Humanism as community, not philosophy.

Humanism as community, not philosophy. January 8, 2013

Leah Libresco, a former atheist and classmate of mine who currently blogs for the Catholic channel at Patheos, wrote yesterday what I think is a poignant critique of Humanism as the foundation of moral communities. She also makes some fair criticisms of Susan Jacoby’s recent essay at The New York Times about the consolation provided by atheism, so that if nothing else makes it an interesting read.

Leah argues that atheist groups are often like organizations built around hobbies—they can incubate some affection that comes from familiarity and a shared interest, but fail to foster deeply established connections. She quotes C.S. Lewis about friendship as a meeting of the minds, where we discover in another person insights, values, and interests not commonly shared by other people. It’s the expression, as Lewis puts it, of “What? You too? I thought I was the only one.”

I worry, along with Leah, that Humanism can’t foster something more substantive than the initial shared interests that I think give rise to some of the idiosyncrasies of the atheist movement: slight nerdiness, appreciation for Star Trek and Darwin jokes, excessive use of internet memes, and so on. But there’s a tension, I think, in Humanism—between moral community and moral philosophy. I think Humanism functions as a great moral community with a lot of potential for this more substantive type of relationship (and I say this only with minor reservations), but I’m not convinced that we can get there while holding on to Humanism as a moral philosophy.

The Humanist community is built on somewhat unsophisticated moral commitments: true beliefs are great, caring about people is important, let’s go feed some hungry kids. Who could possibly object to that? Insofar as Humanism tries to be more specific and substantive as a moral philosophy and shared source of values, though, it leaves a lot wanting. I worry that this community aspect will suffer as the failures and vagueries of Humanism’s philosophy become clearer.

Leah wrote in her post:

But groups founded around atheism or humanism are likely to be a diverse mix of moral philosophies. The definitions of humanism are always diffuse and bland enough to make room for everyone from Objectivists to Emma Goldman. It’s great to be pro-human, but at some point you’re going to have to specify what manner of things humans are and how we know what is good for us. Since many atheists groups are focused in activism, they’re more likely to touch on shared values than, say, Ravelry, but, since most of the most pressing fights for atheists are defensive, there still may not actually be much common ground beyond please, stop screwing with science class!

So, if groups focused on atheism are going to be sources of deep comfort for people in crisis, they probably need to factionalize a bit more. If you want someone to help you make sense of the world, you need some level of confidence you both share some axioms in your epistemology and ethics. And that’s a different and harder task than baking a casserole.

I think this is largely right. I’ve tried to pin down specific moral principles of Humanism from various people, and all I ever seem to get is some vague gesturing towards Reason or Compassion, or some philosophical terms like Naturalism and Consequentialism. But that gives me nothing specific.

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. How can that serve as a foundation for the shared moral axioms that Leah describes? You and I can both value true beliefs and compassion, but if you’re a consequentialist and I’m a deontologist, what common ground can we have for moral decision-making?

James Croft, at the Patheos atheist channel, didn’t seem particularly impressed by Leah’s point. We spent a few hours on Facebook hashing it out, and I think we reached that cherished level of friendship Leah discusses, when we both left with a mutual sense of having completely wasted an afternoon. Levity aside, James responds to Leah’s post by accusing her of lazy scholarship. He writes:

[R]esponsible scholarship demands a more curious and engaged stance than Libresco’s post displays. There are, easily available, full, complex, and rigorous explorations of the Humanist worldview which, as a commentator on the topic, I believe it is reasonable to expect she should at least know about, if not know well. Humanism is not just a bumper sticker or a dictionary entry: it is a coherent and evolving tradition of thought and practice which finds expression in multiple cultures and time periods throughout human history.

James doesn’t link to or otherwise cite these easily available explorations of Humanism, so I’m not quite sure what they are. The one’s I’ve read, however, reinforce Leah’s point and further raise my concerns—Humanism as a philosophy is almost unbearably vague and, insofar as it tries to be specific, it is vastly outclassed by more traditional and contemporary philosophical positions. The Humanist Manifestos in their various iterations read more like policy proposals for their given eras than philosophical treatises, and a quick glance through the philosophy section of the American Humanist Association’s websites provides scant metaethical grounding—that is, exploration of what the good actually is. I’m not saying these sophisticated sources don’t exist, but I haven’t seen them and I doubt they can fare as well as academically debated philosophy.

I think Humanism works best as a community label, not a philosophical label. It strikes me as a potentially effective banner for political organization and social action, rather than a description of specific moral commitments. Otherwise, if we entangle Humanism with, say consequentialism, what of sympathetic members like me who might have strong consequentialist tendencies but ultimately lean Kantian? We can try to convince each other out of bad moral commitments, but some disagreements seem intractable.

I’m not sure what the best way to go about this is, but I think we ought to ditch Humanism as a moral philosophy. It strikes me as too much trouble for a philosophy not even taught in ethics classes, especially since there is better philosophy debated in academic contexts. We might be better served, I think, with something so simple as forming specific philosophy reading groups within Humanist communities. One might focus on Korsgaard’s The Sources of Normativity if we are interested in metaethics or neo-Kantianism, another might focus on Parfit’s Reasons and Persons to explore personhood and modern Utilitarian thought, and yet another might read Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save to address our commitments to the global poor (just kidding, everyone should read that book and make a prompt and regular donation to Oxfam or the Against Malaria Foundation).

I also think atheists should be more explicit about their moral commitments. Not only because it’s good practice philosophically, but because it puts something at stake and allows for the kind of mind-meeting that makes something like a late-night college dorm-room discussion so interesting and rewarding. In the meantime, though, I think we should be more open to discussing and fixing our communities shortcomings, without clinging to dated philosophy.

Vlad Chituc is a lab manager and research assistant in a social neuroscience lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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