Caring for the Poor, and the ‘Doctrine of Socialist Intuition’
In one way or another the assorted strands of the wide Judeo-Christian tradition have always acknowledged divine revelation as the source of a duty to care for the poor and destitute. Islamic scholars and authoritative sources in many other religious traditions have also emphasised the importance of caring for the poor, arguing that as God’s creation Man has an inherent dignity in no way dependent on material wealth or physical well-being. Such dignity is shared by all men and women equally and is a vital part of what we might call our ‘common humanity’. There has, understandably, long existed an affinity between religious groups in Europe and secular political projects that have sought to alleviate the plight of the poor and disadvantaged.
In recent years, however, this relationship has been weakened as the more sceptically inclined elements of the Left have sought to reject the Natural Law that has hitherto been an enduring feature of the Judeo-Christian and Islamic traditions, arguing that, in spite of the limitations it places on material power, the Natural Law marginalises various groups and is overly prescriptive in the duties it confers on people. This appears in many cases to have gone hand-in-hand with a rejection of religious metaphysics as something founded on supposed divine revelation and therefore not susceptible of verification in terms intelligible to modern science (and by implication modern Socialism). Nonetheless, the idea that social progress means helping the poor and disadvantaged has retained a pivotal position in left-wing politics despite systematic undermining of its very raison d’être.
In the place once occupied by belief in God and divine revelation through sacred scripture, I would like to suggest there lies a ‘doctrine of socialist intuition’. This is the (correct) intuition that Man is possessed of inherent and inviolable dignity, but absent any account of why or how Man might be or have become so possessed. Unlike religious dogma this rests not on cogent philosophy but on passive acquiescence from the general public.
At best agreement on this point arises because there are people who sincerely believe in some kind of universal ‘human spirit’ conferred by our creator, and in which both the poor and the rich equally participate. But at no point does this passive acceptance rule out the possibility that men and women will simply accept the propositions of ‘inviolable human dignity’ and ‘common humanity’ in the hope that they stand something to gain in the process. It is all too easy to enter into a compromise of accepting that those of lower social standing have equal dignity with oneself, in order to imagine oneself partaking in the dignity and nobility conferred on the rich, the powerful and the aristocracy. In an age of rampant individualism I would like to contend, along with numerous clerics and priests, that the latter is likely to be far more prevalent than the former.
Naturally, such withered and impoverished foundations for an idea like ‘common humanity’, shorn of rational structure and knowable moral code, necessarily excludes intelligibility and lies open to attack by radical individualists and especially by those in positions of power who can deny its very existence as mere wishful thinking, thereby cementing the kind of social inequality which benefits the rich at the expense of the poor.
In the most optimistic assessment of our condition the socialist’s assertion Man has inherent and inviolable dignity requires a faith like that of a religious believer. But it is one without any vision of universal justice that that places moral value and the real world in meaningful relationship. Without a grounding in some kind of religious or cosmic narrative ‘inviolable human dignity’ not only appears fanciful, but is also open to being undermined by the very sections of society it ought to appeal to most.
The points upon which secularist and religious groups agree in regard of helping the poor give cause for optimism. But what about their surprising shared belief and even practice? These are too often underplayed. Appreciation of this point might go some way to healing the rift between religious groups and the Left, perhaps improving Humanity’s lot into the bargain.