From the archives: Humanism as community, not philosophy

From the archives: Humanism as community, not philosophy April 16, 2015

Another post I stumbled on and liked:

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.

 And the follow up:

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.

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