Humanism

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The "Happy Human" logo is used as a symbol of the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), as well as Humanism generally.

Humanism is a group of non-theistic philosophical belief systems that are based on humans as the center of moral value. The word Humanism is capitalized to distinguish it as a "life stance" and from earlier movements that used that name, such as renaissance humanism.[1] Non-theism can refer to either atheism or agnosticism. The movement includes both secularists and religious non-theists.

"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."

— IHEU Minimum Statement on Humanism [2]

Many people arrive at a Humanist view without being aware of the term or the movement's history. The vast majority of humanists are not involved in any formal humanist organization.

Contents

Tenets

As a philosophy, Humanism is usually defined based on something like the following tenets:

  • Reason, evidence, and the scientific method are the best methods of finding solutions to problems and answers to questions, rather than faith.
  • In consequence of the preceding point, rejection of metaphysics and absolute morality.
  • Fulfillment, growth, and creativity are emphasized for both the individual and mankind in general.
  • An emphasis on making this life the best it can be for everyone, since humanists (especially those who include the word "secular") tend to believe that this life is the only one a person gets.
  • A search for a good system of individual, social, and political ethics.
  • An ultimate goal of building a better world for ourselves and our descendants by working together.
  • Mainstream religions are out of date and do not adequately address contemporary problems.
  • Support for democracy, a secular society and human rights.
  • Actions are judged based on their likely consequences (consequentialism).
  • Support for artistic and creative endeavors.
  • Negotiation is to be preferred over violence.
  • Some more recent manifestos call for a "planetary humanism", including environmentalism, having our concerns transcend national and ethnic boundaries, progressive policies such as universal (global) education, anti-discrimination and anti-intolerance of minorities, economic security and health care.

Compatibility with religion

Many participants of mainstream religions are also Humanists. These people participate in the culture and community of a religion while rejecting theism.

"Although we do not consider Humanism to be a “religion” within the wide-spread use of the term to denote beliefs and practices resting on some hypothetical supernatural entity, we are “religious” in that we share with most Unitarian Universalists the natural human desires for a beloved and accepting community; a purpose greater than ourselves; rituals and practices that resonate with our common humanity and shared mortality; and opportunities to work with other tough-minded, warm-hearted people to do good in the world and to help one another attain the greatest possible fulfillment in life. [3]"
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The Humanism movement is often treated as separate secular and religious humanist groups (note that a lower case "h" is used). Religious humanists have Humanist values but remain within traditional religious culture and institutions. Secular humanists have the same Humanist values but reject traditional organized religion and its culture. The IHEU recommended that these distinctions are not used because they are confusing and relatively unimportant.

"It is academic sectarianism to promote a half dozen or more separate varieties of attitudes, But this does not require a multiplicity of names. The similarities between the beliefs and values of the different groups – even ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ Humanists – is more fundamental and more important than the different groups is divisive.[1]"

Demographics

A 2006 poll found 36% of British people have a secular humanist view. The poll was based on agreement with three basic principles of humanism. Younger/middle aged, more affluent and more educated people were more likely to be humanist.[4]

Practices

Replacement ceremonies

Religions have traditionally provided a venue for celebrating life events, such as baby namings, marriages (although this is a relatively recent innovation in Christianity) and funerals. Humanists either just "play along" with religious ceremonies or devise alternative rituals. Most Humanist organizations facilitate these secular occasions, including the British Humanist Association[5].

Criticism

Naturalism refutes humanism

The moral argument runs "why think that if naturalism were true, human beings would have objective moral value?" [6]

This begs the question that the values are indeed absolute.

No relationship with the divine

Some people criticize Humanism on the grounds that it offers no relationship with the divine. Critics believe that the lack of these things leaves humanity without a good anchor, and without that, Humanism itself is cynical and pessimistic. However, most Humanists are able to lead fulfilling and ethical lives. There is no point in wishful thinking that god must exist simply because you wish to have a relationship with it.

Theism being false does not imply Humanism is true

"humanism is not a default position [...] even if the theist were wrong, that would not mean that the humanist is right.[6]"

This is correct. Claiming otherwise risks making a false dichotomy.

Humanism varies with time

Humanism is criticized for being revised over time:

" Predictably, their "absolutes" change as times change, a sign of a faulty belief system. If the theses which support a belief system are changed from time to time, then what is the truth, and who is it who defines such truth? [7]"

This assumes morality is necessarily static and unchanging. Apologists often claim that a moral system must be absolute but provide little reliable evidence for such a claim. Since humanism originates with humans (like all moral systems, including theistic ones) they are subject to change and modification over time. The 1933 manifesto makes this clear:

"[The Humanist manifesto] was designed to represent a developing point of view, not a new creed. [... Religious morality] has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult), established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion. This fact explains the changefulness of religions through the centuries.[8]"

If humans are taken to be the originators of humanism, the belief system is existential. Natural rights might also be assumed to be the basis for humanism, but this can be difficult to justify since humanists often reject metaphysics.

Humanism is not entirely rational

"We must now simply recognize that the humanist ideal is far from representing a firmly established, well thought-out belief system. Since a humanist creed cannot or will not be developed, the manifestos become indicative of an emotional response rather than a statement about a particular belief system.[7]"

Based on the is-ought problem and the Münchhausen trilemma, we would not expect value systems based solely on evidence and rational thought to be possible, even in principle. Critics of humanism appear to be setting the bar unreasonably high.

Utopianism

"Humanism comes across, then, as a wish list for the way society ought to be, but not as a concise statement about how we might achieve those ends. In fact it is quite revealing to notice, as we work through the humanist arguments to follow, that there truly are no solutions or methods suggested to bring about the change humanists hope for. The manifestos simply make statements about the way they want life to be, about the danger of certain religious ideologies, and about a utopia in which all human beings live in complete harmony and without material want.[7]"

The argument that Humanism unjustifiably assumes that their goals are achievable may have some weight. However, this argument does seem to assume that the goals of Humanism are unachievable, which is also hard to justify.

Some manifestos, such as the Humanist Manifesto 2000: A Call for a New Planetary Humanism (2000), as well as many individual Humanists have credible proposals to achieve the goals of humanism. It seems unfair to call the movement Utopian without a serious attempt to implement their proposals.

Humanism is fragmented

"the lack of consensus among humanists is obvious. The term some humanists portrays division in the opinion of what humanism fundamentally is. Although the same argument can be made about various manifestations of Christendom, true Christians at least have the bible as a last authority.[7]"

This is true of all popular value systems, particularly of Christians who also disagree about everything (including the Bible). Critics of humanism appear to be setting the bar unreasonably high. Since Humanism values diversity, free expression and aims to encourage human potential, it is hardly surprising that Humanists have a wide range of views!

Humanism is a religion

Some maintain that Humanism is a religion. It certainly had religious origins. The 1933 "Humanist Manifesto I" was explicitly written to promote a movement that intended to replace existing religions. It was authored in part by a Unitarian minister. However, Humanism has evolved since then to distance itself from any specific religious institution, belief or practices but remains compatible with membership of those other religions. While some Humanists exist within religion, when taken as a whole, Humanism has no set rituals, metaphysical beliefs or scripture. If Humanism is called a religion, we would have to ask if the definition of religion has been stretched so far as to be rendered meaningless.

Criticism of the concept of progress

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Many forms of Humanism imagines that a better world can be engineered through human ingenuity. Some thinkers, particularly within postmodernism, have dismissed the idea of progress as a myth. There is possibly a pragmatic argument that striving to improve our condition, even thought it might not be possible, is still justified because it may lead to positive results (and we have little to lose by believing it).

There is no guarantee that a "better world" really aligns with a human's interests.

"You, for instance, want to cure men of their old habits and reform their will in accordance with science and good sense. But how do you know, not only that it is possible, but also that it is DESIRABLE to reform man in that way? And what leads you to the conclusion that man's inclinations NEED reforming? [9]"

Idolatry

"Humanism, however, exalts man to the point of idolatry and directs man’s attention exclusively to himself. This is the sin of pride. [10]"

This assumes that Christian absolute morality is correct, which begs the question that Humanism is false.

Humanism results in moral and societal decline

Apologists sometimes criticize humanism for causing moral decline in society.

"Humanism is pulling God down and raising man up! Humanism is exalting man and bringing down God. When you have a little God and a big man, you have nothing but homosexuality, adultery, abortion, licentiousness and a wicked society. Idolatry is the forerunner of immorality and wickedness in any society. [11]"

This is easily rebutted by pointing out societies that are strongly humanist and secular, but still have an outstanding quality of life.[12] Many of the most violent and disordered societies are strongly theistic.

Humanism retains Christian values

Some writers have criticized humanism for attempting to maintain Christian ethics without the Christian underpinning. Friedrich Nietzsche argued that without the Christian foundation, traditional morality was in desperate need of a total overhaul because it was developed on a flawed basis.

"Christian tradition [...] was in danger of being undermined by a 'Secular Humanism' which hoped to retain Christian values without Christian faith. [13]"
"How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing?[14]"

Defenders of Humanism might reply that their worldview actually is divergent from Christianity on many important points.

"I don't want to give the impression that the humanist ideal is valueless. It is as a whole opposed to Christian values, and to those of many religions, but there is much that is good and sensible.[15]"

Too focused on present humans

There are some closely related but distinct belief systems that might consider humanism to be too focused on the current state of humans at the expense of human's future potential as posthumans. These views include transhumanism and Nietzsche's Übermensch.

Imposing Western values on other cultures

Some writers question the spread of "Western" Enlightenment values on to other cultures, which either destroys their existing culture or is potentially culturally unsuitable.

"Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, postcolonial theorists argue, so Western intellectuals impose their knowledge on the rest of the world [16]"

It is important to remember that cultural exchanges have occurred throughout recorded history and that no culture has remained static. Isolating a culture from change is an impractical goal. However, this does not itself justify influencing other cultures.

It is also premature to say Humanism is being imposed since Western governments do not abide by its principles, either domestically or in foreign affairs, and generally impose neo-liberal consumerism. Arguably, Western governments are actually suppressing Humanism rather than promoting it internationally.

Moral relativism

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Humanism is accused of metaethical moral relativism (MMR) in that if ethics is dependent on the situation and context, there can never be a way to resolve who is in the right.

"With situational ethics, laws and rules are meaningless and moral anarchy is the predictable result. [...] A tribe of cannibals may determine that to eat other human beings is morally defensible, but I would shudder to accept that type of ethical system in my neighborhood. [...] The humanist theme centers around self-fulfillment and happiness, which can become a dangerous objective when coupled with a relativistic interpretation of ethics, or of right and wrong. Which comes first, my pursuit of happiness or my own personal, unique ethical standard? Since I am free to define both, I am also free to apply either as I see fit. [...] natural character of mankind is supremely selfish[15]"

Firstly, ethics in humanism is largely consensus driven, so general principles can be found. If cannibalism was practiced by the majority, it may be considered moral. However, cannibalism isn't in the majority and it limits the future potential victims, so it is considered immoral. Humanism advocates human rights, including right to life, which is not compatible with cannibalism.

Secondly, most humans have an innate sense of moral conduct (probably as an evolutionary adaptation), so it is not difficult for a majority of people to agree on some basic rules. The apologist tries to point out that self interest and ethics may sometimes conflict. However, they are in agreement for most people, most of the time. Humans are only selfish some of the time, not all of the time. Consensus of the majority can therefore be reached.

Thirdly, all ethical systems are subjective; Humanism just openly admits that is the case.

If anything, Humanism subscribes to normative not metaethical moral relativism, in that it tolerates where possible other views but does not necessarily consider them equal. Saying it accepts MMR is a straw man.

Humanism does not allow for sacrificial giving

"To state that "ethics stems from human need and interest" is to claim that any behavior which does not meet such standards is unethical. But this rule cannot possibly apply to such circumstances as sacrificial giving or martyrdom.[15]"

If the action practically benefits others, it can be considered moral. Ethics is based on human need and interest in general. Martyrdom for a metaphysical god (which according to Humanism doesn't exist) would always be considered wrong by Humanists.

Claims to both tolerate and reject certain ideas

The apologist claims that Humanists are inconsistent because they support the free exchange of ideas, but not in certain circumstances, such as teaching creationism in science classes.

"A Secular Humanist Declaration states under Item 1, Free Inquiry, that: "The guiding premise of those who believe in free inquiry is that truth is more likely to be discovered if the opportunity exists for the free exchange of opposing opinions; the process of interchange is frequently as important as the result""

The free exchange of ideas is perfectly compatible with excluding evolution from science classes. People can exchange their ideas in research journals, books, speech, etc. The purpose of a science class is education about science, and while debate may take place about scientific theories, it is not the place for a debate on creationism because it is not scientific. Not every forum is suitable for every possible idea.

"They seem, however, to embrace all viewpoints. The hypocrisy is clear, and demands an explanation. We cannot simultaneously be "open to diverse...moral viewpoints" and hold to the dogma stated in items "FIRST" and "SECOND" of the Manifesto II which state that traditional religions are "obstacles to human progress." Humanists must either withhold judgement of any particular religion or belief (which they have failed to do) or they must discontinue the demand for equality of all competing philosophies.[15]"

The manifesto probably means that the "The world must be open to [listen to] diverse political, ideological, and moral viewpoints". It goes without saying that a person cannot accept every view that they encounter. One may criticize a belief while still tolerating those who hold it. Humanists don't support the equality of ideas, so the argument is a straw man.

Antihumanism

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Some philosophers have denied that the concept "human" at the center of Humanist philosophy is an ill defined or metaphysical. Humanism rejects metaphysics, so this could lead to a contradiction. Much of the criticism has been from writers within postmodernism and those who reject foundationalism, which is the idea that knowledge is based on justified belief or sound arguments.

"Forget the significance of the human individual, [Louis Althusser] argued, it is historical processes that make the difference. There is no such thing as intrinsic humanity, we are all the product of external forces. Everything that cannot be analysed structurally is false consciousness. Humanism itself is false consciousness. Others made a parallel critique using Freudian psychoanalysis. [17]"
"As Althusser understands them, whatever conceptions we have of the nature of human beings or about the proper function of the state are historically generated and serve to reproduce existing social relations. In other words, they are ideological. Apart from the necessity of human beings to engage in productive relations with other human beings and with their environment in order to produce their means of subsistence, there is no human nature or essence. This is the core of Althusser's “anti-humanist” position.[18]"

Humanism has not achieved anything

"There’s the social justice or liberation critique, which points out that self-professed humanists, and humanism as a movement, can point to few or no major accomplishments in social justice — humanism has no Martin Luther King, no Mahatma Gandhi. This is also the pragmatist’s critique. [19]"

Most Humanists simply behave in an ethical way without ascribing the label to themselves; they are also not part of any Humanist group. For this reason, their actions are not usually associated with Humanism. This is in contrast to organized religion in which people identify openly as a follower of that religion. For that reason, the association between actions and their religious affiliation are easy to connect (even if the association is not really valid).

Humanism has also had a relatively short history, and lacks institutions used by religion to amplify its influence.

Manifestos

There are several humanist manifestos:

Humanist groups

Humanist groups are active many countries around the world.

See also

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 [1]
  2. [2]
  3. [3]
  4. [4]
  5. [5]
  6. 6.0 6.1 [6]
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Jim Berge, A Rebuttal to the Humanist Manifestos
  8. [7]
  9. Feodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground
  10. [8]
  11. [9]
  12. [10]
  13. "Free Church ministers in Anglican pulpits. Dr Temple's call: the South India Scheme." The Guardian, 26 May 1943, p.6 Guardian and Observer Digital Archive
  14. Friedrich Nietzsche, Gay Science (God is dead)
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 [11]
  16. [12]
  17. [13]
  18. [14]
  19. [15]

External links


v · d Philosophy
History of philosophy   Ancient Greek philosophy · Rationalism · Post Modernism · Utilitarianism · Existentialism · Objectivism · Metaphysics of quality · Humanism · Transhumanism
Famous philosophers   Ned Block · Daniel Dennett · René Descartes · Paul Draper · Epicurus · David Hume · Immanuel Kant · Karl Marx · Thomas Nagel · Friedrich Nietzsche · Bertrand Russell · John Searle · Baruch Spinoza · W.V.O. Quine
Existence   Reality · Mind-body dualism · Purpose of existence · Value of life · Solipsism
Morality and ethics   Ethics of Aristotle · Relative morality · Objective morality · Golden rule
Epistemology   Belief · Truth · Justification · A priori · A posteriori · Observation · Analysis · Synthesis · Absolute certainty · Information theory · Plato's Apology of Socrates · Atheists cannot know anything
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