Monday, February 9, 2015

Is Secular Humanism Only Compatible With Socialism?

I've been on a bit of a The Atheist Experience binge lately during my hours of pipetting and sitting in front of the microscope, and so I came across one particular episode in which an interesting question came up, and one that I do not think was answered or discussed in sufficient detail. The caller (watch from 38:00 of the video below for full context) basically floated the idea that an atheistic morality is only compatible with socialism as an economic structure, because it is centered around humans having inherent value, rather than capitalism, which promotes competition and stepping over your fellow man.
While the discussion travelled towards the limits of how much you can morally expect from an individual to put the needs of others over their own, the caller was steering the conversation towards economic policy, which forced Russell (much to his chagrin) even defend right-wing capitalism a little bit.

What they all failed to acknowledge is that most successful societies are based on an amalgamation of capitalism and socialism. While I agree that a pure cut-throat capitalistic society is not the best strategy, especially from a moral standpoint (what would that even look like? Pure libertarianism? More on that later) pure, unadulterated socialism doesn't work either.

Don't get me wrong, there are good reasons for socialism. The fundamental principle is to base a society on meritocracy, where every person is born equal and is not inherently superior by sole fortune of the circumstances in which they were born. Of course this is also why so many socialist countries have needed to rely on propaganda and censorship in order to convince their people that those in power actually deserve their leadership position (for an extreme example, see all of the ridiculous stories that come out of North Korea to justify the awesomeness of their leaders), but for the sake of argument lets forget about regimes which pervert the fundamental principles of their purported economic structure. Even disregarding the tendency of purely socialist states to devolve into dictatorships, a purely socialist economic structure does not take into account the fact that human beings respond to reward for their efforts.

My father tells an amusing story about when he was in Prague at the very end of the communist era. He had to travel a lot for work, and in this case he was in Prague for the first time with some colleagues which had traveled there before. They arrived late and hungry, and so they all went out in search of a restaurant where they could have dinner. When they knocked on the door of the first one they could find, the manager answered and informed them that the restaurant was completely full. While my father accepted this and turned to leave, his more experienced colleague protested and barged into the restaurant, which turned out to be completely empty. This man then explained to my father that this lie was commonly told because, since the people who ran the restaurant earned the same (and rather meager) wage regardless of the number of clients they served, they clearly preferred showing up to work and doing as little as possible. If your wages at the end of the day were the same regardless of the success of the restaurant, why bother busting your butt to serve as many people as well as possible?

Of course I also do not think that the other extreme is fair either, like servers in the States which have to basically prostitute themselves for tips because their base wage doesn't even come close to the minimum wage, let alone a living one. A healthy balance, in which people are rewarded for their hard work but at the same time do not have to worry about making ends meet at the month, is the most successful model that we have yet come across.

In my opinion, it is possible to have a healthy balance of the capitalist reward structure and basic socialist principles and safety nets. In fact, the most successful societies available today have a mixture of these two principles. Even if we are to disregard the "what makes for a successful society" argument and focus exclusively on morality, how does providing monetary rewards for hard work infringe on the morality of caring for your neighbor? How does allowing people to earn small luxuries, like a nice vacation or a day at the spa, after they have earned it with their efforts bring people to care less about their fellow man? While I absolutely concede that the US has struck the balance too far in favor of capitalism, I do not think that a purely socialist structure is the only one that is compatible with a secular morality. I think there is room for a bit of both within our moral principles.

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