyrant, “because I yearn for a cunning, brutal and merciless challenger to honour me by testing my virtue, just as I am obliged to honour you by mercilessly testing your virtue.” This attitude is also consistent with Christine Korsgaard’s (Neo-Kantian constructivist) conception of public or agent-neutral reason (in The Sources of Normativity, 1996) that features at the forefront of contemporary meta-ethics debate.

Universal ethics can work for a kind of beings only if grounded in some constitutive condition of the kind, in conjunction with value-commitments shared by all members of the kind. Humanism has identified such a feature in rational agency: every instance of rational thought, meaning and value depends on consensual communication with other rational agents, which presupposes mutual recognition as beings of the same kind. If we value our own agency, we are rationally committed to value our kind above all else, as the ultimate source of our value. Contemporary Liberal Arts, Environmentalism and Social Justice Activism express preferences that are often incompatible with humanist ethics but lack comparable justification.

The humanist view of normativity is arguably still incomplete, failing to consider, for example, that the capacity for rational thought may be a matter of degree rather than a fixed property. The only theorist who, to my knowledge, has touched on this issue is Korsgaard (in Self-Constitution, 2009), but she was concerned only with incremental self-nihilation as a consequence of unethical action rather than formulation of ethical norms that take into account different degrees of rational agency. This largely unexplored aspect of humanism requires careful examination. If degrees of existence as rational agents do matter, then we must also inquire about appropriate means of determining the degrees of agency of others.

Michael Kowalik is a philosopher working in the field of normativity, meta-ethics, value theory and economic reasoning

13 thoughts on “The Rise of Anti-Humanism

  • ianl says:

    I placed a comment earlier which appeared on pressing the red button, but has now been completely disappeared, not even an “in moderation” notice. Who knows ?

    >” It is unclear why we should accept any of these value judgments, but it seems that many who hold to them are driven by what I call sentimentalist-hedonic motivation, a radical-subjectivist position with an impossible aspiration to normative universality on the basis of purely subjective sentiments”

    Said value judgements are listed in the article above that quote but the sentence quoted above reads as if it came from a word processor programmed for both correct grammar and an obscure sense. I think it may mean that people who hold to those listed values are delusional, but I’m not sure of that. Why this sort of post-modernist language is needed is probably worth a full Psychology conference. In any case, post-modern delusions are self-evident.

    As in the disappeared comment, 3/10 for the article, based on its’ prolix. Is this rating subjectivism, one wonders ?

  • whitelaughter says:

    The Enlightenment…sponged off the achievements of previous ages. The value of Man was won on the Cross; take away that, and the Enlightenment cannot answer why people should be valued. Separation of Church and State? A religious concept, going back to ‘render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”, which in turn is based on Judaism’s distinction between the crown and the priesthood. Reason? Thomas Aquinus is the torchbearer here. Tolerance goes back to the old maxim “In essential things unity, in non-essential things liberty, in all things charity” which has been quoted by mystics and teachers for over a millennia. The Enlightenment was never democratic; instead grovelling at the feet of the ‘enlightened despots’. It has failed because it was never able to stand on its own. Humanism died in the trenches of WWI, as the sordid, nasty nature of humanity was shown in all its’ brutality; and being unable to face that, humanism was unable to truly appreciate the courage, loyalty and heroism that shone in those dark days.

    The empty lifeless ‘men without chests’ are not the destroyers of the Enlightenment, but the Enlightenment’s children. The rapid collapse of the dozen of nations founded after WWII ‘on a basis of rationality’ are the ugliest proofs of that; without the bedrock of Western Civilization that predates the Enlightenment, they could not survive.

    • Keith Kennelly says:

      White laughter

      The enlightenment would not have occurred if the Churches had of been reasonable, not meddled in peoples lives, stuck with its original tenets, and had practitioners who weren’t only interested in furthering there own interests and grand designs.

      Gee some what parallel to the attitudes and behaviours of today’s educated elites.

      What we need is a renewal of the ‘Enlightenment’ not a return to the practises of the old religions.

      And your suggestion that their is a distinction between religion and the state in Judaism is laughable. Israel is.a religious state.

      Christ inspired the West not through his death but by his words. The west at the Enlightment included the concepts of the Golden Rule and Love one another and Forgive one another as a basic belief. They are still practised by the west today.

      Tell us of a western democracy based on the values of the Enlightenment that has collapsed since WWI?

      The destroyers of today are not people who hold western values. The are the followers of socialism and the educated managerial elites. The groups who know all but know nothing who try to ram their beliefs down our throats.

      Fee so similar to the religions and proponents of the old religions.

      The modern practise of the religions, as the were seen before the enlightenment, is seen in the fundamental practises of the modern Jews of Israel and the islamists.

      • whitelaughter says:

        In order – the reformation and counter-reformation were the responses to the church losing its way. The famous leaders of the Enlightenment exploited the gains won by those two great revivals…to achieve nothing.

        Israel is indeed a religious state, because while the process was born and begun there, the separation of church and state was never completed within Judaism. And Israel is a modern democracy, with excellent human rights: despite having being under constant attack for 70 years. *They* will survive, even as Europe dies.

        Western democracy that has collapsed since WWI? Let’s see – of the nations created by the Treaty of Versailles, the only one to avoid internal collapse that I can recall was Czechoslovakia. Everwhere else fell – Poland was a military dictatorship by the time the Nazis invaded, Yugoslavia was enjoying a cycle of coup and counter coup. After WWII? *Every* French ex-colony was established as a humanist democracy, and every single one of them fell. The only British ex-colonies to survive were the old Dominions. The Dutch, Belgian and Portuguese colonies? All dictatorships.

  • Mohsen says:

    If the judgment of overpopulation is based on the desire for better quality of life , then I think it’s not arbitrary, rather reasonable! For the Enlightenment rationality the non-voluntary control of the population was unthinkable because it couldn’t by any means imagine 7.5 billion people and growing!

    Seriously, that the Earth would be better off without us can’t be argued against, can it?

    What if we all not believe “the value of humanity being the source of all meaning and of every value”? What if we believe that species egalitarianism is as good as or better than anthropocentrism?

    To me it is clear why we should accept any of the value judgments that are being rejected: we the humanity in our totality can and should see ourselves as conscientious rulers of the Earth. Just because we can, it should not allow us (because we’re humans; we’re supposed to know better and be conscious of the Earth and the life–after all we are the rational ones) to breed like rabbits, and ravish the planet! There is nothing wrong with all-species egalitarianism, if that’s what we all believe and what we are! (that could be the new Enlightenment and normative!)

    • whitelaughter says:

      If you do not regard humans as special, you have no grounds for regarding your opinion as special. Followed to its’ logical conclusion, you have no grounds for protesting if you are thrown to the lions; why should we regard you as more important than the lion? Poor cat needs to eat.

      • Mohsen says:

        😀 😀


        May God damn me if I’ve ever regarded my opinions special! (Rarely some might find some of my opinions special, if at all–who knows!)

        Why should you and your mates regard me as more important than the lion? Because you don’t agree with my views!

        😀 😀

        • whitelaughter says:

          Not sure of the point you are trying to make in your last line! Can you rephrase it?

          • Mohsen says:

            Well, your understanding of my comment was that I somehow imply I don’t regard humans as special; and since the logical conclusion would be that I don’t regard humans more important than the lion, then naturally I wouldn’t protest or care if a man thrown to the lions!

            So my answer to your question is: You shouldn’t throw me to the lion, since, unlike me, you believe humans are special and more important than the lion, and I’m a human!
            If you you throw me to the lion, you naturally share my views, but you claim you don’t; but if you disagree with my views, then throwing me to the lion will be against your beliefs and views; that’s why I said you shouldn’t do it. (Had to answer your question!!)


  • Mohsen says:

    This is how I would define objectivism: Objectivism–at least largely–is the subjectivism of a group of people who successfully ram their views (their subjectivism) down others’ throat one way or another, hence achieving successful conversion and thereafter universalization of their subjectivism; now that universalization is called objectivism.

    • whitelaughter says:

      Subjective reality: I eat this and say whether I like it, or do not.
      Objective reality: I eat this and either keel over and die, or do not.

      • Mohsen says:

        You’re right about what you say about the subjective and objective realities, but they’re different since—apparently and I predict—no one would debate and reject them. But perhaps that might not be the case for moral objectivism!

        “Subjectivist determination of right and wrong is no longer subject to the norms of ration­ality, with tyranny a perfectly consistent outcome if the objective norms are rejected.” And “Subjective judgment, feelings and intuitions, if universalised in the same manner as the objectively common value-commitments, can only lead to irreconcilable conflict.”
        And also mentioning of “subjective sentiments.”

        The article implies the idea that—my understanding— some objective norms are and can be questioned and rejected, meaning they are not agreed upon and believed by all as indisputable constants–which the article is protesting that rejection and questioning (one sense of Objectivism defined by Merriam Webster Collegiate Dictionary: An ethical theory that moral good is objectively real or that moral precepts are objectively valid);

        Hence my comment!

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