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.”