Humanism, a follow up

Humanism, a follow up January 10, 2013

I want to make a quick follow up to my suggestion Tuesday that we should ignore Humanism as a philosophy and embrace it solely as a community label. Since my post, Leah Libresco at Patheos’s Catholic channel struck a deal with James Croft to briefly explain their philosophies. I look forward to getting a better picture of Humanism from James.

A few people, James included, have left some challenging comments, so I want to clarify a bit and address a few points on, appropriately, the philosophical and community aspects of Humanism.

On the philosophical aspect, what initially frustrated me was Humanism’s apparent ambiguity. I think that our labels should mean something, particularly if this particular label is meant to be our central moral identifier. Our concepts should try to carve nature at the joints so that our language is clear and useful, rather than vague and confusing (one of the reasons I prefer to talk about pluralism rather than interfaith). When you tell me that you identify as something, I should learn something about you that I didn’t know before.

James has responded and raised a few interesting points. I capture the gist here but read the full comment for his argument:

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.

I like the clarification that Humanism isn’t one unified position. I was always under the impression that it was a philosophy (singular), and it seems to me that it’s often treated this way. I think the comparison to Christianity, though, breaks down slightly. 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.

I’m not sure what ethical commitments Humanism gives you, if any at all (especially if it’s a cluster of positions). But if there are philosophical commitments, then I’m not sure that they’re substantively moral. That is to say, the differences between Humanism and any generic kind of liberalism—with a focus on individual autonomy, promoting general welfare, tolerance, gay rights, feminism, take your pick—seem to be limited to certain epistemological commitments like “Reason” or metaphysical commitments like naturalism. But as I argued Tuesday, those don’t tell me much about morality at all. If Humanism is meant to be a moral position, then it seems strange that it doesn’t tell you anything interesting morally about its adherents.

So I say this all as a Humanist: If Humanism is going to be a moral position, then I’m still unsure of what separates it morally from any kind liberalism (or say, from religious Humanism). If Humanism isn’t going to be a moral position, then that’s actually fine with me. I think Humanism should orient itself towards moral action, rather than moral truth. If it does this, though, than the second sense of Humanism James describes strikes me as somewhat unnecessary, because we should turn elsewhere for our moral philosophy. There may in fact be a broad Humanist tradition, but is it interesting or helpful to learn or relate to? Am I better off just reading Kant? I’m not convinced.

A few other people made some good points about whether specific underlying moral commitments were necessary for a strong community. This I’m less sure on. I admit that I accepted Leah’s argument because first, I agreed that I found Humanist communities to be somewhat vague and shallow as Leah described. I also found that my own most valuable relationships conformed to that kind of substantive similarity that she wrote about.

As an undergraduate, one of my closest friends was also a transitioning vegan struggling to figure out moral philosophy with an interest in the social sciences. Throughout my life, my relationship with my twin has shown maybe an unsurprising amount of overlap, and I often find him articulating points in ways that echo or clarify my own thoughts. And now, one of my closest friends in my department shares a similar background, love for rap music, and disapproval of stuffy academic culture. And across all these relationships there’s a sense of a lot of shared assumptions and commitments—we can start a lot of conversations halfway through and know exactly where we are.

It seemed plausible that such philosophical overlap was a good place to start for deep relationships in a community, and I think Humanists want their communities to be something substantial and moral. I’ll be agnostic on whether communities can foster deep connections from a less narrow foundation (like maybe ritual, costly commitments, shared goals, and so on).

I’m still open to being proven wrong, because I like the idea of Humanism as a moral philosophy. I just don’t think it can be what Humanists want or need it to be.

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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