The Failure of Humanism


This is quite the controversial statement, but it needs to be said again: humanism had failed to save the world. Humanism-embracing people will bawl and rant against it, but it is what many have noticed. Humanism that is based on exalting humans as the highest of things and is often used in angry rants against “humbling, anti-human” things such as religion did not help “make the world a better place.” In Tom Walker’s rant as Jonathan Pie, it is implied that people who voted Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump likely included humanists as among their targets to bring to uneasiness. And they may have a point: as a “leftist against leftists” said, some humanists have themselves been so concerned with winning arguments that they don’t seem to be solving any problems. Writer Achille Mbebe said the age of humanism is ending. I rather believe humanism had long existed, but had never been a significant influence on world affairs.

First of all, humanism is a failure because it became a victim of its own conceit.

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Some things humanists celebrate as part of their “humanness” are also the things that make them “inhuman.” For example, being emotional and submitting to one’s own subjective views on everything is considered human. But that is also a factor in becoming violent and succumbing to impulses to harm others. A humanist might often be against religion (or even spirituality), but this can get replaced with worship of themselves. Humanists tend to deny that acts of depravity are part of human nature, with or without religion or any other similar factor. They would likely rail against my position that something as natural as the survival instinct can lead to wrongdoing.

Some people celebrated as “humanists” were themselves rotten people. John Lennon, despite his song “Imagine,” is said to have been abusive to the women of his life. While not officially a humanist, Spolarium painter Juan Luna killed his wife out of jealousy. Proto-feminist Virginia Woolf often made racist and diparaging remarks about lower-class people in her writing. Richard Dawkins demonstrated online that he himself has the Selfish Gene he wrote about. This is not an attack on the people mentioned; rather, they all demonstrate that humanism doesn’t do a good job of keeping people from being horrible.

The humanist as I see them basically rejects anything greater than oneself, including morality and authority as well as deity. It has mostly led to the “me, me, me” egoism of the human taking precedence. I have the impression that hardcore humanists will reject that famous Shakespearean line from Hamlet: “there are greater things than can be dreamed of in your philosophies, Horatio.”

Yet, here is an angle others may have already raised: was humanism really meant to be a solution to world problems? Was it really meant to save the world? Real-life experience for me shows that it probably was never meant to be. Humanism was never supposed to have a “moral” effect, that people will become good to each other “naturally.” I’m afraid that was an unrealistic expectation. Humanism as I see it was mainly an art movement, focused on aesthetics. In practice, despite the beliefs of some humanist adherents, it rarely led to people being good.

This humanism is mostly a product of postmodernism, the movement that started out in architecture and art and called for no universal standards. Nothing is universally correct or wrong, everyone’s version of what’s nice and not nice should be acceptable. But this premise somehow crept into other areas, such as philosophy and morality. It has been considered the root of moral relativism. Matthew Raley’s book, The Diversity Culture, described it as “the belief that there is no universal truth.” He also has an interesting definition of street postmodernism, ‘street’ meaning what people actually practice: a set of attitudes that enables a person to navigate today’s social ambiguity without getting hurt. The last part seems to explain the actual goal of “hipsters” and “millennials” today: they want to avoid getting hurt.

Following this motivation, some humanists move back from the postmodern and try to return to believe something is absolute; namely, what they think is right. They try to modify the world according to their wishes, so it won’t hurt them; but they fail. When they get hurt by something, they react hatefully and violently to those who disagree with them. But they get more hurt this way. Hence, esteemed webmaster Benign0 is right is calling out consistency as a problem of the “hipster” generation.

Personally, I see such humanists this way: let’s say a certain humanist believes they’re beautiful or their ideas are beautiful, and want an affirmation from others. They seem so pleasant when someone flatters or humors them. But when someone disagrees with them, they get angry and rail against that person, probably calling them insensitive, cruel, inhuman, fascist, hate-monger and others. Some try to convince others to attack their perceived opponent, even to the point of using lies. In reality, it is all about ego and vanity, not “humanism.” A person with a bigger ego is a lot more easily hurt.

Another thing is that humanism is a product of western-dominated society. Go to other places in the world, such as China, Afghanistan, Armenia, Tanzania, etc., ask their basic cultures about human rights and humanism, they don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. Again, I’ll belay the obvious, but humanism is held mostly by people in ivory towers. They probably don’t know how it is on the ground, especially in other places untouched by or are against western culture. Eastern culture and philosophy has its own form of humanism, but it seems to have less of the ego that the modern western attitude seems to carry.

I’ve yet to get this book, but it looks interesting

This brings me to another topic, that of forcibly relating beauty and goodness. There is that philosophical theory that what are beautiful and good are intertwined. Humanists will say that people who love beautiful things will automatically embrace the good. In practice, this is disproved. Serial killers may find their butchering of victims beautiful. They can do it even when sane (I believe psychopathy and other mental conditions are not necessary to be a killer, but that’s a topic for another day). Thieves might find their handiwork a “work of art.” Some may find manipulation, hurting the emotions of others or torturing others beautiful for them. And of course, there’s the analogy of whitewashed tombs: what can be beautiful outside can be ugly and twisted inside. As fellow blogger Ilda says on her profile, things are often not as they seem. Oh and culture: as I’ve written before, culture is the source of a lot of abuses. So you thought culture is just about dances, music, art and literature? Nope, culture is also about practices that shock us, such as arranged marriages, sexism, slavery and mutilations. Beauty and morality are not linked or proportionally related.

Lately, blogger Kate Natividad saw something wrong with the Women’s March in the U.S. after Trump’s inauguration. As I said in a comment on that, they probably overrate Trump as a threat to women, and I’ve yet to see a protest as big as that on confirmed threats to women like Boko Haram and “honor” killings of daughters. Oh, and celebrity worship of Madonna for her rather uncerebral messages.

While there are humanists who know better, criticism of the movement is not foul. If we want the world to be more peaceful, we might have to rethink the place of humanism in our affairs. Perhaps humanism has to evolve. Instead of sticking only to praising and defending everything human, we might have to go back to acceptance of traditional values, which includes questioning our human motivations and desires. The answer may lie in this: first, let’s keep something that’s for art about art, and not mix it up with something related to practical values or ethics. Aesthetics and morality should not be mixed. They are not proportionally and causally related. Second, let’s have the right attitude about getting hurt, because chronic avoidance of it makes people whiney and weak. Life is all about braving all the hurts and going on top, being antifragile, and perhaps that attitude will bring out the best of the human in us. And of course, deflate our egos. Our egos hate being easily hurt, and to avoid being hurt, we do bad, selfish things. It prevents us from learning from our hurts. Addressing that might be the next level of real humanism.

12 Replies to “The Failure of Humanism”

  1. Too right. Real world problems need real world solutions with realistic workable actions. I teach Fine Arts, but I abhor my co-teachers who are sooooo into art, humanism, new-agey-feel good stuff.

    I’m an artist / designer / admirer of beauty.. but I’m also realist, a stoic, hot blooded male with a family who try to keep it in the straight and narrow.

    Most of my colleagues that are into those feel-good stuff are artsy middle-aged single ladies, animal rights activists, left-leaning pink haired creatures. Kinda tells you a lot.

  2. Good article again ChinoF. However, I’d like to add that although The West codified, solidified and named Humanist thought, it does exist outside of the West; it’s just not named as such. When people have no other god, then humanity itself (or, more narrowly, some racial group) is often the default choice of deity. I would suggest the Philippines is a prime example.

  3. one good example is de lima. a human doing inhumane acts to humans. can we call it humanism? she should be in jail be now.

  4. Humanist makes man: “The Measure of all Things”…

    This new Philosophy , began in Europe in the mid 14th century. It became the intellectual characteristic of the emerging European Renaissance. It began with books, with rediscovery by thinkers , writers and men of independent means of the classical text of antiquity.

    Humanist rejected the Church view of men and women primarily as sinful creatures in need for salvation through God’s grace…

    Instead, they emphasized the dignity of the human race, the greatest achievement of the God created universe. The great generosity of God !

    Humanist values pleasure…they were devoted to beauty, arts and eloquent speech. They rejoiced at individuality. And they promoted the idea of free scientific inquiry, uninhibited by Church dogma; helping to create an intellectual climate that was open to new discoveries.

    I think Humanism, is still alive and kicking; it has not failed…it enhanced the intellectual pursuit of men for the Truth …it is not fully understood.

    I am not a Humanist, although, I agree with some of their Philosophical agendas…

  5. Thanks for the comments so far. I thought I put too much into this article at first. Kwag, I thought some would be that predictable. Yeah, Marius, I agree with that way you framed it.

  6. I agree with some principles of humanism. Empowering man, which he should live according to his choices, own standards and belief. Humanism also condemned the idea of racism, sexism and other judgemental thoughts. What the author mentioned are the cons of it. Humanism doesn’t apply to everything especially in the field of governance and sociology. The no right no wrong rule is dangerous. Living in the world with extinct universal moral standard is extremely fatal.

  7. I dont really think I am surprised you wrote this article in this particular way.

    My parents always told me that (Dutch) ‘schelden doet geen/niet pijn’. Translated in English: ‘scolding does not hurt’.
    Now what does it really mean? It means ‘talk doesnt hurt’.
    On the other hand, physical torture does hurt, dying in a burning plane hurts.

    Does that mean, I am immune for criticism? No, of course I am not.
    When people criticise me then I will absorb that and will admit it that I am wrong (if/when I am wrong).
    So when your criticism is fair and correct, it also wont hurt me bec you are right.
    Just calling me names without any foundation and without any arguments leaves me completely indifferent.

  8. Disclaimer: I see myself as a humanist.
    I kinda disagree with many things in this post and i won’t go voer it in detail because im not sure if even anyone reads this. I will say that the humanism that is portrait here is not the humanism i follow. For me it is about believing that the essence of every human is good. It is also about freedom and givning every human the possibility for growth (yea i know thos ewords sound empty, but thats all i can do in a few sentences)

    So in that sense there is one important sentence i agree with: ” … humanism has to evolve.”. And i think that is true for the humanism portrait here and for the one that i am aligning my values in. I also agree about deflating the ego. I will try my best to not cling my ego to humanism. It has to stay a free concept that can grow and evolve even if my ego is against it.

    A good criticism is the one about individuality. There is a danger of overpromoting individuality in many aspects.

    Some one critics are not inherently to humanism but only to how you my experienced it. Yes it kinda puts humans above everything, but i think the reason is important. What we ahve all in common is consciousness.

    Another thing is that we don’t deny all values. Its jsut that we see that there is noe xternal god. If you want so then good is in every human. You could say consciousness is god. We are the gods of our own reality. How to we live in a society full of gods? I think its possible to live peacufully with no other god above us.

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