Humanism and the Welfare State, Robert Merrill Hemstreet

Three years ago, I did a paper on liberal religion and economic justice for a Unitarian Universalist ministers’ study group.[1] I In that essay, I tried to address the question, “Given our basic Humanistic and liberal religious ethical principles, what do we mean by the phrase, economic justice?’ And does our present North American capitalistic system meet our basic ethical criteria for a just economic order?” I expressed my eagerness to share some of my thinking on that subject with my fellow Humanists and to deal with the broader question of social justice through a discussion of Humanist attitudes toward the modem welfare state.

And so I stand before you this evening, not as an expert on either social ethics in general or welfare policy in particular, but as a socially involved clergy person concerned to establish a firm theoretical foundation for a Humanist praxis on social welfare.

I intend to do two things. First, I will try define certain limits for a Humanist social ethic and to suggest a possible approach within those limits. Second, I will propose a stand and practical measures that Humanists might take regarding the state of social welfare programs in the United States at the end of President Reagan’s first term.

Let me begin with a few general remarks about Humanist approaches to social issues. It should not be too surprising that Humanists have serious differences about social and political questions, just as we differ in basic philosophical orientation. Some of us are pragmatists, others are positivists of one kind or another, and a few are existentialists. Similarly, we are liberals, conservatives, socialists, or libertarians, with or without the prefix, “neo.” So far as I know, no present-day North American Humanist claims to be either a fascist or a Soviet- or Chinese-style communist.

And that is significant. We do agree on something in the socio-political realm: we reject all forms of totalitarianism, either of the right and the left.  To put it positively, we have a commitment (I am tempted to call it a religious commitment) to democracy and democratic methods of decision-making and rule, both in society at large and in our Humanist organizations and institutions.

Our commitment to democracy, in turn, is based on a basic consensus on certain other principles. We see humans as rational beings capable of self-rule and altruistic behavior – a condition without which democracy would be impossible. However, we also realize, without adopting anything like a doctrine of total depravity, that humans are also capable of ferociously destructive anti-social behavior. As the late Reinhold Niebuhr once put it, humankind is good enough to make democracy possible and bad enough to make it necessary. Thus, a democratic state is not only desirable but needed, both to permit the development of rational and altruistic behavior and to curb and control anti-social actions by individuals, institutions, or even the state itself. Humanists, by and large, are not anarchists.


1. “The Waltz of the Oxymorons: Liberal Religion and Economic Justice” (1981).