The Humanist Philosophy In Perspective (1984)
[Reprinted, with minor editorial corrections and with permission, from The Humanist, January/February 1984.]
Never before has interest and talk about humanism been so widespread and rarely has the humanist philosophy been so poorly understood by both supporters and opponents. What kind of philosophy is humanism? To listen to its many detractors, one would imagine it was a doctrinaire collection of social goals justified by an arbitrary and dogmatic materialist-atheist worldview. We often hear leaders of the New Right say that “Humanism starts with the belief that there is no god,” that “evolution is the cornerstone of the humanist philosophy,” that “all humanists believe in situation ethics, euthanasia, and the right to suicide,” and that “the primary goal of humanism is the establishment of a one-world government.”
Where did they get such notions? The source they most frequently cite is Humanist Manifesto II, and indeed all the above elements can be found there. The first article of Humanist Manifesto II declares, “As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.” The second article says that “science affirms that the human species is an emergence from natural evolutionary forces.” The third article states, “Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction.” The seventh article speaks of “an individual’s right to die with dignity, euthanasia, and the right to suicide.” And the final section, consisting of the twelfth through seventeenth articles, stresses “world community,” specifically “a system of world law and a world order based upon transnational federal government.” In the light of this, it seems to me that we must take much of the blame for how our philosophy is misunderstood. We have all too frequently stated our ideas as a market list of conclusions, each conclusion supposedly as basic as all the rest and of equal acceptable among humanists. This gives those conclusions the ring of “commandments.” We have not usually divided our philosophy into parts and derived one part from another. In fact, we have more often intertwined our epistemology with our cosmology, ethics, and social remedies as though they were all to be treated the same.
What we need to do is explain our philosophy in a more hierarchical manner, setting forth first our basic principles–those ideas that unite all humanists and form the foundation of the philosophy. Once this is done, we can follow with our beliefs about the world–belief which, by the nature of scientific inquiry, must be tentative. Then, once that ground work is established, we can recommend appropriate social policies, recognizing the differences of opinion within our ranks. With this approach, people will see humanism in a way I find to be more accurate, and in a way that reveals humanism’s nondogmatic and self-correcting nature.
For use in promoting the humanist philosophy, I have organized the ideas of humanism into a practical structure along the aforementioned lines. Even though most humanists don’t communicate the philosophy in this way, I believe that I am being accurate when I suggest that this is the way most humanists see humanism.
- We humanists think for ourselves as individuals. There is no area of thought that we are unwilling to explore, to challenge, to question, or to doubt. We feel free to inquire and then to agree or disagree with any given claim. We are unwilling to follow a doctrine or adopt a set of beliefs or values that does not convince us personally. We seek to take responsibility for our decisions and beliefs, and that necessitates our control over them. Through this unshackled spirit of free inquiry, new knowledge and new ways of looking at ourselves and the world can be acquired. Without it, we are left in ignorance and, subsequently, are unable to improve upon our condition.
- We make reasoned decisions because our experience with approaches that abandon reason convinces us that such approaches are inadequate and are often counterproductive for the realization of human goals. We find that, when reason is abandoned, there is no “court of appeal” where differences of opinion can be heard. We find, instead, that any belief is possible if one lets oneself be aided by arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, religious experience, alternative states of consciousness, or other substitutes for reason and evidence. Therefore in matters of belief, we find that reason, when applied to the evidence of our senses and our accumulated knowledge, is our most reliable guide for understanding the world and for making our choices.
- We base our understanding of the world on what we can perceive with our senses and with we can comprehend with our minds. Anything that is said to make sense should make sense to us as humans, else there is no reason for it to be the basis of our decisions and actions. Supposed transcendent knowledge or intuitions that are said to reach beyond human comprehension cannot instruct us because we cannot relate concretely to them. The way in which humans accept supposed transcendent or religious “knowledge” is by arbitrarily taking a “leap of faith” and by abandoning reason and the senses. We find this course unacceptable, since all the supposed “absolute” moral rules that are accepted as a result of this arbitrary leap are themselves rendered arbitrary by the baselessness of the leap itself. Furthermore, there is no rational way to test the validity or truth of transcendent or religious “knowledge” or to comprehend the incomprehensible. As a result, we are committed to the position that the only thing that can be called knowledge is that which is firmly grounded in the realm of human understanding and verification.
- Though we take a strict position on what constitutes knowledge, we are not critical of the sources of ideas. Often intuitive feelings, hunches, speculation, and flashes of inspiration prove to be excellent sources of novel approaches, new ways of looking at things, new discoveries, and new information. We do not disparage those ideas derived from religious experience, altered states of consciousness, or the emotions; we merely declare that testing these ideas against reality is the only way to determine their validity as knowledge.
- Human knowledge is not perfect. We recognize that the tools for testing knowledge, the human senses and human reason, are fallible, thus rendering tentative all our knowledge and scientific conclusions about the nature of the world. What is true for our scientific conclusions is even more true for our moral choices and social policies. These latter are subject to continual revision in the light of both the fallible and tentative nature of our knowledge and constant shifts in social conditions.
To many, this will seem an insecure basis upon which to base a philosophy. But, because it deals honestly with the world, we believe it to be the most secure basis possible. Efforts to base philosophies on superhuman sources and transcendent “realities” in order to provide a greater feeling of security only end up creating illusions about the world which then result in errors when these illusions become the basis for decisions and social policies. We humanists hope to avoid these costly errors, and, thus, we have committed ourselves to facing life as it is and to the hard work that such an honest approach entails. We have willingly sacrificed the lure of an easy security offered by simplistic systems in order to take an active part in the painstaking effort to build our understanding of the world and thereby contribute to the solution of the problems that have plagued humanity through the ages.
- We maintain that human values only make sense in the context of human life. A supposed non-humanlike existence after death cannot, then, be included as part of the environment in which our values must operate. The here-and-now physical world of our senses is the world that is relevant for our ethical concerns, our goals, and our aspirations. We therefore place our values wholly within this context. Were we to do otherwise–to place our values in the wider context of a merely hoped-for extension of the reality we know–we might find ourselves either foregoing our real interests in the pursuit of imaginary ones or trying to relate human needs here to a very different set of nonhuman needs elsewhere. We will not sacrifice the ethical good life here unless it can be demonstrated that there is “another life” elsewhere that necessitates a shift in our attention and that this “other life” bears some relation and commonality with this life.
- We base our ethical decisions and ideals upon human needs and concerns as opposed to the alleged needs and concerns of supposed deities or other transcendent entities or powers. We measure the value of a given choice by how it affects human life, and in this we include our individual selves, our families, our society, and the peoples of the earth. If supernatural powers are found to exist, powers to which we must respond, we will still base our response on human need and interest in any relationship with these powers. This is because all philosophies and religions are created by humans and cannot, in the final analysis, avoid the built-in bias of a human perspective. This human perspective limits us to human ways of comprehending the world and to human drives and aspirations as a motive force.
- We practice our ethics in a living context rather than an ideal one. Though ethics are ideals, ideals can only serve as guidelines in actual situations. This is why we oppose absolutistic moral systems that attempt to rigidly apply ideal moral values as if the world were itself ideal. We recognize that conflicts and moral dilemmas do occur and that moral choices are often difficult and cannot be derived from simplistic yardsticks and rules of thumb. Moral choices often involve hard thinking, diligent gathering of information about the situation at hand, careful consideration of immediate and future consequences, and weighing of alternatives. Living life in a manner that promotes the good–or even knowing what choices are good–is not always easy. Thus, when we declare our commitment to a humanist approach to ethics, we are expressing our willingness to do the hard thinking and work that moral living in a complex world entails.
Tentative Beliefs About The World
- Our planet revolves around a medium-sized star, which is located near the outer edge of an average-sized galaxy, which is part of a galaxy group consisting of nineteen other galaxies, which is part of an expanding universe that, while consisting mostly of cold, dark space, also contains perhaps one hundred billion galaxies in addition to our own. Our species has existed only a very short time on the earth, and the earth itself has existed only a short time in the history of our galaxy. Our existence is thus an incredibly miniscule and brief part of a much larger picture.
In the light of this, we find it curious that, in the absence of direct evidence, religious thinkers can conclude that the universe or some creative power beyond the universe is concerned with our well-being or future. From all appearances, it seems more logical to conclude that it is only we who are concerned for our well-being and future.
- Human beings are neither entirely unique from other forms of life nor are they the final product of some planned scheme of development. The evidence shows that humans are made from the same building blocks from which other life forms are made and are subject to the same sorts of natural pressures. All life forms are constructed from the same basic elements, the same sorts of atoms, as are nonliving substances, and these atoms are made of subatomic particles that have been recycled through many cosmic events before becoming a part of us or our world. Humans are the current result of a long series of natural evolutionary changes, but not the only result or the final one. Continuous change can be expected to affect ourselves, other life forms, and the cosmos as a whole. There appears to be no ultimate beginning or end to this process.
- There is no compelling evidence that the human mind is separate from the human brain, which is itself a part of the body. All that we know about the personality indicates that every part of it is subject to change caused by physical disease, injury, and death. Thus there is insufficient grounds for belief in a “soul” or some form of life after death.
- The basic motivations which determine our values are ultimately rooted in our biology and early experiences. This is because our values are based upon our needs, interests, and desires, which, themselves, often relate to the survival of our species. As humans we are capable of coming to agreement on basic values because we most often share the same needs, interests, and desires and because we share the same planetary environment.
Theoretically, then, it is possible to develop a scientifically based system of ethics once enough is known about basic human needs, drives, motivations, and characteristics, and once reason is consistently applied toward the meeting of human needs and the development of human capacities. In the meantime, human ethics, laws, social systems, and religions will remain a part of the ongoing trial-and-error efforts of humans to discover better ways to live.
- When people are left largely free to pursue their own interests and goals, to think and speak for themselves, to develop their talents, and to operate in a social setting that promotes liberty, the number of beneficial discoveries increases and humanity moves further toward the goal of greater self-understanding, better laws, better institutions, and a good life.
Current Positions On Social Policy
- As humanists who are committed to free inquiry and who see the value of social systems that promote liberty, we encourage the maximizing of individual autonomy. In this context, we support such freedoms and rights as religious freedom, church-state separation, freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association (including sexual freedom, the right to marriage and divorce, and the right to alternate family structures), a right to birth control and abortion, and the right to voluntary euthanasia.
- As humanists who understand that humans are social animals and need both the protections and restraints provided by effective social organization, we support those laws that protect the innocent, deal effectively with the guilty, and secure the survival of the needy. We desire a system of criminal justice that is swift and fair, ignoring neither the perpetrator of crime nor the victim, and ignoring neither deterrence nor rehabilitation in the goals of penalization. However, not all crimes or disputes between people must be settled by courts of law. An alternative approach, involving conflict mediation wherein opposing parties come to mutual agreements, has shown much promise and therefore has our support.
- As humanists who see potential in people at all levels of society, we encourage an extension of participatory democracy so that decision-making becomes more decentralized and thus involves more people We look forward to widespread participation in the decision-making process in areas such as the family, the school, the work place, institutions, and government. In this context, we see no place for prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, political persuasion, religion, or philosophy. And we see every basis for the promotion of equal opportunity in the economy and in universal education.
- As humanists who realize that all humans share common needs in a common planetary environment, we support the current trend toward more global consciousness. We realize that effective programs in ecology require international cooperation. We know that only international negotiation toward arms reduction will make the world secure from the threat of thermonuclear or biological war. We see the necessity for worldwide education on population control as a means of securing a comfortable place for everyone. And we perceive the value in international communication and exchange of information, whether that communication and exchange involve political ideas, ideological viewpoints, science, technology, culture, or the arts.
- As humanists who value human creativity and human reason and who have seen the benefits of science and technology, we are decidedly willing to take part in the new scientific and technological developments all around us. We are encouraged, rather than fearful, about biotechnology, alternative energy, computer technology, and the information revolution, and we recognize that attempts to reject these developments or to prevent their wide application will not stop them. Such efforts will merely place them in the hands of other persons or nations for their exploitation. To exercise our moral influence on the new technologies, to have our voice heard, we must take part in the revolutions as they come about.
- As humanists who see life and human history as a great adventure, we seek new worlds to explore, new facts to uncover, new avenues for artistic expression, new solutions to old problems, and new feelings to experience. We sometimes feel driven in our quest, and it is participation in this quest that gives our lives meaning and makes beneficial discoveries possible. Our goals as a species are open-ended As a result, we will never be without purpose.
Humanists, in approaching life from a human perspective, start with human ways of comprehending the world and the goal of meeting human needs. These lead to tentative conclusions about the world and relevant social policies. Because human knowledge must be amended from time to time, and because situations constantly change, human choices must change as well. This renders the current positions on social policy the most adaptable part of the humanist philosophy. As a result, most humanists find it easier to agree on basic principles than on tentative beliefs about the world, but easier to agree on such beliefs than on social policies. It is my hope that clarity on this point will erase many prevalent misunderstandings about humanism.
© Copyright 1995 by Frederick Edwords