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Yuval Noah Harari and ‘liberal humanism’

This article follows on from an article on Harari’s definition of ‘humanism’.

Some may claim that of Harari’s three ‘humanisms (liberal humanism, socialist humanism, and evolutionary humanism), what he calls ‘liberal humanism’ is closest to the more mainstream usage of the word humanism. However, even here, there are significant differences.

Harari describes several features of what he calls ‘liberal humanism’ (and sometimes ‘liberalism’) in Homo Deus. These are listed below along with a humanist response.

Harari on ‘liberal humanism’ A humanist response

Humanist ethics

For Harari, ‘Humanist ethics in essence believes that if it feels good, do it.’ There is no objective morality. Instead, ‘feelings are the ultimate groundwork for morality’. If the same thing makes me feel good and you feel bad (e.g. if I steal your car), we don’t apply to some higher absolute morality. We have to weigh the feelings one against the other.

Feelings are an important ingredient of humanist ethics, which places great value on human happiness and wellbeing. However, humanists will typically disagree with simplistic phrases such as ‘if it feels good do it’ as they take no account of the feelings of other people. For humanists, reason and empathy have an extremely important role to play in deciding how we should act, as does a consideration of the consequences of our actions on other people and on society.

Humanist politics

For Harari, ‘Humanist politics believes that the voter knows best… the feelings of the voters are the ultimate authority.’ Elections don’t ask what you think, but what you feel. No higher authority can tell voters that their feelings are wrong.

Humanists are strong supporters of democracy.

However, humanists will typically claim that voters’ actions should be an attempt to make rational decisions based on the potential consequences of their vote. Voters can be unaware of what is in their best interests. That is why education is an essential ingredient of democracy.

Humanist economics

For Harari, humanist economics says that ‘the customer is always right’. How do you know a product is good or bad? A good product is a product that customers buy. ‘If customers don’t want it that means the product is no good. It doesn’t matter if all the university professors and all the priests cry out from every lectern and pulpit. If the customer rejects it, it is bad.’ This means, for example, if a customer rejects expensive meat produced from animals raised in an environment that takes account of their wellbeing, and instead chooses cheap meat made from animals raised in terrible living conditions, then that is what we should provide them with.

Freedom of choice is important to humanists. However, an economics that values customer choice over all other moral considerations is flawed. Free customer choice requires customers to be fully informed of the consequences of their choices. In cases where customers’ choices cause significant harm, restrictions should be placed on their choices.

Humanist aesthetics

For Harari, humanist aesthetics determines that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. There is no objective definitions of art, only subjective feelings of what art is.

While some humanists may agree, many will not hold a strong opinion on this matter.

Humanist Education

For Harari, humanist education teaches people to think for themselves because authority comes from within. ‘It is good to know what Aristotle, Solomon and Aquinas thought about politics, art and economics, yet since the supreme source of meaning and authority lies within ourselves, it is far more important to know what you think about these matters.’ We should ‘think for ourselves because we will find all the answers within.’

Humanists place great value on the capacity to think for oneself and will typically promote this approach as a defence against authoritarianism. However, this does not mean that humanists believe all knowledge is subjective: we cannot decide for ourselves what is true or false. We have no authority over truth or falsehood. We can be wrong. Nor does humanism claim that we cannot learn from the best that has been thought and said by others. We will not find all the answers within.

 

Harari’s liberal humanism is more like a form of individualism than humanism. It includes approaches to life and political ideologies such as egoism, hedonism, capitalism, neoliberalism, and libertarianism.

Read more about Harari’s definition of ‘secularism’.

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