Sunday, October 9, 2011

"What is Humanism?" Secular Ethics as Minimal Requirement

(This is part 1 in my series exploring “humanism.” Please read my intentions and precautions if you have not already.)

Humanism is already defined quite well by the third Humanist Manifesto. The manifesto affirms reason, compassion, experience, science, arts, nature, dignity, society, service, relationships, peace, justice, opportunity, individuality, happiness, diversity, equality, rights, liberty, and responsibility, all in the context of a naturalistic world. At first glance, all of these values are fundamental values of the human.

One line that particularly appeals to me is “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” I like to paraphrase this meta-ethical statement as “Human good is determined by humans based on the human experience.” To me, this is the heart of humanism, from which all of its other values flow. I believe humanism is the result of individual and collective self-reckoning, without the intrusion of absolutist claims based on the supernatural.

A general sentiment in the manifesto that appeals to me is “It’s up to us.” I’m drawing most specifically on the “ours and ours alone” phrasing which ends the document, but “It’s up to us” looms over the entire manifesto. The advance of knowledge, the development of humane values, the improvement of society and human welfare—humanism is the affirmation of our sole responsibility to these things. Nothing else in the world will take care of them for us. “Taking care” is solely the work of humanity.

If you do not share this “It’s up to us,” sentiment with me, then I don’t think I can count you among the humanists. Yes, human knowledge, values, and action are all fallible things, but they are all we have.

**I will end my post here, but I should anticipate negative reactions to the ‘in or out’ mentality in my last paragraph. In writing this series on humanism, I am indeed hoping to create some definitions that qualify or disqualify individuals and institutions as humanist. While I will also seek to lay out some broad principles that allow for diversity within humanism, I think the integrity of the term ‘humanism’ is strengthened by locating and affirming its limits.


  1. The beliefs and values expressed in the third Humanist Manifesto seem very similar to many of the beliefs and values expressed by various religious traditions, a major exception being the third Humanist Manifesto's specific exclusion of supernatural influence. Even "it's up to us" has some resonances in religious traditions, although most religious traditions might say it's not ONLY up to us. As you define humanism, I would be interested to hear your thoughts about how the exclusion of the possibility of supernatural influence does or does not affect the living out of the values that Humanism shares with religious traditions.

  2. Hi Anonymous! Thanks for your response, and very glad that you are anticipating my upcoming articles on the possibility of "religious humanism." However, even in my account of religious humanism, I will be holding firm to the notion that a humanist believes it is ONLY up to us to determine and act out our values. A supernatural influence, to me, largely corrupts my concept of humanism. If one's God happens to have the same values as us humans, all well and good-- it's just essential to recognize that we hold our values for natural, human reasons. Looking forward to hearing more from you as this series progresses. Thanks

  3. Thanks for your response! It's that last statement--that it's essential for humanists to recognize that we hold values for natural, human reasons--that I'm particularly looking forward to reading more about. Why essential? Is it essential in that it shapes the values themselves, or in a truth-claim sense, or in some other respect? Looking forward to the next posts.

  4. "humanism is the affirmation of our sole responsibility to these things. Nothing else in the world will take care of them for us. 'Taking care' is solely the work of humanity."