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The Ethics of Humanism Without Religion
by Paul Kurtz
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 23, Number 1.
The question is constantly asked: What is the ethics of humanism? Can a society or person be moral without religion?
Yes, indeed, affirm secular humanists. Morality is deeply rooted in the “common moral decencies” (these relate to moral behavior in society) and the “ethical excellences” (as they apply to a person’s own life).
The Common Moral Decencies
The common moral decencies are widely shared. They are essential to the survival of any human community. Meaningful coexistence cannot occur if they are consistently flouted. Handed down through countless generations, they are recognized throughout the world by friends and relatives, colleagues and coworkers, the native-born and immigrant, as basic rules of social intercourse. They are the foundation of moral education and are taught in the family and the schools. They express the elementary virtues of courtesy, politeness, and empathy so essential for living together; indeed, they are the very basis of civilized life itself. The common moral decencies are transcultural in their range and have their roots in generic human needs. They no doubt grow out of the long evolutionary struggle for survival and may even have some sociobiological basis, though they may be lacking in some individuals or societies since their emergence depends upon certain preconditions of moral and social development. Here is a list of some of the decencies:
First are the moral decencies that involve personal integrity, that is, telling the truth, not lying or being deceitful; being sincere, candid, frank, and free of hypocrisy; keeping one’s promises, honoring pledges, living up to agreements; and being honest, avoiding fraud or skullduggery.
Second is trustworthiness. We manifest loyalty to our relatives, friends, and coworkers, and we should be dependable, someone they can count on, reliable, and responsible.
Third are the decencies of benevolence, which involve manifesting goodwill and noble intentions toward other human beings and having a positive concern for them. It means the lack of malice (nonmalfeasance), avoiding doing harm to other persons or their property: We should not kill or rob; inflict physical violence or injury; or be cruel, abusive, or vengeful. In the sexual domain it means that we should not force our sexual passions on others and should seek mutual consent between adults. It means that we have an obligation to be beneficent; that is, kind, sympathetic, compassionate. We should lend a helping hand to those in distress and try to decrease their pain and suffering and contribute positively to their welfare.
Fourth is the principle of fairness. We should show gratitude and appreciation for those who are deserving of it. A civilized community will hold people accountable for their deeds, insisting that those who wrong others do not go completely unpunished and perhaps must make reparations to the aggrieved. This also involves the principle of justice and equality in society. Tolerance is also a basic moral decency: We should allow other individuals the right to their beliefs, values, and styles of life, even though they may differ from our own. We may not agree with them, but each individual is entitled to his convictions as long as he does not harm others or prevent them from exercising their rights. We should try to cooperate with others, seeking to negotiate differences peacefully without resorting to hatred or violence.
These common moral decencies express general principles and rules. Though individuals or nations may deviate from practicing them, they nonetheless provide general parameters by which to guide our conduct. They are not absolute and may at times conflict; we may have to establish priorities between them. They need not be divinely ordained to have moral force, for they are tested in the last analysis by their consequences in practice. Morally developed human beings accept these principles and attempt to live by them because they understand that some personal moral sacrifices may be necessary to avoid conflict in living and working together. Practical moral wisdom thus recognizes the obligatory nature of responsible conduct.
The Ethical Excellences
The common moral decencies refer to how we relate to others. But there are a number of important humanistic values that we should strive to realize in our personal lives, and that we need to impart to the young. They are the ethical excellences. There are standards of ethical development, exquisite qualities of high merit and achievement. In some individuals nobility shines through; there are certain excellences that morally developed persons exemplify. These personality traits of character provide some balance in life. What are they?
First is the excellence of autonomy, or what Ralph Waldo Emerson called self-reliance. This means a person’s ability to take control of his or her own life, to accept responsibility for one’s own feelings, one’s marriage or career, how he or she lives and learns, the values and goods one cherishes. Such a person is self-directed and self-governed. A person’s autonomy is an affirmation of one’s freedom.
Some people find freedom a burden and so they are willing to forfeit their right to self-determination to others, to parents, spouses, or even totalitarian despots or authoritarian gurus. A free person recognizes that he or she has only one life to live and that how one will live it is ultimately a person’s own choice. This does not deny that we live with others and share values and ideals, but basic to the ethics of democracy is an appreciation for the autonomy of individual choice.
Second, intelligence and reason are high on the scale of values. To achieve the good life we need to develop our cognitive skills; not merely technical expertise or skilled virtuosity, but good judgment about how to make wise choices. Unfortunately, many critics demean human intelligence and believe that we cannot solve our problems. They are willing to abdicate their rational autonomy to others. Reason may not succeed in solving all problems—sometimes we must choose the lesser of many evils—but it is the most reliable method we have for making moral choices.
Third is the need for self-discipline over a person’s passions and desires. We must satisfy our desires, emotions, and needs in moderation, under the guidance of rational choice, recognizing the harmful consequences that imprudent choices can have upon ourselves and others.
Fourth, some self-respect is vital to psychological balance. Self-hatred can destroy the personality. We need to develop some appreciation for who we are as individuals and a realistic sense of our own identities, for a lack of self-esteem can make one feel truly worthless, which is neither healthy for the individual nor helpful to society at large.
Fifth, and high on the scale of values, is creativity. This is closely related to autonomy and self-respect, for the independent person has some confidence in one’s own powers and is willing to express his or her unique talents. The uncreative person is usually a conformist, unwilling to break new ground, timid and fearful of new departures. A creative person is willing to be innovative and has a zest for life that involves adventure and discovery.
Sixth, we need to develop high motivation, a willingness to enter into life and undertake new plans and projects. A motivated person finds life interesting and exciting. One problem for many people is that they find life and their jobs boring. Unfortunately, they are merely masking their lack of intensity of commitment to high aspirations and values.
Seventh, we should adopt a positive and affirmative attitude toward life. We need some measure of optimism that what we do will matter. Although we may suffer failures and defeats, we must believe that we shall overcome and succeed despite adversity.
Eighth, an affirmative person is capable of some joie de vivre, or joyful living, an appreciation for the full range of human pleasures—from the so-called bodily pleasures such as food and sex to the most ennobling and creative of aesthetic, intellectual, and moral pleasures.
Ninth, if we wish to live well then we should be rationally concerned about our health as a precondition of everything else. To maintain good health we should avoid smoking and drugs, drink only in moderation, seek to reduce stress in our lives, and strive to get proper nutrition, adequate exercise, and sufficient rest, and to achieve sexual fulfillment and love.
All these excellences clearly point to a summum bonum. The intrinsic value we seek to achieve is eudaemonia: happiness or well-being. A better word to describe such a state of living is exuberance or excelsior; it is an active, not a passive, process of perfecting our talents, needs, and wants. The end or goal of life is to live fully and creatively, sharing with others the many opportunities for joyful experience and moral conduct. The meaning of life is not to be discovered only after death in some hidden, mysterious realm. On the contrary, it can be found by eating the succulent fruit of the Tree of Life and by living in the here and now as fully and creatively as we can.