The 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