Humanism as community, not philosophy.

January 8th, 2013 | Posted by:

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.

  • linford86

    This post strikes me as kind of odd. In the discussion between yourself and James on Facebook — which I followed and read — he said specifically that communities do not form around the sort of sophisticated views debated about by philosophers. Rather, they convene around shared moral commitments, by which I do not think James would mean a robust, metaethical view (if it is going to be something discussed in academic philosophy, I’d take it that James would mean something more along the lines of normative ethics). If you are right that Humanism is best used as a label for a community, then, on James’ account of community building, it wouldn’t be a label for a metaethical position. Yet your criticism of Humanism seems to be that it isn’t a metaethical position. It’s not clear to me that James thinks Humanism is a metaethical position either. Furthermore, you seem to be implying, early in your article, that if Humanism isn’t a robust metaethical view then it cannot be the basis of a community; that would seem to contradict (or at least be in tension with) your assertion that it is best seen as an identity for a community.

    As far as citing more robust sources on the topic of Humanism, James’ argument did not require him to do so. As far as I understand it, James was arguing that Leah did not provide a deep enough examination of Humanist thought in her article to support her claim that Humanism was too vague of a term or that it was basically contentless. James’ argument would go through even if Humanism really were contentless; to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Humanism really *is* contentless, Leah would have to have given us reason to think that she really did engage with that literature (even if she didn’t take the time in her article to explain in full detail her knowledge of that literature). On the other hand, if James wanted to argue that Humanism isn’t contentless, then the burden of proof would be on him to show that. It’s my understanding that James is currently working on providing another post at his blog which would provide this extra burden of proof in order to establish that Humanism is not contentless.

    Given that I’ve never been sure what the content of Humanism was supposed to be, or how it would be distinguished from just “being nice”, I’m anxious to see how James would characterise Humanism and what resources he would point us to.

    • VladChituc

      I think you raise a few goods points. But in response:

      First, the “sophisticated views debated by philosophers” actually mostly map onto pretty natural ways of carving the world up at the joints. Surely the definition of “good” matters to normal people, even if philosophers debate about it.

      Second, I think James and other Humanists hold Humanism to be a complete moral philosophy, and that they wouldn’t be too kind in thinking that it isn’t a real in that sense. As for my supposed contradiction, that’s exactly why I advocate tossing the moral philosophy of humanism.

      Third, as for your point about James’s argument: that Leah addressed one site in a casual blog post does not imply a lack of research on her part. If James doesn’t like that she thinks humanisms definition is bland and vague, he would have been well-served by addressing her argument or providing a counterexample, rather than criticizing how she made her argument.

      And I share your last sentiment! Thanks for the comment!

  • jflcroft

    Hi Vlad,

    I’ve responded on Facebook but want to record my response here for other readers. I think Dan makes my case for me very well, particularly as pertains to my discussion with Leah. I think my points in that post stand and that nothing you’ve said here touches my specific criticisms there.

    As for the general question of what Humanism is, demands, etc, this is what I have to say:

    You seem to think “Humanism” denotes a single, coherent moral system (particularly a metaethical system). He seems to think that it is some sort of equivalent to “virtue ethics” or “utilitarianism” or something.

    But this is a category error. 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.

    In neither case does the term “Humanism” – nor the term “Christianity” – give you a strong sense of one’s “moral philosophy” when that term is used in a technical way. Just as you can be a Utilitarian Christian and an Idealist Christian, you can be a Utilitarian Humanist and an Idealist Humanist (there have been prominent historical examples of both). Therefore the comment that Humanism is “vague” in comparison to discrete philosophical positions is true but not really apposite.

    Further, this point is not generally used as a defeater for the idea of Christian communities. No one says “Christians can be either virtue ethicists or rule utilitarians, and therefore they can only build communities founded on affection and not friendship.” We recognize that abstract philosophical commitments are secondary to most actual Christian communities and that broad values take precedence when it comes to forming ties between people.

    Wikipedia is actually quite useful on this point (!):

    “Humanism is a group of philosophies and ethical perspectives which emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism), over established doctrine or faith (fideism).”

    Notice the elements of this description: “Humanism is a GROUP of philosophies and ethical perspectives” (which is why I say it is not a SINGLE coherent philosophy); these philosophies are drawn together by guiding values or broad principles, in that they “emphasize the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers individual thought and evidence (rationalism, empiricism), over established doctrine or faith (fideism).”

    You might say this is “vague”, but it is not so vague that almost anyone qualifies as a humanist. The majority of other ethical and philosophical traditions (including the major religious traditions of the world) do NOT (traditionally) place such value on individual human beings; they do NOT generally prefer individual thought and evidence over established doctrine or faith. They have strikingly different guiding principles and overarching values.

    • JM

      I would disagree with your account of Christianity. There exist both “orthodox” and “heretical” accounts of Christian doctrines, measured generally by logical consistency with Scripture. Put another way, one must actually follow the teachings of Christ to be a Christian; there is a substantive commitment implied by the term to follow in the steps of Christ Himself.

      Philosophically, then, it would seem strange to identify Christian thinking with utilitarianism (even rule utilitarianism), unless you mean simply the procedure of maximizing some (arbitrary) utility function. Most accounts of utilitarianism (as the term is popularly understood) have as their objective function some collection of finite, material ends over which they seek to optimize; the greatest happiness for the greatest number, or preference autonomy. It is of course the case that one could simply embed “the salvation of one’s eternal soul in accordance with Christ’s Holy Plan” or some such idea in the concept of “greatest happiness” so as to make a “Christian (rule) utilitarianism” possible (Paley, the original watchmaker analogist, did something like this), but to do so seems both misleading and an abuse of terms.

      No Christian who has read the Book of Job can particularly believe that living a righteous life will prevent suffering; no Christian who has read John 3:16 or James 2 or Romans 3 would deny the overwhelming focus on works alone consequent upon adoption of utilitarianism denies the inner life necessary for salvation; no Christian who has read St. Paul’s admonition that we cannot do evil that good may come will affirm most concepts of public utility; no Christian who has heard that a lustful gaze constitutes adultery, no matter the pleasure it gives him or her, can believe the affirmation of such to be justice. These are all commitments generally at odds with most utilitarian ideologies, and to use the same term to refer to them all seems strange.

      This is just an example that I’ve taken to argue against considering all variants of Christianity to be worthy of the moniker “Christian”. It is easy today to loosen our restrictions on what is to be named “Christian” when new megachurches spring up every split-second with wildly varying practices and teachings – what other standard to use than use of the name and a vague preoccupation with ninety-degree angles? – but it is exactly this tendency which leads to the intellectual laziness and malaise that makes modern Christianity so contemptible in the eyes of many. Only when orthodoxy is insisted on above all else can the brilliance of the Gospels be truly seen, and only those who see them and live them clearly and without compromise merit the name of “Christian”.

    • JM

      Let me quickly just point out one other thing. It’s my experience that Catholic communities are more tightly knit than ecumenical ones, and that orthodox Jewish communities are more tightly knit than interfaith ones. I think this has something to do with the rigorous demands those faiths place on their members, which means that something like “mutual support in the pursuit of virtue” is an incredibly necessary and incredibly meaningful activity. It forges some of the strongest bonds between people imaginable. I think that gets to something like the heart of the original discussion; these philosophies are in practice very difficult to live out (yet living them out is seen as the most important thing a person can do), so communities built around philosophical specificity in this way are inherently stronger than ones which are not. The model may, however, fail in the case of philosophies that do not make particularly stringent demands on their adherents.

  • Laurence

    It’s a shame that you didn’t mention virtue ethics, the superior ethical theory.

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