Liberal Humanism in a Nutshell

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Homo Deus" by Yuval Noah Harari. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is liberal humanism? What are the central values of the liberal humanist ideology?

Liberal humanism is a philosophy that values individual freedoms above all else. For a liberal humanist, every human perspective matters. Because of this, they run into problems when valid, but differing perspectives clash.

Keep reading to learn about liberal humanism.

What Is Liberal Humanism?

Liberal humanism is considered the “orthodox” version of humanism and values individuals over political or religious institutions. Liberal humanists believe that humans possess free will and should be able to express their perspective in everything from art to politics. Further, they believe that every human perspective is valid. While this might seem like a reasonable stance, it can causes problems since there could be many valid perspectives that are in opposition with one another.

For example, when a Palestinian refugee asked German Chancellor Angela Merkel for asylum, Merkel told her that Germany didn’t have the resources to take them in. Both the girl and the chancellor had valid perspectives based upon their experiences, and liberals debated Merkel’s decision.

Liberalism as Modern Nationalism

Despite the strongest efforts of liberal philosophers, no one could find a solution to the issue of conflicting ideals without conceding parts of the liberalist perspective. Because of this, liberalism slowly morphed into a form of modern nationalism.

In many cases, liberalism promotes the identity and culture of individual nations in the same way it promotes the identity and culture of individual people. For example, while the European Union allows for interconnectivity between the nations of Europe, its constitution states that the countries are “united in diversity,” allowing the people to be “proud of their national identities.”

When liberal humanism is taken to the extreme, it can transform from a sense of national identity to belief in national superiority. When people allow emotions such as pride or fear to overshadow their empathy for other people, they reject those they view as a threat to their national identity or security. For example, some Americans believe the U.S. is superior to all other countries on the planet, causing anti-immigrant sentiments—especially immigrants from regions with primarily non-Caucasian citizens.

Individualism

While liberal humanism reigns in the early 21st century, many theorize that the model will become obsolete as modern scientific developments are challenging the very ideological bedrock on which liberal humanism stands—individualism.

Individualism is the belief that human beings have a singular, unique voice that leads them towards their true goals. However, recent studies have debunked this myth, placing the “inner self” in the same category as the “human soul”—an unfounded theory that drives religious belief.

Researchers have discovered that human behavior has nothing to do with a “singular, unique voice.” Rather, human thought is dictated by the interactions between the two hemispheres of the brain. Each hemisphere controls the opposite side of the body, meaning actions of the left side of the body are controlled by the right hemisphere and vice versa.

While the hemispheres are usually connected by a neural cable, severing the neural connection causes them to work independently of one another. For example, researchers flashed a picture of a chicken claw to a split-brain patient’s right eye and a picture of a snow shovel to their left eye. When they asked the patient to state what they saw, they said “chicken claw,” because that object was flashed to the left hemisphere, the center of speech.

However, when they asked the patient to point to the picture they’d seen, their left hand pointed to the snow shovel while their right hand pointed to the chicken claw. The areas of the body responded differently based around the different experiences of their appropriate hemispheres. When asked why they pointed to two images, the patient said that the shovel had to be used to clean the chicken coop.

The patient’s justification is the result of the brain’s need to rationalize behavior. The left hemisphere is the center of logical reasoning, so it developed a logical reason for the patient to point to two objects instead of one. This process occurs in the brains of all people, not just split-brain patients. It justifies the subconscious behavior of the brain by creating conscious narratives such as the belief in an “inner voice.”

For example, if a person wakes up one morning and suddenly decides to quit their job, their brain may justify this behavior by creating a narrative that says their “inner voice” is guiding them in a new direction. However, the reality is that this desire is the result of the neurons firing in particular sections of the brain, not an individual goal. The brain simply created the narrative to rationalize the seemingly random behavior.

Liberal Humanism in a Nutshell

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  • Why technology is replacing humanist ideals
  • How previous generations relied on prayer to deal with serious problems
  • How AI and algorithms are going to run the world

darya

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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