I had a conversation with a sophisticated racist, or perhaps nationalist. He belonged to an ethnic group that he believed had a special aptitude that gave it unique importance in the ultimate scheme of human life. It was possible to join his group, so he preferred to call it a nation rather than a race, nevertheless belonging to it for many of its members was a matter of genetics. What’s wrong with my view? he wanted to know. Aren’t you just succumbing to the modern prejudice that everybody has to be the same? Aren’t you enslaved to your own dogma, that history happens by means of individuals rather than groups? Why couldn’t it just be the case that Nation A has special admirable qualities? He was “sophisticated” because he didn’t claim to believe his group was “better” than any other group — he just thought they excelled along a particular, important axis.
I have had a good liberal education and usually it’s assumed that racism and nationalism are bad. Moralizers appeal to evil regimes that have used these ideologies to justify themselves — Nazi Germany, the antebellum American South — and to the offensiveness of being on the receiving end of someone else’s group amour propre. Yet on the other hand many good regimes and groups have thought they were better than everybody else at least along a particular axis. Weren’t some of them right? Weren’t the ancient Romans actually better at law and road-building than the ancient Carthaginians for example? Didn’t the Athenians have a knack for philosophy?
And even if historically they weren’t, couldn’t they have been? There might be an alien planet in which the dominant intelligent species consists of a number of sub-species of which some are better at one thing and some at something else. Maybe that planet is full of comparatively agile Lesser Pandas and comparatively majestic Greater Pandas. Maybe my friend was right that his group were just like that — the Greater Pandas of Planet Earth. Even if all men are cousins, couldn’t the cousins of one father be good at one thing and the cousins of another father be good at something else?
So I felt the conversation had given me an interesting job: find a non-question begging, non-sanctimonious justification for universal humanism, where universal humanism is the negation of this kind of ethnic or racist boosterism.
Let’s say universal humanism is the doctrine that states:
For all deeply important human traits — spirituality, worthiness, goodness, the ability to perceive beauty, the ability to care about your family, the ability to be part of nature, love — the ethnic group that two human beings belong to is not important for judging whether they differ according to these deeply human traits. This definition punts on the question of what a human being is, but it says if you want to know what God is or what beauty is or what justice is, you would be wrong to show a preference for asking an Englishman rather than a Javanese. We can also, obviously disagree upon what belongs on our list of the deeply important human traits. Clearly speaking English is not one according to this definition, or being tall, since human subgroups do differ along these axes.
What could the argument for universal humanism possibly be?
For me it stems from the empirical observation that I have always learned to understand these human traits and come closer to them myself has come from encountering people from different sub-groups. In reality I have learned about God, being a member of a family, beauty, courage, justice and so on from Jews and Christians, Asians and Europeans and Africans, the young and the old, straight and queer.
Therefore as a pragmatic maxim I won’t listen to anyone who will restrict my ability to learn and acquire information from different people.
This is an egoistic justification. If you want to know what most makes you deeply human, and thus if you want to learn who you are and what you’re about, you would be ill-advised to ascribe to racism or nationalism.
It’s probably true that universal humanism reduces the probability of a globe-destroying war too. But I wanted to come up with a justification for the view that was not too preachy.