What Does Humanism Stand On?

December 11, 2012

Traditional religion couldn't reach objectivity, but it always accuses nonbelief of the same failure.

Religion in itself permits anything, since a god can command anything, and the world's religions notoriously can't agree on ethics. Yet religion perpetually thinks that a believer's conviction in unquestioned moral rules is the same thing as holding objective moral knowledge. 
 
Pointing at religion's subjectivity is not the same thing as demonstrating that the ethics of humanism must be superior. Where do humanist principles come from? What is their reasonable basis and justification? Nonbelievers too quickly say, "We've got science so morality is easy" or "Just be rational, and ethics follows along." These notions are nonsense, of course. Nonbelievers aren't wrong to prefer science for understanding reality, but it can't be so simple. 
 
Ethical principles are not conclusions from experimental science, nor derivable from textbook established knowledge about nature. However, naturalists have observed how scientific views of humanity place constraints on ethics. Morality evidently exists as an evolved cultural achievement, and still evolving, not to be overridden lightly at the peril of the species. Furthermore, intelligent deliberation about received moral traditions can result in improved social ethics, akin to experimental consultation within scientific communities. The first constraint tells ethics to respect the collective accumulated moral experience of humanity, so severe deviations require serious justifications. The second constraint tells humanism to watch for long-run convergence upon ethical principles by many civilizations (instead of humanism trying to derive ethics from science or reason directly). The second constraint prevails over the first, so that near universal moral sentiments (such as traditional prejudices) can be overridden by current reasonable judgments about the long-run advancement of all humanity.

Friends of religion often point to the ways that modernizing religions have updated their moral standards and ethical ideas, often heading in the direction of humanistic ideals. Notice how all this tough human thinking deserves the credit, and not additional revelation or authoritarianism. This tells humanism two things: (1) respect for human intelligence and what is best for the many has widely taken priority, not just among nontheists; and (2) humanism is not mistaken for supposing that secular ethics, similarly seeking higher ethical principles among the world's finest wisdom, is not only a valuable partner in such efforts, but already well ahead of the game, since no sacred dogmas hold it back.

All humanism does is take the final step: elevate respect for the human mind, every human mind, to a first principle of ethics, since it is practically presupposed by any sufficiently intelligent method of moral deliberation for what is best for the many. This first principle of respect for equal dignity and worth of humans is not foundationally assumed, nor scientifically derived, but simply elevated as the evident reasonable presupposition already needed for the very possibility of convergent updated moral wisdom. It is not a 'transcendental' principle, as if morality couldn't exist without it; evidently plenty of ordinary traditional morality has persisted without respecting equal human worth. Rather, simply to understand that morality serves humanity (not the other way around), and that morality requires intelligent updating, together makes it pragmatically reasonable to discern how strengthening equal respect for every human mind can only enhance our collective ability to do much-needed ethical thinking for our own welfare. This thinking is compatible with religion, at least any religion that abandons sacrificing humanity on the altar of subservience to pure authoritarianism. Religions may still continue to regard themselves as repositories of improved moral thinking --  so long as there is evidence of actual thinking. Religions can reach humanistic judgments on their own -- but it is human thinking that gets them there, not the gods. 

Ethical systems that deny equal worth to human beings are exposed as not in fact being ethical at all, for they are incapable of doing ethics -- they only repeat their traditional moral norms, louder and more vehemently. Ethical systems that enshrine traditional prejudices (eg racist, sexist attitudes) to protect those prejudices from rational scrutiny in light of what is required for advancing equal dignity are similarly exposed as pseudo-ethical systems. Ethical thought need not respect, nor take into account, the pseudo-ethics of 'moral' traditions or imperialist/colonialist/fascist ideologies, since they offer nothing to ethics. They stand refuted on their own basis, and civilized peoples are objectively justified in rejecting them. We may not yet know any 'perfected' ethics, but that doesn't render us blind to objectively immoral societies.

Thus stands humanism. As for further humanist principles, beyond taking the moral worth of humans seriously, they are either elaborations of what it must pragmatically mean in the changing modern world to respect and enhance the equal dignity and worth of all, or they are political recommendations (similarly advanced as 'best working so far' ideas) which protect the opportunity of future generations to enjoy even more opportunities than we now possess. These principles are advanced as proposals, working well for most of humanity so far, and testable in the course of future human experience. Forms of democracy, for example, are not static dogmas; as another example, additional human rights may need to be respected in the future.
 
Humanism has always been ready to participate in a planet-wide intelligent discussion about humanity's rights and responsibilities. Where respect for human dignity is fully respected, that dialogue can grow.

Comments:

#1 @b (Guest) on Wednesday December 19, 2012 at 12:06am

The OP suggests to me that the humanist approach to ethics is essentially liberalism: egalitarian, communitarian, socially progressive. I’d agree that’s accurate.

But that insistence that liberalism is the (objectively) best approach available to modern humans—for most voters within a democracy—continues to sound like a moral judgement. Even if demonstrably & objectively correct, any “liberal” approach to bridging the is-ought divide can be expected to make those to our right increasingly anxious indeed.

In our real-world moral debates with the Religious Right (and within, and without) the primary objection to the more socially progressive interlocutor is commonly that excessive comfort with the trends of modernity, sexuality, feminism, etc.

So yes our humanist ethics do stand solidly on liberal progress. But the progress-of-the-day is being seen as “wrong” to at least half the voting population. It isn’t just the humanists to their left who they’re worrying are “so” liberal that they’re less good at moralizing than what their heart tells them. They’re worrying that democracies are “so” liberal that they’re decreasingly good for conservatives and thus humanity.

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