Honing Humanism – What Use is Humanism?

In my previousHoning Humanism” post I discussed in broad terms two different ways in which the term “Humanism” can be understood: as an interconnected set of values constituting a lifestance, and as a tradition of thought and practice in which those values are of primary importance. Critical to understanding Humanism is recognizing that it is a term used to describe someone’s values and not, primarily, how those values are derived or grounded or how they might make a particular ethical decision. If you know someone is a Humanist you will know some of their fundamental commitments when it comes to the ethical and epistemic spheres – they think the welfare of people (or persons) in this life is primarily important, they are committed to making decisions based on the best available evidence etc. – but you won’t know precisely what approach they take to ethics or epistemology.

One challenge this has prompted is, essentially, “What’s the use in that?” This challenge seems to come in two flavors: first, the inconsequential “It doesn’t tell me what I’m  particularly interested in, which is your specific ethical and epistemological systems”; second, the substantive “Humanist values, absent any specific framework for grounding them, are so broad as to encompass almost everybody who isn’t a fundamentalist!”

I call the first of these flavors of challenge inconsequential because it  is not a criticism of the value of Humanism either as a tradition, a lifestance, or a label. It is merely an expression that the critic wants a different sort of information to that which knowing someone is a Humanist provides – and fundamentally it is their error if they believed the term is “supposed” to provide the information they are looking for. Claiming that Humanism is “too vague” because it doesn’t provide information of the desired level of specificity to the questioner, and then suggesting that therefore there is something wrong with the term (rather than the question), is rather like asking “What city do you live in?” when in fact you wanted to know “What street?”, and then complaining that the word “Boston” is deficient as a label because it doesn’t offer enough specificity. All I have to do to meet the challenge is to say something like “In addition to a Humanist I am a pragmatist and ethical naturalist, and that’s how I ground my values…” An upcoming post will do just that.

The second flavor of the “What’s the use of Humanism?” challenge is more substantive, because if it is true that the term “Humanism”, understood as an interlinked collection of values, does not meaningfully distinguish itself from other potential values (or other values which people actually hold), then perhaps it’s a term which needn’t continue to exist.

My immediate response to this challenge is simply to grant it, in the sense that if it becomes the case that the term “Humanism” is no longer useful in our discourse – perhaps because Humanist values generally reign in the hearts and minds of humankind – then certainly we can ditch the term. The value of the term does not inhere in the word, and I have no particular commitment to it. But does this situation pertain today? Is it really the case that the values described by the term “Humanism” and “Humanist” are so vague that they make no meaningful distinctions?

I think not.

So, what are those values again? As Wikipedia has it Humanist philosophies:

“emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefer individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism), over established doctrine or faith (fideism).”

Or, as Dan Linford of libere put it so concisely in the Facebook threads which sparked this series of posts:

Humanism is something like anti-fideistic liberal metaphysical naturalism, with a concern for personal autonomy, science, rationality, feminism, and human rights.

To Dan’s list I’d add anti-racism, equality for sexual minorities, and a few other concerns, but I think the point is made (hardcore philosophers are going to want to quibble about perhaps-non-naturalistic proto-Humanists like Felix Adler and perhaps-fideistic proto-Humanists like William James, but for the moment let’s go with it. All definitions of this sort break down at the edges).

Put like this, I think it’s clear that “Humanism” delineates a set of values which a very significant portion of the world’s population does not share. Concern for the personal autonomy, equality, and welfare of all individuals is conspicuously absent in the value-systems which guide the lives of many, many people and is absent too from the value-systems which guide many governments. It’s clear that metaphysical naturalism is not a commitment which has much sway globally: the vast majority of even the USA shows extraordinary credulity toward the supernatural – not just God, but ghosts, spirits, psychics etc. Also in the US the struggle between doctrine and welfare is vividly dramatized in the heated and ferocious debates over gay marriage. Note that no one on the anti-equality side is seriously arguing that gay people would be better off, in this life, if they didn’t have marriage rights. The opposition is instead based almost entirely on doctrinal (though not necessarily fundamentalist) interpretations of religious texts reformulated into “secular” arguments for public consumption. The fact is that the equal dignity and welfare of gay people in this life are not the guiding values of those campaigning against gay marriage: another value – respect for elements of religious and cultural tradition – has trumped that one. This makes their opposition deeply anti-Humanist, an affront to Humanists’ core values – and lots of Americans take this view.

Humanism also denotes a set of values which are not shared by all political liberals. Many liberals are not committed to the primacy of rational inquiry in all areas of life. They are often significantly conflict-averse when it comes to questions of truth. I would make this claim stronger and say that many American liberals are strongly committed to demonstrably false beliefs: beliefs about GM food, nuclear power, vaccinations, alternative medicine etc. which have detrimental real-world consequences but which “liberalism” as a loose political affiliation does not offer the means to combat effectively. I would go even further and say that it is in fact possible to be a Humanist and not a political liberal (in the American sense). There are formulations of socialism, anarchism, libertarianism, and even conservatism which are consonant with the fundamental values which define Humanism. I’ll explore this point in a detailed post on this topic, but suffice for now to say, because of the points raised above, I believe that knowing someone is a political liberal and a Humanist gives you valuable additional information over simply knowing that they are a liberal.

One way to look at this, which occurs to me as I write, is that on the American stage at least Humanists are differentiated from many conservatives due to their ethical values and differentiated to many liberals due to their epistemic values. This neatly demonstrates that importance of having a terms which encompasses both – particularly in the case of Humanism, where the ethical and epistemic values support each other so exquisitely.

Enough for now – more on that and other topics next time.

About James Croft

James Croft is the Leader in Training at the Ethical Culture Society of St. Louis - one of the largest Humanist congregations in the world. He is a graduate of the Universities of Cambridge and Harvard, and is currently writing his Doctoral dissertation as a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 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.


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