By Fred Edwords
What sort of philosophy is humanism? To listen to its detractors, one would imagine it to be a doctrinaire collection of social goals justified by an arbitrary and dogmatic materialist-atheist worldview. Leaders of the religious right often 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.
And, indeed, most humanists are nontheistic, have a non-absolutist approach to ethics, support death with dignity, and value global thinking. But such views aren’t central to the philosophy. To understand just where humanism begins, as well as discover where such ideas fit into the overall structure, it’s necessary to present humanism as a hierarchy of positions. Certain basic principles need to be set forth first—those ideas that unite all humanists and form the foundation of the philosophy. Once this is done, humanist conclusions about the world can follow—conclusions which, by the nature of scientific inquiry, must be tentative. Then, after that groundwork has been laid, appropriate social policies can be recommended, recognizing the differences of opinion that exist within the humanist community. From this approach people can see humanism in perspective—and in a way that reveals its nondogmatic and self-correcting nature.
The central ideas of humanism, then, can be organized into a practical structure along the aforementioned lines. Even though all humanists don’t communicate the philosophy in this way, it’s fair to say that most humanists will recognize this presentation as accurate.
1. We humanists think for ourselves as individuals. There is no area of thought that we are afraid 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 doesn’t convince us personally. We seek to take responsibility for our decisions and conclusions, and this necessitates having 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 on our condition.
2. We make reasoned decisions because our experience with approaches that abandon reason convinces us that such approaches are inadequate and often counterproductive for the realization of human goals. When reason is abandoned there is no “court of appeal” where differences of opinion can be settled. We find instead that any belief is possible if one’s thinking is driven by arbitrary faith, authority, revelation, religious experience, altered 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 making our choices.
3. We base our understanding of the world on what we can perceive with our senses and comprehend with our minds. Anything that’s 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 abandoning reason and the senses. We find this course unacceptable, since all the supposed absolute moral rules that are adopted as a result of this arbitrary leap are themselves rendered arbitrary by the baselessness of the leap itself. Furthermore, there’s 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.
4. Though we take a strict position on what constitutes knowledge, we aren’t 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 concepts. We don’t 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.
5. Human knowledge isn’t 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’s true for our scientific conclusions is even more so 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 foundation upon which to erect a philosophy. But because it deals honestly with the world, we believe it is the most secure foundation 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 that then result in errors when these illusions become the basis for decisions and social policies. We humanists wish to avoid these costly errors and have thus 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.
6. We maintain that human values make sense only in the context of human life. A supposed nonhumanlike 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 won’t 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 one.
7. We ground our ethical decisions and ideals in human need and concern 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 higher 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 we know are created by humans and can’t, 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 motive forces.
8. We practice our ethics in a living context rather than an ideal one. Though ethics are ideals, ideals can only serve as guidelines in life 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, isn’t always easy. So when we declare our commitment to a humanist approach to ethics, we are expressing our willingness to do the intensive thinking and work that moral living in a complex world entails.
Tentative Conclusions about the World
1. Our planet revolves around a medium-sized star, which is located near the edge of an average-sized galaxy of as many as 300 billion stars, which is part of a galaxy group consisting of more than thirty 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 minuscule and brief part of a much larger picture.
In 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 it is concerned with our well-being or future. From all appearances it seems more logical to conclude that we alone are concerned for our well-being and future.
2. Human beings are neither entirely unique from other forms of life nor are they the final product of some planned scheme of development. The available evidence shows that humans are made from the same building blocks of 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 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 no ultimate beginning or end to this process.
3. There is no compelling evidence to justify the belief that the human mind is distinct and separable 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 are insufficient grounds for belief in a soul or some form of afterlife.
4. The basic motivations that 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’s possible to develop a scientifically-based system of ethics once enough is known about basic human needs, drives, motivations, and characteristics and once reason and empathy are 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.
5. When people are left largely free to pursue their own interests and goals, to think and speak for themselves, to develop their abilities, and to operate in a social setting that promotes liberty, the number of beneficial discoveries and accomplishments 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
1. As humanists who are committed to free inquiry and who see the value of social systems that promote liberty, we encourage the development of individual autonomy. In this context, we support such freedoms and rights as religious liberty, 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 alternative family structures), a right to birth control and abortion, and the right to access to medical aid in dying.
2. 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 considering deterrence, restoration, and rehabilitation in the goals of penalization. However, not all crimes or disputes between people must be settled by courts of law. A different approach involving conflict mediation, wherein opposing parties come to mutual agreements, also has our support.
3. 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 involves more people. We look forward to widespread participation in the decision-making process in areas such as the family, the school, the workplace, institutions, and government. In this context we see no place for prejudice on the basis of race, nationality, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identification, age, political persuasion, religion, or philosophy. And we see every basis for the promotion of equal opportunity in the economy and in universal education.
4. 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 environmental programs 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 growth control as a means toward 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.
5. 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 around us. We are encouraged rather than fearful about biotechnology, alternative energy, and information technology, 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 people or nations for their exploitation. To exercise our moral influence on new technologies, to have our voice heard, we must take part in these revolutions as they occur.
6. 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 about 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 conclusions about the world, but easier to agree on both than on social policies. Clarity regarding this point will erase many prevalent misunderstandings about humanism.ri
This essay is the 2008 revised version of that which originally appeared in the January/February 1984 issue of the Humanist magazine.
From 1980 thru 2017, Fred Edwords, the author, served sequentially as executive director of the American Humanist Association, editor of the Humanist magazine, national director of the United Coalition of Reason, and director of planned giving for the Humanist Foundation. In his current retirement he remains active in speaking, teaching, and writing on humanist subjects.