Robert Griffiths argues that humanist ethics has significant limitations.
There are many people who do not believe in gods in any sense. Some are fervent atheists, but there are also very uninterested atheists too, non-believers who just aren’t that bothered about religion. Such people are just as uninterested in campaigns of the kind conducted by the New Atheists or the New Humanists as they are in discussions promoting the existence of God, or of gods. They just do not want to talk about God at all. They have moved beyond that discourse, perhaps to the most atheistic place there is – the place where the gods are simply forgotten. Such people are sometimes now called ‘apatheists’, and there is evidence that their number is growing, particularly among the young. Apatheists have no interest in philosophical discussions about the existence of God, in the same way that they have no interest in arguments about whether the young Arthur drew the sword from the stone. They have accepted the New Atheist arguments and moved on, or have moved on for reasons of their own. By contrast, the humanists (who are also increasing in number) have not moved on.
Public declarations of humanism always seem to begin with a conscious, even a self-conscious, rejection of religion. For instance, the Amsterdam Declaration ratified by the World Humanist Congress in 1952 declares that humanism is ‘rational’ – by which it largely means that it rejects the possibility of divine intervention. Humanists UK (formerly The British Humanist Association) sees itself primarily as ‘bringing non-religious people together’. Contemporary humanist authors such as Richard Norman, Stephen Pinker, Stephen Law, or A.C Grayling spend a lot of time going over philosophical arguments against belief in God. Humanism therefore self defines as an anti-religious movement – so it has not yet forgotten the gods. In a sense humanists still needs gods, so they can argue against them.
The trouble with all this supposedly ‘New’ argument is that it is out of date by about two hundred years. While the New Atheists caused a clamour around the beginning of this century, they were largely repeating arguments that had been put forward by Baron d’Holbach, or more famously by David Hume, back in the eighteenth century. The New Atheists perhaps thought they were persuading us that (relatively) new scientific perspectives, such as evolutionary theory and Big Bang cosmology, were distinctively undermining religious belief, with their accounts of the origin of man and the cosmos. Yet based on the science and philosophy known even in 1770, d’Holbach had already concluded in his substantial Système de la nature ou des loix du monde physique & du monde moral of 1770 that there was no God. He would have needed no more convincing. For d’Holbach, the argument against God and the gods was already over. And for those seeking diversion, Hume’s arguments against religion are far wittier than those of Anthony Grayling; and those of d’Holbach’s contemporary, the Marquis de Sade, are more acerbic and wicked even than those of Christopher Hitchens.
In any case, the recent assault on religion on the back of new science has simply permitted sophisticated philosophers of religion to develop ever more sophisticated responses to these old attacks, needlessly perpetuating the cycle of debate as far as the apatheist is concerned. Alistair McGrath mirrored Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) with his own The Dawkins Delusion? (2007). Richard Swinburne argued that evolutionary theory was entirely consistent with Christianity (see for instance Is There A God?, 2010), adding that why there is a world at all could not be explained by science and was better explained by theology. In this way, the modern atheism debate merely becomes a version of the debate that took place between eighteenth century atheists and eighteenth century religious apologists such as Joseph Priestley. Clearly, one can carry on this argument if one wishes; but apatheists see little end to this kind of thing, and so have decided to leave it all behind, to forget both God and those whose main concern seems to be arguing there is no God. This includes the humanists.
people on scales
Humanists & Ethics
Yet humanists are not merely atheists. They are people who, having disposed of God, wish to explain what atheists should do with their lives. In this sense they are at least a little didactic. They aren’t like those who, having forgotten the gods, simply go off and live their lives, such as Meursault in Albert Camus’ novel, L’Etranger (1942).
Mersault is a good example of an apatheist. He is not interested in God, or in arguments purporting to show that He does not exist. However, Mersault is a fearful character if one is a humanist, for he regards existence as absurd, and acts on the basis of this belief.
Humanism is certainly opposed to the view that existence is absurd. Having disposed of religion to its satisfaction, humanism’s next task is to persuade us that we can still live what it often calls ‘meaningful’ lives.
Humanism definitely wants us to take life seriously. It wants us to care – in particular, to care about other humans. In order to get us to do this, it proposes an ethics. The Amsterdam Declaration declares that humanism is ‘ethical’. Part of what it is to be a humanist is that, having rejected the gods, you are still guided by a moral code. But moral codes are tricky things. One of the main difficulties that many people have with religion is exactly the idea of being given, and being judged in terms of, a moral code. Humanists point out, however, that the moral codes of religions are ‘external’ sanctions on humans, and that what is needed is a moral code that somehow comes from humans. The Amsterdam Declaration, for example, says that “morality is an intrinsic part of human nature”. Quite what this means is unclear. It is presumably not the rather implausible claim that morality is an innate aspect of human nature – something that everybody’s born with. Despite evidence from such research centres as the Yale Baby Lab, which showed preferences among babies in puppet show experiments for what are labelled as ‘good’ puppets, it is fairly clear that moral codes are mostly learned. Because they’re mostly learned, it is also clear that morality largely develops in line with social forces, channelled through family, friends, schools, systems of law and order, and the media. Rather than demonstrating that there is some essential human morality, this leads to widely divergent moral systems throughout the world. However, humanists will tend to argue that there is nevertheless some core to morality that is essentially human.
Unfortunately, humanists disagree profoundly about the type of ethical views they wish to promote as core. At times they seem to take what are in ethics jargon called deontological views. These are based around the idea that certain things are right or wrong in themselves, and it is our duty to respond to this. For instance, the Amsterdam Declaration affirms the ‘worth, dignity and autonomy’ of the individual, implicitly pressing a broadly Kantian ethical view, in which human beings are inherently valuable. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) said that as rational moral agents, people may not be used merely as means to ends, and were instead ‘ends in themselves’. This is in conflict with a consequentialist view of morality, such as utilitarianism, in which the moral goal is the maximisation of happiness or well-being. Here human beings are not ‘ends in themselves’. On a utilitarian view, for instance, there are times when we would be required to sacrifice an innocent human being in order to promote greater well-being. A utilitarian could accept the killing of a terrorist’s child as a means to the killing of a terrorist, if this led to significantly greater good. They would not be happy about it; but they could accept it.
In Enlightenment Now (2019), Steven Pinker is happy for a utilitarian ethics to sit at the centre of his humanism, seeing it as the ethics that maximises what he calls ‘human flourishing’. On the other hand, in On Humanism (2012), Richard Norman seems uncomfortable with both deontological and utilitarian ethics, and leans more towards a virtue ethics. Virtue ethics emphasises the role of character development for nurturing moral virtues such as kindness and patience. It also rejects the deontological view that actions can be wrong in themselves. The virtuous person has a more nuanced sense of what is right and wrong as applied in particular circumstances. Virtue ethics also rejects utilitarianism for its view that morality is only about one thing, maximising human happiness or well-being. One can therefore only conclude that there is no essentially humanist position on ethics. So then Pinker is quite wrong to say that humanism is ‘a distinctive moral commitment’ (p.412). One’s ethical choices will rather reflect one’s adoption of a particular moral philosophy. In itself, one’s position as a humanist will have little bearing on this.
To avoid problems like this, humanists often claim that humanist ethics is a fairly liberal and minimal system that allows for a variety of different positions and philosophies. Norman, for instance, does not think that humanism is a creed, let alone a moral creed, arguing there are many humanisms, not one. Following his preferred virtue theory, in which we try to become the most virtuous person we can, he argues (as Aristotle had once argued) that we can become virtuous by modelling our lives on virtuous exemplars. Norman himself proposes as an exemplar Primo Levi, the scientist and writer whose experiences of surviving the Holocaust are described in his powerful novel/memoir If This Is A Man (1947).
There is nothing wrong with taking an approach of this kind, of course, and perhaps it is the best one can do. However, it doesn’t amount to a humanist ethical code.
It is presumably not a requirement of humanism that one model one’s life on that of Primo Levi. Rather, the requirement is that one’s moral example does not believe in God, and is basically rational and good. Unless you believe in God, or are not rational, or good, you cannot really object to such advice; but it rather deflates any unifying pretensions of humanism. Following this advice, one might just as well model one’s life on Uncle Frank if he does not believe in God and he’s rational and good; but there would be little point calling this Uncle Frankism and pretending that it has universal appeal to humanists.
In The God Argument (2014), Grayling also seems fairly relaxed about the ethical guidance offered by humanism. Reluctant to be caught in the trap of promoting overly specific moral rules, Grayling characterises humanist ethics rather blandly, in terms of being able to choose one’s ‘values and goals’ while living ‘considerately towards others’. ‘Kindness, generosity, goodness and justice’ are suggested as virtues; but within this rather loose framework there is still apparently freedom to debate broad ethical positions and philosophies. What is most important is to keep religion out of ethical debate.
Humanists & Non-Humans
One obvious problem for humanism as an ethical position, no matter how generally defined, is its overriding focus on human beings. Nowadays, as we drift confusedly into a century in which it is widely acknowledged that human activity is threatening possibly the biosphere itself, this might be seen as a terribly out-of-date position.
Traditional humanism, of the kind offered by Renaissance thinkers such as Pico della Mirandola in his famous Oration on the Dignity of Man (1486), could without much embarrassment talk eloquently of ‘the wonder of man’. But that was an age in which a moral gulf between the human and the non-human was taken for granted. We moderns, though, who have absorbed the naturalism indicated by evolutionary theory, have come to recognise that the moral gap between humans and non-humans isn’t a very distinct one. Increasingly we recognise the great harm done by humans to other sentient beings. Since the publication of such seminal works as Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (himself a humanist), we increasingly realise that we need to change to the way we think of and treat such creatures. It is unclear that humanist ethics’ focus on humans is helpful here.
Humanists are, of course, not oblivious to the difficulty of developing an ethical position that accommodates sentient non-humans. The Amsterdam Declaration recognises “our dependence on and responsibility for the natural world”, implying a concern for both sentient non-humans and non-sentient natural things. Humanist humans are therefore exhorted to develop an outlook which leads to appropriate moral behaviour towards non-humanity. But humanism is severely hampered in this by being obliged to begin from a moral position in which human beings and their interests are the primary determining factors of morally acceptable action. To this extent, the precise ethical philosophy taken up by a humanist can have important consequences for the coherence of humanism. It rules out the relaxed liberal attitude to moral outlooks adopted by Norman and Grayling, for instance. And humanists of a deontological bent presumably take the view that humans are the primary bearers of moral value. This position gives sentient non-humans a moral status, but one determined entirely by human interests. Kant, for instance, thought that the main reason for not being cruel to animals was that doing so would make you cruel to other humans. The humanist ethical umbrella is surely not wide enough to cover a position like that of Tom Regan in The Case for Animal Rights (2004), which holds that sentient non-humans have inherent value and associated rights independently of how this might affect the interests of humans. If it can be shown that sentient non-humans do have inherent value, then humanism as a human-focused ethical position becomes largely redundant. It would be necessary to expand it into something we might call ‘sentientism’, according to which all sentient beings have inherent moral value. The impact of this ethics on ‘human flourishing’ would be considerable.
It is striking how little attention many humanists give to this important issue. For instance, in a brief discussion of the moral status of sentient non-humans, Norman talks of obligations to other animals, enabling them to live ‘lives free of pain’ and to avoid ‘inflicting unnecessary suffering’. We should oppose cruel farming practices and unnecessary laboratory experimentation. Few can argue with that. But the important question now is why should we do these things? What precisely is the nature of our obligations to other animals? Norman gives much less time to this crucial question than he gives to discussions of such things as the Cosmological Argument for the existence of God; and it is notable that Pinker actually completely avoids any mention of the moral status of sentient non-humans, merely stating that “ humanism doesn’t exclude the flourishing of animals” (p.410). However, until we are clearer about the precise moral status of sentient non-humans, we cannot know whether any given humanist ethics is excluding the flourishing of animals. Presumably any outlook which denies inherent moral value (and so rights) to animals is ultimately bound to hinder the flourishing of animals.
What is fairly clear is that when it comes to practicalities, some humanists are not much interested in the moral status of sentient non-humans (let alone the moral status of the wider natural world). Norman, for example, is the author of a document entitled ‘Being Good’, available on the website of the British Humanist Association. This document is mostly concerned with how it is possible for a human being to lead a meaningful life once they have abandoned religious belief. It is essentially a sort of therapeutic guide for disabused or disappointed theists (as are most humanist texts). Reflecting contemporary humanism as a whole, it is anthropocentric in a quite bizarre way, as if decades of discussion of the possibility that both sentient non-humans and non-sentient natural things might have moral value has never occurred. There is a curiously unbalanced concern with the apparent effects that offloading a belief in God will have on an individual human, and a need to show that one could nevertheless have a meaningful life. There is no mention at all of how being good touches on animal rights, and barely any discussion of the environment.
To this extent, humanism, which issues from, and spends a great deal of its time going over, a theist-non-theist debate that’s largely eighteenth century in character, is out of touch with the moral concerns of younger generations today. Many of the latter are entirely uninterested in spending time refuting belief in God. As apatheists, they have moved on; their concerns are now for the planet and for all sentient beings. Humanist ethics cannot really talk to these people, and it does not really try. Even as their numbers grow, one imagines that in time humanism must fall away along with the religious beliefs it is obsessed with repudiating, but with which it is too concerned to be sufficiently alert to contemporary issues of real moral importance.
© Robert Griffiths 2020
Robert Griffiths teaches philosophy at Godalming College, Surrey.