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Dr Gideon Polya

Review: "Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” by Brian Ellis - save Humanity

Saturday 18 August 2012

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” Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” (Routledge, UK, 2012) is an important new book by Melbourne philosopher Professor Brian Ellis (Emeritus Professor, La Trobe University and Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne, Australia). This book was written to set out a theory for the social humanism of the welfare state, empirically arguably the most successful current social systems as evidenced by Scandinavia, Western Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Ellis puts forward his social humanism theory as an alternative to classical theories of the extremes of communism and neo-liberalism.

In short, Ellis’ social humanism involves an evolving social contract geared to the primary goal of maximizing human happiness and based on social idealism, the morality of social agents (individuals, groups of individuals, corporations, institutions) and society as a whole that in turn involves mutual informing by society and its subsets. Ellis argues that his new moral theory enables us “To discuss rationally which political philosophies go with which moral ones and which are in conflict with one another. I will argue that in fact there are no defensible moral theories that have the same moral foundations as either communism or capitalism. Indeed the only political philosophy of which I am aware that has the same moral foundations as a decent moral philosophy is social humanism, which is the philosophical grounding for a welfare state of some kind. And this, I will argue , is why the welfare state is a productive and highly successful political system” (Preface, ix).

Ellis puts forward a “new metaphysical foundation for morals” that involves “two kinds of moral principles, primitive ones that are well justifiable, independently of the nature of the society in which ones lives, and social ones that may well turn out to be culturally relative.” Ellis also states that “The new theory also requires changes to both the methodology and epistemology (theory of knowledge) of morals”, arguing that the traditional processes of reflection and Socratic dialogue between wise people are insufficient to settle “cross-cultural disagreements about morals” or to define moral responsibilities of key social agents such as governments and corporations.

I am a humanist scientist here reviewing a philosophical treatise by a non-scientist humanist. We have a common scholarly dedication to truth and a common belief in humanism that involves maximizing human welfare, happiness and opportunities. Ellis approaches development of a new social humanism through defining a new metaphysics i.e. through the non-empirical processes of reflection and value judgment about matters such as societally-independent “primitive values” and the moral concept of “the greater good”. However, in the dialectical spirit of the “two cultures debate” and freely admitting my deficiencies when it comes to metaphysical philosophy, I would offer some defence of a role for the empirical , science-based approach. Philosophy was classically concerned not just with non-empirical matters such as morality but also with the empirical study of reality. Thus theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking and fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow in their recent fabulous book “The Grand Design” slam the scientific deficiencies of philosophers in stating that “philosophy is dead”. While metaphysicians can still plausibly lay claim to ethical and moral theory, science clearly does have a role in this area by quantitatively analyzing cause and effect in social policy.

Thus human behaviour can be hard-wired by genes that evolve through natural selection. However, as discussed by Richard Dawkins in his seminal book “The Selfish Gene”, human behaviour also evolves through the selection of “memes” or useful ideas that promote societal survival and hence their own survival.. The “primitive”, genetically-determined behaviours are not necessarily “nice” from a humanist perspective. Thus human altruism is maximal between mother and child and thence decreases as one proceeds successively from family, village, and tribe to the folks in the next valley who we may be programmed to kill if we are hard-wired like our chimpanzee cousins. And while humanistically beautiful ideas like “love thy neighbour” have been very successful “memes”, the corporate-driven neo-liberal revolution that Ellis justifiably detests has generated some very successful but ultimately profoundly anti-social “memes” such as “economic growth”, “trickle down” and “moving forward”. Nevertheless, from an optimistic humanist perspective, humanist “memes” can overcome the horrible imperatives of some of our simian genes. Indeed Brian Ellis’ book, while ignoring the scientific brilliance of Hawking and Dawkins, is an extremely valuable contribution to the survivability of “good memes”: “Morality must be seen as being an evolving system – evolving as societies shift their policies to adapt to environmental or technological changes” (Preface, x).

In his Introduction, Ellis summarizes his tasks: “Social humanism is both a moral and a political philosophy. As a political philosophy it requires the establishment and development of a kind of welfare state, and it proposes a framework for a series of agreements between states on global social and moral issues. As a moral philosophy , it provides a theory for the development of charters of human rights, which could reasonably be expected, over time, to command something approaching universal assent. To develop this moral and political theory, it has been necessary to revisit some basic questions concerning the metaphysics of morals, and to construct a new basic theory. This new theory is one of social idealism, which is like Kant’s rational idealism in some ways, but is metaphysically realistic and based on the social ideals of ordinary , rather then perfectly rational, individuals” (i.e. it is evolutionary and pragmatic) (p1).

Part I of the book is entitled “Social Humanism” and in Chapter 1 “The Ideals of Social Humanism” Ellis defines the Humanist approach as inconsistent with the neo-liberal laissez faire, might is right approach: “Humanists have an unconditional concern for the wellbeing and dignity of humankind. They are fundamentally concerned with increasing the overall quality of people’s lives , regardless of their behaviour, and to treat people with respect. They seek to do so by promoting the development of people’s natural talents and inculcating attitudes of mutual respect and tolerance. Their central idea is that every person should be treated with equal concern for their good” (p21). However ideals don’t always match circumstances and Ellis points out 2 key kinds of moral principles, the principle of the greatest good and the principle of the least harm. Further, Ellis argues that “The individualistic moral principles of social humanism concerned with social justice are those grounded in human nature” and specifically the egalitarian principles of no unjustified disadvantage being imposed and of no unjustified advantage perverting equality (p27). Ellis favours a form of utilitarianism he calls “social contractual utilitarianism” involving a social contract aiming at an ideal society for people wanting to live “morally good and productive lives” (p38).

In Chapter 2 “The Humanistic Theory of Social Equality”, Ellis argues that “social contractual egalitarianism” is required to realistically enable everyone to choose a satisfying life from the options available. However in analyzing social egalitarianism, equality of opportunity and then forms of liberalism, Ellis concludes that for the ideals of practical liberty (effective liberty) and real equality of opportunity there will be “weighing goods against harms”: “Almost certainly , the practical liberties of those who are most socially disadvantaged in society can only be increased by adopting policies that will decrease the economic liberties of others” (p58).

Part II of the book is entitled “Causal Realism”. In Chapter 3. “The Metaphysics of Causal Realism”, Ellis reviews the positions of leading philosophers on causation, reality and morality. He criticizes the uncertainty of Sir Karl Popper’s position of science being about critically testing potentially falsifiable hypotheses: “Why would you put your trust in the scientific view of the world to the extent to which we all do, if you did not think it was reliable and will remain so?” The simple answer is that scientists adopt the functionally best model until such time it can be (and must be) supplanted by a better description of reality – and, of course, the outstanding success of this methodology. Ellis concludes “There is , as yet, no acceptable metaphysics of morality … A social theory is evidently required to provide adequate accounts of moral rights and responsibilities, and certainly no one has managed to construct an individualistic theory of these things. However, rights, obligations , and responsibilities are not dispensable in moral theory. There cannot be a sound doctrine of human rights in a world in which there are no such things as moral rights. However, the social theory that is required must be one that is restricted by basic human judgements about the range of prima facie permissible human actions or attitudes” (p92). Ellis then proceeds to develop such a pragmatic theory.

Part III of the book is entitled “Social Idealism” which Ellis defines as “a general theory about the nature of morality, on which, I claim, any and every plausible moral theory must be based” (p95). Ellis posits that “There is no good reason to believe that there is just one true and complete system of moral beliefs. However if morals are not social ideals , then there is no viable secular theory of morality” (p100).

In Chapter 4 “The Social Theory of Morality”, Ellis discusses morals as social ideals that are formulated in real social contracts that set out social obligations and moral rights. However he develops the idea that just as there are individualistic ethics there are also professional and institutional ethics. Ellis advocates the writing of specific charters to define the rights and obligations not just of individual social agents but also of “collective and specialized agents… that could help restore some of the losses that have occurred in the social contracts of our own , and most other, Western societies due to the neo-liberal revolution” (p126).

In Chapter 5 “Individualism”, Ellis gets to the heart of the current debate involving individual freedom and social good. Thus the comparison between communist authoritarianism (that has a moral purpose of individual and social well-being but at the expense of basic human rights) and the rejection of social idealism by the neo-liberals (who want to maximize individual freedom of action of the variously smart and advantaged at the expense of both the disadvantaged and of democracy as exampled by the Western Lobbyocracies or “corporatocracies”). Ellis concludes that “Metaphysical individualism is incompatible with social idealism. Firstly, metaphysical individualism denies the reality of social causation. Therefore, metaphysical individualists cannot believe in the efficacy of any elements of social contracts that are not legally enforced. But social idealism presupposes that social contracts can effectively put informal constraints on social behaviour and so generate goodwill. Secondly, social idealism is probably the only satisfactory meta-theory of morality that is compatible with modern metaphysics” (p150). Ellis argues for the continuous evolution of good social policy and that “For social policy to evolve peacefully, what is required is that we should live in a society in which peaceful changes in policy direction are possible” (p151).

In Chapter 6 entitled “Theory and Method” Ellis discusses issues such as cultural objectivism, cultural relativism in moral theory, and the dominance principle (the right of conscience), arguing that moral principles than deny human rights “are the moral principles that should be the focus of world attention. For, these are the ones that must be abolished if we are ever to establish a global social contract” (p169).

Part IV, “Global Humanism” tackles the big picture. Thus Ellis states “ Global humanism is the global form of social humanism. It is the kind of social world that every social humanist should aim for. It is a form of cosmopolitanism , but it need not be the same as the universalistic form that is usually promoted. A globally humanistic world would have to be one in which all states were humanistic, but it might also be one in which some states differed from others in their social moral principles” (p177).

In Chapter 7, “A Global Social Contract”, Ellis describes the nature of a global social contract that would necessarily be more limited than a national one. Ellis argues for 2 kinds of moral principles, specifically (1) “essentially universal moral principles” (e.g. as in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and which would have a general global applicability, and (2) “social moral principles” aimed at having a decent society and which would be significantly conditioned by the history and culture of each country. Political rights would not necessarily be the same in all countries and the “Western democratic model” has already shown its deficiencies with the general transition to Murdochracy (Big Money media subvert truth and hence democracy) and Lobbyocracy (what Ellis calls “corporatocracy”) in which Big Money buys politicians, parties, policies, public perception of reality and ultimately votes. Ellis is very strong on the need for corporate regulation, and for making corporate leaders legally responsible for crimes against the people, a country and indeed against the Planet.

In a final Conclusion, Brian Ellis points to the success of Scandinavia, Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Canada as welfare states. According to Ellis “The theory of social humanism recognizes the existence of two kinds of ideals, ideals of character and ideals of society … The individualistic moral principles , i.e. those that can, prima facie, be justified independently of the nature of one’s own society, are mostly primitive and pre-societal… Social moral principles are not primitive in the same way as the individualistic ones of compassion, honestly, and fairness. They are social in origin and intent” (p202). Ellis sees a pragmatic, social humanism involving a mutual informing and evolution of individual and social ideals. In particular Ellis points to “the concept of “practical freedom” [that] “stands to that of liberty in roughly the way that disposable income stands to income” and in doing so spells out the need to protect individual and social ideals by development of social and global contracts that control governments and corporations that currently dominate the world and indeed individual and collective perception of the realities of the world.

There are some criticisms that can inevitably be made of this important book. A succinct glossary of philosophical terms would widen the audience. An unusual construction that recurred throughout the book was “For, etc” e.g. on p148, “For, the relevant legal concept is not class sensitive” and “For, trials are not conducted according to the laws of anyone’s ideal society”. As a Popperian scientist I have noted above my belief in the importance of the physical as well as the metaphysical approach to social humanism. Thus a key parameter that measures the success or otherwise of social policy (and hence of social ideals and social humanism) is “avoidable mortality” (avoidable deaths, excess mortality, excess death, deaths that need not have happened) that can be determined from UN Population Division demographic data as the difference between the actual death rate in a country and that expected for a decently run country with the same demographics. Avoidable mortality in the period 1950-2005 totalled 1.3 billion (the World), 1.2 billion (the non-European World) and 0.6 billion (the Muslim World, a Muslim Holocaust 100 times greater than the WW2 Jewish Holocaust or the “forgotten” WW2 Bengali Holocaust in which the UK with Australian complicity starved 6-7 million Indians to death for strategic reasons; see Gideon Polya, “Body Count. Global avoidable mortality since 1950”: and Gideon Polya, “Jane Austen and the Black Hole of British History”: , noting that both books are now available for free perusal on the Web). Currently 18 million non-Europeans perish avoidably from deprivation each year. Yet the [Jewish] Holocaust is mentioned in “Social Humanism” (p21) but not the forgotten but even larger WW2 Bengali Holocaust, the 100-times greater post-1950 Muslim Avoidable Mortality Holocaust or the immense reality of the continuing Global Avoidable Mortality Holocaust.

It gets worse. The World is badly running out of time. Thus in 2009 the WBGU (Wissenshaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen) that advises the German Government on man-made climate change, reported that for a 75% chance of avoiding a catastrophic 2 degree Centigrade temperature rise the world can emit no more than 600 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) between 2010 and zero emissions in 2050 ( WBGU, “Solving the climate dilemma: the budget approach”: ). Unfortunately, estimates by the US Energy Information Administration (US EIA) of current and projected CO2 pollution by the world are such (US EIA, “Energy-related carbon dioxide emissions”, Table A10: ) that the world will use up this “terminal CO2 pollution budget” by 2027 i.e. the World has only 15 years left to implement a version of Brian Ellis’ “global humanism” and take decisive action to save Humanity and the Biosphere. Indeed it is estimated that world fossil fuel corporations intend to exceed the World’s “terminal CO2 pollution budget” by a factor of five (5) and that Australia alone is committed to exceeding this terminal budget by a factor of three (3) (see ABARE and Geoscience Australia , “Australian Energy Resource Assessment”, Chapter 4 “Gas”: ; Gideon Polya, “Australia ’s Huge Coal, Gas & Iron Ore Exports Threaten Planet”, Countercurrents, 15 May 2012: ; Bill McKibben, “Global warming’s terrifying new math”, Rolling Stone, 19 July 2012: ; “2011 Climate Change Course”: ). It is estimated that failure to address man-made climate change will kill 10 billion people this century (see "Climate Genocide”: ).

In summary, ” Social Humanism. A New Metaphysics” by Professor Brian Ellis is a very important book that sets out the secular, metaphysical basis for a social humanism that can advance the well-being of humanity at a social and indeed global level. The transformation of Western democracies into corporatist Lobbyocracies has seen the progressive side of politics shift from traditional pro-Humanity and pro-equity positions to obscene, neo-liberal greed and unprincipled pragmatism. The worsening climate crisis demands an urgent shift to soundly based social humanism. I would urge all thinking people to read this book and tell everyone they can about it. The World is badly running out of time.