What defines a secular humanist, and how might this affect views on morality and politics, and thus on economics? It's all about the goal.

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Taxonomically, my family is Freethinker (including atheists, skeptics, agnostics), my genus is Humanist (including the religion-based), and my species is Secular.”

— John Rafferty

ECONOMY, n. Purchasing the barrel of whiskey that you do not need for the price of the cow that you cannot afford.

Amrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

Economics is understandably a pretty important topic. As a discipline, it is the foremost concern of governance and governments. Secular humanists tend to have strong views on things like church-state separation or abortion or science. But what of a secular humanist view of economics?

Well, as ever, we might need to define some terms here because this will define how we answer this question, if, indeed, there is something approaching a clear answer.

I use the term “secular humanist” here because it tells us a lot more than, say, “atheist.” An atheist’s view of economics, and what nations or societies should do in terms of economic policy, is no different to a “human’s” view. Because the label “atheist” tells us nothing outside of the very narrow idea as to whether or not God or gods exist.

To answer this question is also to consider the goal. I have long said that, since morality is goal-oriented, we should always try and work out the goal before trying to work out how to morally evaluate and thus morally organize.

You might ask why I am concerned with morality when the initial question concerns economics. Well, economics is closely integrated with politics, and politics is a subcategory of morality. Politics is morality writ large, across society, it is what we should do. It is what we should do, economically speaking, and so discussing economics is to some large degree to discuss politics, which is to discuss morality.

A vision, a worldwide goal

I often get annoyed watching political shows (such as Question Time) or even philosophical shows (such as The Big Questions) because they constantly concern themselves with questions that don’t get to the heart of the matter.

People routinely fail to construct a detailed model or vision of what the world should look like.

There is no point arguing about a given moral, political, or economic policy or action if you don’t have some sense of what you are arguing toward. Your goal, your destination, defines your means and direction of travel. And yes, I mean that your destination does define how you get there in this context.

The end is also about the means to that end.

Okay, let’s rewind. Economics…


S.O.A.S. University of London defines economics as “a social science directed at the satisfaction of needs and wants through the allocation of scarce resources which have alternative uses.”

It adds that economics is about “the study of scarcity and choice,” finding “ways of reconciling unlimited wants with limited resources” and explaining “the problems of living in communities in terms of the underlying resource costs and consumer benefits.”

There is much to be said about the scarcity of resources, access to choice, and potential pitfalls of living in certain communities, much of which looks to be the purview (to some degree) of politics and how we might organize society.

We can also see the intersection of economics and politics in how the definition continues, discussing economics as applied to agricultural and environmental issues being “concerned with the efficient allocation of natural resources to maximize the welfare of society…. [I]t is also important to have an appreciation of the bigger picture in terms of agriculture and the environment’s impact on the domestic economy as a whole, as well as its impact in an international context. The economics of the individual agent’s decisions about resources is referred to as microeconomics, while macroeconomics studies the interactions in the economy as a whole.”

We now have ideas of maximizing the welfare of society, about individuals and collectives, about micro and macro.

We shouldn’t be enacting economic policies blindly, with no sense of what community, country, society, or world we want.

What might a society with greater welfare look like? Is this the “goal” I mentioned earlier? Because morally and politically speaking, we should want an economic system that best achieves the goal(s) we have in mind. We shouldn’t be enacting economic policies blindly, with no sense of what community, country, society, or world we want.

The question then becomes “Does being a secular humanist inform what goals we have?”

Most certainly, yes. My goals for how society should look, as a secular humanist, will look very different to how society should look if I were a Christian ethnonationalist.

Okay, so how about the term “secular humanist”?

Secular humanism

Free Inquiry at secular humanism.org defines “secular humanism” in some depth, saying it is broader than atheism in being “comprehensive, touching every aspect of life including issues of values, meaning, and identity.” As well as being nonreligious, it is a secular lifestance, it “incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.”

You may notice here the emphasis on individualism in terms of family, church, and state. This looks interestingly close to espousing some form of libertarianism, a worldview that will lead to economic neoliberalism. Neoliberalism is the free-market economic system of policies that reduce state influence in the economy by eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers, especially through privatization and austerity.

Is proper individualism what secular humanism tends toward? To the expense of the rest of society? The Free Inquiry piece continues by stating that “secular humanism is philosophically naturalistic.” This worldview obviously entails a reality without gods or the supernatural. This is important because human problems need to be solved by humans. And one of the most important tools that we have to solve our problems (or, indeed, that helps cause our problems) is the tool of economics, and the political mechanisms that allow us to strategically employ it.

Secular humanists also “hold that ethics is consequential, to be judged by results. This is in contrast to so-called command ethics, in which right and wrong are defined in advance and attributed to divine authority. ‘No god will save us…we must save ourselves.’ Secular humanists seek to develop and improve their ethical principles by examining the results they yield in the lives of real men and women.”

This last part of the definition is about moral philosophy and pertains to my statement about humans solving human problems.

Let’s give an economic example of examining what reducing taxes in a U.S. state would lead to. Would it actually create an economic incentive, leading to a thriving economy generating more tax revenues?

Before states rush to enact this free-market policy where the state intrudes less, with minimal taxation, letting corporate entities and the market optimize the economic landscape, we should look at the data.

Following the evidence

Famously, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback implemented huge tax cuts in 2012 with the aim of boosting the Kansas economy, drawing inward investment from entities outside of the state. Instead, the cuts were a complete failure: “sluggish growth, lower than expected revenues, and brutal cuts to government programs.”

The rate of job growth in Kansas was not only lower than the rates in most of its neighboring states but less than half of the national average. The analysis was damning: The unsuccessful cuts saw Kansas growing slower than neighboring states, the country, and its own previous track record. It was such a failure that a Republican-controlled legislature (rather than Democrats overturning it later) not only voted to raise taxes (rolling the plan back), but did so over the veto of the governor.

The experiment in Kansas shows “not to expect tax cuts to boost the economy much, if at all.”

Public services fell apart, being hugely underfunded as a result of a dramatic fall in tax revenue. This was not a good outcome for those who advocate large tax cuts. As a result, it is a remarkably important piece of economic data.

This economic strategy was a form of trickle-down economic policy. Trickle-down economics is controversial. Loved by neoliberals and libertarians, the economic theory is decried by those on the fiscal left who desire greater government strategic economic management.

The idea is that if you give tax breaks to the rich, then this incentivizes them to create jobs for the rest of society—the poor. It was the theoretical basis of Trump’s 2017 $1.5 trillion tax breaks. This is the antithesis of being data-driven, and is better explained by cronyism and corporatism whereby the rationale for the tax cuts was to make certain people and entities an awful lot richer.

When even Forbes attacks the “wasteful” tax cuts in their damning indictment of their failure, you know things are bad.

Government intervention

The fight, in economics, is often seen on how far along the supply-side continuum we should be sat. Supply-side economics is the macroeconomic theory that sees consumers benefiting (with greater employment and supply of goods and services, at lower prices) from lowering taxes, decreasing regulation, and allowing free trade. In broad terms, this is reflected in how much of a part the government plays in regulating and strategically planning within a given economy.

The problem for economic liberals who favor supply-side, deregulated free-market economics is that the free market cannot arbitrate for morality. The foundation that free-market economics is based on is the idea of homo economicus—the idea that the end consumer, the human agent, is a rational agent with full knowledge of their decisions, products, and markets. But humans are irrational, and we make bad decisions all the time.

The free market and morality

Furthermore, the market cannot enact moral decisions since it is primarily interested in profit. Negative externalities are not borne out by the company making the good, but by society at large. This means the government has to step in to morally arbitrate such scenarios.

If a corporation wanted to make widgets, but the manufacturer of those widgets caused massive pollution to rivers, then the free market would have no mechanism, other than consumer demand, to deal with this. It is incumbent upon taxpayers and governments external to the corporation to clean up the river, and to stop it from being polluted again. The company makes huge profits and is not paying the costs they are causing to the outside world.

In other words, if our goal is to have a healthy, sustainable planet where workers are protected and given meaningful rights, and where we value the mental and physical health of our society at large, and where education is both useful, desirable, and enriching, the state will have to play its part. Enter regulation. Free-marketeers and libertarians struggle to be able to create workable models where all of these ideals (including emergency services, a military, libraries, and other services are equitably provided) can be delivered.

If these things that cannot necessarily be achieved by the free market alone are important for a secular humanist, then the government will have to play a meaningful part. But where is the optimal level of government intervention?

We still get back to working out what the secular humanist goal would look like. Something that I haven’t remotely done. And although I argue vociferously that this should be the first thing we do before we start morally and economically organizing ourselves, this is an impossibly big job. To be honest, this is to have a robust idea, a schematic, of what the entire world should look like at every level, everywhere, and for all lifeforms.

And then there’s space…

Calculating goals

But when we remember the tax cuts, or any piece of economic policy, the successes and failures of these policies are measured in terms of their goals, themselves often set at a veneer level. What were these goals, and are they the same goals we would expect a secular humanist to have?

Is all we can say, then, that all economic outcomes should really derive down to what generates the greatest well being?

Probably. It’s as good a goal as anything.

But for whom? And for how long? Does it include animals? And plants? How is well being even measured? Does well being for a secular humanist look different to well being for a Christian or a Muslim?

Let us finally return to the original question. What I have done here is not so much to answer the question, but to lay the theoretical groundwork for the next piece. In it, I will be looking at what well being might entail for a secular humanist and how economics can affect societal and global well being.

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...

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