Humanism and Economics

What is a Humanist approach to business and why is everyone talking about it?

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life, that without super-naturalism affirms our ability to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.  It is impossible to separate the philosophy from our economic lives or in how we want to organize our economies.

The problem is that we Humanists don’t agree on much. In fact, famous economists Karl Marx and Friedrich Hayek were both Humanists. Both advocated for economic systems they thought would best maximize the freedom and welfare of their fellow humans. And yet, what they advocated for is pretty much the exact opposite of one another.

If Humanists can’t agree, then why even have this conversation?  Whether we like it or not, we have this conversation all the time. The question is – how are we going to judge whether one system or method is better than other if we have no philosophic basis on which to judge what is good and what isn’t.

And, it’s pretty clear that the assumptions people have been making about how to best run an economy haven’t yielded very good results. In fact even if you ignore the gross income disparities that have arisen in the last few decades, we still have to reckon with the fact that what we have now, is an entirely unstable economic system that needs to be fixed. Greedy self-interest, it turns out, is not a very good organizing principle.

Humanism really can help provide us with a way of viewing human economic activity that is at once supportive of individual development AND supportive of the community in which all this economic activity is embedded. This is WHY everyone is talking about it.

As a starting guide, I want to quote Humanist Manifesto II (written in 1973).

“Humane societies should evaluate economic systems not by rhetoric or ideology, but by whether or not they increase economic well-being for all individuals and groups, minimize poverty and hardship, increase the sum of human satisfaction, and enhance the quality of life. Hence the door is open to alternative economic systems. We need to democratize the economy and judge it by its responsiveness to human needs, testing results in terms of the common good.”

I may be biased, but I do think this statement provides us with a good starting place. What we want is a system that helps increase wellbeing for individuals, minimizes poverty and privation, and enhances the quality of life for everyone.

What a call for Humanistic business management means is that instead of judging good based on profits we judge good based on how business impacts people. Instead of promoting growth for growth’s sake, we should instead be considering how that growth will impact our communities and our customers and our employees.

This isn’t a way to reject the idea of profits as important. It’s not about either or. It’s about doing both. It’s about balancing more than just the bottom line. A Humanistic approach to business is about balancing profits WITH human welfare. One doesn’t come at the expense of the other. But when it doubt, human welfare comes first!

Yes, individual autonomy and freedom is important, but a Humanist understands that ours is a socially embedded autonomy. To understand how a socially embedded autonomy impacts economic activity – view this fabulous video from RSA.


And if you want to learn more about the history of Humanism and economic ideas – visit Steve Alquists blog post Unmaking the Manifesto -

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