1 of 2
1
Why does secular humanism have to imply consequentialist ethics?
Posted: 16 August 2010 09:04 AM   [ Ignore ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  8
Joined  2010-08-16

I have been an atheist my whole life but have recently come into contact with the concept of secular humanism.  On secularhumanism.org, it is stated that one of secular humanists’ values is consequentialist ethics.  This surprises me.  First of all, it is not obvious that people who don’t believe in God don’t subscribe to divine command theory, since there’s nothing incoherent about believing that, if a morality is to exist, it must come from God, and then not believe that God exists.  This would just entail that there is no morality in the world.
But this is leaving out a larger issue.  If you believe in consequentialist ethics then you probably also believe in consequentialist political philosophy, since the only good you believe in is the results; and, after all, the best way to maximize utility is to create a political system that does just this.  This is not the right place to get into whether consequentialism naturally follows from secularism.  Instead, I’m wondering why it is not also possible for secular humanism to entail some kind of political philosophy that is focused in ensuring people’s freedom instead of maximizing their utility.  Starting from the premise of people being free to set and pursue their own ends, and then building a political society that attempts to maintain the truth of this proposition, does not seem to be inconsistent with what I think is a more important feature of secular humanism: its refusal to accept anything non-natural.
I don’t want to argue about whether consequentialism is actually correct or whether we should accept a political model based on freedom.  I just want to know why secular humanism has to entail consequentialism.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 August 2010 11:00 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Moderator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5181
Joined  2010-06-16

Well, as a secular humanist, I can state that I believe in ethics based on motivation. The problem with that is that we cannot see the motivations of others.  We also have a very hard time recognizing their intent, so we are stuck with using consequences to guess what the ethics of othes are.

No, I don’t believe in divine command theory, because, while you may not, I see it as extremely incoherent to believe that no god exists but that ethics came from god.  And then deriving that it would entail no ethics in the world, again seems bass ackwards.

Unfortunately, like the bible, secular humanist manifestoes and other documents are written by fallible, often biased, often self-centered humans.  As such, they are quite likely to generalize far beyond reason and seem to include all when they really apply only to the authors and a few others.

Occam

 Signature 

Succinctness, clarity’s core.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 August 2010 11:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  403
Joined  2007-08-26
Occam. - 16 August 2010 11:00 AM

Well, as a secular humanist, I can state that I believe in ethics based on motivation. The problem with that is that we cannot see the motivations of others.
Occam

That’s why I tend to lean more towards the idea of Sartre’s (who I detest in most respects), that “you are what you do”. All the best intentions in the world don’t impress me one iota if all your actions
come a cropper. “Oh, but he meant well” has got to be the saddest alibi ever manufactured.

 Signature 

—————————————————
http://www.StephenJGallagher.com
http://StephenJGallagher.blogspot.com

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 August 2010 01:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  8
Joined  2010-08-16

I’m glad to hear that some secular humanist documents don’t represent the whole group’s viewpoints.  That secular humanists would all hold certain ethical principles seems to me to be getting pretty close to religion…

steveg144: I’m wondering what you think about cases of helpless accidents.  Like, say I’m a very careful driver but I just randomly hit an icy patch on the road and ram into someone else’s car.  Even if there has to be some kind of punishment for this, shouldn’t it be different from, say, a drunk driver who causes exactly the same results?

Occam: I think what you’re doing is raising an epistemological problem to a question that doesn’t really have to do with epistemology, which is kind of strange given your secular position.  As an atheist (I assume), you would probably not have a problem with claiming non-knowledge on certain issues.  Maybe one of them is, “Why are certain natural laws the way they are?” or, “How did the universe begin?”  Why, then, do you think that you need to have knowledge of the ideal way of applying certain ethical principles?  If it were true that ethics was based on motivation, why would you have to know what is right and what is wrong (i.e. someone’s motivations)?  You might be right to hold a consequentialist viewpoint (I am personally undecided on which view I should take), but I’m just wondering why you’re doing so based in part on epistemological factors that don’t really even concern the ethical principles at all (i.e. they concern the APPLICATION of ethical principles rather than the principles themselves).

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 August 2010 03:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  403
Joined  2007-08-26
MillKant - 16 August 2010 01:03 PM

I’m glad to hear that some secular humanist documents don’t represent the whole group’s viewpoints.  That secular humanists would all hold certain ethical principles seems to me to be getting pretty close to religion…

steveg144: I’m wondering what you think about cases of helpless accidents.  Like, say I’m a very careful driver but I just randomly hit an icy patch on the road and ram into someone else’s car.  Even if there has to be some kind of punishment for this, shouldn’t it be different from, say, a drunk driver who causes exactly the same results?

The short, snarky answer would be: they’re called “accidents” for a reason.wink

Non-snarkily, I’d probably say that hitting an icy patch and crashing into a school bus is not an action that you “own”, it’s simply, well, an “accident”.

 Signature 

—————————————————
http://www.StephenJGallagher.com
http://StephenJGallagher.blogspot.com

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 August 2010 06:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Moderator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5181
Joined  2010-06-16

Millkant (by the way, I liked J.S. Mills, but thought Kant was brilliant but arrived at some rather strange conclusions, and, no, I don’t want to get into that.), geez, I took ethics classes at the local university while my wife took epistemology.  It didn’t matter how carefully she tried to explain it, I had even more trouble understanding what epistemology was than I did existentialism (which I can always understand for only about six weeks after reading about it).

I happily claim a gigantic amount of non-knowledge, and I think I’m clever enough to recognize which of them, such as the two examples you give, I don’t want to waste time with because of the zero probability that I could find an answer. 

Why, then, do you think that you need to have knowledge of the ideal way of applying certain ethical principles?

Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.  I merely stated three bases for behavior: motivation, intention, and consequence.  I didn’t say I needed to have knowledge of the ideal way of applying principles.  Rather, I just stated the problems one would have using any of these criteria. 

. . .why would you have to know what is right and what is wrong. . .

Sorry M-K, but I went back to read my post and don’t see how you derived that from what I wrote.  I thought we were just discussing the basis for and application of ethics, not what is right or wrong. 

Since ethics are interpersonal we have the choice of ignoring the behavior of others, or recognizing that ethics often play a part in their behavior.  Since, the only one of the three bases I mentioned that we can observe is consequences, that’s why we have to use them, as I said “to guess what the ethics of others are.”
=== 
Steve, I agree totally with your evaluation of Sarte and also that one principle you quote.

Occam

 Signature 

Succinctness, clarity’s core.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 17 August 2010 07:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  8
Joined  2010-08-16

Sorry Occam, you didn’t write that.  For some my reason my mind added a “do not” into the sentence: “Well, as a secular humanist, I can state that I (do not) believe in ethics based on motivation.”  That messed everything up.  My apologies.

And I have to agree with both of you on Sartre…

Profile
 
 
Posted: 18 August 2010 06:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Moderator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5181
Joined  2010-06-16

Geez, doesn’t it micturate one off when, in only a few posts, we reach a reasonable level of agreement (unlike in the philosophy threads)? 

You might be right to hold a consequentialist viewpoint (I am personally undecided on which view I should take), but I’m just wondering why you’re doing so based in part on epistemological factors that don’t really even concern the ethical principles at all (i.e. they concern the APPLICATION of ethical principles rather than the principles themselves).

MillKant, you indicated that you weren’t certain about the consequentialist view of identifying ethical bahavior.  What are your concerns, and what would you replace it with? 

Since I didn’t know I was choosing that approach based on epistomological factors, could you expand on this and explain what you meant?  I’m sure it’s obvious to the philosophers here, but I’m merely a layman (sorry, layperson)  smile .

Occam
Wordpad
Wordpad

 Signature 

Succinctness, clarity’s core.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 August 2010 09:22 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  8
Joined  2010-08-16

Haha you’re right Occam: disagreement is much more fun wink .

Well, it seems as if your two questions are actually quite similar.  You first talked about my uncertainty concerning “the consequentialist view of identifying behaviour.”  Then you asked what I meant about choosing an ethical approach based on epistemological factors.  It seems as if what you would have been doing had I read your post correctly is precisely deciding what ethical approach to take based on epistemological factors rather than strictly ethical ones.  By epistemological factors I don’t mean the deeper questions such as “What does it mean to have knowledge?”  Rather, I mean simply that part of your decision on which ethical stance to take, be it consequentialist, deontological, intuitionist, etc., would have depended on what you can know about a person’s action.

For instance, I took you to mean (probably incorrectly) that having an ethics based on motivation doesn’t work because we can’t know what other people’s motivations are, and that consequentialism has the edge over motivation-based ethics because we don’t have a similar problem: since only the results matter, it makes no difference if we can know the motivation or not.

I think this would be the wrong way of going about it (and I’m not saying this is the way you are taking).  That’s why I brought in the god example.  Just as positing a god would make things easier, so too would justifying consequentialism on the basis that we can arrive at definitive answers to particular questions.  However, as an atheist (particularly one with the screen name “Occam” raspberry ) I figured that you would reject this justification just as you would reject accepting a god because it provides potential answers to the question.  Quite simply, we should believe a particular answer to a question because we have reason to believe the answer is correct, not because we have a proposition that could be an answer.  Similarly, all I was saying was that we shouldn’t try to justify consequentialism on the basis that it provides a potential answer, because this has nothing to do with whether or not the answer is actually correct.

Now onto my personal opinion: First off, I know a lot more about political philosophy than I know about ethics, so I’m going to speak (or write in this case) about the perceived connection between them.  First off, most consequentialists think of the state as existing to maximize the good but don’t really argue for it.  The reason is that their conception of the right is precisely that the right action is to maximize the good.  Therefore, the only reason the state could exist is to maximize the good; otherwise, the good would be maximized without a state, so the state that existed for a reason other than to maximize the good would actually exist wrongfully (since the right is precisely the maximization of the good).

Even Mill, who is sometimes considered as the archetypal utilitarian, doesn’t really hold this.  If he did, then the harm principle would simply be the principle of utility, and there would be no need for it.  However, Mill states that the only reason that the state can interfere in people’s business is to prevent harm to others (a.k.a. the harm principle).  He does NOT claim that the state exists to maximize the good, because if he did, then he would say that the state can interfere in people’s business whenever the amount of good (i.e. utility) could be increased.  His reason is essentially the intrinsic goodness of individuality, which is somehow grounded in utility.  This is strange to me and I can’t say that I fully understand it.  The point is, though, that even the archetypal utilitarian might not hold a purely consequentialist viewpoint when it comes to the actions of the state.

Kant, obviously, takes things in a completely different direction and argues that the state exists to ensure that people can be in a rightful condition with one another, which is defined as a situation in which people can be free from each other’s choices.  Rights of property, contract, and status can be conceived of in a state of nature but not fully realized until a rightful condition is established.  I (and probably you) don’t want a full description of this here so I won’t give one.  Instead, I just wanted to note that, for Kant, ethics and politics are very distinct realms.  An act is morally right if it is done because it is your duty, but it is right in a political sense if it doesn’t interfere with someone else’s freedom.  So, for instance, I could give you a gift because I expect something in return.  This isn’t morally right but it is right in a political sense.

This was a roundabout way of saying that I don’t really know what I would replace consequentialism with.  I realize I didn’t even answer your question: you asked about ethics and I told you about politics.  But, I can say that one of my many problems with consequentialism is precisely that it demands your view of politics to be simply a means of maximizing utility.  I think that Kant has it right when he says the purpose of the state is to allow everyone to be free.  The reason why is very long and not really appropriate for a secular humanist forum.  If you’re interested, read Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals (NOT the Groundwork - they’re two completely different books).  You don’t need to read the Doctrine of Virtue either - just read the Doctrine of Right.

What do you think?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 August 2010 06:11 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Moderator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5181
Joined  2010-06-16

Damn, damn, damn.  I have a reputation here of pressing for succinctness and being irritated at prolix posts.  However, I’ll download the above, read it at my leisure and respond, possibly tomorrow morning.

Occam

 Signature 

Succinctness, clarity’s core.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 August 2010 08:41 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  8
Joined  2010-08-16

Hah, you want prolix?  I’ll give you prolix.  I look forward to your response.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 August 2010 09:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Moderator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5181
Joined  2010-06-16

Please don’t.

Occam

 Signature 

Succinctness, clarity’s core.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 20 August 2010 12:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
Moderator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  5181
Joined  2010-06-16

Horrors, I’ve become verbose.  What have you done to me MillKant?

1st ¶ (after the comment).  I believe I agree with your assessment of my comments, although I can’t respond to the “be it _____, deontological, intuitionist” since I’m not sure what the first means, and I didn’t think I had ever intimated intuition.

2nd ¶.  You got it almost right.  I didn’t say “only results matter”, rather, I believe only motivations matter, but we can’t know what they are so we are stuck with guessing what motivations underlie the ethics, based on the consequences we observe.

3rd ¶.  I don’t see the necessity of any outside (theistic) force to define ethics.  I feel I can deal with others more effectively if I have some idea about the ethics on which they base their behavior.  Since the only clue I can have is observation of what they do, that is, what the consequences of their actions are (not the effects of unintended outside forces) pragmatically, I choose to base my judgement on that, recognizing that it is only an approximation, and possibly even incorrect.  I think I’ve been pretty clear about avoiding “definitive” answers. I’m only interested in what works.

4th ¶.  Wow.  I guess I’m out of the mainstream for consequentialists.  I certainly don’t think a state exists to maximize the good.  While states exist for the mutual benefit of the members, citizens and non-citizens, in some states some citizens may benefit greatly, and other members may benefit only to the extent that they are not killed.  I have a totally different view of societies (states).  Rather than “good”, I see it as “benefit”, and as a balance between self-interest and group interest; competition and cooperation; and immediate benefit and deferred benefit.  However, this is getting far afield of ethics, so let’s hold this discussion for another thread.

5th ¶.  I’m not at all sure what you’re talking about here, but it would seem that the society quite frequently interferes in people’s business for the mutual benefit.  E.g, drafting citizens into the military, taxing citizens for projects which may not be of specific benefit to them, requiring that drivers stop at red lights, etc.  All of these, while possibly not benefitting the person, have the consequence of benefitting the members in general.

7th ¶.  Wrong. Just because something is called a gift doesn’t mean it is really that.  If I give you a “gift” of $1.00 and expect you to supply me with a pound and a half of bananas doesn’t mean the transaction is morally wrong.  However, I agree that if you had a contract with someone else (your constituents) to supply your bananas only to them, and you sell me some, that’s morally wrong.

8th ¶.  Bah, with apologies to Doug, many philosophers over-think things and come up with beautifully complex, but subtly incorrect ideas.  The purpose of the state is NOT to allow everyone to be free.  That is a really, really stupid idea, and I’m ashamed that Kant would propose that badly thought out a concept.  I stated earlier the purpose of any society.  Rousseau did a far better job of explaining the function of any state in “The Social Contract.” 

I just boxed about fifty of my books on philosophy and ethics (plus about a hundred on other subjects) and will be dropping them off at the CFI building in Hollywood for their book sale in two weeks.  So, at my age I’m not about to start reading philosophy books again. LOL 

Occam

 Signature 

Succinctness, clarity’s core.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 20 August 2010 05:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2011
Joined  2007-08-09
MillKant - 16 August 2010 09:04 AM

I have been an atheist my whole life but have recently come into contact with the concept of secular humanism.  On secularhumanism.org, it is stated that one of secular humanists’ values is consequentialist ethics.  This surprises me.  First of all, it is not obvious that people who don’t believe in God don’t subscribe to divine command theory, since there’s nothing incoherent about believing that, if a morality is to exist, it must come from God, and then not believe that God exists.  This would just entail that there is no morality in the world.
But this is leaving out a larger issue.  If you believe in consequentialist ethics then you probably also believe in consequentialist political philosophy, since the only good you believe in is the results; and, after all, the best way to maximize utility is to create a political system that does just this.  This is not the right place to get into whether consequentialism naturally follows from secularism.  Instead, I’m wondering why it is not also possible for secular humanism to entail some kind of political philosophy that is focused in ensuring people’s freedom instead of maximizing their utility.  Starting from the premise of people being free to set and pursue their own ends, and then building a political society that attempts to maintain the truth of this proposition, does not seem to be inconsistent with what I think is a more important feature of secular humanism: its refusal to accept anything non-natural.
I don’t want to argue about whether consequentialism is actually correct or whether we should accept a political model based on freedom.  I just want to know why secular humanism has to entail consequentialism.

For me and I think many others, consequentialism does not imply an either-or choice between principle and utility; intead, it recognizes that principles are what they are because certain things work for human beings while other things do not. Like all scientific theories, our principles are subject to change depending on how well those principles work. We like to think our principles are immutable but in fact we are always testing and reevaluating them. A complete separation of principle from utility is an illusion.

If you look a little deeper you will see that our principles are illusions, too, in a sense. “Inalienable rights,” for example, is mainly a statement of intent; an ideal. Most people would say it is not inconsistent with forced conscription into military service in time of war - at least a war like WWII. And yet hand-to-hand combat puts the conscriptee’s life and welfare at risk. Consider also the dilemma of the overcrowded lifeboat: I would help throw the 600-pound guy overboard because if I don’t we will all die.

Like all religions/philosophies of its kind, secular humanism has a set of values and a point of view. If you accept the premise that our values are to enhance the only life we know we have, then secular humanism aims at improving the human condition. That is why it necessarily implies a consequentialist ethics.

[ Edited: 20 August 2010 05:41 AM by PLaClair ]
 Signature 

I cannot in good conscience support CFI under the current leadership. I am here in dissent and in support of a Humanism that honors and respects everyone.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 20 August 2010 08:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  8
Joined  2010-08-16

Haha, I appreciate both of your responses.  I’ll now have to write a lot in order to address most of what you both wrote (although I will leave some things out because they aren’t in need of a response).

Occam first:

3: I wasn’t trying to imply that you have a theistic view of ethics.  I was drawing an analogy between theism and justifying a particular ethical stance based on our ability to somehow answer the question.  I realize that you’re basing things on “what works,” but this just pushes the question back, since you still have to define what “works” means.  If not, your statement would be something like, “I am basing my theory of the good on what is good.”  It doesn’t really help in explaining anything.

4: I actually think you do represent a mainstream consequentialist view.  By “the good” I don’t mean some abstract deontological characterization of something like “the good will.”  Instead, I mean that consequentialists view state as existing to maximize whatever thing they think is “good.”  In your post you seem to imply that what makes a state of affairs good are the benefits that are conferred on people.  This is, essentially, consequentialism.  Your balance between self- and group-interest actually exemplifies this, for presumably the group-interest would result in self-interest for each member of the group.  Consequentialism doesn’t have to imply that everyone should be equally happy or even close to that, although many consequentialists certainly hold this view.  Same thing with immediate vs. deferred benefit: as long as you are talking about the benefits of a particular action/policy as what legitimizes it, you are holding a consequentialist view.

5: I think I addressed this in 4.  A utilitarian doesn’t have to justify an action on the basis that it maximally benefits every single person; instead they can justify it by the fact that it, on the whole, benefits society.  This is potentially a problem with it.

7 (there was no 6…): I was only trying to illustrate a point.  I’ll give another example (and keep in mind that I’m not making a statement about what I think, but about what Kant thinks).  Suppose you ask me if I want to be hired by you for a certain job.  I really am unemployed but I don’t want to work for you, so to make the process of rejecting you easier I lie to you and say that I have work with someone else already.  This is morally wrong because it’s a lie, but it’s not wrong from a political standpoint because I’m not taking away any freedom you already had.

8: Don’t dismiss it offhand like that.  What Kant takes to be freedom is not really what most other philosophers take to be freedom.  Instead of freedom being either a lack of constraints as to which actions you can perform or the ability to maximize your potential, freedom means simply not being subjected to another person’s choice.  It seems quite plausible to me.  I have to agree with you that Rousseau’s answer is interesting too though, and I’m not really sold on anything yet except for the notion that politics doesn’t necessarily exist so as to maximize the good.

OK, PLaClair:

You seem to do the same thing as Occam in that you are just pushing back the question by saying that what principles we uphold depend on “what works.”  You still haven’t specified what it means to “work for human beings.”  I definitely agree with you that some of our policies change based on our circumstances and rightfully so, but I don’t think this means that our underlying principles change.  For example, if we legalize gay marriage because having it legalized is appropriate for our society, it doesn’t address the more fundamental question of what it means for something to be appropriate for our society.  I’m not sure if this is what you’re getting at though.  Please enlighten me.

I think you’re quite right about inalienable rights not being merely a descriptive claim.  In fact, I think that they have nothing to do with what we physically can or cannot do.  But, I don’t think that what someone like Kant means by the concept of right is something that we should aspire to, or something that could only exist in an ideal condition.  Rather, I think it makes more sense to think of rights in a purely normative sense such that, for example, we always have a right to use our body according to our means, regardless of whether we are frolicking in a field or chained to a ship and forced to row.  The ideal condition is being able to practice everything in accordance with all the rights we have (i.e. be able to act on our rights descriptively), but that has nothing to do with whether or not we have our rights normatively.

Your example is interesting.  I’m not sure what exactly Kant would say to us, but I do know that he says that we have a duty to enter into a rightful condition, which is one in which everyone can exercise his/her freedom in accordance with everyone else’s ability to exercise their own, and this condition is necessarily one of peace.  So, military service might be justified in terms of the duty to enter a rightful condition.  I’m not sure though.

Kant actually brings up almost exactly the same example as you (pushing the fat guy out of the boat).  He says it’s morally wrong but legally OK, for reasons that are quite complicated and not suited for this forum.  Broadly speaking, laws can’t work if their punishment could be no worse than the injury you would receive if you broke the law.  This justifies self-defense and also the example of pushing that guy off the boat.  So, if your own country is threatened, the state could maybe justifiably conscript you, since you would be facing certain death anyway.  Again, I don’t know if this answer is satisfactory.

Again, “to enhance the only life we know” presupposes what “enhancing” means.  If “enhancing” means making life more happy, then secular humanism implies consequentialism.  If it implies being free from other people’s choices, then it doesn’t.

My fingers are getting sore so I’m going to stop writing.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 20 August 2010 10:51 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
Sr. Member
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2011
Joined  2007-08-09

Millkant, I don’t know what you mean by a “satisfactory” answer. Perhaps you can elaborate.

Kant had some interesting ideas but I don’t see that they’ve changed the world all that much. Certainly his ideas are not universally followed.

A classmate at the Humanist Institute said that his first principle was freedom. I asked him why. He said it was because freedom was conducive to human welfare. To me, that means that human welfare is his first principle and freedom a means to that end. Why that wasn’t obvious to him I’m not quite sure, except that perhaps there is a point at which we identify something like human welfare as part of the background. But in fact it is what most people seek, for themselves and, if they are ethical, for others. I believe that an understanding of the evolutionary process yields considerable clarity on this point: it is because certain of our principles work extremely well, and universally, over a long time that we are inclined to call them immutable, or sacred. When we look at things from a broad evolutionary perspective, this comes into focus a bit. On the other hand, if people are starving, you will generally find that their focus on freedom dissipates. Whether that is good or bad is open to debate but I cannot fault people, in general, for acting on the recognition that the dead have no freedom.

Of course, these general observations don’t yield answers of mathematical precision in particular cases. (If that is what you mean by a satisfactory answer, you will always be disappointed.) That is why people form governments and discuss these matters. The polarization of American society is a main reason we are in big trouble: instead of asking when a fetus begins to experience life as a human being, we’re arguing about what God wants.

Human welfare, often expressed as the promotion of human worth and dignity (the Buddhists call it elimination of suffering), is my first principle because that is what we value and aspire to most. Our lives are their own justification, and nothing is more fundamental. Without a valuer, there is nothing to value.

So what do I mean by human welfare? Surely each of us places emphasis on different things. But there is a general shape to human preferences: we prefer satisfaction over want (we prefer not to starve, for example), pleasure over pain, health over illness, happiness over misery and life over death. These are universal truths that define human welfare and provide a sound basis for laws and other ethical systems. It is because we know that no one wants to starve that we seek to eradicate hunger, for example. So I do not agree that “rights” are merely normative. In evaluating what should be considered a matter of right, we may also appropriately consider our ideals.

I also propose that pushing one guy overboard to save everyone else is moral. (It may not be legal.) It’s the best choice because all but one can be saved; with any other choice, more than one person will die. So it’s not as though the fat guy is being singled out arbitrarily; he’s just heavier than anyone else, and in this context, it’s the weight that will sink the boat. An objective calculation is being made, and it leads back to our conception of human welfare. As with military conscription, it is the best of bad alternatives. Either way, innocent people will suffer and die. Morality is making the best choice, not making a perfect choice, since there are no perfect choices in such a context.

 Signature 

I cannot in good conscience support CFI under the current leadership. I am here in dissent and in support of a Humanism that honors and respects everyone.

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 2
1