How Does Humanism Find Moral Value

February 16, 2009

In previous posts, we have asked about the guiding principles of humanism. Environmentalism is proving to be a great test case for our understanding of what humanism really is, and what it might entail. In my last post   “How Would Humanism Guide Environmentalism?” I suggested that humanists can gradually extend their concern to all life. As diogenes99 asked in commentary, “Can humanists derive direct obligations to nonhuman animals or the environment without pulling in moral traditions outside humanism?” This is precisely the key question. As diogenes99 sees the matter, the answer is No. I rather think that the answer is Yes.

To see why an affirmative answer is possible, we have to avoid viewing humanism as a static thing. From a dynamic historical perspective, watching humanism evolve and grow over the centuries, we may be able to see where humanism acquires its understanding of what has moral value. Putting the humanist frames into motion lets us see things going on in humanism that can’t be clearly seen in any one frame.

To lift our vision to a higher moving perspective, permit me to classify three kinds of humanism. The labels will seem silly or misleading at first, but bear with me. Sometimes I speak of “conservative humanism,” “progressive humanism,” and “pioneering humanism.” Yes, these may sound either self-contradictory or tautological. Let me explain. A humanism of any century selects its moral causes and fights its political battles. And it wins some battles. Many of the battles won for humanist causes have shaped the development of Western civilization. One thinks of the way that Enlightenment humanists struggled against the moral evils of monarchies and aristocracies, seeking broader political, religious, and property rights. Or the way that nineteenth century humanists struggled against evil racism, seeking an end to slavery. Twentieth century humanists continued the fight for expanded civil rights in the face of terrible moral injustices. Focusing on battles won, humanists in many countries can be very proud of the way that the constitution protects property rights against the government, or the way that slavery has become impossible, or the way that civil rights for women and minorities are much more robust.

Now, let’s freeze this movie at any arbitrary frame of time. On my definition, a conservative humanist regards maintenance of already established rights as the top humanist priority—the risk of losing or weakening those rights is a conservative humanist’s deepest worry. By contrast, a progressive humanist regards strengthening rights for those already protected as the top humanist priority—the opportunity to strengthen certain rights cannot be missed, even if some other rights have to be weakened. Finally, a pioneering humanist regards extending new rights to those not yet protected as the top humanist priority—the moral evils are so serious that they must be remedied even if already established rights have to be compromised.

Now, let’s freeze this movie at one point in time, say 1776 in Boston. A conservative humanist watches the emerging rebellion against Britain with alarm, fearful that an American democracy couldn’t protect the hard-won privileges of British citizens under the king. A progressive humanist is hopeful that a new American republic could extend property and voting rights farther than a British monarch would ever permit, and doesn’t worry much about those old-fashioned aristocratic privileges. A pioneering humanist wonders why the otherwise wonderful Declaration of Independence only says “all men are created equal” instead of “all men and women are created equal.”

How about 1856 in Atlanta? A conservative humanist views the federal government’s growing disregard for Southerner’s property rights with alarm. A progressive humanist forecasts that freed slaves should have their own separate society someday. A pioneering humanist hopes for a completely integrated America.

Let’s run the movie forward again, to 1976 in Seattle. An example of a conservative humanist is someone who doesn’t want their tax dollars spent on any government funding for abortion. A progressive humanist may regard the new right to abortion as essential to expanding women’s rights in general. A pioneering humanist might regard the disposal of so many human fetuses as a great moral evil. Another pioneering humanist may view the extermination of other primate species as a serious moral evil too.

Before howls of protest rise up—“Did Shook just call slave holders humanists?” “Did Shook just say that anti-abortionists are humanists?”—let my categories sink in. I do not say that pro-slavery Southerners or anti-abortionists are humanists. I’m sure that pro-slavery Southerners are not humanists, because they couldn’t meet our current standard for a humanist. I don’t know whether anti-abortionists are humanists, because it is always too soon to declare whether pioneers are right. But conservative and pioneering humanists will always be with us, so long as there is anything worthy of the name of humanism. We can also see why humanism itself will always be internally torn by the inevitable conflicts between conservative, progressive, and pioneering humanists. And any of us humanists can feel pulled in those three directions on some moral issue. I’m not categorizing all humanists sharply into these boxes, as if you can only fit into one of them on all issues. You may be conservative on one issue, progressive on another, and pioneering on a third—and on any given day, you might feel all three ways about just one issue! There is no formula, no logic, no higher-level principle, to appeal for resolution. Only humanists reasoning and cooperating together can indicate how to try to move forwards.

What we can see from my historical examples is that humanism has always been a living and growing thing, trying to expand the circle of care and concern by similarity and anology for more and more who suffer. This is intrinsic to the nature of humanism—it is its characteristic trait. The way to expand moral concern, the truth about what really has moral value, is not some external standard that humanism must import from beyond, from some other religion or lifestance or ideology or science. Humanism may obtain support from them, but the growth of moral concern is in humanism’s “DNA.”



#1 diogenes99 on Tuesday February 17, 2009 at 7:05am

Most moral theories can accommodate growth of moral concern.  My question raised another topic: What kind of duties result from that growth?

INDIRECT DUTIES: An example of an indirect duty to animals can be found in Kantian ethics, where all duties to animals spring from duties to self or the human community.  In this system, we don’t have direct duties to animals, only indirect one.  We have a duty not to torture cats because this behavior might spill over to a hurting human beings, NOT because of direct concern for cats. 

DIRECT DUTIES: An example of a direct duty can be seen in Singer’s utilitarian theory.  We have direct duties to animals because they can experience pain and pleasure.  We must treat them according to their interests, not just ours. 

RELIGIOUS ETHICS: In many religious ethical systems, all duties are to God. We treat others well not because we have direct duties to each other, but because they were made in God’s image, or God commanded us to, etc.  Thus, our concern is God’s well being, not the our fellow beings.  Concern for nonhuman animals and the environment is also indirect, because harm to these harms us or shows disrespect to God.

HUMANISM: Whether humanism has a history of expansion is not the question I raised.  The question was, What kind of duties arise as a result of the expansion?  Are animals and the environment merely instrumental goods, or do they have intrinsic value?  Do the duties to nonhumans and the environment spring from a humanist contract to benefit ourselves, or do they spring from something else?

These questions are very important.  For if we value nonhuman animals and nature for our sake, then extinction and deforestation are not harms, as long as we calculate how much destruction can occur so that the system can support human life.  Here is one way to look at this in the extreme.  Suppose we found another planet to support human life and we had the means to transport ourselves there.  Would we have any duties not to destroy the fauna and flora we left behind, or are they just disposable resources since our welfare is no longer tied to their welfare?

#2 Kevin (Guest) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 at 8:33am

There’s very little my five years of academic philosophy caused me to hate more than rigorous philosophical ethics discussions. Sadly, it also gave me a near total inability to keep my trap shut during them, so here are a few questions from a casual reading of this today and what I can recall of the earlier discussion:

1. I agree that humanists would not be necessarily confined to feeling ‘conservative’, ‘progressive’, or ‘pioneering’ about everything, nor would they be prevented from being all three relative to a single issue. Given that, though, what’s the point of the categories? Do they do any work if they overlap so much and aren’t even mutually exclusive in the tiniest degree?

2. Everyone seems to agree that humanism transcends politics. There even seems to be some underlying agreement that it goes beyond morality, for a lack of a better way to put it. If you consider humanism a genre of morality, that sounds silly. However, it seems one finds humanists in every genre of morality. I think this is because humanist is one of the myriad labels we’ve cycled through to name the godless masses. Like every word, it has within it the potential for a very precise (perhaps even up to the standards of current academic philosophy!) definition, but its usage precludes this to a degree. Especially as it has been retrofitted to various historical individuals (much like ‘freethinker’, ‘atheist’, and ‘infidel’), the word’s meaning has loosened. Personally, and I know academic ethicists hate to hear this (or, more likely, freely admit it with a laugh, but continue to publish papers in spite of the fact that admitting this makes their body of work largely pointless), I very much doubt that anyone has ever gone around wearing WWHD (What Would a Humanist Do?) bracelets making decisions based on their perception of humanism’s moral function. More likely, ‘humanists’ (read: non-believers) throughout history have simply come to their own conclusions in whatever manner, as a result of simply thinking for themselves. Is this an example of dipping in a well reserved for non-humanists? I think when religious people do this, we tend to call it “co-opting secular morality”; lots of non-believers describe liberal religious believers as those who have accepted more secular/societal morality than their fundamentalist counterparts. I think all this discussion misses the point, basically: belief in a deity is only relevant to morality insofar as one accepts dogma (which entails some set morality); non-belief, by contrast, has no such dogma, and is thus completely irrelevant.

3. Following (2) above, what does it mean for a ‘moral tradition’ to be inside or outside humanism? What moral traditions does humanism encompass? Why? Why not? Can a moral tradition be religious in and of itself? Secular? Both?

It seems to me that there are no gods. If there are or were any, they haven’t been any help. Thus, the problem facing both religious believers and non-believers alike is to determine an appropriate grasp of morality and practice it as fully as we are able. Rather than worrying what a label is and what meeting it entails, why not confine the argument to specific issues or principles? Where does this reasoning lead us, and why should we care to go there?

#3 Kevin (Guest) on Tuesday February 17, 2009 at 8:37am

Ahem. What *meaning* it entails. You guys really ought to look into a “preview” button for comments. <_<

#4 fontinalis (Guest) on Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 9:26am

As a hopeless materialist, I guess I’d have to agree with diogenes99 on this one: expanding the circle of considerablity beyond the human realm requires a different kind of animal (so to speak) than what we use to relate to one another. I also don’t believe that one actually exists other than as intellectual abstractions, debatable “shoulds” that will never be widely adopted.  Our moral intuition is truly in our DNA, and the expansion of the circle to embrace races, genders, and sexual orientations has been possible (though never perfectly nor universally) precisely because in can take root in this genetic substrate.

A handful of people wanting an attitude to take root won’t make it so.  E.O. Wilson’s biophilia hypothesis aside, compassionate concern for the “environment” is largely just a co-opting of the human sentiment that undergirds our attitudes toward one another. One need look no further for evidence of this than the causes that are championed: the less an organism resembles humans in appearance or behavior, the less likely we are to act on its behalf; the lower the compatibility with human comfort and/or aesthetic pleasure, the less likely a given habitat is to be protected.  But even these tendencies lack the reciprocity requirement to allow them to be sustainable in the human psyche, at least much beyond a small segment of any society. Thus we get the current reality where enlightened self-interest, mandated by authority, is the only path that has any track record of providing protection/conservation over even short time spans.

#5 diogenes99 on Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 2:06pm

I offer a prequel to John Shook history of humanist moral expansion.  And a question.

PART 1: The greatest breath of moral concern was among pre-historic cultures in which animism provided direct obligations to just about everything—animal, vegetable, and mineral.  Sacredness was found in almost all things. 

PART 2: Modern western religions took away the “spirit world” and replaced it with anthropomorphic polytheism and monotheism, which lead to anthropocentric ethics.

PART 3: The spirit word is dead.  The gods are dead.  God is dead.  We are left with the intuitions of our ancient ancestors: that the world around us is somehow sacred, that animals have lives that should be respected in their own right, and biodiversity is intrinsically valuable even if human beings are not dependent on it. 

Humanist manifestos containing intuitions are not useful.  The question is, what is the moral materialist’s answer to the meta-ethical vacuum? A social contract?

#6 fontinalis (Guest) on Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 2:32pm

The animism of our ancestors is nothing more than a different flavor of self-interest, and is no less anthropocentric. The behavior you describe is premised on a “respect” for living things that is paid out of fear of future want or imagined sanction by an offended spirit. Perhaps an evolutionarily useful belief system, but nonsense nonetheless.

As for “intrinsic” value, I go with the pragmatist’s claim that it’s a non-starter.  You won’t get the same definition of it from any two people even if you could prove it’s existence, which you can’t.

That answer a question with a question: what vacuum?

#7 diogenes99 on Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 3:16pm

Vacuum? My mistake. “Enlightened self-interest.”

#8 fontinalis (Guest) on Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 3:49pm

Are we talking about a validation or an invalidation of Rousseau?  Manifestos are certainly useless, but I’m not sure the same can be said of what you refer to as “intuitions.”

#9 diogenes99 on Sunday March 01, 2009 at 9:55am

“The animism of our ancestors is nothing more than a different flavor of self-interest…”

That is true, fontinalis, but you miss my point. Animism is just as good as humanism from an anthropological perspective.

John Shook is providing an anthropology, not an underlying philosophy, of humanist-assisted moral expansion. Anthropologically speaking, humanists may help expand, contract, and expand again the culturally-accepted boundaries of moral community.  But, Shook needs to answer two questions: (1) What were the meta-ethical moves being made in the humanist expansion he describes? and (2) Are there rational criteria to say whether an expansion is correct?  I think this is the project of humanism as it proposes ethical materialism.  If we can’t answer these questions, then humanism fails.

#10 fontinalis (Guest) on Sunday March 01, 2009 at 10:29am


I can’t tell if we’re at cross-purposes or not, but by way of clarification I’d say that I agree with your statement.  Animism IS just as good as a humanism that seeks to expand the circle based upon any hypothesized “should.”  They are also equally arbitrary, each going well beyond the few “intuited” sensibilities in humans that have given raise to the only ethical framework that is demonstrably sustainable, that which constrained largely to WITHIN the human realm that is persistent precisely because it is adaptive.  A lasting environmental ethic either builds on that foundation or it fails, just as have all arguments for “intrinsic” value, the modern equivalent of the spirit gods of old.

#11 diogenes99 on Sunday March 01, 2009 at 10:56am

Does the human adaptivity/survivability condition merely push the problem of expansion back one level?  A simple thought experiment my clarify my concern. Suppose Neanderthals and Homo sapiens coexist today and cannot interbreed.  Also suppose that their mutual existence is a zero sum competition, and the long term flourishing of one threatens the survival of the other. Do Homo sapiens owe any obligations to Neanderthals, except those that promote flourishing of one’s own species?  And are not Homo sapiens obligated in the end to kill all Neanderthals, or at the least keep their numbers in check?  I am sure there would be a humanist Neanderthal-rights movement, but it would not appeal to Homo sapiens adaptation/survivability.  It would appeal to something else, and that is what I am asking about.

#12 fontinalis (Guest) on Sunday March 01, 2009 at 11:56am

From the adaptationist perspective, I guess I’d ask why today would be any different than the period of actual species overlap?  Any Neanderthal-rights movement, which absolutely could only appeal to something “grander” than mere survival, would be seen as equally maladaptive.  Individuals with proclivities toward such a belief system may avoid the sanctions of the earlier era—ending up on the wrong end of the club wielded by a Neanderthal or one of their own for putting them at risk—but they would be ineffective at influencing the broader community response.  Moral systems reflect the center of mass of the larger collective, the inertia of summed individual choices that always vary by degrees, invariably leaving some with maladaptive, unsustainable tendencies that, though certainly real and legitimate to an individual, lack the substrate needed to take hold at the population level. Such, I believe, is the fate of the “intrinsic” value argument.

#13 diogenes99 on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 9:13am

I want to understand your position.  Is it your claim that ethics is a servant of adaptation, or more sharply, ethics is a servant of my genes continuing as far out into the future as possible?  In other words, mutations aside, my actions are ethical *if and only if* they optimize the longevity of my genetic code?

#14 fontinalis (Guest) on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 10:14am

No, that’s not my contention.  We are simply predisposed toward some behaviors that fall under rubric of “ethics”. There are certainly others under this same category heading—most just a co-opting of the aforementioned sentiments, intuitions, predispositions, whatever you like—that, while perhaps intellectually supportable, are far less likely to be a sustainable behavior pattern simply because they lack the same direct selective advantage.  It’s not unlike language: we have innate modules for acquiring the spoken word, but the grasp of the written form must be imposed upon us through education.  In the absence of the reinforcing structure of culture (formal instruction), the written word disappears yet we would maintain our capacity for speech, even speech containing an “advanced” recursive structure.  We’ve gone, what, a hundred-thousand to a million years—depending on what you’d call “human”—and we still have at least a billion people that can’t read—though they nonetheless can all speak—while human “moral inclusion” of other humans still barely goes beyond our own “in-group” and is demonstrably contingent upon conditions impacting our own perception of security.

#15 diogenes99 on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 11:15am

And, this biological process probably also gave us belief in deities.  And culture heaped on all the sophisticated trappings. 

Ethical naturalism and ethical supernaturalism just cultural extensions of innate, rudimentary ethical behaviors. Your line of though implies that ethical supernaturalism may be superior since it may satisfy the needs of society better.

If that is the case, then there seems to be no reason to address questions like, Is one true?  All that is possible is for one to tell the history of both, and predict which might meet the needs of society in the future.  Of course, the question becomes, What are these “needs” and what are the “best outcomes?”  Population increase?  Longevity of the genes?

You are not saying anything important about humanism.

#16 fontinalis (Guest) on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 11:48am

None of what I said suggests that a belief in deities has the same roots—or for that matter is demonstrably ingrained in any way in biology.  I make no such claim.

You also seem to be suggesting that humanism is merely pragmatism guided by rationality.  Am I reading this correctly?

#17 diogenes99 on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 11:51am

I do not know what humanism is.

#18 fontinalis (Guest) on Thursday March 05, 2009 at 11:57am

Well, there you have it then: neither do I.

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