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.