Honing Humanism – Is Humanism “a Philosophy”?

Over the past two days I’ve been embroiled in a running debate with fellow Patheos blogger Leah Libresco, NonProphet Status blogger Vlad Chituc, and Vlad’s evil twin Alex. I’m also greatful to Dan Linford of Libere and Michael DeDora, who participated in these discussions and offered insights of great value. They have been plying me with questions about Humanism which have compelled me to consider and codify elements of my view which I haven’t posted before, which is a useful process: through it my views are honed and theirs, I hope, are challenged too. This series of posts records my responses to their questions, cleaned up in blog form, because I thought they might be useful to those interested in learning more about the Humanist tradition and lifestance. They are organized by question.

What On Earth is Humanism, Really?

Both Vlad and Leah said they found definitions of Humanism to be “diffuse and bland” (Leah’s term), lacking in specificity. They seemed primarily concerned that telling someone you’re a Humanist, while it conveys a commitment to a set of broad values, reveals little about the specifics of how you come to or ground those values, or how you might engage in moral decision-making. Vlad, for his part, compares Humanism unfavorably in this regard to preference Utilitarianism:

If I have a conversation with someone who subscribes to some kind of preference Utilitarianism inspired by Peter Singer, then I have a decent and somewhat accurate picture of a good number of her philosophical commitments: there are true moral claims, she tries to maximize the good with her actions, what’s good is the satisfaction of preferences, there is some kind of focus on animal welfare because preferences are not unique to humans, we ought to give more money to aid the global poor, so on and so on.

What have I learned, though, if someone tells me that she values Reason and Compassion? Nothing much at all: to me, reason is a cognitive faculty and compassion is a moral emotion. What special ways are those words being used? What philosophical commitments do they entail? I can’t tell if she’s an egalitarian or favoritist—the latter position being somewhat persuasively argued in a recent Stone blog post at The New York Times. To what extent does she care about animal welfare? Does she thinks actions are good based on the type of action they are (deontology) or the their outcomes (consequentialism)? I don’t even know if she’s a moral realist, relativist, or nihilist.

As it currently stands, the label “Humanist” provides almost no specific philosophical information, and I’m not sure Humanism ever can.

What’s wrong here? How might we defend Humanism from this charge? Essentially what’s wrong is that Vlad in particular (and Leah to some degree I suspect) are making a category error. They seem to think “Humanism” denotes a single, coherent moral system (particularly a metaethical system), some sort of equivalent to “virtue ethics” or “utilitarianism”.

But this is not the sort of word Humanism is. Capital-H Humanism, in my understanding, can mean two things, neither of which are a single, coherent metaethical philosophy. The first sense is as a lifestance, a set of values, an orientation to the world. In this sense it is similar to “Christianity” when that term is used to describe some person’s view of the world: people talk of “my Christianity” and “their Christianity”. This is also the sense in which people say “I am a Humanist” (“I am a Christian”).

The second sense is as a tradition of thought and practice which is connected by a set of guiding questions, principles, or values. In this second sense it is sort of equivalent to “Christianity” when that term is used to refer to a tradition of Christian thought.

In neither case does the term “Humanism” – nor the term “Christianity” – give you a strong sense of one’s “moral philosophy” when that term is used in a technical way. Just as you can be a Utilitarian Christian and an Idealist Christian, you can be a Utilitarian Humanist and an Idealist Humanist (there have been prominent historical examples of both). Therefore the comment that Humanism is “vague” in comparison to discrete philosophical positions is true but not really apposite.

Wikipedia is actually quite useful on this point (!):

“Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism), over established doctrine or faith (fideism).”

Notice the elements of this description: “Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives” (which is why I say it is not a single coherent philosophy); these philosophies are drawn together by guiding values or broad principles, in that they “emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism), over established doctrine or faith (fideism).”

A critic might well say these values are “vague”, but they are certainly not so vague that almost anyone qualifies as a Humanist. The majority of other ethical and philosophical traditions (including the major religious traditions of the world) do not (traditionally) place such value on individual human beings; they do not generally prefer individual thought and evidence over established doctrine or faith. They have strikingly different guiding principles and overarching values. And so Humanism can be seen as a distinct lifestance and philosophical tradition to competing offerings.

Again, the comparison with “Christianity” (or even some denomination of Christianity like Catholicism) is instructive: what do you really learn about someone’s metaethics from learning they’re a Catholic? What do you learn about whether someone’s a preference Utilitarian or a virtue ethicist from finding out they are a Jew? But, equally, who would advocate ditching those terms as identifiers of one’s general outlook on a range of issues, as umbrella terms for sets of values, and as declarations of allegiance to cultural and intellectual traditions? I don’t hear Vlad doing so, nor Leah, so their criticism seems to me to fall short, directed as it is at the wrong target.

Vlad thinks this analogy doesn’t work well:

I still learn a lot about someone’s moral commitments if I find out they’re a Christian, because Christianity has both metaphysical and ethical commitments. The ethical commitments only get more specific as you learn what type of Christian you’re talking to, and I don’t think there’s something analogous for Humanism.

Vlad, as much as I adore him, has a tendency to make statements so ridiculous they make my eyes bulge from their sockets, and this is one of them. If I learn someone is a Christian I learn jack shit about their moral commitments. Just think about it: they could be a hardcore pro-slavery racist like a 19th Century Southern Baptist or they could be Martin Luther King. They could be a “God is Dead” Christian Humanist or William Lane Craig. Drilling deeper, if we were to know the individual is Catholic, the situation is hardly improved: we could be speaking to John Unni of St. Cecelia’s Boston (who wished to welcome gay people to his church in a special mass) or to Cardinal O’Malley (who cancelled it), to liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez or to the Pope (who formally condemned aspects of his theology). If anything, in my view, knowing someone is a Humanist in 21st Century America tells you rather more about their moral commitments that knowing they are a Christian or even a Catholic.

So, that’s it: Humanism is a lifestance and the tradition which feeds into that lifestance. It is characterized by the prioritization of a certain set of broad values – values which can be grounded or reached in a number of ways, but which are not so vague as to encompass nearly everybody. It’s a useful descriptive term for people who share a broad set of moral and epistemic commitments, because it distinguishes such people from an awful lot of others and plugs them into a tradition which can serve to help them further explore their beliefs an values.

About James Croft

James Croft is a Humanist activist and public speaker who has swiftly become one of the best-known new faces in Humanism today. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently studying for his Doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. As a leader in training in the Ethical Culture movement – a national movement of Humanist congregations – he is an in-demand public speaker, an engaging teacher, and a passionate activist for human rights. James was raised on Shakespeare, Sagan and Star Trek, and is a proud, gay Humanist. His upcoming book "The Godless Congregation", co-authored with New York Times bestselling author Greg Epstein, is being published by Simon & Schuster.

  • Ryan

    *clap, clap, clap*
    Well said. Thank you. I’ve been saying much of this for some time in one way or another, but it’s always nice to see some of the core concepts you’ve been trying to get across to others distilled down so effectively.

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  • ZenDruid

    Perhaps a touch of allegory would solidify the critics’ conceptualizations:

    The humanist Deity is genderless. It has evolved, along with the skills acquired by the genus Homo, over the past ~1.8M years. It represents the works, hopes, dreams, ideals – and flaws – that are actualized through a modern population of seven billion. That implies a seriously broad range of behaviors, of course.

    My first basic article of faith is that every human was born with pretty much the same instincts, as far as survival is concerned. Everything else could be regarded as cultural. The development of a personality is contingent upon too many factors to list in a blog comment, but my point here is that we were born with the same ‘wetware’, and it follows that we came bundled with the same pre-verbal, pre-cultural ‘operating system’. [ OK, no more computer analogies.]

    My second and final article of faith is that the humanist Deity has enough foresight, wisdom, and moxie to have written Its word directly into the individual human consciousness. No Iron Age campfire stories are needed; no glib but insubstantial answers to the meaningful questions of life; and certainly no actors/storytellers who see fit to inculcate children with various reconstructions of primordial fear, imposed shame, and mandatory guilt.