If Humanists overlook Evil, do they commit a Secular Sin?

April 27, 2010

Humanism is an ethical philosophy with objective moral principles and valid expectations that people fulfill them.

Humanism has moral rules and ethical ideals , and concrete standards for judging social and political issues .

I have read and heard tales of another humanism, a humanism which regards morality as private subjective opinion, and expects people to politely refrain from judging others by their own moral tastes. I have never met a self-proclaimed humanist who actually lives out such a private philosophy, however, and I doubt I ever will. The only humanism I'm interested in defending is a public humanism -- a Civil Humanism.

I can say that I have met lots of humanists who don't believe that either evil or sin really exists. Such humanists take 'sin' to be just a scary religious delusion, and regard 'evil' as a similarly imaginary monster. There is merit to this view. If the meaning of 'sin' can only be "a violation of God's law" then no 'sin' can exist in a non-theistic worldview. And the notion of sin in the West has been controlled by theistic religions.

I have seen accounts of sin, on the other hand, from scientific studies of human behavior and cognition . Since science refrains from assuming that a God exists, a different meaning of 'sin' is applied here -- call it "secular sin" -- to point to bad deeds that severely violate some important secular moral standards. 

Of course, if the notion of "secular moral standards" is as big a myth as "God's moral laws", then scientists can't even study secular sin. Scientists can't even study 'evil' if that term must also be just a religious term. Scientists would still study naughty and tasteless conduct, but that's not quite the same as studying SIN or EVIL. I happen to think that we need more from science. We really need more of science's help to understand how people can be so depraved and monstrous to each other.

Fortunately, Humanism does hold to secular moral standards. Humanism regards these moral standards as objectively valid and worthy of fidelity (until given very good reasons to revise them), and humanism regards these moral standards as potentially worthy of universal approval and enshrinement as human rights. Humanism provides reasons why its standards should be respected by all humanity. In short, Humanism knows something about The Good, and hence it does recognize Evil. Furthermore, because humanism regards much of ethics as social ethics, a social ethics about the right principles of group behavior, humanism hopes that the social sciences will help us understand collective evil as well as personal evil. It takes a People or a Nation to commit genocides or drop nuclear bombs.

No humanism is worthy of the name, which couldn't recognize evil. A humanism that can't objectively tell good from evil has nothing of interest to say to the rest of humanity. All the same, we keep hearing how morality can't be objective. Humanists might betray the movement and permit their view of morality to collapse into subjectivism. But that would be a sin.


#1 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Tuesday April 27, 2010 at 9:57am

I don’t have any problem with Kurtzian humanists coming up with their own code of conduct, I do have problems with the pretense that it is any less subjective than any other code of conduct that other groups of human beings have come up with. To hold that any of these isn’t fundamentally subjective is silly.  In order for it to be validly objective, people would have to be compelled by evidence and logic to agree that it is valid DESPITE THEIR NOT LIKING IT.  They would have to consistently follow it against their own predilection and self-interest if it conflicted with that.

This objectivity fixation is silly in anything but a few areas of science, its assertion runs the risk of being dishonest, which would be immoral.

#2 Advocatus (Guest) on Wednesday April 28, 2010 at 7:43am

I guess that depends on what you mean by subjective.  It’s not silly at all.  Religious people, for example, claim that their morality is the only thing that is objective, because it is dictated by God.

I think Humanist morality is objective in the sense that it is not purely at the whim of the individual.  It is something that we most of us, thinking independently, can agree on.  And it fits your own definition of something you can agree with despite not liking it.  For instance, the obvious desire of any person is to have his/her own way.  But we realize that to have an orderly society, we have to treat others with respect and compromise.

#3 Anthony McCarthy (Guest) on Thursday April 29, 2010 at 3:36am

Advocatus, to make that blanket statement about all religious people is dishonest.  I think you could go a long, long way in what religious people say about morality without finding any reference to “objectivity”.  You can’t say the same thing about the moral discourse of modern atheism. 

There isn’t a single word said or written about morality which isn’t the product of humans.  Anyone who pretends there is some external source of those words is dishonest about that.  While there are people who pretend that in some fundamentalist traditions, they aren’t all religious people.

In the case of the Jewish and, especially, the Christian scriptures such claims are made absurd by the fact of the tens of thousands of variant readings in manuscripts.  And other traditions have similar, variant readings of their scriptures. 

——But we realize that to have an orderly society, we have to treat others with respect and compromise.  Advocatus

While I like an orderly society and wish it was more orderly, let’s look at what you said.  First, there is the definition of “society” which is an abstraction, not an objectively existing object.  I’m sure the citizens of Athens,  things like the two putsches that the friends of Socrates aside, enjoyed considerable order in their society.  It was anything but a society that treated women or non-citizens (Athenian free men) with anything like respect or anyone they had to compromise with. I’d hate that kind of society, but it, apparently suited even some of these adopted saints of “humanism”.  You could say the same about most societies in history that had relatively tranquil periods. 

And, at an even more basic level, the idea that a society that is “orderly” is desirable is, inescapably something that is desired.  And there isn’t unanimity on that topic, either the desirability of “order” or what that “order” should be like.  To take the pathological view of the Nietzscheans, apparently the pathological Ayn Rand included, that order would be worse than the Spartan system.  I wouldn’t call their, apparently, desired society “orderly”, it is anything but based in respect or compromise.  And, then, there is the view of Margaret Thatcher, who declared there to be no such thing as society.

Of course, even in societies such as ours, with the extent to which order is based on respect and compromise are touted as obvious goods, is hardly born out in practice.

So, you see, even ideas that enjoy widespread support, such as the one you express, are subject to the most subjective interpretations, and what any one of us might mean by an “orderly” and “good” society, is based in our preference.

#4 Russell Blackford on Thursday April 29, 2010 at 7:23pm

There’s a fairly well-known concept in metaethics of “objective” morality, and I must insist that morality is not objective in that sense (any more than aesthetics is objective). Where this leads us is an open question. Some people (e.g. Gilbert Harman) say that, properly understood, moral claims don’t purport to be objective, or at least are best construed as not purporting to be objective. Some people (e.g. Richard Joyce) say that moral claims do purport to be objective but we can go on using the language, for practical purposes outside of philosophy seminar rooms, even after we realise this. Some people (e.g. Richard Garner) say that we should modify the way we talk. All three positions seem to make good points.

I don’t apply the word “humanist” to myself. I consider myself as (for example) a philosophical naturalist, a secularist, and an atheist. But if I did think of calling myself a humanist, I wouldn’t want to be barred because of my views about metaethics.

#5 Lyndon (Guest) on Saturday May 01, 2010 at 12:46pm

Well stated Russell.

I think the fear of moral anti-realism needs to abate. Moral antirealism is at least a possibility worth considereing, it does not lead to the end of human society and flourishing, and it may be the best explanation of human beings and what we are capable of. Simply claiming and standing by moral realism, out of the fear of the abyss that there are not moral facts, prevents humanism and humanists from using their best understanding of human beings to guide our social organization and behavior. In other words, there is no reason why belief in “objective moral principles” should be a given, baseline premise for humanism, as John Shook states, echoing other humanists.

I, too, do not describe myself as a Humanist (although I come very close), but I deeply respect the goals, practices, and beliefs of Humanism, which I see as respecting the best understanding of human beings even if it is not classicly the most glorified understanding. To me, the fear of a lack of “objective” morality seems to be a fear of undoing the over-glorified image of humans, of really prying into why we have such an insistent reproduction of the concept of objective morality.

#6 Arkaro on Wednesday May 05, 2010 at 1:49pm

What I don’t understand is why philosopher-types confuse objective with absolute. No, there are no absolute values, rules, codes of conduct - but the Process by which we come up with such things on an individual, group, or societal level is clearly objective.

Instead of good and evil, think instead about making better or worse moral decisions given the situation and the values of those most affected by such decisions.

The tricky aspect of morality is that it is not just matter of subjective, relative, or objective components. Morality is a constant multi-dimensional metaphysical problem of individuals working within societal norms.

Each decision we make affecting others (making it a moral decision) goes through a complex objective weighing process pitting differences of opinion, values, and beliefs against each other.

We can use heuristics (rules of thumb) to quickly yet more carelessly come to conclusions on how best to act - or we can consider all the possible outcomes from all possible approaches to decide which action will best accomplish our goals (as well as the goals of others since that is often just as advantageous in the long run).

So sins? Think mistakes or carelessly making a decision that makes us worse off. Evil? Consider those who have blatant selfishness and disregard for the harm they cause by their actions (or seek to harm others for mentally sick aims). Good? Accomplishing the goals of yourself and others in a best or better way while minimizing undue harm or suffering.

Why? Because our actions promote similarly in kind. If you want to live in a world full of suffering, then make decisions in which suffering through personal gain is maximized. People mimic and learn behaviors from those who seem to be more successful. Get away with theft and others will be more inclined to steal. 

But if you can become a prominent member of society without screwing over your fellow man (perhaps more difficult) - then you’ll be helping to make the world a better place and others will be more likely to hold you up as a model, good citizen.

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