Liberalism vs. Humanism

How populists put one against the other.

“The duel” by LordCavendish, DeviantArt

Modern forms of liberalism and humanism are arguably the most impactful offsprings of the enlightenment. And it is not a coincidence that liberalism stood at the beginning of this new age with John Locke as its front runner the late 17th century while humanism only started its comeback during the 19th century, evolving into various schools that try to answer fundamental ethical questions during a time when the industrialization reshaped the lives of millions in an unknown speed. For those experiencing this period of change it became immanent that economical liberties and technological progress alone would not increase the standard of living for the broader mass by itself.

And yet, here we are in the 21st century, coming across statements like the following:

“Putting regulations on companies hinders free market mechanisms from producing the maximum social good.”

“Obligatory participation in a health care system forces many people into a way of living that they don’t want.”

And to tackle it from the other side as well:

“Enforcing equal pay in same positions reduces the existing payment gap between genders.”

“Taxing meat to be much more expensive and therefore less consumed is a good instrument to reduce CO2 emissions.”


All of these statements have something in common:

First, they are backed up by a solid base of argumentation. They are not just made up nonsense. Meat production is known to be a major contributor to climate change and micro economics suggests that a higher price will reduce the demand for meat. Countries that have introduced equal pay laws in a meaningful package with complementary measures are seeing smaller gender gaps than comparable countries. Economies with good regulation quality regularly show higher GDP growth rates and show that less regulation is still better for economic growth than bad regulation. And finally, the specifics of every social system can indeed be a major challenge when moving between countries, up to a point where they become obstacles that impact free movement.

But there is something more to them: Despite a solid argumentative basis, all of these statements are heavily disputed because they imply a very particular value judgement. And this value judgement is about what creates more long term value in a society, protecting individual freedom or maximizing the general good.

Political discussions have a tendency to argue over the value of individual freedom versus humanistic ethics.

To make the point, some examples of value judgements that can be put against each initial statement:

While less regulation can positively impact an economy, most people in wealthy countries consider the working conditions as we often find them in poorer countries to unacceptably cruel. Therefore, public opinion forces many brands to compensate for missing regulations and indirectly enforces an increase of standards in overseas factories.

While a health care system impacts an individual’s flexibility, even people that pay way above average into a such solidarity system, regularly regard the resulting universal access to health care as a desirable social achievement. Their return from a functioning social systems is regularly to live in a secure environment with less crime and more freedom of movement.

Equal pay laws might contribute to close the payment gap but usually forces organizations to maintain detailed career plans with very well described and differentiated role descriptions. The result are less flexible and transformative job roles as they are desired in fast moving and agile companies.

What we eat is of cultural and traditional importance. Most people value food beyond the nutrition and you’d better be some kind of prophet when enforcing restrictions on their diet. Therefore, driving such cultural change has barely worked well through enforcement.


History provides good examples of severe conflicts along the lines of liberalism and humanism. Americans even fought a civil war in the name of “freedom of trade and labour contracting” on the one side and “the human right on self-ownership” on the other side. At least, that’s the tale. Especially in intense political conflicts, liberalism and humanism have often been played against each other to distract from less glamorous goals —most noticeably the distribution of power and wealth.

And I say “played against each other” because liberalism and humanism are by no means antagonists. Many libertarians and humanists get along very well. Actually, most modern schools of each stream even need each other to explain their standpoint. Trying to explain humanism without liberalism and liberalism without humanism? We would quickly end up in a rather dystopian scenarios.

The rights to stay alive and unharmed, to be treated equally before the law and to belief in any religion we want — the reasoning behind those universal human rights are both taken from liberalism (natural rights) and humanism (secular humanism). They are directed against the brutality that goes along with the right of the stronger and are meant to replace it. When liberal ideas are thought without at least a touch of humanism then the freedom of some few strong suppresses the freedom many weak.

At the same time, humanism cannot have a good outcome without embracing some fundamental ideas of liberalism. Humanism is ethical and ethics require moral judgement, both on individual and on society level. Only a society that holds up the freedom of thought, opinion and expression can openly discuss moral judgements. But when public opinion is suppressed then a society cannot but lose its moral compass sooner or later and inevitably turns corrupt.

At their core, liberalism and humanism are two sides of the same medal.

Modern liberalism and humanism are connected at their very core. In the long run, one cannot shine without the other. And in many regards they are far from conflicting with each other.

The actual conflict starts when one person’s freedom impacts another one’s. John B. Finch brought it to the point:

“Your right to swing your arm leaves off where my right not to have my nose struck begins .”

In the case of a broken nose it’s easy to find a broad consensus. It’s a government’s job to provide order, most noticeably in form of police and judges, to guarantee that the right of staying unharmed is generally respected. Societies need a neutral instance for this job, because otherwise we’d again end up with the law of the stronger. We regularly negotiate the details of this underlying agreement in a parliament as our societies progress. But as long as we are dealing with cases as simple as the broken nose, the government’s role is widely accepted.

But what about the right to stay healthy?
Or the right to have access to food and drinking water?
And the right to live in a sheltered environment?

Those rights are different from the freedom rights we discussed above. They became part of the UN Human Rights Charta because especially humanists would argue that we can only live in dignity when our most basic human needs are covered. And we can assume that almost everyone who can’t cover their basic needs did not end up in this situation by free choice.

Even though many people can agree that also the essentials of living should be guaranteed through universal human rights, there are several ways to interpret what a government’s role should be when it comes to implementation. Now here is where the really big trouble starts.


The most extreme interpretation of the government’s role for providing basic needs is mostly a passive one: Simply put, a government did its job when not putting obstacles into people’s way. On the other side of the spectrum, the government’s role is interpreted as the ultimate caretaker, providing all essentials like housing, food and health care as public goods accessible for everyone.

Both extremes barely exist in pure forms because they both turned out to poorly deliver on stable societies in the long run.

The argument for a passive government overestimates the power of markets and tends to underestimate market failures like externalized costs and natural monopolies while overestimating individual altruism. A society that goes down the road of extreme liberalism ends up with a few rich exploiting the many poor, stuck in a society model with strict economical classes similar to the time of early industrialization.

A government form that memes the ultimate caretaker leans towards centralizing the development and distribution of basic goods. With the latest advancements in digitalization, we would probably be able to come up with a more efficient and caretaker than ever before. But until today every extreme form of socialism has undervalued the importance of individual motivation for a prospering economic system and sooner or later entered a spiral of miss-management, corruption and oppression.

Idealizing capitalism or socialism, both disregards the interdependence between liberalism and humanism and betrays their values.

Arguing with a more unified understanding of liberalism and humanism lets us uncover some contradictions within idealistic streams of both sides and helps us to reject arguments that obviously go against the shared values of liberalism and humanism. And pointing out these contradictions might actually turn out to be a sharp sword for moving the public discourse towards a more solution oriented and less populistic direction.

Unfortunately, addressing the subtleties that align liberalistic and humanistic perspectives has become a rare thing. Putting extremes against each other is more popular as it draws attention and attention is the new gold of the information age. When two sides throw extreme statements at each other to trigger negative emotions or to release confirmation-bias-dopamin then that’s because it is currently the most successful strategy to gain reach within traditional and social media alike. In such an environment populists are provided with the perfect stage to put the shared values of liberalism and humanism against each other to foster ideological positions.

To return to good politics, this strategy of maximized dissens needs to be pushed back. Making an effort to embrace, both liberal and humanistic viewpoints while pointing out when their shared values are put against each other can be a strategy that gets us there.