Toward Rational Humanism
We need a new religion or ideology that meets the following criteria:
- It provides a foundation for a sustainable civilization.
- It provides individuals with a functional way of life.
- It isn’t fundamentally deceptive.
- It has a rational, philosophical basis that is accessible to intelligent people.
- It can be reduced to a few simple ideas that can be understood by ordinary people.
- It has good memetic properties.
To that end, I propose a new ideology organized around two core values, one for the individual and one for the collective:
- Reproduction: The individual purpose of life is reproduction. In the short term, this means having children. In the long term, it means having many descendants.
- Civilization: Our collective purpose is perpetuating and advancing our civilization. Our civilization is “us”, but it is not just a collection of individuals. It is a complex system that has biological, cultural and social components. We inherited a civilization from our ancestors, and we pass it on to our descendants.
These two values are related, because our descendants will inherit our civilization if it continues to exist. Civilization is collective wealth that we pass on to our descendants. Also, reproductive interests converge in the long run for members of the same civilization, because we reproduce sexually. Assuming no catastrophic die-off, people living in the distant future will inherit from many people alive today.
It is important to make the distinction between individual and collective interests. There are conflicts of interest between individuals, and individual interests are not the same as collective interests. Society has to regulate individual behavior for the common good. We can’t eliminate competition between individuals. Instead, society must limit individual competition to forms that benefit society instead of harming it.
If we pretend that individuals are altruistic, and that society depends on altruism, then we have no rational justification for regulated competition. There would be no justification for market economics, which harnesses individual competition for the common good. There would be no justification for reproductive competition either. An altruistic moral theory would prohibit the competition necessary to make civilization strong. We need regulated, constructive forms of competition between individuals.
Instead of allowing individuals to pursue their self-interest at the expense of the collective, we need to bring individual interests into alignment with collective interests.
Let’s imagine a way of life based on these core values. What would it be like?
The value of reproduction would motivate individuals to have children. The value of civilization would justify regulating reproduction eugenically with a social competition for the right to reproduce. By selfishly working toward reproduction, the individual would also be working to benefit his civilization.
Most people would form a pair-bonded family structure with 2 children (on average). The requirement to support one’s children would incentivize economic productivity, both biologically and psychologically. People would compete within the constraints of society (economically) to acquire the resources necessary to support children. More productive people would have more children. This would increase the overall productivity of the population, and strengthen the civilization.
The civilization would not coerce people to reproduce, nor incentivize reproduction. Instead, reproduction would be ideologically promoted as individual self-interest, not as a social virtue.
Superficially, it would look similar to what we have today, but with a greater emphasis on family, and a lesser emphasis on virtue signaling, entertainment and promiscuity. Without the pretense of altruism, status signaling would require actual accomplishments, not just professing “good” beliefs and feelings.
Those who could not reproduce would still share in the collective purpose of perpetuating and advancing civilization. Although they would not have descendants, they would have brothers, sisters and cousins. They would be part of the collective, and they would share in the collective purpose, whether or not they could contribute to it. The inability to have children would be viewed as a personal tragedy, but not one that renders life meaningless.
Self-interest would be accepted and recognized, but the dependence of the individual on the collective would also be recognized. People would be expected to display humility toward society, nature and the cosmos.
The value of civilization would extend to the environment. Civilization depends on the biosphere, and so we have a long-term interest in protecting the biosphere from internal and external threats.
This environmentalism would not be the worship of nature, nor the rejection of humanity and technology. It would be a recognition of humanity’s place in nature, and the place of nature in the cosmos.
We must protect the biosphere from ourselves, by limiting our population and ecological impact. We should also protect our planet from cosmic threats, such as asteroids.
Eventually, we should try to expand our biosphere to other planets, but that is a very long-term goal. The Earth will be the only home of humanity for a very long time, perhaps forever.
We should not view humanity, nature or the cosmos as magic. Instead, we should understand the place of each within the other, just as we understand the place of the individual within society. We should recognize the potential for a short-term conflict of interest between humanity and nature, but also recognize the long-term convergence of interests. We need the planet and its biological systems, and only we can protect the planet from cosmic threats.
What should we call this ideology? I propose the name “rational humanism”.
The name of an ideology should be related to its core values. The term “humanism” unites the two core values of reproduction and civilization. “Rational humanism” implies a relation to humanism, the dominant ideology of the modern West. It implies that the current form of humanism is irrational. The name “rational humanism” is a challenge to humanism. We can also label the current form of humanism “naive humanism” to distinguish it from rational humanism.
Although there are fundamental differences, rational humanism shares many things with naive humanism, such as atheism, a value-theory centered on human beings, a meta-value of rationality, the derivation of collective values from individual values, and an orientation toward progress.
Let’s consider the memetic properties of rational humanism. A typical ideology has the following structure:
- A core positive value, such as freedom, equality or happiness.
- A utopian vision in which the core value is attained.
- A grand deception narrative that explains why the world doesn’t match the utopian vision. Some great error of history and/or some great conspiracy is holding us back. Often a specific group of people (the rich, white people, men, women, etc.) is identified as “the bad guys”.
- A call to promote the ideology to the masses by signaling it. Supposedly, if enough people believe in the ideology, the grand deception will be defeated and the utopia will be attained. Promoting the ideology is thus a form of status signaling. The ideology gives people a way to claim moral and intellectual superiority.
Rational humanism fits this structure pretty well, but not perfectly. It has two core positive values, instead of one, but they are related. It has a “pragmatopian” vision of a sustainable, advanced civilization if the ideology is accepted. It also has a dystopian vision of civilizational collapse if the ideology is rejected. It has a grand deception theory. It can be used by individuals to signal intellectual and even “moral” status.
The last two require some explanation.
The grand deception theory of rational humanism is that traditional religions and naive humanism are deceptions that hide many things from us. God is a grand deception. Morality is a grand deception. The pursuit of happiness is a grand deception. These deceptions hide the reality of the cosmos, nature, human nature and society from us. By hiding reality from us, they are leading us toward disaster: civilizational collapse and mass die-off.
Although rational humanism rejects morality as a deception, it has collective values. So, it retains the natural concept of virtue: behaviors and traits that benefit the collective.
Of course, rational humanism is virtuous by its own value standard, but it also fits natural intuitions about what is good or bad for humanity. Most people intuitively view a sustainable, advanced civilization as good. Likewise, most people intuitively view civilizational collapse and mass die-off as bad. Thus, a movement to create the former and prevent the latter would be intuitively viewed as virtuous by most people, even if they don’t accept its philosophical basis. This would help to promote the movement.
Rational humanism also lends itself to intellectual status signaling. Naive humanism’s core values are altruism and hedonism. We can critique altruism as self-defeating, and hedonism as futile and solipsistic. Naive humanism denies important truths about nature, human nature, and how society works. It does not provide a foundation for a sustainable civilization. We can easily make rational arguments against the naive humanist worldview. By doing so, we can claim the intellectual high ground.
However, we should not rely on rational arguments alone. We should also use rhetoric. Terms such as “rational”, “realistic”, “pragmatic” and “enlightened” should be attached to rational humanism. Naive humanism should be ridiculed as “irrational”, “dogmatic”, “faith-based”, “naive”, “idealistic”, “religious”, etc. The hypocrisy of professed altruism should be exposed and mocked. Hedonism should be labeled as “masturbation”.
Rhetoric should not be deceptive, nor used as a substitute for rational argumentation. It is just a concise way of promoting ideas that have a rational justification.
Like any religion or ideology, rational humanism should use symbols. There is nothing intrinsically meaningful about the cross or the hammer and sickle. The meaning comes from how they are used, just as the meaning of words comes from how they are used. When symbols are used as a focal point for emotion, they acquire emotional significance.
We should use symbols to represent important concepts. We could use a star to represent the order of the cosmos (physics), a tree to represent the order of nature (biology), a building to represent civilization, a family to represent humanity, and so on. We should also use symbols from meme culture to connect our ideas to current cultural themes. These symbols would be adapters to plug human emotions into abstract ideas, not a substitute for abstract ideas.
As the current elite ideology, naive humanism should be the primary target of criticism. Traditional religion is a less important target. Traditional religions can be understood as cultural adaptations that worked in the past, but are no longer functional. They did serve the values of reproduction and civilization in the past, and can be understood as functionally correct in past environments, but not rational and no longer functional. They should be argued against, but that is less important than attacking the current elite ideology that is driving us toward ruin.
Most ideologies identify an out-group and demonize its members, blaming them for the problems of the world. I am not proposing that we demonize naive humanists. The goal should be to persuade them whenever possible. We need to lower the status of intellectual elites, but not direct hatred toward them.
The demonization of the “other” can be a strength or a weakness. Hate is a powerful motivator. Many people have pent-up frustration, and welcome an outlet for hate. However, hate-based movements have a limited reach and lifespan. They require an out-group, and that out-group is obviously excluded from the movement. They also alienate anyone with friends or relatives in the out-group. They attract losers, because hating and blaming others is a way to excuse personal failure. They tend to purity-spiral into stupidity and irrelevance. They also tend to fragment into smaller, more exclusive groups that hate each other.
For a movement to succeed in the long run, it must be inclusive, and it must attract successful, mentally healthy people. We can’t solve the problems of modern civilization with identity politics.
Having said that, the struggle of ideas is (to some extent) a struggle between people. Individuals and groups organize around ideas to compete with each other. Although we should not direct pure hatred at individuals or groups, we should attack the status of people with opposing views. The main target should be intellectual elites. We need to expose their errors and lies.
At the same time, we need to attract young, intelligent people to the movement. What does it offer them?
- A coherent, rational worldview.
- A community of intelligent, like-minded people.
- A claim to intellectual status, and arguments that can win debates.
- A claim to virtue.
It will not be easy to create such a movement. I fully recognize the Quixotic nature of the task. But the windmill is not a phantom. It is the collapse of our civilization, and the end of the modern project as we know it. So, I think it’s worth the effort to try.