Perhaps time to blog about my philosophy, since most friends know I am not religious but perhaps don’t know what I mean by “secular humanism” or how it is more appropriate to our needs than any artificial belief system. Why not simply “atheist”? Because there is much more to it, and atheism is painted as a negative thing, where the philosophy I espouse is a positive, dynamic living thing, far from the fossilised notions of theology.
Definitions: Labelling Secular Humanism
Secularity is the state of being separate from religion, or not being exclusively allied with or against any particular religion. A humanist is typically someone who:
“…trusts to the scientific method when it comes to understanding how the universe works and rejects the idea of the supernatural (and is therefore an atheist or agnostic) makes their ethical decisions based on reason, empathy, and a concern for human beings and other sentient animals believes that, in the absence of an afterlife and any discernible purpose to the universe, human beings can act to give their own lives meaning by seeking happiness in this life and helping others to do the same.”
Empirical methodology is key, since we must inherently accept that discovery by following evidence leads to the truth, where believe in supernatural starts with a conclusion and chooses evidence selectively to support arguments. This is the antithesis of truth – it is self-deception. To be a humanist means using an evidence base from which to further human kind, our understanding and our development.
However, definitions abound and there are longer and shorter versions. The fullest definition to have a measure of international agreement is contained in the 2002 Amsterdam Declaration of the International humanist and Ethical Union. Some others include:
“…a commitment to the perspective, interests and centrality of human persons; a belief in reason and autonomy as foundational aspects of human existence; a belief that reason, scepticism and the scientific method are the only appropriate instruments for discovering truth and structuring the human community; a belief that the foundations for ethics and society are to be found in autonomy and moral equality…”
– Concise Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy
And reason is rightly at the centre, for it is the very essence of our humanity and the centre of our thirst for wisdom and quest for answers.
“An appeal to reason in contrast to revelation or religious authority as a means of finding out about the natural world and destiny of man, and also giving a grounding for morality…Humanist ethics is also distinguished by placing the end of moral action in the welfare of humanity rather than in fulfilling the will of God.”
– Oxford Companion to Philosophy
The following quote demonstrates the essence of the humanist thought process – and let’s face it, ability to communicate is our greatest gift but the refusal to understand one another’s point of view our greatest challenge:
“Believing that it is possible to live confidently without metaphysical or religious certainty and that all opinions are open to revision and correction, [Humanists] see human flourishing as dependent on open communication, discussion, criticism and unforced consensus.”
– Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy
In essence, my philosophy is that only humans can solve our own problems through innovation, discovery and mastering our own worst instincts. Ultimately we are one species who, despite our differences, have far more in common than separates us, which is why I believe nationalities and all other artificial divisions in society miss the point.
Here’s another thought you may wish to ponder: as we are born, our first source of identity is with the human species – you are human long before you can understand or associate yourself with any belief system; that you are born into a family with those associations does not imply that those values are written through you like Blackpool rock.
You may consider gender, race and other characteristics to be further sources of identity, but not religions or other belief systems – they come much later in learning, and are almost always instilled through formal and informal education/drilling. Yes, people sometimes become “born again” later in life, sometimes in response to a personal crisis, but that is first and foremost an act of free will, a human decision. There are always human motives behind our every decision.
I see it as a challenge to identify that the things that really matter affect all people equally, regardless of background, though inherently that will lead to conflicts between the perceived needs of one group over another. There is a “greater good” at play, so I agree at least in part with the Benthamite Utilitarian philosophy that one should look for the greatest good of the greatest number (see bottom.)
True, there are very many local issues that need to be resolved but many which impact on us globally – the most obvious of which is the reality that we are plundering our planet and causing the global warming that will increasingly impact on our climate systems. Only we can find ways to manage it, though the essential first step is using the scientific evidence as a rationale for consensus change, not finding ways to steal an advantage for one community over another: therein lies the knack of successful development and prospering as a species.
Overcoming the perversity of human nature
However, there is a flip side to this equation. We are also all flawed, which is not to say we are “sinners” – but that we don’t necessarily follow the best paths all the time and we sometimes lack the wherewithal to provide the optimum solutions from within our own communities. We are sometimes perverse and don’t do what is obviously in our own interests, and that includes states as well as individuals.
For example, ending petty conflicts and wars, which are wasteful of human life, resources and destructive to our infrastructure, would be the obvious way forward, one on which almost every people would agree – but that depends on their agreeing that there is a bigger priority than the principles for which wars are fought: ethnic, cultural and religious differences, land and resources, power games, repression and freedom – the fact is, all wars and conflicts are avoidable if people see the bigger picture and find ways to live together harmoniously – which some would say is an impossibility.
Finding ways to bond us together rather than pulling us apart is the knack by which humanists must side-step the worst aspects of human nature, for which all of humanity has to understand they are members of the wider human community and therefore must sometimes subjugate small personal interests for the benefit of everybody.
Free will and escaping the shackles of convention
A seam running through this debate is that of free will, which as some friends will know was the major theme of my second novel: are we pre-programmed to behave in particular ways, and to what extent to we have the ability to break free of that programming in order to exercise free will? In my novel, people subjected to an experiment in free will apply chaos theory to go in ways nobody could have predicted, though arguably very few people truly break the shackles of their cultural heritage and redefine the rulebook.
Those people, it may be argued, are the few who enable step-changes in our collective mindsets, where conventional politics and religion are about status quo. I’d define advancements in humankind as those moments when communities and individuals are able to outwit the forces of stasis and stagnation.
Collaboration: pooling our knowledge and capabilities
But the diversity of human cultural experience and circulation of knowledge means that by definition we will advance more effectively through sharing our individual areas of expertise by recognising the skills and capabilities to greater effect, much as innovation through discovery of the ingenuity of ancient civilisations in China, Greece, Rome and elsewhere enhanced the development of modern methods we now take for granted.
Some element of competition may drive change but for the greatest impact collaboration will yield the greatest benefits, for which knowledge sharing enriches the power of all and enables the spiral of knowledge creation to occur (I wrote my MBA dissertation on this topic so know a thing or two about it!)
More than this, learning from one another’s capabilities and cultures is key to innovation. The American motor industry famously tried to copy the techniques of Japanese car manufacture in the 70s, but failed to appreciate that you can’t just plonk a working process in a culture that has not built on generations of instilling the values that underpin the process. To know the best way means you have to know the people and their values.
For this to work, mutual respect and equality are essential tools. Another quote:
“That man should show respect to man, irrespective of class, race or creed is fundamental to the humanist attitude to life. Among the fundamental moral principles, he would count those of freedom, justice, tolerance and happiness…the attitude that people can live an honest, meaningful life without following a formal religious creed.”
This does not imply intolerance of other belief systems or the needs of a minority, though any which depend on supernatural forces are simply irrelevant and solve no problems at all. Here’s the rub: a key tenet of my philosophy is the total abhorrence of irrational fear and ignorant prejudice that is gives rise to racism, homophobia and other unwarranted discrimination of any sort that implies that any characteristic is more or less acceptable. I believe totally in judging people individually on their merits – virtues as well as vices.
That said, some examples are perhaps controversial. I’d support the purpose of prisons for rehabilitation and to enable people to do good and compensate for the losses they have caused (which is not to say I propose releasing those who have committed heinous crimes back on society – I don’t!) There is however a positive contribution and potential for good we could exploit – even in those who are locked up for life. Where possible we should allow the good to flourish through actions. I also oppose capital punishment, in part for practical reasons but also the fact that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Moral and ethical codes
Neither do you need to be religious to have a moral or ethical code – one of the many myths propagated by the religions of the world, one that does not stand up to scrutiny, particularly when you consider the very many evil and antisocial deeds perpetrated by those who claim faith and morality. Some of the most moral people I ever met have not one religious bone in their bodies.
I don’t believe in karma as a force of nature, but I always thought that doing good things creates its own reward through the common humanity shared. As mentioned above, we are all flawed, some more than others, but our religious beliefs are no indicator of how good or bad we are in the way we live our lives – though our value as people can be measured by what we put back into society in one form or another, even in very small ways.
Treating each other well is something we should do as a matter of course but being caring towards one’s fellow citizens is right regardless of any principles on which we disagree. I hold doors for anyone, because it is a courteous thing to do, and I would hope anyone else would do the same for me. The old saying has it that the best judgment of a man’s character is how he behaves when nobody can see him, for which your inner morality is the only guidance.
Sexuality and sin
It might be argued that the holy books of religions are hypocritical, in that they preach love but are also interpreted to support intolerance towards those of different beliefs and lifestyles, of which the default homophobia within evangelistic Christian belief sets is a prime example. “Hate the sin, love the sinner” they might say – but then homosexuality is purely a human trait, not a “sin” – shared by approximately the same proportion of society that is left-handed, for example.
Indeed there are presumably very many gay Christians, a good proportion of whom have to live a secret double life because of how their true nature would be rejected by their church – and I know someone to whom that fate happened. Perhaps the bible is a reflection of the prejudices of those who wrote and translated it, which makes it a human rather than religious tome.
Rather than insisting others share our views, applying humility and recognising that the views of others may indeed be relevant and that working together for a win:win is ultimately a far more constructive path. Blaming others is equally a negative path and reinforces differences, though there is an element of perverse human nature to overcome. We don’t let go of our principles lightly because those are what we cherish mostly dearly, those we were brought up with. But when we can compromise and see a better result for all, the satisfaction is that much greater.
Legacy and Afterlife
While everyone would recognise in this blog plenty with which they might agree from whatever belief system they hold, in the final analysis this is because the traits are and always were human, not because they are associated with any holy book. My view is that if you’re waiting for divine intervention or response to prayers you’ll wait forever, and the probability is that anything you pray for stands a fair chance of turning out in your favour if you work to make it happen, regardless of prayers – they have no effect other than to give the person concerned peace of mind. You can be sure of things here but you can’t be sure of anything from any holy book, particularly not of any heavenly afterlife – what you see is what you get.
Since I don’t believe in any form of life after death, other than what we leave behind as a legacy and the memories created, all the more reason not to waste precious time, to live life to the full and to make the strongest possible positive impact while we are alive. When you’re dead you’re dead, so there is no better time than the present to do everything you can, go where you can go, make your contribution to the sum total of human existence and make a better place for future generations.
Everything is earth-bound and the product of human imagination, so we have to make the best of what we have. Far better that we put together our combined skills to use to make life better for humanity – and for those moments when we escape confines, “think out of the box” and solve those intractable issues that weigh down civilisation – those are what makes life worth living.
Rules for living
And to finish with, here are a few rules for living I devised along the way. Not all to be followed to the letter, but I think they help greatly in the quest for an ethical code:
If it does not harm you, help others in any way you can
Don’t judge lest ye be judged!
YOLO – try (almost) everything
Listen and communicate – the key to relationships
Tolerance and forgiveness are always better than hatred and persecution
Value human endeavour and pay what it is worth
Stay positive through adversity and cautious through success
Don’t be too hard on yourself
Chill! Don’t take things too seriously and don’t get overstressed
Shared risk, shared effort, shared reward – remember those who help you
Honesty always pays in the long run
Simplicity makes for a happier life
Away with artifice – be yourself and avoid pretension
Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the best moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, but is usually related to the well-being of sentient entities. Classically, Jeremy Bentham defined utility as the aggregate pleasure after deducting suffering of all involved in any action. John Stuart Mill expanded this concept of utility to include not only the quantity, but quality of pleasure. Others have rejected that pleasure has positive value and have advocated negative utilitarianism, which defines utility only in terms of suffering. In contrast to this hedonistic view, some define utility with relation to preference satisfaction whereas others believe that a range of values can be included in its definition.
Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which states that the consequences of any action are the only standard of right and wrong. This view can be contrasted or combined with virtue ethics which holds virtue as a moral good. Some believe that one’s intentions are also ethically important. Utilitarianism is distinctly different from other forms of consequentialism such as egoism as it considers all interests equally. Proponents of utilitarianism have been split about whether individual acts should conform to utility (act utilitarianism) or whether agents should conform to ethical rules (rule utilitarianism). Utilitarians additionally remain split about whether utility should be calculated as an aggregate (total utilitarianism) or an average (average utilitarianism).
Historically, hedonism can be traced back to Aristippus and Epicurus who viewed happiness as the only good. Bentham is, however, credited with founding utilitarianism when he wrote An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Since Bentham, prominent utilitarians have included John Stuart Mill, Henry Sidgwick, R.M. Hare and Peter Singer. The philosophy has been applied to modern issues including the suffering of non-human animals. Specifically, utilitarianism has been applied to the ethics of raising animals for food and the ethics of wild animal suffering. Effective altruism is a philosophy aimed at improving the world through evidence based means, which has been supported on utilitarian grounds.
Opponents of utilitarianism have criticized it for many reasons. Some have said that utilitarianism ignores justice while others contend that utilitarianism is impractical. Specific criticisms have included the mere addition paradox and the utility monster. Others have said that pleasure is not commensurable across people with varying identities and thus the idea of aggregating utility is impossible.