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a human politics

analysis, bbc radio 4, 16 march 2006

KENAN MALIK   In London, Muslim protestors demand that the government pay greater heed to sharia law. In Oxford, animal rights activists campaign to stop the building of a medical lab. What links these two events? Nothing you might think. But each, in its own
way, challenges a philosophy central to the Western intellectual tradition, and to much of secular politics - humanism.

ROY HATTERSLEY   I call myself a humanist because my standard of values, my aspirations, my view of life, is based on the human character, human nature, and I think human moral perceptions.

RICHARD RYDER   It seems to be a sort of selfish in-group attitude rather like racism, putting my race above other races. That sort of prejudice seems to me to be out of date, irrational and inexcusable.

ROY HATTERSLEY   I don't believe there's anything outside the human mind, which can guide us, which can advise us on how we should conduct ourselves. I have enough faith in human nature to believe that given the right environment, the right chance, it will be
humanity that makes the improvements I want to see in society.

TARIQ RAMADAN   I am very suspicious with someone who is coming with a pure rationalist approach. I am scared of these people. Pure, autonomous rationality, it's a kind of dictatorship of intelligence, of your own intellect. It's a dominant, arrogant posture.

ROY HATTERSLEY   Humanism is the optimistic sort of secularism. It's the view that human nature will triumph, that human nature is a basically good thing.

KENAN MALIK   Labour peer Lord Hattersley, a Distinguished Supporter of the British Humanist Association, and two critics of humanism, psychologist and animal rights activist Richard Ryder and Tariq Ramadan, an eminent Islamic scholar. Dr Ryder and Professor Ramadan are far from alone. Everyone from postmodernists to scientific naturalists seems to be taking a pop at humanism these days. So, why is humanism in such bad odour, and should it matter to us that it is? For Kate Soper, Professor of Philosophy at London Metropolitan University, humanism has, over the past 500 years, helped shape the ways in which we think about ourselves and our place in the world.

KATE SOPER   In the Renaissance period, you get a sense of this freeing up from some fixed place in the cosmic order. It goes together with an emphasis on both the intellectual and potentially sort of what we would now call scientific powers, but also in the Renaissance there's a lot of emphasis on the emotional differences, our differences of sentiment from other animals. And then that's carried forward in the Enlightenment, but I think further reinforced by the Enlightenment's sense of confidence in science to allow us to take control of nature, to harness natural resources in the interests of human gratifications but what becomes more dominant, you could argue, in the Enlightenment is the emphasis on reason as allowing us this sort of control. So it goes together with a certain kind of confidence in human amelioration in our powers to perfect ourselves and our world.

KENAN MALIK   Are you saying then that underlying different forms of humanism is a sense of human beings as being special, as possessing agency or free will, and as having reason as an important component of the way they deal with the world?

KATE SOPER   Yes, I am indeed saying that. I find it quite difficult to think of a politics that doesn't have some kind of humanist basis in the sense that it's underwritten by some idea of a common universal human nature.

KENAN MALIK   Humanist ideas, in other words, are important not just philosophically, but politically too. Concepts such as democracy, equality and universal rights rely on the idea of a common humanity. Institutions such as the International Criminal Court are rooted in the conviction that all humans should receive equal protection against war crimes. The very notion of politics rests on the belief that humans are, uniquely, self-conscious agents capable of using reasoned dialogue and collective action to help transform the world. Many people, however, don't just dispute this idea of humans as special creatures but find it morally troubling. Richard Ryder is the author of Putting morality back into politics and invented the term 'speciesism'.

RICHARD RYDER   By speciesism, I mean a prejudice like racism or sexism that encourages people to mistreat creatures of another species merely because they're of another species. It is based upon attaching moral importance to physical differences that are morally irrelevant such as the numbers of legs, hairy coat and so on.

KENAN MALIK   But the difference with racism is this. Racists discriminate against people who are fundamentally equal; speciesists assert something that's factually true, that humans and animals are fundamentally different.

RICHARD RYDER   We're not fundamentally different. The whole message of Darwinism is that we're all related biologically and there's more and more scientific evidence to show that in matters of real importance morally, such as the capacity to suffer pain and distress, we're very much alike. We have similar nervous systems. We react to pain and distress in a very similar way.

KENAN MALIK   We are all related biologically, but there is a fundamental difference between humans and other animals, which is that you can bet your bottom dollar that no group of chimps will be having a debate like this about the moral values of humanism or speciesism.

RICHARD RYDER   But why should that affect the way in which I'm treated? I mean you can find human beings who are incapable of having an abstract discussion. As a psychologist dealing with what was called the mentality handicapped in the old days, I met many such people, such human beings who were incapable of abstract thought, indeed incapable of coherent conversation, and yet I wouldn't advocate using these people in experiments or using them as quarries in sporting contests or any of the other ways in which we customarily use animals of different species.

KENAN MALIK   This debate about the differences between humans and other animals is not just a philosophical tussle, but has practical consequences. In Oxford 700, mainly young, people took to the streets earlier this month in defence of animal experimentation, chanting 'Animal tests cure disease / Humans before chimpanzees' - a slogan probably unique in the annals of political demos. According to one of the organisers, the protest was about defending 'scientific progress' against the idea that 'there is no moral difference between humans and animals'. Could this be the beginnings of a humanist counterattack? The writer and neurologist Professor Ray Tallis thinks it's about time.

RAY TALLIS   I have to say I do believe in human exceptionism. I do believe we're very special and I do believe that it's not inappropriate that we should value ourselves more than we value other species. If humans were just other animals, isn't it surprising we are the only animal that's written The Origin of Species? We're the only animal that actually questions and thinks about its own nature. We have a level of self-conscious reflection, a level of self-criticism that is not matched in any other animals.

KENAN MALIK   But do we really? Many scientists challenge the idea that humans are distinct from other animals by virtue of possessing self-consciousness and will. Dr Susan Blackmore is a psychologist and author of Conversations on Consciousness.

SUSAN BLACKMORE   Free will is a really interesting and powerful delusion. Basically the world is a closed system, things happen because of things that have happened before, and the brain is an amazingly complex machine obeying physical principles and so on. There's no room for free will.

KENAN MALIK   What about the notion of a conscious self?

SUSAN BLACKMORE   I think that's another delusion as well. That's a very tricky one because it's such a powerful feeling that I am not equivalent to my body, I am not equivalent to the things that go on in here. I am somehow the owner of this body. I'm sitting in my brain looking out through my eyes. That's how it feels and that's how we talk. But, again, if we look at what a brain is actually like, if you open up a brain you see millions and millions of interconnected neurons with billions of connections. There's no place for a self to be in there. Better to think in terms of 'Let's work out the principles of what we stand for'.

KENAN MALIK   Politics is all about making choices. Should we go to war with Iraq. Should schools be able to select pupils according to ability and so on? In your world view, how do we make political choices?

SUSAN BLACKMORE   We are naturally political animals who make these kinds of decisions and have to make those kinds of decisions. It's not going to help us to think that we're a little conscious self inside. Better to think in terms of… of let’s work out the principles of what we stand for, let's try and fit our actions to those. Let's try and make political decisions that will fit with what we're trying to achieve. I'm saying if you let go the sense of there being a little me inside, the world doesn't fall apart, you don't suddenly go out and you know start murdering people or running them over. Actually rather the reverse happens because you're not so obsessed with this kind of self in here that's important. And actually without believing in free will or in inner self, still a person, a physical thing here will talk about what is harmful and what is helpful to other people, what is kind and what is not, what is the best decision if we want to have a peaceful planet. You know maybe we shouldn't go to war. Those kinds of things will be made anyway.

KENAN MALIK   But will they? It's difficult to know how decisions can be made and evaluated without some kind of conscious thought. After all, we can only answer questions such as 'What do we stand for?' and 'What are we trying to achieve?' by thinking purposefully about the hopes, fears, and aspirations that human beings, individually and collectively, experience. Few people will go as far as Susan Blackmore in denying human agency. Many are, however, fatalistic about what humans can achieve, a fatalism to which such arguments seem to lend scientific credibility. Kate Soper worries about the consequences.

KATE SOPER   One of the problems of politically abandoning a humanist conception would be that perhaps you know we see ourselves as simply fatally caught up in some pre-ordained, natural - you know that we are just carried along as flotsam and jetsam on some natural wave and, therefore, you know a sense of fatalism can set in politically and it can justify the idea that there is nothing that we are going to do that is really ultimately going to make any difference. I mean you can already hear voices, I think, saying that it's actually too late to do very much about the environmental crisis. I think these are quite worrying developments and I think that they are to some extent encouraged by an anti-humanist perspective, yes.

KENAN MALIK   If many scientists are sceptical of some of the basic claims of humanism, so too are many religious believers, though for very different reasons. Tariq Ramadan, Professor of Religious Studies at Oxford University.

TARIQ RAMADAN   As a Muslim of course my references are two sets of text. The Qur'an as a revealed text, which is for the Muslims the very word of God. And the other set of texts is what we call the Sunna, the Prophetic tradition - what he did, what he said and which decision he took. And there is something else which is really important, is that we also have values coming from rationality. The text is an outward revelation and your intellect is an inward revelation, so what is coming from your rationality, your intellect is also promoting and building universal values for the believers. My belief and my faith in God is a protection in the way I am using my reason. In fact it's the protection for me not to be arrogant because the first sin with my reason is to think that with my reason I will get it all. Be humble in the way you use your own faculties.

KENAN MALIK   So you think that the importance of religion and of God is that it places limits on what humans can and should do?

TARIQ RAMADAN  I am very suspicious with someone who is coming with a pure rationalist approach without limits. The people who don't have limits are really scary people. I am scared of these people.

NICHOLAS BOYLE   Christianity and humanism are from a religious point of view virtually synonymous because Christianity's central assertion is that God is human.

KENAN MALIK  Nicholas Boyle, Professor of German Literary and Intellectual History at Cambridge University and a leading Christian humanist.

NICHOLAS BOYLE   Humanism in a political context is above all the assertion that our human affairs have to be organised in accordance with principles that make sense on the basis of the ultimate value of human flourishing, human love, human self-sacrifice. They are not to be understood as dependent on or to be organised in accordance with some non-human principle, whether that non-human principle is understood as some kind of supernatural power or whether it's understood simply as a book.

KENAN MALIK   That seems a perfectly secular view. But doesn't the fact that you look to God for your values and require that humans are redeemed, they require God to redeem humanity, doesn't that undermine a basic tenet of humanism?

NICHOLAS BOYLE  The notion that human beings are self-creating is one which has a certain place in a Christian view of the world. There is a sense in which the human realm is autonomous and we are responsible for what we do or what we make out of ourselves. But in a deeper sense, it is quite unrealistic to describe human beings as self-creating and no one can actually think of themselves as entirely self-made. We know that we depend on forces, things, people outside ourselves and the term God is used in many religions to refer to that outside ourselves on which we are ultimately dependent - dependent even for the values that we observe.

KENAN MALIK   There is a long and important tradition of Christian humanism. But can the tension between the religious belief that values come from God and the humanist belief in self-created Man be easily reconciled? For many religious believers - and not just for
those so-called fundamentalists - the Word of God constrains their actions on Earth. And this can have troubling political consequences. Tariq Ramadan recently called for a moratorium on traditional Islamic punishments such as the stoning of women for adultery. Why, I asked him, does he not simply condemn such punishments outright?

TARIQ RAMADAN   My point here is to say, look, I need this to come from within. I can please you by saying I am against it. It's not going to change the Islamic society, it's not, because the Muslims are referring to the text.

KENAN MALIK  I'm not asking you to please me. I'm asking you to state your views on it. So why can't you simply state that such punishments are barbaric and wrong and should not take place?

TARIQ RAMADAN   Because I am referring to a text and this text is revealed and I think it's coming from God. You cannot expect from me to condemn a Qur'anic verse. You can expect from me, in the name of my understanding, in the name of my rationality, my active and dynamic rationality, to put this verse into a specific context and to understand it.

KENAN MALIK   But isn't that the problem? That you know rationally certain things are morally and politically wrong, but you are not willing to say that because of certain texts which you also believe in?

TARIQ RAMADAN  No, I wouldn't say it's wrong the way you think it's wrong.

KENAN MALIK   My rationality tells me that stoning women is wrong. Full stop.

TARIQ RAMADAN   I think it's a clash. I think that in the name of your understanding, you are not ready to listen to people saying look, we are starting with a text and we are moving out of our understanding towards something which is dealing with our world. And we need you to understand that because in the name of your pure, autonomous rationality, it's a kind of dictatorship of intelligence, of your own intellect. It's a dominant, arrogant posture. It's dangerous.

KENAN MALIK   It's not just religious believers who think that humanists are arrogant. For many postmodern thinkers the very idea that Europeans should lecture peoples of other cultures smacks of bad faith. Robert Eaglestone, senior lecturer in Literature at Royal Holloway College, and author of The Holocaust and the Postmodern.

ROBERT EAGLESTONE   There's also a critique of humanism from a sort of post-colonial perspective, which is about the hypocrisy of European humanism. When humanism was taken abroad to the European colonies, the Europeans applied their humanistic ideals intermittently on the populations they subjugated. The anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon writes a very savage attack on humanism. He says that the formerly colonised nations must leave this Europe where they're never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them - meaning that while Europe has this great rhetoric of humanity and human values, their behaviour round the world has been bloody and savage. And I think the most important critique of humanism is in a sense a post-Holocaust critique. The American philosopher Hilary Putnam writes that the danger in grounding ethics and the idea that we're all fundamentally the same in sort of humanist ethics is the door is open for the Holocaust. So he's saying that once you start saying we're equal it doesn't take very much to say some are more equal than others or that some people are less human than other people. And once you've done that, once you've set up a criteria of what it is to be human, it's very easy to shift and change and alter that criteria. So if you want to keep a notion of there being an essence to humanity, it has to be an essence without content. It has to be an essence that can't be used to exclude people.

KENAN MALIK   But if you do away with a notion of a common humanity, you might not be able to exclude people but you won't be able to include people either.

ROBERT EAGLESTONE   Well that's right, but both of those paths lead to danger.

KENAN MALIK   The trouble is, what could the idea of a 'human essence without content' mean in practical terms? How, for instance, could we enact equal rights laws if we can't define who is a human being and hence covered by those laws? And does it really make sense to suggest that the belief that all humans are fundamentally the same opened the door to a genocidal regime that treated certain groups as fundamentally different and fit only for the concentration camps? What is unquestionable, though, is that the experience of the Holocaust has led many people to become far more pessimistic about the human condition, a pessimism that makes them uneasy about the humanist exaltation of reason and progress. Nicholas Boyle.

NICHOLAS BOYLE   We haven't actually proved ourselves very good at sorting out our own affairs, not only in recent years but for many centuries. And the continued existence of injustice, of the misapplication of violence, inequalities in our economic system, whatever improvements may have been seen in it, are an indication that we don't really know where we are or what we're doing.

RAY TALLIS  It is however interesting to note that in the 20th century, although appalling things have happened, in parallel with that there have been some extraordinarily positive moral developments.

KENAN MALIK   Professor Ray Tallis, author of The Enemies of Hope.

RAY TALLIS  If one thinks back over history, it would be interesting to ask the question you know where was the International Red Cross when the Crusades were taking place? You know what kind of international law was regulating wars in the Middle Age and so on? And it seemed to me that okay there has been appalling behaviour collectively of humanity in the 20th century, as in all previous centuries. Perhaps what was unique in that century was an awareness of how appalling it was and a recognition that something must be done collectively to prevent a repetition of that kind of thing.

KENAN MALIK   Ray Tallis is surely right: however barbarous our recent history, we shouldn't forget our response to that barbarism. From universal suffrage to the Geneva Convention, from international laws to civil rights legislation, the past century has also revealed the human capacity for moral and political progress. Nicholas Boyle and Ray Tallis both describe themselves as humanists. Yet they have very different views of the human condition. Their debate suggests that the crisis of humanism has emerged as much from anxieties within its own ranks as from attacks by critics outside. Let's return to the vexed question of experimenting on animals in order to benefit people. Here, too, humanists are divided. For Ray Tallis there can be no equivocation.

RAY TALLIS   If you had seen as much human suffering as I have from diseases that are incurable, you would be very strongly supportive of animal research. The rather absurd notion that research on animals is a unique expression of our speciesism does not provide a good argument for bringing animal research to a halt.

KATE SOPER   I'm opposed to animal experimentation really. That's not to say I couldn't imagine one or two exceptional cases where it could be justified, but part of being a humanist is actually in recognising your difference from other creatures; also in a sense respecting the gap between us and them and not trying to assimilate them too closely to us. But I don't actually think there are many needs of human beings that will continue to licence that kind of intense experimentation with animals.

KENAN MALIK   The philosopher Kate Soper, who describes herself as a 'green humanist'. Once again we see that, for all the accusations of arrogance, perhaps the real problem is that humanists have become uncertain about what they stand for. Where once they affirmed the specialness of human beings, now many are not so sure. Where once they lauded scientific progress, now they often feel anxious about it. Where once there was an optimism about human capacities, today there is often a stress on the darker side of human nature. Does all this hesitancy and backtracking matter? Here's how Susan Blackmore, a critic of humanism, sees it.

SUSAN BLACKMORE   I have a lot of sympathy with humanism because of its emphasis on humans treating themselves and each other with respect and the planet and so on and absolutely not having a God and a religion and so on, but I part company with those humanists who put the responsibility on a conscious entity inside. I think humanism is under threat, but it's always been somewhat under threat. It sets itself up in a way that simple atheism doesn't to be offering an alternative and actually there are huge problems with that alternative. Anyone who wants to attack a non-religious viewpoint will find an easy target, I think, in humanism. It would matter to me terribly if humanism and everything like it disappeared. It wouldn't matter to me if it disappeared because
scientific naturalism and other kinds of equivalent ideas were doing better and I don't suppose it would to a lot of humanists, would it?

KENAN MALIK   Actually it would. For Roy Hattersley, humanism is not simply a way of challenging religious belief, but also a means of inoculating us against the pessimism that suggests that conscious, collective progress is an illusion.

ROY HATTERSLEY   In the history of the 20th century man can do more and more - and by man I mean men and women. The human mind is capable, the human body is capable, of doing things which were unthought of a hundred years ago. Indeed every ten years man's capability is demonstrated as being incredibly more than it was a decade before. If there is pessimism about, it's a pessimism of total ignorance. We ought to be bursting with optimism because it's all within our power. It is within our power to feed Africa, I mean. It is within our power to stop the evaporation of the ice cap. It is within our power to do all the things that need to be done and it's evidently so and self-evidently so. It's whether people want to do it or not that counts, not whether they think they can.

KENAN MALIK   The fact that such optimism might appear wild-eyed and naïve is itself telling. Roy Hattersley is surely right that, notwithstanding terrorism and war, poverty and famine, inequality and injustice, the world has improved immeasurably over the past century. He's also right that, compared to a century ago, we are much better equipped to tackle the problems that we do face. Yet many people today feel paralysed both by a sense of impotence about human capabilities and by a fear that human activities often make things worse. Such pessimism, Ray Tallis suggests, may be the biggest problem of all.

RAY TALLIS   Disillusionment about human beings will become self-fulfilling. If we really don't believe that progress both in terms of material prosperity and ethically is possible, if we have no sense of a better future, I think we lose our collective sense of purpose and all that is left is for individuals to pursue their own rather selfish aims.

KENAN MALIK   Humanism remains central to any kind of progressive view of the world. Not just because it underpins such notions as democracy and equality. But also because it makes possible the very process of political change. Without humanism we become transfixed by our own impotence. That's why today we need, not less arrogance about human capabilities, but more.