Should Secular Humanists be Environmentalists?

January 20, 2009

A contributor to the "Liberal Debutante" blog by the name of John gives us a long argument why secular humanists should not only be environmentalists, but they should be vegetarians! His posting is   "Secular Humanists should be Vegetarians" . John provides charts and tables of data about factory farming and meat raising. I have no idea if this information is accurate. I’m personally concerned about how wasteful meat production currently happens to be, although I’m not currently a vegetarian (though I may return to that lifestyle). But the larger question of secular humanism and environmentalism has really got my attention.

John’s argument starts from the viewpoint that secular humanists should hold firm to high ethical principles. Which ethical principles? Apparently John selects principles along the lines of "people should not cause great unnecessary suffering to animals" and "people should not cause vast environmental destruction." John doesn’t explain why he thinks that these principles are essential to the secular humanist perspective. But its not hard to guess why. It’s not the "secularism" of secular humanism doing the work here; it must be the "humanism."

Can stated principles of humanist movements and organizations be identified that are relevant to environmentalism issues? It is not hard to locate a few. I only cite one here. The "Affirmations of Humanism," which happen to be listed on the back page of the February/March issue of Free Inquiry, the magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism, includes this: "We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species."

But it is just too easy to cite one affirmation and think that our work is done here. So many questions remain! For example, what is it about humanism that makes concern for the earth so important? Is there a core definition of humanist ethics from which we can derive such specific moral concerns? And we must take notice that many environmentalists are now warning that "humanism" is actually a bad label to associate with, since statements of humanism for a hundred years typically lead off with declarations that humans are so ethically important and that human values have supreme status. Extreme environmentalists are even heard announcing that some kind of "anti-humanism" is necessary to save the planet from humans.

In future posts I’ll explore some more thoughts on these intriguing issues. Please comment with your views on whether secular humanism’s core aims really do imply that we must be very serious environmentalists and/or vegetarians.

 

Comments:

#1 Emily (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 2:06pm

I’m not sure how this fits in with Humanism exactly, but I’ll explain why I call myself an environmentalist.  Firstly I value the earth as the only home I’ll ever have.  I also understand that my actions affect others even though I may not intend them to.  Finally, I believe that I have an obligation to act on certain knowledge rather than just say, “oh, what a shame,” and go on eating chocolate produced by child slave labor or buying produce from farms whose agricultural practices harm the soil.  Of course everyone cares about children, but the soil is harder to get emotional about.  That’s mainly because it’s easy to forget that our lives are linked to the soil and to the earth.  If the soil is over farmed, that will last generations—our actions can harm future residents.  Basically, I’m saying it’s in our best interests to quit killing everything when our survival depends on a living earth.

#2 Mike W (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 2:54pm

The constant guilt trips that Veggie’s try to bring don’t work.
are there some instances of animal cruelty in out meat production? im sure there are, and we should try to resolve these problems,

its not ok to torture animals to eat cheap, but eliminating meat from your diet is the wrong approach, both from a nutritional perspective, and in thinking that this will somehow change the industry.
(just as trying to ban all guns as the answer to gun crime.)

#3 Kevin (Guest) on Tuesday January 20, 2009 at 6:52pm

The article you linked to doesn’t say anything about why secular humanists should be environmentalists. Or vegetarians. It doesn’t say anything about why secular humanists, in particular, should be anything. All it DOES say about secular humanists is that we all seem to think we’re morally superior to the religious, which is both insulting and unsubstantiated. Futhermore, the author goes on to say (again without evidence) that this is false, suggesting that the non-religious, in practice, are generally less moral than their religious counterparts. Then he awkwardly segues, “so what does vegetarianism have to do anything?” (which is what I was thinking, too, as I read this). Insert 11 paragraphs of standard animal rights arguments, then close out with a nice one-two:

“As secular humanists, we should be cognizant of the ethical implications of our actions. It isn’t good enough to point out the moral sinkholes of bronze-age superstitions – we have to show the world that we can do better. It is frighteningly obvious that eating meat is a luxury for us living in the developed world, contributes to climate change, and is on highly shaky ethical grounds. So why wait? Do the right thing.”

So, again, implying that we’re not living up to our claims of morality sans religion. You could also read this to imply that no secular humanists are vegetarian!

Should secular humanists be vegetarians? Maybe, but not because we’re trying to bring home more golds from the Moral Olympics than the religious teams.

Should secular humanists be environmentalists? Maybe, but not just because that’s what Paul Kurtz wrote down as an attempt to document the existence of secular morality.

Should secular humanists be humanists? Yes. HUMANISM is the belief that we can find human solutions to human problems. SPECIESISM is the belief that humans are superior in some way(s) to lower animals. If “many environmentalists” can’t tell the difference between those two words, that’s not our problem.

#4 fontinalis (Guest) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 7:46am

You’re piece is very well stated, Given that the question is raised not just amongst humanist, but secularists, is seems ironic that the underlying argument is ultimately grounded - just as is every modern monotheism - in a duelist perspective regarding humans and nature.  This outlook - seen in many flavors of environmentalism seeking to expand moral considerability ever outward from the human community - is just another form of enforced separation of the cultural and ex-cultural (the environment) realms.  The premise is that the trophic interactions which define all of biological existence, are an inferior or outmoded manner of living (for our superior selves, that is). How is this not just another teleological argument based upon a non-material abstraction?

This is not to suggest that our current forms of industrial food production should not be rethought.  They should.  But to assume that vegetarianism, or any other ‘ism” for that matter, can solve our environmental woes is simplistic in the extreme. To be sustainable, any societally embraced, lasting conservation ethos (call it environmentalism if you will) must be founded in the realities of human nature. The animal rights ideology that ultimately undergirds this movement is not only just another type of moralizing that many find offensive and nonsensical when emanating from the pulpit, it is in fact antithetical to human biology, human nature, and the very concept of conservation which, by definition, views communities and not individuals (bird, mammal, or plant) as its unit of measure.

Should humanist be “environmentalists”? Aren’t they already?  Stewardship, environmental or otherwise, would seem to be part an parcel of what it means to be a humanist to begin with.  The real questions here is what does vegetarianism have to do with environmentalism?  After over a century of consciously trying to finding more sustainable ways of interacting with the world around us, the very least we should have learned is that any solution must be consistent with who we are as a species, not what some voices say we “should” be.

#5 Kevin (Guest) on Wednesday January 21, 2009 at 11:33am

If secular humanists are indeed (or should be) environmentalists, it is because of a simple argument like this:

1. Secular humanists respect science and its findings as our best source of knowledge. (assumption; I take this to be non-contentious and basically trivial.)

2. Humanists seek human solutions to human-caused problems, and are naturalists. (by definition)

3. Our best science tells us (arguably) that global warming is real, present, and presents real dangers.

4. Our best science tells us that global warming is human-caused.

5. If you don’t reject 3 & 4, then we must seek a naturalist, human-centered solution to the problem of climate change. (by 2, 3, and 4 via modus ponens)

I imagine you could probably run a version of this argument for many environmentalist platforms. Any secular humanist who doesn’t reject the science behind what environmentalists tell us should presumably be motivated to help them and/or adopt their solutions (as long as their solutions aren’t supernaturalist).

#6 Logan Narcomey (Guest) on Friday January 23, 2009 at 10:39am

I think that arguments for vegetarianism can be derived from secular humanism. Since it is “secular” it does not claim that humans have any means of invisible superiority over animals (like souls or God’s concern). Since humanists accept the findings of science and evolution, they know that there is a continuum between us and non-human animals when measuring intelligence and capacity to suffer. Superior intellect doesn’t mean we needn’t conern ourselves with how we treat animals.

It’s inaccurate to say to say we cannot get all of our nutritional needs from non-animal sources. All of the necessary vitamins and amino acids can be found in other sources, or you can buy vitamin supplements or products like soymilk enriched with vitamin D or vitamin B-12. Besides, even if we couldn’t, that’s not a license to eat as much meat as you damn well please, if you know that would entail avoidable suffering.

On environmentalism and vegetarianism, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported (“Livestock’s Long Shadow”) findings that “the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent – 18 percent – than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.”

“Humanism” and “speciesism” are not the same thing, and maybe we should just keep the term while acknowledging it has limits just like any label (like atheist or agnostic or naturalist or rationalist or Christian). Granted, the term “humanism” does sort of chauvinistically imply that only humans can grasp morality (and this is different from saying only humans have moral value). Could a Martian who believed in the principles of “humanism”, but did not know humans existed be called a humanist?

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