Understanding how moral values and a sense of obligation can come from beliefs and experience;
Evaluating their own and others’ values in order to make informed, rational and imaginative choices.
Like many of the world’s religions, Humanism values human happiness and flourishing and the morality of the ‘golden rule’: “Treat other people as you would like to be treated yourself”. The 20th century humanist philosopher, A J Ayer, described the basis of humanist values in ‘The Humanist Outlook’, 1968: “The only possible basis for a sound morality is mutual tolerance and respect: tolerance of one another’s customs and opinions; respect for one another’s rights and feelings; awareness of one another’s needs.”
Humanists see the source of all moral values in shared human nature and needs. Human nature includes the abilities to understand and empathise with others and to learn from experience, and human needs include security and friendship. Even those values that are not directly concerned with human relationships, for example those that influence how we treat other species or the environment, are founded in human needs – for a safe and sustaining Earth, for the pleasures of seeing and interacting with the natural world.
Many humanists agree with the utilitarian principle expressed by 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
Within Humanism there are few, if any, rules, just the hope or expectation that humanists will try to live by the general principles outlined above and base their values and behaviour on reason and experience rather than on unthinking obedience, prejudice or fear. In the wider community, humanists have been influenced by the concept of human rights, which supports the humanist viewpoint that there are universal moral values shared by everyone, regardless of race, culture or religion. Many humanists, for example, support Amnesty International and other human rights organisations.
Many have been influenced by a humanist worldview to use their talents to try to make the world a better place. Some have been famous for their contributions to society, science, medicine and the arts, for example, Charles Bradlaugh, the first openly atheist MP, the Curies, Thomas Hardy and Percy Bysshe Shelley in the 19th century; and A J Ayer, Fenner Brockway, E M Forster , Sigmund Freud, Julian Huxley, Nehru , M N Roy, and Bertrand Russell in the 20th. Humanists Brock Chisholm, Peter Ritchie Calder and John Boyd Orr were instrumental in setting up the institutions of the United Nations in the mid-20th century. Today many distinguished and influential humanists continue to work to improve the world.
One of the founders of the British Ethical Society movement, Moncure Conway, quarrelled with his American family and was dismissed in 1856 from his Unitarian church ministry because he opposed slavery. Later, in London, he spoke for women’s suffrage. Britain’s first openly atheist MP Charles Bradlaugh (1833-91) had to fight to take up his seat in Parliament with a non-religious affirmation, and was sentenced to six months in prison in 1877 for publishing a pamphlet about family planning.
Humanist politician Fenner Brockway (1888-1988) devoted his life to world peace and racial equality. He too was imprisoned – for his opposition to the 1914-18 war. He played a leading role in bringing about the independence of Britain’s former colonies. He worked with knew the first Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawarharlal Nehru (1889-1964), who, despite a peaceful campaign to establish independence, was sent to prison many times by the British government of India. Nehru observed how ignorance and religious dogma and traditions held back India and saw the need for secular democracy and social reforms.
Indian social reformer, Shri Goparaju Ramachandra Rao (also known as Gora) (1902-1975), motivated by atheism and despite his own high caste, strove to abolish the caste system with its ‘untouchables’, and the idea of ‘karma’ or divine fate.
After World War 2, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), an early supporter of humanist organisations, was appointed the first Director-General of UNESCO, where he promoted world-wide education, population control and conservation of nature.
Another early adviser to the British Humanist Association, John Boyd Orr (1880-1971) put his belief that we should use our knowledge to eradicate hunger in the world into practice when he became the first Director of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). He was followed at the WHO by humanist Brock Chisholm (1898-1967) who dedicated much of his life to awakening the world to its responsibility for the present and future welfare of humankind, and to the problems caused by over-population.
Peter Ritchie Calder (1906-82), was a humanist, journalist, British delegate to UNESCO and UN Famine Conference, and adviser to Oxfam. He helped to start the UN Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, as well as being active in the British Peace Council and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. He believed that science, used properly, could help the world.
Not all humanists have achieved fame of course. As one distinguished freethinker of the 19th century, writer George Eliot suggested: “… the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Humanists respond to contemporary ethical issues using the tools of reason and empathy. These do not, however, always lead to the same conclusions; for example, some humanists are pacifists while others would support a humanitarian war or a war of self-defence. But humanist responses are usually liberal and permissive on issues such as voluntary euthanasia, sexuality and abortion. They do not tend to believe that all human life from conception to death is “sacred” or inviolable, and set great store by personal autonomy on issues such as the expression of sexuality or the value of one’s own life and when to end it, as long as one’s actions do not harm others. Thus this apparent license is constrained by respect for others and the desire to do as much good and as little harm as possible.
Humanism and human rights have both been influenced by Enlightenment thinking which stressed the commonality of human beings, regardless of race, culture or religion, and therefore the universality of moral values, because they are based on shared human nature and needs. Social justice, the equal treatment of all citizens and the protection of citizens from abuse by powerful institutions all fall into the category of universal human needs. Humanists have championed “the open society“ (essentially liberal democracy), as the best way of securing personal freedom, happiness and fulfilment.
Humanists do not on the whole set up their own separate humanist organisations to work towards progress on these issues, preferring to work with others for the common good, to support some of the many excellent organisations already working in these fields, and not to discriminate amongst those who need help on grounds of belief.
Humanists strongly believe that humankind must take responsibility for improving the world, and increasingly today for protecting the environment that sustains us all. For humanists, human rights, fairness and social justice are right and necessary because they contribute to human fulfilment and happiness and because people suffer in their absence; care for the environment is important because we and other species depend on it, and future generations will suffer if we allow it to degrade too far or exhaust Earth’s resources.
Humanists bring an emphasis on evidence, experience and reason into any discussion on global issues. Humanists take a sceptical view of religious or cultural traditions that limit human potential or cause unnecessary suffering: they would not think an action or convention or rule right simply because it was the tradition or because an authority said it was right. Humanists would demand hard information and reasons for any argument or action on these issues, and might seek evidence or expert opinion, for example, from scientists or philosophers.
One insight that is perhaps particular to Humanism is the belief in shared values. Other groups often stress differences – in values, in culture, in beliefs – but for humanists the differences are outweighed by the similarities between people and their needs. Generally, humanists judge actions by their consequences and tend to question orthodoxies, and, unlike some faith groups, they value the contributions to human knowledge and welfare made by science, technology and modern medicine.
Discussions amongst humanists are completely free and impossible to monitor or control. There is no central authority to decide on global or other issues, but a shared humanist perspective often emerges from rational, evidence-based discussion. For example, although a few humanists thought that the 2005 Make Poverty History campaign was vacuous “motherhood and apple pie” (and in the light of hindsight they may well have been right), there was little or no opposition to the British Humanist Association signing up to it; few, if any, humanists think that desperate poverty and vast inequalities of wealth are good things – because they are obvious causes of unhappiness and suffering, preventing flourishing and fulfilment.
Humanist organisations usually try to find a consensus, and / or rely on their trustees and staff to decide policy rationally. Where there is no consensus, for example, on pacifism or the Iraq war, or the task is beyond the remit of the organisation, for example, feeding the hungry, it is left to individual humanists to either join with others outside organised Humanism to work for a cause or campaign, or to find humanists of a similar mind to work with. Humanist organisations and individuals also rely on expert advice, for example from philosophers and scientists.
Humanism, like some religions, is global and so may have global contacts and insights into different cultures and perspectives. Religious believers may well, if their judgements on global issues are based on experience, reason and empathy, come to very similar conclusions to humanists about the problems and possible solutions. Sometimes, even though their rationales are very different, humanists and religious believers arrive at similar positions; for example, humanists may be motivated to do something about global warming by concern for the future of humanity in a degraded environment and / or aesthetic and emotional losses as species die out, and religious believers may be motivated by an obligation to look after “God’s creation” – but the results, in awareness and action on environmental problems, may be the same.
On the other hand, humanists do not think that insights and actions based solely on tradition or religious authorities or theological arguments, can be sound. For example, humanists have ideas very different from those of some religious believers about the role of women and the use of contraception and prophylactics against HIV/AIDS, and are very critical of the damage done in Africa by religiously-motivated aid workers who promote abstinence as the only way of preventing pregnancy or STDs.
Aesop’s Fables, ancient secular stories with strong moral (and practical) messages
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