October 2010 archive

Why I am Not a Humanist (Yet)

I was recently contacted, much to my surprise, by a representative of the new US-based Humanist organisation, the Institute for Science and Human Values (ISHV), founded by none other than Paul Kurtz. Apparently, they had come across a missive I’d posted in the past about the Great Adventure of building a workable secular moral system that can, one day, displace supernaturalist religion as a moral compass in today’s society. Evidently, the ISHV shares a similar vision, and they invited me to contribute some suitably spirited language to their upcoming journal, The Human Prospect.

Yet, since this unexpected exchange, I’ve been wondering: why am I not already a Humanist?

After reading the ISHV’s Neo Humanist statement of secular principles and values, it was readily apparent that I share virtually all the same values as Humanism (at least of the ‘Neo’ variety), and yet I have never found myself identifying with the Humanism movement. Why?

It’s not that I wouldn’t want to belong to a movement that shares my values, and explicitly seeks to spread those values (not that I can even imagine what it would be like to be amongst a group of people who all agree with me on most things). But I presume it would be a buoying experience.

It’s also not that I disagree on any particular points of value or principle. Certainly, I have slightly different views on the origins of morality and the meaning of terms such as ‘wellbeing’, but they’re hardly showstoppers.

So, why am I not a Humanist?

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Can There Be a Science of Morality?

Can we have a science of morality? This question has been thrown around quite a bit of late, especially fuelled by the spirited ejaculations of one Sam Harris. Harris firmly believes there are no barriers to a science of human values, but I fear things aren’t that simple, and I’m not alone in this concern.

Sam Harris

While a ‘science of morality’ is a laudable notion in a loose sense, such a science would, by necessity, look nothing like what Harris has in mind. Harris is seeking not only a science of morality, but a science of human values. He wants a “universal conception of human values” that can be checked, verified and proven using the tools of empirical science.

But that’s just not going to work. Science doesn’t do that kind of thing. At least not without assistance from other disciplines, like philosophy. And if we try to force science alone into providing us with values, there is no shortage of traps that will inevitably spring up.

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Secular Liberalism Misunderstood

The ABC site, The Drum Unleashed, posted another of my missives, this time on the merits of secular liberalism, regardless of one’s spiritual (or otherwise) persuasion. And already the comments are flowing. I’ll attempt to respond to them in this post as they roll on.

First up, to those who have criticised my term “believe in atheism”, you’re right. That was a poor turn of phrase on my behalf. Should properly be “whether you believe in God or are an atheist”. Doesn’t affect my argument though. Okay, moving on.

To those who suggest that Richard Dawkins isn’t seeking to abolish the teaching of religion, rather he seeks to abolish the indoctrination of children into a particular religion – I agree that he is in favour of the teaching of comparative religion, as well as the teaching of the Bible as an historical text. However, he has made strident claims against religious teaching of the, well, religious flavour. While I oppose supernaturalism, I would suggest that any attempt to banish religious education would be problematic, as I’ll elaborate below.

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Morality and the Obsession with Harm and Fairness

Where you can find contemporary moral philosophers talking about the content of morality (instead of their preferred pastime of quibbling over metaethics), you’ll often find them talking about issues concerning harm and fairness. But is this all there is to morality? What of moral prohibitions concerning food, or cleansing rituals, or burial practices? Can you just translate such norms into norms about harm and fairness? Or is the domain of morality larger than many philosophers might readily suggest?

This was one of the questions broached by ANU’s Ben Fraser in a seminar at Sydney University yesterday. Fraser’s paper was about the limits of the moral domain, specifically defending Richard Joyce’s account of morality from criticisms mounted by Stephen Stich. I won’t cover everything said by Fraser (you can read his entire paper here), but I am particularly interested in what it is that we’re really talking about when we’re talking about morality.

And I tend to believe that defining morality in terms of harm/fairness exclusively is a bit narrow – but understandable. Even so, we shouldn’t limit ourselves to issues of harm/fairness if we want to understand the full scope of morality and moral phenomena.

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The Origin and Development of the Moral Ideas

It is both surprising and thrilling when I happen upon a passage from some thinker that more eloquently sums up my thoughts on morality than I ever could. I have, to date, had several such experiences, inspired by the writings of David Hume, John Mackie, Jonathan Haidt, Michael Ruse, Kin Binmore, Isaiah Berlin – and now, Edward Westermarck, sociologist and author of this post’s namesake, The Origin and Development of Moral Ideas, published in 1906.

Edward Westermarck

I have read references to Westermarck before, mainly concerning incest avoidance, but never a passage that so lucidly captures the spirit of my thesis on the nature of morality as this:

The emotional constitution of man does not present the same uniformity as the human intellect. Certain cognitions inspire fear in nearly every breast; but there are brave men and cowards in the world, independently of the accuracy with which they realise impending danger. Some cases of suffering can hardly fail to awaken compassion in the most pitiless heart; but the sympathetic dispositions of men vary greatly, both in regard to the being which whose sufferings they are ready to sympathise, and with reference to the intensity of the emotion. The same holds good for moral the emotions. The existing diversity of opinion as to the rights of different classes of men, and of the lower animals, which springs from emotional differences, may no doubt be modified by clearer insight into certain facts, but no perfect agreement can be expected as long as the conditions under which the emotional dispositions are formed remain unchanged. (Westermark, 1906, in Singer’s Ethics, 1994)

Here Westermarck, who had first-hand experience of moral diversity in the world, hits upon one of the key sources of that diversity: the emotions. Following a Humean telling of moral psychology – which recent research has largely vindicated (Greene, 2001; Haidt, 2001 & 2003) – he suggests that even with agreement over pertinent facts there will still be moral disagreement by virtue of the diverse emotional character of humans. This, 100 years before the recent resurgence of interest in moral emotions. Bravo, Westermarck.

All I’d add is a short tale of how evolution shaped our moral sense – including our moral emotions – to make them operate such, and a brief note on how such disagreement is not entirely a bad thing, and that’s my thesis. Oh, and a remark or two about how this view presents an alternative to an objectivist moral realist stance that hopes moral disagreement is soluble through sufficient application of fact and reason, instead replacing it with a pragmatic moral pluralism that hopes to advance human interests without recourse to absolute moral truths.