Andrzej Dominiczak


or six ideas for the betterment of the world

Introductory remarks

On August 21, 1952, at the founding congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the chairman of the meeting, Julian Huxley, addressed the participants in the following way:

"We humanists would not call ourselves humanists unless we were dissatisfied with official and traditional creeds and philosophies. But we cannot be content with a negative attitude; we must have a constructive aim.

Our humanism must have the wholeness and unity of a single pattern; but it must incorporate the diversity and variety of the different spheres of reality with which we are confronted in actual existence. Our humanism must allow for different levels of perfection in various spheres of achievement which human beings can reach in the course of their development."

Huxley's words are worth remembering, though at the first glance they may seem all too obvious. The history of the humanist movement, however, shows that they have cast their lot with many other right and noble appeals. First met with approbation and willingly quoted, they have never inspired any social and political programs. Rational, independent thinking and courage which humanists had found so useful in their struggle against religious superstitions, clerical policies and powerful traditional morals have never been equally persistently applied to examining other spheres of social life, nor are they applied in pursuance of the improved solutions of social and political problems. Yet, for genuine humanists and genuine critical thought, dogmas and clichés preached by economist and political scientists and repeated by journalists and politicians should be as attractive target of critique as the revelations contained in the holy scriptures of our ancient forefathers. This is not new. This was the way of thinking from which humanism originated in the first decades of our century. In the days when "scientific correctness" did not so efficiently paralyze unrestrained thinking and scientists themselves aspired after the role which exceeded the status of the "insects' legs" researchers, some of them upheld ideas which today would be ignored, at best. Let us briefly call up just a few of them.

The ideas from beyond the humanist movement

First, we present the idea conceived by Bertrand Russell - the philosopher whom many consider to be one of the great inspirers of contemporary, secular humanism. In the once renowned essay titled "In Praise of Idleness" he put forward the following proposal for solving the problem of unemployment:

"Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need twice as many pins; pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everything else would go on as before. But in the actual world this would be thought demoralising. The men still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all round instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined ?"

The author of the second political project that I would like to remind here is perhaps the most outstanding historian of the twentieth century, Arnold Toynbee, the author of the monumental "Study of History". His own proposal to eradicate some of the flaws in democracy was put forward in the book titled "The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue" and preceded with the following diagnosis of political thinking:

"Man has been amazingly resourceful and inventive in his technology and no less amazingly infertile and uncreative in his politics. The number of alternative possible political systems so far discovered is small, and most of these systems, when applied, have proved, on trial, to be unsatisfactory. 3 "

The system which was devised and advocated by Toynbee himself, named by him as meritocracy was, in the words of its own author, to look in the following way:

"I should prefer - he wrote - a constitution that gave the majority the negative power to control the government by the exercise of a veto on issues in which the majority's vital interests are at stake, without giving the majority the positive power to conduct the government. I think that the best governing body would be a meritocracy, but even the most impartially and efficiently selected meritocracy ought not to be exempted from popular control, since the ablest and most public spirited human beings are still subject to human failings and since in itself power corrupts.

The governing democracy that I have in mind ought not to be recruited by popular election. One of the worst features of democracy, both direct and representative, is that democratic politicians are tempted to make their own election or reelection their first priority and to act with an eye to this rather that to what they believe to be the true public interest. (...) I would be in favor of retaining an elective, representative, democratic constitution for the recruitment of the organ for popular control of the government, but I would rule out election as a method for recruiting the governing meritocracy. I should like to see this governing body recruited partly by co-optation and partly by nomination, the nominees being appointed by socially and culturally nonpolitical and noneconomic institutions."4

So much of Toynbee. Let us now make a leap forward, to the nineties, in order to bring forward the next, imaginatively conceived political project. Its author, Richard Rorty is a renowned American philosopher and the object of many classification controversies. In 1995, Rorty published an article in which he criticized a traditional "party democracy", termed by him a "movement politics" and proposed to replace it with the system which he named as "campaign politics".

"Participation in the movement, says Rorty, requires that one is capable of perceiving individual actions, aimed at concrete goals, as the stages of something larger - participation in the movement requires that one is capable of perceiving the course of human matters as the process of growth ... Politics is not politics any longer, it is rather a matrix of which some kind of a "new life in Christ" by St. Paul or a "new socialist man" by Mao should emerge. This kind of politics presupposes that the for the new beauty to be born the world must be changed thoroughly. Instead, Rorty put forward his "campaign politics", free from such notions as "maturation", "growing rationality" and "historical progress" without which the "movement politics" wouldn't be able to justify itself nor would it be able to make sense of any of its doings. Campaigns aimed at such objectives as granting trade union rights to the stateless plantation workers, banning lorries from entering the Alps region, or abolishing a particularly corrupted government can justify themselves. Intellectuals of our century were encouraged to launch campaigns by the "need" to put things in perspective and by the urge to organize movements around something beyond the range of vision, something placed in distant perspective. Such attitude, however, has made "the best" the adversary of anything that is just "better", while it is wiser, more sympathetic to our fellow human beings and more humane to focus attention on the "better" instead of searching for something, supposedly "the best". Such attitude has never made it possible to actually reach "the best", while it helped people blinded by the idea of excellence to overlook, neglect or waste numerous opportunities of the small-scale but realistic improvements. And the last thing for which this attitude is well-known is that it has done more wrong that good".5

Are the above described projects entirely in conformity with the humanist values? It is doubtful. Are they realistic? Perhaps more than they may seem at the first glance; it is, however, not for that reason that I have reminded them and it is not what, in my opinion, makes them worth reminding. I have called them up because their authors, not maniacal eccentrics but eminent scholars, have mustered up the courage to search for the better solutions protecting people's values and interests in a non-dogmatic, non-schematic and unconventional way. In this respect they seem to fulfill the criteria of humanistic identity proposed by Huxley better than the real members of the humanist movement. I do not suggest that each of the projects should be immediately put into practice in its entirety. The significance of each of them should be a matter of due consideration and debate. It is only such consideration and public debate that could help us, in some cases, arrive at solutions to many seemingly insoluble problems and to gradually improve the state of social relations. It could also help to create the intellectual environment in which a journalist or a politician or a preacher solemnly repeating an empty slogan or promoting a dubious theory as unshakable truth would feel uncomfortable. This kind of intellectual environment should also make the electorate less susceptible to the influence of the populist, demagogic or the so called charismatic politicians, so that they wouldn't gain public support only because they manipulate people's emotions more effectively than others.

The ideas from within the humanist movement

Now, having been acquainted with a few brave ideas for the betterment of the world that have come from beyond the humanist movement we shall try to follow the recommendation of Julian Huxley and the examples of Russell, Toynbee and Rorty. We'll have a look at some exemplary flaws in democracy and without an undue respect for the deeply rooted traditional institutions and solutions, we'll bring forward some new, tentative proposals, hoping that they will bring us closer to the humanist vision of humanity and human relations

* * *

One of the commonly raised, though perhaps not the most important, defects of the existing democracy is an arbitrarily determined age limit giving the right to vote in the elections. In Poland, as in other countries, the right to vote has been vested in those who are at least 18 years of age. Thus far, I haven't met anyone who would be able to set out satisfactory arguments in favor of such age limit. Those, who find this solution acceptable usually limit themselves to stating that some limit must be set and, since we have agreed that being eighteen makes one an adult, let the limit - they say - be fixed at eighteen. Such arbitrary solution is of course neither rational nor fair. It refuses to grant the voting rights to, for instance, a brilliant multilingual student of the first year of political sciences while it gives the same right to 100 years old illiterate who has already forgotten his or her name. Do I suggest to deprive the hundred years olds of their rights? No, neither them nor anyone else. It is worth considering, however, whether it is possible to make the bottom age limit more flexible by giving all willing young people a right to enter for the examination which, if passed, would give the voting rights to all, regardless of age. Apart from the fuller fulfillment of the requirements of social fairness, introducing the institution of the "civic examination" might contribute to the development of political knowledge as well as to the general knowledge and "political wisdom" in our (and any other) country. It seems likely that a large number of young people, sometimes just in pursuance of prestige, would make a considerable effort to pass such exam. They would have to work hard in order to obtain the required knowledge, which in consequence should lead to the rise of social responsibility and rationality.

* * *

Among the most important values and goals put forward by the theoreticians and practitioners of humanism one finds the aspiration to broaden the sphere of freedom, including the freedom of choice in personal and social lives. As we all know, freedom of choice in the traditional democracy is, to a large degree, an illusion: on the one hand, in practice, we have no say in the candidates' selection process and on the other, winning an election seems very loosely related to the realization of the electoral promises. It also happens that we do not support any of the candidates - what kind of freedom of choice we can enjoy in such situation? Is it really necessary that freedom of choice is limited to free elections? Why not consider broadening our freedom of choice in the field of the civil duties and liberties by giving all of us the right to choose the level of our involvement in state and social affairs by selecting a type of citizenship from among several categories defined according to the level of such involvement.

* * *

According to the tradition, our civil obligations are the result of a simple fact of being born in the territory of a given state. It is only for that reason that we are legally obliged to defend it, to pay taxes to it and to show respect for the state's symbols, even if we find them unworthy of our respect. Such believes are the relics of the time and the philosophy according to which "the state is primary and more significant than an individual, who can actualize and acquire moral value only within the framework of the state". From the liberal and humanistic point of view, however, the truth is quite the reverse: It is the state that should serve its citizens, and the mere fact of being born in any given state cannot result in any obligations. The institution of civil duties can be, to a limited degree, necessary but it cannot be fully justified - it is impossible to fully justify the duties resulting only from the compulsory membership in any organization. In view of the above it seems that the relations between the state and individual would be fairer if the citizens were given the right to accept or to reject at least some of those duties together with the related privileges. There are those who do not expect or even do not want to get any state assistance and at the same time expect the state not to interfere in their personal lives. There are people who do not wish to do their military service or any other service, who do not wish to pay taxes or even take part in the elections. At the same time they are ready to cover the full cost of education of their children, the cost of medical services and they are not going to ask for the state benefits if in financial troubles. On the other hand there are people who would willingly devote one year of their life doing military or any other social service, they would pay higher taxes etc. in return for the right to free health care, social benefits and the general sense of security. Shouldn't we have the right to choose the degree of our independence from the state? There are those who, in the danger of a foreign invasion would voluntarily join the army and the others who would prefer to be released from that honorable duty. After all, someone might prefer liberal occupation by the joint Dutch and Swedish forces than a sovereign, totalitarian state suppressing his or her rights and freedoms. Do we really have the right to force people to defend the state to which they are related only ethnically and which they reject on moral grounds?

In practice such system of the broadened scope of civil liberties would mean introducing two or more categories of citizenship - from the most engaged, with numerous duties and privileges to the libertarian one, within which both would be limited to the necessary minimum. Such system would be more effective in protecting freedoms of individuals and minorities from the tyranny of the majority. It would also, despite the increased complexity of the state - citizens relationship, enhance the state's stability, for the change of the government wouldn't bring so far going political shift to the right or to the left. Such shifts would be first of all resulting from the changes in individual preferences and decisions pertaining to people's relations with the state.

* * *

The last flaw in democracy which we want to heal here is the fact that democracy legitimizes struggling for power and, in consequence, leads to the reinforcement of the role of power in society. The solution routinely applied to mitigate the effects of this phenomenon consist in giving more power to local communities, which - although it seems to have some advantages - we consider to be insufficient, particularly in Poland, where power given to local communities, as a result of underdeveloped democratic culture and institutions, free from any form of control, becomes more autocratic and more corrupted. Shouldn't we think about new ways of limiting excessive power, even if it is democratically created?

Let us consider a gradual transformation of the political system from the today's "power oriented democracy" to the model named here as the "task oriented democracy". Traditional, power oriented democracy is a system aimed at producing relatively durable institutions of power: the presidents, governments, parliaments and local governments. All these institutions are mainly preoccupied with the execution and the maintenance of their power - it is in the interest and it lies in the character of the people of power, it is deeply rooted in the tradition and political tradition and finally it meets some peculiar need of a large part of society - namely those who love strong government. Institutions of power self-actualize by introducing all kind of bans and orders as well as - in the symbolic sphere - by all sorts of state's celebrations, speeches, pronouncements, spectacular limousine parades through the streets of towns, holy masses, drum-beats, national anthems and so on. For all these, and many other reasons, institutions of power usually restrict our freedom more than it is really necessary, at the same failing to perform their tasks. Those two weaknesses should be remedied by the task oriented democracy - that is to say the system oriented at the creation of task groups which would be set up to carry-out particular tasks and usually dissolved after the completion of assigned tasks. This system would significantly reduce the role of the institutions, whose functions are mainly symbolic: the role of the head of state, head of the government etc. State institutions would cooperate between themselves and with task groups in the performance of particular duties not forming, however, permanently working hierarchical-symbolic structure called the government. The council of ministers would meet only in extraordinary cases and only exceptionally and for the duration of such meeting would select its chairman. The ministers would be directly accountable to the parliament (relevant committee) and they could be replaced individually thus reinforcing the stability of the system. The representatives of particularly important, appointed by the parliament task groups, would take part in the sittings of the council of ministers on equal terms. It is also the parliament that should accept or reject the draft policy projects or the bills drafted by the task groups. In short, the sense of the state institutions, of their existence and their work would be expressed rather in the performance of some tasks than in the execution of power.

Those who consider this approach to dealing with state affairs to be naive, should be remembered that there are countries which realize some of its elements. Let us take the example of Switzerland. The constitution of this country contains a provision which expressly states that Switzerland shall have no head of state and its government is doing quite well without a prime minister (the so called president has not any special powers or privileges over the other members of the government and his mainly engaged in representation). In USA and some European countries there have been tasks groups formed for a number of years. They have dealt with policy and legislative projects. For the time being, they usually are not vested with final decisive powers, but their real role is sometimes very important. It is likely that in the future the way they are appointed will be more democratic and their decisive powers will increase.

The tendency which is being discussed here seems to be in accord with the humanist model of social and political relations and at the same time seems to be promising from practical point of view. It is likely, for instance, that among the candidates for work in the institutions formed for a definite period of time, in order to solve a particular problem, there would be fewer of those who are motivated by the desire to control others and, on other hand, more of those who are genuinely interested in finding a solution. And though, as it has been said above, some of the state institutions would be working permanently, their number and powers would be diminished.

Final remarks

Above we have been acquainted with the several - to be exact: six - political ideas, which - in our opinion - meet the criteria of the humanist identity contained in the Huxley's address quoted at the beginning of this paper. I have decided to discuss them here in order to remind and recommend to our community a certain understanding of humanism. Humanism that I have in mind should not be limited to the criticism of religion and to the rejection of traditional dogmas. It should create positive programs aimed at the betterment of the world while at the same time "allowing for different levels of perfection in various spheres of achievement which human beings can reach in the course of their development." I do not want to say that creating and advocating such ambitious and more or less unrealistic ideas should be the only, or even the main way the humanists should be involved in politics. We should, however, devote more time and energy to this form of political activity, since humanism seems to be the only organized, social and intellectual movement capable of challenging and overcoming numerous social and political myths.


Julian Huxley, International Humanist, lipiec 1992

Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness, Unwin Hyman Limited 1950

Arnold Toynbee, The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, Man Himself Must Choose, Kodansha International Ltd.

Arnold Toynbee, The Toynbee-Ikeda Dialogue, Man Himself Must Choose, Kodansha International Ltd.

Richard Rorty, Movements and Campaigns, Dissent 1995.

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