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If last week was ‘The Case against Religion” as AC Grayling (or his publisher) subtitled the book I started to review last week, this week is the case for Humanism. As with religion, everybody will have a different explanation for what that means to them, but as we are looking at this topic through Grayling’s eyes, let us use his definition.
In essence, humanism is the ethical outlook that says each individual is responsible for choosing his or her values and goals and working towards the latter in the light of the former, and is equally responsible for living considerately towards others, with a special view to establishing good relationships at the heart of life, because all good lives are premised on such. Humanism recognises the commonalities and, at the same time, wide differences that exist in human nature and capacities, and therefore respects the rights that the former tell us all must have, and the need for space and tolerance that the latter tells us each must have.
Humanism is above all about living thoughtfully and intelligently, about rising to the demand to be informed, alert and responsive, about being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals, and about integrity in living according to the former and determination in seeking to achieve the latter.
That’s probably worth reading again.
And once more.
The first thing that struck me about this perspective was the lack of an external authority. For those with a religious faith, this is quite a departure. There is no appeal to a divine being, and no attempt to replace a belief in such a being with another source of moral authority. So, that being the case, the obvious first objection is that humanism lets everybody make up their own moral standard, leading to Nazi ‘morality’ being of equal value and standing as anyone else’s. If that were the view of humanism, I would have to conclude that it falls at the first hurdle, but it is not and it does not.
For me, the answer to the objection lies not in our ability to make our own moral judgements, which we clearly can and do, however inconsistent we might (all) be in living up to the standards we profess to have. The answer is in the parameters within which those values should be set. Grayling (above) puts those parameters as living considerately towards others, respecting what we have in common and the differences which we all know exist between us, as individuals, families and society, which is the amalgam of those smaller units. It is not enough to form one’s own moral values in a vacuum without consideration for others. Of course, we could all attempt to do so – but such an approach would not constitute humanism, nor is it likely to lead to a good conclusion, not least because we would soon run into the basic issue of economics – unlimited demand versus limited supply.
These parameters are the answer to the obvious failures of humanity in the past – Stalinism and Nazism being just two which were on a scale barely imaginable, but smaller ones such as the Tiananmen Square massacre are equally abhorrent. These episodes in human history do not, however, in any way represent what a humanistic outlook could ever lead to and cannot therefore justifiably be put forward as objections to the humanist proposition; they fail the requirement to live considerately towards others (as well as a much longer list of moral failings). What Stalinism and Nazism represented was an attempt to replace the old, religion-based absolute authority which had been reducing in influence for centuries, with new, absolute sources of authority. Humanism would reject all such attempts at calling forth an absolute authority to which we should all submit.
How, then, should we approach the challenge of developing a moral code within these parameters? I think this is encapsulated in the focus on ‘living thoughtfully and intelligently’ and ‘being able to make a sound case for a choice of values and goals.’ Another way of putting this is
The key point about humanism is that it is an attitude to ethics based on observation and the responsible use of reason, both together informing our conversation about human realities, seeking the best and most constructive way of living in accordance with them.
This is not advocating a take what you like approach to morality, but using the experience we have gained as humanity over millennia in trying – and often failing – to find a way of living with each other, and combining this with the intelligence we all have. We should use our own experience as a tool to refine our thinking on what values we should follow, and practice that refining consciously and thoughtfully, not accepting something just because another person has suggested it.
Let me illustrate this with a simple example from my experience of the formation of a particular value. In a previous job, my manager spent time with me on a one to one basis twice a year, the times he was required to in order to assess my performance for the previous six months. This did not strike me as something which sat well with my own view of management as being (co-)responsible for the other person’s experience in the many hours they spend at work. For me, setting aside time for a regular meaningful conversation was a way of caring for that other person, of making the responsibility I felt I had something which resulted in action. Now, I was also quite happy to be left alone on the basis that I knew what I needed to do and with whom I needed to speak to do it, but I took that experience with me when I took on responsibility for the working experience of a larger number of people and have always viewed that time spent in conversation as a key part of my responsibilities. Before entering the work force, this was something which I might have been able to say would be a good thing to do, but I would never have said it was a value I held to be important. Experience – both good and bad – and the application of a modicum of intelligence told me that it was something which was important to me.
A less positive example was a gentleman I knew who systematically undermined a leader in an organisation through months of snide comments, walking out of meetings they were both in, and demonstrating an active opposition not just to what the other person was trying to do, but to who that person was. I learned three things from this. One was that there are situations in which an organisation will simply fail to act on a situation which contradicts that organisation’s professed values (or even claimed divine inspiration) but that does not mean the values are wrong, just that a subset of us has chosen not to act on them. The second was that, when I see behaviours like that, I have a responsibility to do what I can, even if the outcome might not be what I would wish. And the third, closely related, is that while we can point to wars and atrocities which happen a long way away or a long time ago, terrible acts are being perpetuated on a daily basis much closer to home. From this, I realised that I can and must do what I can when I can, and I must also accept that sometimes people will actually get off with what they have done. But I have to start with my own responsibility, because it is all I can act on.
There is also a freedom in humanism:
As a broad ethical outlook, humanism involves no sectarian divisions or strife, no supernaturalism, no taboos, no food and dress codes, no restrictive sexual morality other than what is implicit in the demand to treat others with respect, consideration and kindness.
And with that degree of freedom comes the responsibility to use it wisely. Such freedom is not something we should treat lightly, and indeed many of those we would consider among the greatest thinkers mankind has produced have wrestled with questions of morality from what we might now call a humanist perspective, including (Grayling’s list is a lot longer) Confucius, Cicero, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, Marx, Schopenhauer, Mill, Mark Twain, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Sartre. Do they come from the same culture? No, because this approach transcends individual societies and cultures. Have they come with one answer? No, because there is no one answer. Have I even come close to reading even a fraction of what one of them wrote? Also, no.
What is the common thread through all of this? – that we should use our ability to think.
It remains that every humanist, starting from the shared premises that frame an overall humanistic attitude to life and the world, must work out what that means given his or her own talents for creating a life truly worth living, in both the following respects: that it feels good to live it, and that it is beneficial in its impact on others.
So, that is something of the ‘theory’ of humanism. We will return to what this might look like in practice another week.
Here is my parting thought for now. The principle of applying our reason, experience and ability to think in developing and practicing a moral code, which humanism advocates, is perhaps not that different from where mainstream Christianity has arrived today. Modern-day Christians, it seems to me, are already using their reason and experience to determine which parts of both their church’s and the bible’s teachings (the two are not synonymous) they accept as relevant for the way they choose to live their lives. I don’t know any Christian who believes in putting someone to death for working on a Sunday. Reason and experience tell them that this is not something the god they picture and choose to follow wants them to do. Or take the Catholic church’s teaching on contraception, ignored in practice by so many of its members, who have concluded that this teaching is not relevant or appropriate in their life, or indeed a god-commanded stricture they should follow.
The question I am then left with is this: People of faith must, I think, decide (given the obvious inconsistencies) which parts of the bible or other holy books we should retain as current moral guidance, using our understanding of what we consider god’s will to be, but also our developed sense of what is right and wrong. Are we not also also perfectly capable of determining, from a variety of sources, including – if we choose to – the writings we have designated as scripture, which moral values we hold to be of value? And are non-believers not able to do the same? As long as we do this within a construct which reflects the wider needs of humanity, what we have in common and what value there is in our differences, is there any objection to Grayling’s assertion that humanism
is a strikingly positive outlook, and one that would go far, if universally adopted, to solve the problems of today’s world because it insists on the central importance of good relations between individuals in respect of their humanity, not in respect of what identities might overlay their humanity – the political, ethnic, religious, cultural, gender identities that so often trump the possibility of a straightforward human-to-human friendship that would cross all boundaries.
That is something I can subscribe to.