Home » Kiosk » Kiosk Article » Secular Ethics: Seven Humanist Philosophers

Secular Ethics: Seven Humanist Philosophers

After my lecture at the Humanist Association of Toronto last month, one of the presenters asked me, “If you do not believe in God, prophets, religions, divine revelations, the concept of sin and the Day of Judgment, then as atheists, agnostics, freethinkers and humanists, where do you get your guidance from? What is the source of your morality?” Whenever I am asked that question by believers, whether Muslims, Christians or Jews, I share with them that over the centuries, human beings have reached a stage in their evolution where the human psyche (mind and personality) has developed a personal and social conscience. Such a conscience does not need divine revelations to guide it. I share with them that throughout history, in every community and in every century, there have been philosophers who have taught us humanist philosophy.

In the 21st century, human beings have choices. They can follow the religious traditions of Moses, Jesus and Mohammad that gave birth to monotheistic religions in the Middle East, and which provide guidelines for religious morality dictated by divine revelations and holy scriptures; or they can follow the secular ethics and humanist philosophy shared by secular psychologists and humanist philosophers. Since the list of those philosophers is very long, in this essay I will focus on the ethical principles presented by only seven humanist philosophers from different areas of the world: China, India, Greece, Europe and North America.


When we study modern human history we become aware that the first humanist philosopher was Confucius, who lived in China from 551 BC to 479 BC. He was the first to present reciprocity as the fundamental principle of secular philosophy. His principle, known as the Golden Rule or the Silver Rule, states: “Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you.” Confucius can be called the Father of Humanist Philosophy. He presented the principle that right things should be done for right reasons. He believed that human beings are good by nature and that we need to respect them and help them be virtuous rather than perceiving them as sinners and evil, and controlling their behavior through fear of punishment. Confucius was so respected by his community that he was asked to become Minister of Justice, through which position he carried out many reforms in China. His advice to the leaders of the state was to rule by example. He expected them to live by the same ethical principles that they wanted their subjects to follow.


The second secular philosopher was Buddha, who lived in India from 563 BC to 483 BC. He was known as Siddhartha until he achieved enlightenment and was then revered as Buddha, The Enlightened One. He challenged the prevalent religious superstitions, dogmas, morals and authorities, and taught people to trust their own heart, their own conscience, their own inner wisdom. He said:

Believe nothing just because a so-called wise person said it.
Believe nothing just because a belief is generally held.
Believe nothing just because it is said in ancient books.
Believe nothing just because it is said to be of divine origin.
Believe nothing just because someone else believes it.
Believe only what you yourself test and judge to be true.

Buddha believed that “one’s own experience is the best teacher.” He helped people to live a healthy, happy and peaceful life by thinking, feeling and acting right, by following the right path themselves according to their conscience, and by treating others with compassion.


The third humanist philosopher was Hippocrates, known as the Father of Secular Medicine. He was born on the Greek island of Kos in 460 BC and lived for nearly 100 years. He was the first physician to separate medicine from religion, and the first to focus on the importance of finding natural causes of human sufferings. Hippocrates observed that when people became physically sick, some believed that they had sinned and that the gods were punishing them. This required sacrifices to please the gods. Others believed that they were possessed by demons. Hippocrates questioned the religious beliefs of sin and guilt, and challenged prevalent superstitions. He presented alternate secular theories, and based on his clinical observations and experiences, proved that human ailments were related to faulty diet, lack of exercise, poor sleep and unhealthy lifestyles. He suggested to his patients that, rather than praying and offering sacrifices to the gods, they should try to eat a balanced diet, engage in regular exercise, sleep better and adopt a healthy lifestyle to improve their quality of life.

Hippocrates also suggested an oath for physicians, known as the Hippocratic Oath. He emphasized that if physicians cannot help, at least they need to take care not to hurt their patients. In his own clinical practice Hippocrates was reluctant to use remedies if he was not sure of their effectiveness. Over the centuries, the Hippocratic Oath has remained a guide for all schools and colleges of physicians which regulate the secular ethics of their members, exhorting them to maintain a high standard of medical practice.


The fourth humanist philosopher was Socrates, who lived from 469 BC to 399 BC. One of his many students, Plato, presented the wisdom he learned from him in his Socratic Dialogues. Socrates loved to challenge the traditions of his community and culture, and engage with his young followers in passionate dialogues about life. He was criticized, persecuted, and finally charged with two crimes: corrupting the minds of the younger generation with his secular philosophy and not believing in the gods of the state. He was found guilty and ordered to drink poison, which he gladly did to uphold his honor and integrity.

Socrates promoted rational, logical and analytical thinking, and inspired his students and disciples to challenge religious authority, dogma and superstitions. He believed that the unexamined life was not worth living and that human beings discover truth through dialogue. Socrates believed in living an honest, sincere and ethical life. Even at the time of his death he asked his student not to forget to pay his debt.

Socrates taught a dialectic method of inquiry, now known as the Socratic method, which has become one of the bases of Western philosophy and science. Such a method is used to discover secular values of goodness and justice rather than relying on divine revelations. Socrates helped humans to discover their truth in their personal and social lives, and create secular laws to run the state. Rather than accepting the concept of sin, he helped humanity to adopt the concept of just laws. Socrates has become the Father of Western Secular Philosophy.


The fifth humanist philosopher was Sigmund Freud, who had a strong interest in human psychology. He lived in Europe from 1856 to 1939. Freud developed the discipline of psychoanalysis and attempted to solve the riddles of the human unconscious mind by analyzing dreams, jokes and other unusual human behaviors. He analyzed how religious beliefs of childhood can become part of a harsh super-ego and contribute to human suffering. Rather than judging people on religious morals, he encouraged people to understand the dynamics of mental health and illness. He presented a hierarchy of defense and coping mechanisms, showing how healthy people use healthy mechanisms (for example humor and sublimation) to deal with the dilemmas of life, while unhealthy people who suffer from emotional problems and mental illnesses use unhealthy coping mechanisms (for example, denial, acting out and projection). He observed that many neurotic people use the defense mechanism of rationalization, giving rational reasons for their emotionally motivated behaviors. He helped his patients to resolve their emotional conflicts and learn healthy coping mechanisms to lead a healthy and successful life. Freud promoted a secular and scientific attitude rather than a religious and dogmatic outlook. He believed that as the borders of science expanded, the frontiers of religion would shrink.


The sixth humanist philosopher was Victor Frankl, a European psychotherapist who lived from 1905 to 1997. His book Man’s Search for Meaning, based on his experiences as a holocaust survivor, has been translated into more than twenty languages. He was a strong promoter of secular ethics. He developed a mode of therapy called logo-therapy, in which the main focus is that human beings can better deal with their suffering if they discover a meaning in it. Frankl encouraged people to find their own meaning in life and was a great source of inspiration for millions.


The seventh humanist philosopher was Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who lived from 1908 to 1970. He is well-known for his book Motivation and Personality, in which he described a hierarchy of needs. He believed that at the lowest level, people are motivated by the basic human needs of hunger and thirst. People living at a higher lever are motivated by the needs of security and self esteem. And people living at the highest level of mental health and maturity are motivated by their self-actualizing needs. He calls the last group “self-actualized people.” Such people get in touch with their creative potential and become poets and philosophers, artists and mystics, reformers and revolutionaries, and take their communities to the next stage of human evolution. Maslow also had a keen interest in religious and spiritual experiences. He believed that these were human experiences and that people did not need to believe in any God or religion to have them. He called them “peak experiences.” As a psychologist he offered explanations of such spiritual encounters that are accepted by clergy as well as atheists. He believed that spirituality is part of humanity rather than divinity.

Over the centuries, secular philosophers and humanist psychologists have been laying the foundations of secular ethics and humanist philosophy. In the 21st century, people have a choice: to follow the traditions of monotheistic religions or adopt the secular traditions of modern science and psychology, medicine and philosophy.

In the last couple of centuries the number of people following the secular tradition has been increasing. In 1900 the number of atheists and agnostics, freethinkers and humanists was 1% worldwide. In 2000 the number had increased to 15%. In Canada the number is 19%, and in Scandinavian countries, more than 50%.

One of the accomplishments of secular humanism is to replace religious laws with secular laws, and the concept of sin with that of crime. In secular states, people who commit crimes are not punished by religious laws and sent to hell; rather, they are judged by an impartial judicial system and helped by compassionate psychologists and psychiatrists who create rehabilitation programs for such people. Secular-minded people are creating secular humanist states where all citizens have equal rights and privileges, especially women and minorities. The International Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948 had been a major milestone in providing secular ethics and laws. Many primarily religious countries are gradually transforming themselves into secular humanist states where people are following secular ethics in their personal, social and political lives.