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Humanist Morals

March 30, 2010

What follows is an attempt to explain one possible take on morality from a humanist viewpoint. It’s inspired by both On Humanism by Richard Norman and a variety of writing by John Stuart Mill, mainly his Utilitarianism.

In his recent TED talk that I posted a couple of days ago, Sam Harris argued that values can be treated as facts, that science can help answer moral questions. While this may be true to a limited extent, I don’t think this should be taken too far. There are obviously some cases in which we should accept that there is one “moral” answer, but there are also cases in which there can be no right answer, cases where whatever choice is made is morally bad. I think the whole point of humanism and its take on morals is that it removes the right of the church to say that there are definitive answers to moral questions.

So, in the absence of a definitive answer, what is driving us when making moral decisions? I agree with Justin’s comment that utilitarianism seems like the only rational form of ethics.

Aristotle argued that the goal of human life is happiness (plus or minus translation issues), and that in order to know what it is that provides us with a happy life we have to look at what it is that makes us human. He gives this as our capacity for rational thought. To quote the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on Aristotle’s ethics:

If we use reason well, we live well as human beings; or, to be more precise, using reason well over the course of a full life is what happiness consists in.

John Stuart Mill takes this idea further. Agreeing that we need to look at what makes us human, he says:

Human beings have faculties more elevated than the animal appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification.

What are these faculties?

there is no known Epicurean theory of life which does not assign to the pleasures of the intellect, of the feelings and imagination, and of the moral sentiments, a much higher value as pleasures than to those of mere sensation

Happiness is to be found in the pleasure of intellectual, emotional and imaginative ends.

This, being, according to the utilitarian opinion, the end of human action, is necessarily also the standard of morality; which may accordingly be defined, the rules and precepts for human conduct, by the observance of which an existence such as has been described might be, to the greatest extent possible, secured to all mankind; and not to them only, but, so far as the nature of things admits, to the whole sentient creation.

This is principle of utilitarianism summed up rather nicely. But could we take this too far? Justin discussed Huxley’s Brave New World, and it’s easy to see how a strict utilitarian view would be seen to lead to this. I think there are a couple of additions that have to be made.

The first step is to realise that by acting as a moral being I should be acknowledging that the people around me, the people being affected by my decisions are also moral beings capable of moral judgement and decisions. We may not be acting on quite the same moral basis or with exactly the same end in mind, but it seems to me that we have a moral duty towards them.

Richard Norman puts this “duty” in terms of care and respect. By care he means the moral obligation to try to ensure that our actions promote others happiness rather than unhappiness, the standard utilitarian principle. However, we also have a duty for respect:

…recognising that they can and must also act on their own behalf, in the light of their own feelings and beliefs and aspirations.’Respect’ means respect for other people’s sense of themselves, for their dignity, for their autonomy, for the space which they need in order to create meaningful lives for themselves.

It is this concept of respect for others as moral agents that seems to me to complete the utilitarian morality. We should live our lives trying to increase both our happiness and that of the rest of humanity, but this doesn’t mean that we should ignore the rights others to make their own moral judgements, for better or for worse. Thus a drugged-up utopia of happiness isn’t the route to go down. As Mill reminds us, we should remember

not to expect more from life than it is capable of bestowing.

This acceptance that life will inevitably have it’s ups and downs (and that we won’t be able to avoid them, but should strive for more ups than downs) is what for me makes humanism a realistic philosophy to live life by.

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7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 2, 2010 10:56 AM

    Would you agree, then, that perhaps the presence of any moral idea that can be considered vaguely ‘universal’ can be easily explained by such utilitarianism in terms of humanity’s interaction with the biological realities that surround it? That is to say that the presence of universal ideas of morality such as an aversion to murder can be explained by the fact that, as human society developed, it was entirely necessary that such a discourse evolved. Without a discourse that marginalizes the indiscriminate murder of others within your society, such social bonds and connections as well as society itself would break down. Would you agree that it is these kinds of discourses, which developed thousands of thousands of years before religion became a part of society, that texts such as the Bible merely mirror in making statements such as “Thou shalt not kill”?

  2. April 2, 2010 2:38 PM

    Yes. I think that once the role of evolution in the development of the processes underlying morality is accounted for a very strong case is made exactly as you put it. Once humans started to form “societies” it isn’t hard to see how the altruistic and empathetic tendencies that had evolved in us led to the social bonding inherent in a moral system. That human morality is somewhat utilitarian seems to me to be the only rational view, and it is a by-product of the evolutionary traits that accompany our intellectual, emotional and imaginative growth.

    By making moral judgements that affect others I am implicitly assuming that these others have the moral authority to make similar judgements, and in such a system there are (I would think) going to be systems in place to deal with those who are acting way outside the system, or who are making decisions that society would regard as immoral. That religion took on this role isn’t hard to understand; it had the dominant grip on peoples lives and minds for a lot of history.

    The fact that cultures all over the world hold and codify vaguely similar moral systems (with some exceptions obviously) is proof to me that morality is a human issue, and not something for the gods.

  3. April 3, 2010 4:07 AM

    I literally could not agree more. Isn’t structuralism a wonderful thing?

    But yes, I think, as you say, “that human morality is somewhat utilitarian seems to me to be the only rational view”. What this leads to, in my opinion, is the more empowering implication that, rather than morality driven by threats of punishment from deities and divinities, humanity has developed a fluid sense of morality established by rational discourse, with several more universal underlying assumptions based on the realities of our existence. 🙂

  4. April 3, 2010 9:43 AM

    Do you mean that human morals were initially established based on rational discourse? If so, why do you think this?

    I see rational discourse in this context as being modern society’s way of trying to explain how we can be moral without religion. This is obviously vitally important, but it isn’t how morals were developed in the first place (sorry if this isn’t what you’re saying above!)

  5. August 17, 2010 4:08 PM

    Isn’t the idea of respecting the right of others to make their own moral judgements in fact completely incompatible with Utilitarianism? (i.e. the for worse bit)

  6. August 17, 2010 7:06 PM

    I don’t think so. For me part of a utilitarianism is included in the quote I gave from Richard Norman:

    ’Respect’ means respect for other people’s sense of themselves, for their dignity, for their autonomy, for the space which they need in order to create meaningful lives for themselves.

    It is part of my ethical obligation to try to make sure that my actions cause the most good. I include in this “good” the autonomy, moral or otherwise, that people need, and that I assume for myself whenever I make a moral judgement.

  7. August 18, 2010 2:14 PM

    To say that your moral code is one where your actions cause the most good seems to me to be saying very little, if anything, at all. I also can’t see how you can include “respect of the autonomy of individuals” in a consequential code of ethics. To include respect of other people’s morality leaves you with no definitive measure of the results; which is what I understand utilitarianism to be all about. Since we clearly are not all of an equal moral capacity how far does this respect go, at what point do you start to intervene in someone’s decisions?

    I can envisage that some degree of autonomy would arise in a strict utilitarian society in an Epiphenomenalism kind of way due to the nature of our self identity. I think I would find it a bit tricky being happy and not just totally stressed if there was a chance I could be legally expired at any moment if my future sum contribution to sentient life became more negative than positive.

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