The following is a (substantially) adapted version of a talk I gave as President of Defence Humanists on World Humanist Day, 21 June 2022, to Ministry of Defence staff at the invitation of the Department’s Humanists And Non-religious in Defence (HAND) network.
We seem to be living in a Brave New World: the pandemic, the climate emergency, the rise of populism and authoritarianism, Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, China’s push for global hegemony, antibiotic resistance, misinformation, conspiracy theories – you name it, we’ve got it.
In amongst all this is your average humanist, trying to: see the world as it is, based on reason and science; enjoy the one life they have and help others enjoy theirs; and exercise compassion towards others. They think of how the phrase ‘Brave New World’ is coined in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and realise how ironically it is intended. They think of Aldous Huxley’s classic science fiction novel Brave New World, and realise how it translates that irony into a eugenicist dystopia.
So here we are in our own Brave New World, neither Shakespeare’s nor Huxley’s, but unique to us. Our Brave New World is just the latest in a succession of Brave Old Ones, rewritten for our times. It feels shocking and surprising because, in the liberal democracies, we thought we had consigned most of the bad things – or at least their major manifestations – to the ‘end of history’. Where we are now feels not like an end, but rather like an ugly beginning.
The humanist seeking to understand this through the prism of reason and science might be drawn towards either pessimism or optimism, but I wonder whether this helps. You can’t be pessimistic or optimistic about whether the sun is going to rise tomorrow morning, because there’s only a vanishingly small chance that it won’t. For the humanist, truth should always be something beyond our psychological predispositions.
That can be hard in a world where so much is brutal and arbitrary and where we would prefer it not to be so. But we gain a foothold when, for example, we apply scientific discipline to understanding Covid-19, in turn giving a better foundation for alleviating its effects than invented narratives about 5G, Bill Gates and the efficacy of self-administered toxic substances. The humanist seeks to act according to what we actually know, rather than what we would like to be true.
In a different sphere, we would like to think that there is some accommodation that would satisfy President Putin and set him on a new path. But a really hard look at the evidence suggests that there probably isn’t. He will always want more; and today’s frozen conflicts are tomorrow’s launchpads for his attempt to recreate Peter the Great’s Russia. I should add that that is an informed opinion rather than an unchangeable truth – I could be wrong – but it’s an honest effort, drawing on the evidence and analysis I’ve seen.
For the pessimist, where we are now feels like a waypoint in a downward spiral which will continue until we hit some civilisational nadir like global, even nuclear war. For the optimist, this is a point of inflection where we regain our senses and once again gain traction on building a better future.
Professionally, I always thought the more solid foundation for planning was pessimism. The optimistic outcome is more likely if we assume the worst. At a personal level, I have to be an optimist, and to see the good in humankind and its potential; but professionally, pessimism will always yield better results.
The stoic principle of only worrying about the things we can control is a sound one for dealing with our particular Brave New World. For me, that means focusing on the politics of competence and collaboration (which, as an aside, is why populism and authoritarianism are so dangerous, centred as they are on corrupt networks, false narratives and division). We’re not going to navigate our Brave New World without competence and collaboration. You might add to that honesty and integrity: when we commit to supporting the Ukrainian war effort, or carbon reduction, or democratic norms and the rules-based international system, we must follow through.
The humanist is also trying to get on with enjoying life in (and perhaps regardless of) the Brave New World, and helping others enjoy theirs. We all have to have a vision for what the good society, and a worthwhile life within it, feels like. It’s the basis for hope; and the Humanist Heritage website shows how humanists have nourished such a positive vision in the past. We should be assertive in stating those principles for the future.
Enjoying life means you have to appreciate it. For the humanist, life is not to be lived to fulfil another, incorporeal being’s purpose, but our own. We have a choice: lead that life well; or lead it badly. Humanists choose to try to lead it well, recognising that we can never do so perfectly given our flawed nature.
Engaging with the nature of life is a good starting point. It’s weird, and it’s wonderful, but it’s what is. I had a most remarkable experience recently watching an emperor dragonfly emerge from its larval state, shake out its wings and take flight. Life lived in the moment, in all its outrageous beauty. These experiences improve us, because we connect with life at its most visceral and truthful.
This isn’t just about nature, art or culture. It can be about human relationships: a parent’s care for a child, a health worker establishing a connection with a patient they’ve never met before, a member of the military showing respect towards an adversary’s humanity. In the national security domain, the Geneva Conventions, the Law of Armed Conflict, International Humanitarian Law – the ways in which we have codified the steps humankind has taken to minimise suffering in conflict.
Then there’s the joyousness of striving for the truth. The beauty and elegance of truth itself; of recognising its complexity; of tasting its bitter-sweet incompleteness.
And then the humanist wonders how to exercise empathy and compassion in this Brave New World. People can choose to self-select out of compassion, or be driven by a false narrative towards a different kind of compassion. If compassion is limited to the in-group – the people you know – then the repercussions for behaviour towards the out-group – the people you don’t – can be terrible.
And forgive me for going back to the current war to provide an example of this, but many ordinary Russians genuinely believe that their forces are fighting Nazis in Ukraine, thereby licensing brutality on a massive scale. Self-deception and credulousness are no excuse. We all have a duty to ensure that our compassion isn’t just limited to the people and societies with whom we’re familiar.
Surviving our Brave New World means we have to anchor ourselves to compassion. Of course, there are ethical issues in the realm of national security in which this presents challenges – where the choice can be between fighting or yielding, killing or being killed. These are among the hardest ethical issues humankind faces, and finding practical templates presents an enormous challenge, whatever beliefs we hold.
As ever, we kid ourselves if we think there are simple solutions amid the complexity. Britain’s armed forces are among the best in the world in ensuring their use of force is contained, proportionate and ethical. But there are bad guys out there, motivated by power, imperial delusions, greed, religious extremism. They don’t play by the same rules. We maintain our edge in the national security space through the integrity and truthfulness of our approach to these issues, and the extent to which it is framed by human compassion.
I’m a humanist but, in this Brave New World, not a pacifist. For that matter, I never have been – and frankly it would have sat uneasily with my career choices. We should avoid violence, but its use is justified in defence of our freedoms and our way of life – imperfect as that might be – and with the right checks and balances.
As a humanist, I believe I’m pointed towards understanding and action by my own reason and that of others. I think you can approach an understanding of most problems by doing so, and even solutions though, as we know, our Brave New World throws up as many unintended consequences as it does clear-cut positive outcomes.
Like many humanists, I believe in progress. I believe that we can apply reason, logic, science, compassion and an appreciation of what it is to be alive to improve the world in which we live.
As a humanist friend said to me, he once thought the future was heading towards the egalitarian, just society set out in the various Star Trek franchises. Our Brave New World, though, is sadly in danger of adopting the Klingon model unless we take preventative action (for those not familiar with the Star Trek universe, that’s not a good thing. And I apologise to non-Trekkers for the Star Trek allusion, but this isn’t totally random: the show’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, was a humanist, and he wanted the show to convey a humanist message).
Another great humanist, the architect of the NHS Aneurin Bevan, saw the upheaval of the Second World War as an opportunity for a new start for society, and perhaps we should see the current perfect storm of crises in the same light.
That means we should maintain an unrelenting focus on what the problems actually are, rather than what powerful, partisan narratives say they might or should be; identify the outcomes we want to achieve, and plan the path to achieving them; and stay attuned to the human dimension, and the impact on our planet and its non-human lifeforms, of reaching out to that vision of a better society.
And to achieve all of that, we have to be strong; and be prepared to defend our values, even to the point where we fight those whose truth is manufactured, whose idea of right is the subjugation of others, and whose hatred towards those they don’t regard as their own diminishes us all.
In other words, humanists should feel comfortable and proud inhabiting the world of national defence in our liberal democracy. If we’re to break out of this particular Brave New World into one meant unironically – a better place where truth, justice, compassion, freedom, equality and wellbeing are the watchwords – then we start by securing the gains we have already made.