Symposium on Humanist Manifesto II: beyond Humanist Manifesto II – has the manifesto become meaningless 25 years after creation
This issue of the Humanist marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of Humanist Manifesto II. It was within these pages a quarter of a century ago that the document was first published in its entirety, complete with a list of internationally prominent signatories. Since that time, thousands of people from all walks of life have added their names to the list–responding with enthusiasm to what is often considered the statement of the humanist philosophy. Humanist Manifesto II, together with its predecessor Humanist Manifesto I, is perhaps the most widely circulated and quoted expression of humanism ever published, having been reprinted frequently over the years and made freely available in pamphlet form and through the Internet from a wide and growing variety of sources all over the world.
As the Humanist prepared to commemorate this silver anniversary, the original 1973 signers of Humanist Manifesto II were sought out and asked to comment on the manifesto’s relevance for today. They were also encouraged to join in a symposium to recommend ideas for a possible third manifesto. A special invitation was extended to Paul Kurtz, who originally drafted Humanist Manifesto II, to write at length on these subjects and thus formally launch the symposium in this publication. His article appears first, followed by “Reflections” from eleven more of the original signers. In the next issue of the Humanist, this symposium will continue with analyses by additional signers as well as nonsigners.
I was editor of the Humanist from 1967 to 1978. In the twenty years since, this is the first time I have written for the magazine. I am pleased to accept its invitation to present my thoughts about the creation of Humanist Manifesto II, which I drafted twenty-five years ago, and to offer suggestions about what should be included in a third humanist manifesto.
Reflecting the Times
It is not possible to write a permanent manifesto as a guideline for the future of humankind, given the rapidity of social change. What is important today, in my judgment, is the need to defend a set of basic humanist principles and values and relate them to the present global situation.
Humanist Manifesto I was written in 1933, reflecting the social conditions at the depth of the great economic depression that then enveloped the world. Thus it reflected a communitarian and socialist outlook, arguing for economic and political planning on a national scale. Drafted by philosopher Roy Wood Sellars of the University of Michigan, completed by Raymond Bragg, a Unitarian minister, and a panel of others, and endorsed by thirty-four people, primarily Unitarian ministers, it expressed a religious humanist outlook. John Dewey, the most distinguished signer, endorsed it but had nothing to say about its content.
I drafted Humanist Manifesto II in 1973, forty years later. The fascism that had risen to ascendancy in Europe in the 1930s, challenging the basic values of democratic humanism, had since been defeated after a protracted world war. In the early 1970s, the world faced a new threat: Leninism-Stalinism had by then emerged as a major force to contend with, and totalitarian ism seemed to be expanding its controlling influence everywhere. Moreover, the new left student movement embroiled the campuses of America in conflicts, proclaiming a new agenda for transforming societies.
Humanist Manifesto II was unique in that it defended human rights on a global scale, arguing, for example, for the right to travel beyond national frontiers at a time when people behind the Iron Curtain were prohibited from doing so. Many Marxist humanists in Eastern Europe had attacked totalitarian statism and welcomed a defense of democracy and human rights. Humanist Manifesto II no longer defended a planned economy but left the question open to alternative economic systems. Thus it was endorsed by both liberals and economic libertarians who defended a free market, as well as democratic socialists who believed that the government should have some role to play in a welfare society. It sought to democratize economic systems and test them by whether or not they increased economic well-being for all individuals and groups.
Humanist Manifesto II was written in the wake of Vatican II, which had attempted to liberalize Roman Catholicism, and at a time when a new moral revolution seemed upon us. The manifesto defended the right to privacy, sexual freedom between consenting adults, abortion, and euthanasia, as well as the rights of minorities, women, the aged, abused children, and the disadvantaged. It advocated tolerance of alternative life-styles and the peaceful negotiation of differences. It deplored racial, religious, and class antagonisms and called for an end to terror and hatred. It left room for both naturalistic humanism and liberal religious humanism and was optimistic about the prospects for humankind. It pointed to the positive benefits of science and technology for human good and prophesied that the twenty-first century could become the humanist century.
How Manifesto II Was Written
It was Edwin H. Wilson, a founder of the American Humanist Association and the first editor of the Humanist, who initially suggested to me that we ought to issue a second manifesto on the fortieth anniversary of the original. With this in mind, I established an ad hoc committee and proceeded to solicit the advice and recommendations of a wide range of humanists as to what should be included in it. Many of these suggestions were published in the Humanist prior to the issuance of Humanist Manifesto II. I undertook the first draft and sent it out to dozens of humanists for suggestions (much the same process that devised the first manifesto). I then tried to incorporate their emendations in the draft document. During this process, I revised the manifesto many, many times–each time attempting to refine it further.
I must say that I found the drafting of Humanist Manifesto II a Herculean task. From most humanists there were welcomed advice and improvements on the document; from some there were irate letters of disagreement about one provision or word. Corliss Lamont, for example, at first declined to endorse the manifesto because he viewed it as anti-Soviet, and he rejected any implications of homosexual rights. It was only by the persistent efforts of colleagues and friends that we were able to persuade Lamont to endorse it. Harold Hadley of the Fellowship of Religious Humanists was very helpful on the section on religion, which aroused the greatest debate–either for being too strong in criticizing religion or not strong enough. Sidney Hook suggested several important linguistic and substantive changes. During the course of the drafting, I invited
Wilson to work with me in writing a brief preface. This, too, went through several revisions. At one time I was so exasperated by the conflicting views of what should or should not be included in the final document that I thought of abandoning the entire project; I doubted that a consensus was possible. I invited Roy Fairfield, then associate editor of the Humanist, to sit down with me and go through the various letters, attempting to satisfy the conflicting views. He was extremely encouraging and helpful.
Finally, I worked out a final version and sent it out to a wide range of potential signers. I was pleased by the overwhelming positive response. It was signed by men and women from all walks of life: Betty Friedan, founder of the National Organization for Women; Alan F. Guttmacher, president of Planned Parenthood; Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish scientist and later Nobel Prize winner; Sir Julian Huxley, first president of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); Jacques Monod, Nobel Prize-winning French biologist; Francis Crick, codiscoverer of DNA; Dwight Macdonald, well-known literary critic; James Farmer and A. Philip Randolph, distinguished civil rights leaders; and other famous scientists, philosophers, and leaders of thought and action throughout the world.
I was particularly pleased to have Andrei Sakharov, the leading dissident of the Soviet Union, endorse it. He was constantly harassed by the regime at that time. I was able to speak to Sakharov by telephone in lengthy conversations on two occasions through the intercession of Alexander Yesenin-Volpin, himself a famous dissident and mathematician who had been expelled from the Souviet Union for protesting the invasion of Czechoslovakia and for defending human rights. A colleague of mine at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Yesenin-Volpin translated and read portions of the manifesto over the telephone to Sakharov. We later sent Sakharov a copy by diplomatic pouch and were gratified when we again called and he said he would sign it. I should add that I was pleased to finally meet Sakharov on his first trip to the United States in 1988, when I presented him with the International Humanist of the
Year Award. Later, I became good friends with his wife, Elena Bonner, a stalwart defender of human rights. After the publication of Humanist Manifesto II, many humanists who we had not at first contacted subsequently endorsed it. (Both lists were published in the booklet, Humanist Manifestos I and II. issued by Prometheus Books in 1973.)
The Impact of Humanist Manifesto II
Humanist Manifesto II was released on Labor Day weekend in 1973. I had sent an advance copy of the press release and the text to the New York Times, which immediately called and invited me to New York City for an interview. I was pleased when it published a major story about the manifesto on its front page and when newspapers and media worldwide–from the London Times and the International Herald-Tribune to Le Monde and L’express–extensively covered the document. Indeed, it was discussed in editorial comments and articles in newspapers, magazines, and the media for several months thereafter. It was welcomed by many commentators, though heavily criticized by religious conservatives who were particularly irate because they viewed the manifesto as anti-religious and anti-God. Garry Wills castigated it for expressing the “old dogmatism about man’s need to free himself from dogma.” The Christian Century criticized the manifesto because too many elderly “Professors Emeriti endorsed it.” The National Review said that the “learned” signers included the “greatest concentration of eccentric intelligence since Bertrand Russell dined alone!”
Humanist Manifesto Il became a bone of contention for the religious right for many years thereafter, and it has been repeatedly cited as part of an alleged international humanist conspiracy. Tim LaHaye, an influential Baptist minister and a founder of the Institute for Creation Research in San Diego, California, thought it represented the views of a “liberal humanist elite” that dominated America. Critics complained that humanists pervaded all of the major institutions in this country–including the leading television networks and newspapers, the labor movement, schools and universities, the American Civil Liberties Union, and other liberal associations. Right-wing attacks on humanism, particularly secular humanism, have been unremitting ever since.
Changes in the World
Since the publication of Humanist Manifesto II, major changes have occurred in the world, many of these completely unanticipated, and so a third manifesto would be relevant. The question has been raised: What is valid and invalid in Humanist Manifesto II, and what new ideals and values need to be enunciated today?
Among the unanticipated events has been the reappearance of fundamentalism worldwide. In India, a forceful Hinduism has emerged, challenging the idea of the secular state. The Islamic world has experienced the resurgence of militant fundamentalism. In Israel, the Orthodox faction has grown in influence, while the Roman Catholic church has since retreated from Vatican II and has become more conservative and doctrinaire on social and moral issues. In the United States–to everyone’s surprise–literal biblical fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and others have emerged as a potent political force. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected to the U.S. presidency by a large majority. A significant part of the coalition that supported him–the Moral Majority, followed by the Christian Coalition–attacked secular humanism as the “most dangerous influence in America.” (I should add parenthetically that this led me to draft and publish in 1980 “A Secular Humanist Declaration,” which set forth the main principles of secular humanism in contrast to religious humanism and was also featured in a New York Times front-page story.)
Since 1980, the religious right has continued to grow in influence. Its destiny fluctuates with each election, though part of its program has been co-opted by the political center. Religious fundamentalism has questioned the premises of the liberal welfare state, humanist moral values, and the moral revolution. Its views attacking naturalism have been adopted by many conservatives to the extent that criticisms of Darwinism and the defense of creationism are no longer considered fringe phenomena. Moreover, the cultural wars have intensified. There have been widespread attacks on sexual freedom, the gay revolution, feminists, and minorities–notwithstanding the significant gains made by the gay community and women. The right to alternative life-styles in the United States has had considerable public support, despite bitter attacks by the likes of James Dobson and Patrick Buchanan, who insist that all moral principles are absolute and derived from God. The differences between the Judeo-Christian outlook and the liberal humanist outlook are thus now sharper than ever before.
Indeed, paranormal-spiritual claims are exploited by the mass media and continue to entrance wide sectors of the population. The public is infatuated with a polyglot cacophony of bizarre beliefs–from angels and demonic possession to sundry miracles, such as weeping icons, healing at a distance, past-life regressions, psychic prophecies, and extraterrestrial abductions. The Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal was founded in 1976 to provide a much needed antidote to paranormal claims. Unfortunately, religious dissent is rarely heard, and the agnostic-atheist viewpoint has few defenders. Some scientists maintain that the cosmology of physics “proves” the existence of God, and the design argument and various forms of obscurantist spirituality are offered to compete with the naturalistic theory of evolution.
Other disturbing phenomena have appeared since Humanist Manifesto II to challenge humanism head on. There is the growth of what has been called postmodernism. This intellectual movement assumes various forms. Led by French interpreters of Martin Heidegger–such as Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, Michel Foucault, Jean-Francois Lyotard, Bernard Latour, and others–postmodernism has since exerted a considerable influence on the faculties of American universities, particularly in the humanities, social studies, and the arts. The postmodernists reject many principles that humanists hold dear. They challenge the idea of a free and autonomous person; they indict the Enlightenment and its reliance on reason to solve human problems; they abandon any thought of human progress or any hope that we can improve the human condition.
Their attacks on science are particularly disquieting to humanists, who have defended the scientific revolution and the methods of scientific inquiry. Science for the postmodernists is one “mythic narrative” among others; they reject the idea that there are objective methods for warranting claims to knowledge. This indictment comes at a time when science and technology are making enormous progress. I submit that they are profoundly mistaken in their diagnosis and that there are rigorous intersubjective criteria for testing scientific hypotheses. Alas, the scientific-rationalist-naturalistic outlook has all too few defenders today, in spite of widespread scientific advances, and a new failure of nerve seems to have overtaken wide sectors of the intelligentsia.
Postmodernism has had other allies: waves of multiculturalist and feminist critics have challenged the idea that there are universal (or general) human rights or moral values. In one sense the result of this indictment is a new form of ethical subjectivity, and in its wake has come the renunciation of positive images of the future and the advancement of various forms of nihilism. Science and technology are often taken as the enemy; there is a great fear of Pandora’s box being opened by scientific curiosity and inventiveness.
Another unexpected development since Humanist Manifesto II is the sudden collapse of the Soviet empire. Although communist regimes continue to exist in several countries of the world, notably China, the lure and attraction of Marxism has faded. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the issuance of the Communist Manifesto, and two of its main recommendations have been muffled. First, its critique of capitalist economies has been discredited. As we enter the twenty-first century, free-market capitalist economies are on the ascendancy everywhere. The call for social planning boards or a modified socialist economy in Humanist Manifesto I seems as irrelevant today as the openness toward alternative or mixed economic systems expressed in Humanist Manifesto II.
The economy today has become global, for mega-conglomerates increasingly dominate economic activity. No one can predict the future, but one may ask whether the unrestrained growth of global oligopolies will not call for some form of transnational regulation. As a matter of fact, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have emerged as de facto regulators of the economic destinies of nations–though, regrettably, there has been little genuinely democratic input into this process. If a severe worldwide economic crisis should ensue, there will no doubt be widespread calls for coordinated rescue efforts and increased regulation.
A second fallout of the collapse of Marxism is that its critique of religion has now been overshadowed and virtually forgotten; orthodox religions seem to be growing and ethnic religious differences have intensified in brutality–from Yugoslavia and Rwanda to the Middle East. For weal or woe, Marxism provided criticisms of clerical power, and liberal democratic and socialist governments were influenced by these. But now secularists seem in retreat before reactionary religious forces that seek to bridge the separation of church and state. Russia and Eastern Europe today manifest a revival of both the old-time religions and new cults of unreason. Fortunately, Western Europe still continues to enjoy a strong humanist outlook; large sectors of the population are skeptical of religious orthodoxies and accept humanist values.
Since Humanist Manifesto II, a most encouraging development. Is the fact that democratic revolutions continue to sweep virtually all parts of the globe. The ideals of democracy are essential to humanism, and the philosophical views of democratic humanists like John Stuart Mill, John Dewey, and Karl Popper have had reverberations in all parts of the world as fascist, authoritarian, communist, and totalitarian dictatorships have been overthrown. In 1973, large sectors of humankind were under totalitarian control; since then, multiparty systems and the defense of human rights (central to Humanist Manifesto ID have spread worldwide, including in the former colonial areas.
Another profound influence since Humanist Manifesto II is the pace of startling scientific and technological discoveries that continue in field after field. Breakthroughs in biogenetic engineering, medical research, nanotechnology, space travel, and especially the information-computer revolution are transforming the globe in economic, social, political, and moral terms. Indeed, the Information Revolution competes with the Industrial Revolution in its impact on world civilization. Instantaneous communication, made possible by the Internet and satellites, now makes us truly one world, and this means an unparalleled opportunity to leapfrog national, religious, and ideological divisions and open a fruitful dialogue with peoples from all portions of the globe–from London, Paris, and New York to Jakarta, Beijing, and New Delhi.
Other dramatic global changes are occurring as we enter the twenty-first century. These were not seen in 1933; they were recognized in 1973 but have intensified markedly since then: continued growth of population, depletion of natural resources, environmental degradation, the threat to the ozone layer, global warming, the disappearance of the rainforests, and the destruction of biodiversity on land and in the seas. The desire for economic growth masters all sectors of the planet, but often the negative consequences of untrammeled development on our common habitat are not fully appreciated until too late.
Many of these dangers are spelled out in A Declaration of Interdependence, which I also drafted and was adopted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union at its World Congress in 1988. The declaration pointed out the need for a new global consensus. It spelled out the importance not only of human rights but of our common human responsibilities and our need to develop a new ethic for the world community. This last principle is especially significant and needs reiteration. The moral codes that prevail today are often rooted in ancient parochial and tribal loyalties; they date from the nomadic or agricultural infancy of the human species. As we enter a post-industrial information age, the basic imperative faced by humankind is the urgent necessity of developing planetary ethical awareness of our mutual interdependence. We need to transcend the hidebound, archaic religious dogmas of the past which divide humanity–Roman Catholicism, fundamentalist Christianity, Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Hinduism, and others–and reach a new plateau of recognition of our common human needs and interests.
As science and technology continue to expand, the disparity between new technologies and ancient moralities becomes all the more apparent. Humanism expresses an authentic concern for the whole of humanity; it is interested in maximizing liberty and happiness for all members of the human family and in encouraging concern for the amelioration of life as lived here and now. Humanist ethics thus differ from the spiritualistic, otherworldly salvational doctrines of traditional religions that focus on life in the hereafter. Nevertheless, we humanists need to emphasize our shared humanistic values with men and women of diverse traditions. We need to point out that our basic moral beliefs have roots in both human nature and human civilization and that we share a mutual interest in peace, prosperity, and freedom. We not only have some responsibility to the present world community but to future generations yet to be born, and this should transcend that which divides us.
A Commitment to Naturalism
I submit that humanism in the future needs to emphasize–as never before–its commitment to naturalism. This is its unique message on the current cultural scene, and we ought not be reluctant to state it forthrightly. Most metaphysical views of reality today are spiritual, mystical, or theological in origin. Ours is based on scientific naturalism.
Naturalism is committed, first, to a set of methodological prescriptions. This means that all hypotheses and theories are to be tested experimentally by reference to natural causes and events. To introduce occult or transcendental causes is inadmissible within the sciences. The methods of science are not infallible, nor do they present us with unchanging absolute truths. Yet, on balance, they are the most reliable methods that we have for expanding knowledge and solving human problems. Wide sectors of the public today accept the utility of the sciences; they recognize that the sciences have had powerful transforming consequences. Unfortunately, the application of the methods of science is often confined to narrow specialties and the broader implications of science to our view of reality are ignored.
Naturalistic humanists, in contradistinction, wish to extend the methods of science to all fields of human endeavor. In particular, they wish to use these methods to interpret our knowledge of nature and human behavior. In this sense, naturalism presents a cosmic outlook based upon the sciences. It does not draw primarily upon religion, poetry, or the arts for its account of reality–even though these fields may be expressive of important human interests. Naturalists generally hold a form of nonreductive materialism; that is, natural processes and events are best accounted for by reference to material causes, and mass and energy in some sense are basic to the natural world. This form of naturalism is nonreductive because it leaves room for a pluralistic universe: although nature is basically physical-chemical at root, processes and objects manifest themselves on many levels of observation–electrons, atoms, and molecules; genes and cells; organisms, flowers, and plants; psychological perception and cognition; social and cultural institutions; planets, stars, and galaxies. Thus we must leave room for contextual explanations, drawing them from the natural, biological, social, and behavioral fields of inquiry.
In any case, naturalists maintain that there is no scientific evidence for a divine scheme of salvation, no discernible teleological purpose in nature, and that there are likewise insufficient grounds to believe in the immortality of the soul. The classical doctrine of creationism and its promise of an afterlife no doubt express the passionate existential yearning of human beings to transcend death. The theory of evolution, however, provides a more parsimonious account of human origins which is based upon evidence drawn from a wide range of the sciences.
Some religious humanists today argue that we should mute our agnosticism, skepticism, or atheism. There is some trepidation that our open expressions of nontheistic views will offend religious sensibilities. The strategic argument they raise is not without some merit. There are important aspects of the humanist program that others can share with us, particularly liberal allies within the religious camp. This applies especially to our defense of humanistic values, our commitment to human freedom, and our belief in human rights, democracy, the separation of church and state, and world federalism. Why offend our allies? they ask. I do not wish to dismiss these concerns; on the other hand, an uncharitable critic might argue that to deny our atheism only masks our true beliefs and is a form of deception.
Now I grant that we should avoid crude atheistic attacks on religious believers–such as Madalyn Murray O’Hair was wont to do. But surely there is room for dignified and responsible presentations of nontheistic, naturalistic humanism. We are heir to a noble historic free-thought tradition that traces its roots from ancient Greece and Rome, through the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, to the scientific and democratic revolutions of the modern world. And there are many humanist heroines and heroes who share our iconoclasm. If we do not have the courage to defend our naturalistic convictions on this score, then who on the current scene will do so?
There are other aspects of the humanist agenda that no doubt would elicit congenial support from liberal allies, such as our defense of positive uses of technology, the principles of humanist ethics, and our belief that we need to build a world community.
The Positive Reach of Technology
Humanists have consistently pointed to the possible beneficent value of scientific technology for human welfare. Modernist philosophers, from Francis Bacon to John Dewey, have emphasized the increased power over nature that scientific knowledge affords. Technology has vastly improved the standard of living of the ordinary person. Agricultural and medical technologies have helped to eliminate poverty and hunger from many parts of the world. They have extended life expectancy, conquered many diseases, and mitigated pain and suffering. Moreover, they have opened up educational opportunities and enhanced leisure and cultural enrichment for more and more people. Rapid communication and travel have truly made us one world.
There is no doubt that, with the introduction of new technologies, unforeseen negative byproducts have often emerged. Some critics of technology–for example, the Luddites of the nineteenth century, Martin Heidegger and other postmodernists of the twentieth century, and unibomber Theodore Kaszynski–have deplored the possible misuses of technology. Humanists have recognized that some technological innovations may engender unforeseen problems: the runaway population explosion, environmental damage, depletion of natural resources, unemployment, and the like. Humanists are keenly aware of the possible noxious uses of technology. Unfortunately, more often than not technological applications are determined by their economic considerations, by whether products are profitable, or by their military and political uses. There are vast dangers inherent in the uncontrolled use of technology; thermonuclear, biological, and chemical weapons of mass destruction still have not been effectively regulated by the world community.
Similarly, many breakthroughs in genetics, biology, and medical research (such as biogenetic engineering, cloning, and organ transplantation) nave possible dangers. Yet these same technologies offer enormous potentialities for enhancing human health and welfare. Although humanism is closely allied to the environmental movement, humanists have generally objected to efforts to limit scientific research, to censor or restrict inquiry. We have held that the best way to deal with technological applications in democratic societies is by informed debate–not by appealing to absolute dogmas or emotional sloganeering. Each technological innovation needs to be evaluated in cost-benefit terms, with its short-range as well as long-range social and ethical consequences evaluated.
The Centrality of Humanist Ethics
This leads to another central issue that a new humanist manifesto must address today. We are often chastised by conservative theists who charge that humanism is unable to provide a viable foundation for ethical responsibilities and that “without God all things are possible.” Indeed, we are blamed for the alleged moral breakdown of modern society. This argument is profoundly misinformed, for it is clear that countless millions of atheists, agnostics, and humanists have led exemplary lives, have been responsible citizens, have raised their children with loving care, and have contributed significantly to the moral amelioration of society. How then should humanists respond to these misinformed charges?
First, by pointing out that from the idea of the fatherhood of God any number of contradictory moral commandments have been drawn. Theists have been both for and against slavery, war, capital punishment, women’s rights, monogamy, celibacy, birth control, and abortion. Christians and Jews, Muslims and Hindus, Protestants and Catholics have often slaughtered each other with impunity. Thus religious piety is no guarantee of moral virtue; on the contrary, religion is profoundly unreliable as a foundation for ethics.
What then is the basis of humanist ethics? We are, of course, committed to an ethic of freedom: liberty of thought and conscience, the free mind and free inquiry, and the right of individuals to pursue their own life-styles as they see fit. We therefore respect diversity and the right to privacy. But the fact that we defend individual self-determination does not mean that we condone any and all vagaries of human conduct. Indeed, humanists have said that along with our commitment to a free society is our recognition of the importance of moral education for our children and the constant need to raise the qualitative level of taste and appreciation in society. The fact that we tolerate diverse life-styles does not necessarily mean that we approve of them; and although we believe in individual rights, we also insist that there be a recognition of each person’s moral obligations. Indeed, humanist ethical philosophers–from Aristotle to John Stuart Mill and John Dewey–have defended an ethic of excellence in which some temperance, moderation, self-restraint, and self-control are present, and where creative realization of our highest talents is a duty that we hold to ourselves. They have likewise emphasized our moral responsibilities to other human beings.
At the present juncture, I believe that humanism should be critical of promiscuous life-styles–noncondemnatory, nonlegislative, and noncensorial but always pointing out the need to develop the higher pleasures and to pursue ennobling activities. There is also the need to enter into moral relationships with others and to express a loving and caring concern. We ought not treat other human beings as mere objects for our own satisfaction; we ought to consider them as persons entitled to equality of consideration. Humanists need to take the high ground. We should, in my judgment, defend the importance of the family. We should not abandon this to the religious dogmatists. Where a marriage is viable, it should be sustained; where children are involved, parents have special obligations to their welfare. Humanists have long held that this should apply to same-sex as well as heterosexual relationships.
There are surely viable alternative life-styles permissible in a free society, and humanism has in the past rightly defended liberation from repressive puritanical codes. Yet this does not mean that our starting point is selfish gratification or that there are no standards for judging values. I believe that our station in life and our prior commitments impose specific duties and obligations upon us. This also implies that we should develop an altruistic concern for the needs and interests of others. We should not leave to theistic religion the ethics of empathy and compassion; these virtues are also essential for ethical humanism. Forming the bedrock for this are “the common moral decencies”–that is, the general moral virtues that are widely shared by humans of diverse cultural backgrounds. For example, we ought to tell the truth, keep promises, be honest, sincere, beneficent, reliable, and fair-minded; we ought to negotiate our differences reasonably and try to be cooperative; we ought not harm other persons; and so on. High on the humanist agenda is the need to provide moral education for children, to develop character and an appreciation for the common moral decencies, and to encourage moral growth.
I cannot enter here into a detailed examination of why we ought to behave morally. I maintain that we do not need a theological justification for moral virtues; our moral impulses are rooted in both human nature (we are potential moral beings and need to develop these capacities) and human civilization. Moreover, the awareness of genuine ethical principles has developed only over a long period of history. Naturalistic ethics thus does not have a supernatural source but relates ethical choices ultimately to human interests, wants, needs, and values. We judge those choices in part on utilitarian grounds, by their consequences for human happiness and social justice.
For humanists, reason is essential in formulating our ethical choices. We are committed to using “the method of intelligence” in all aspects of life. In particular, we need to engage in a process of deliberative rational inquiry if we are to solve our moral dilemmas. Our values and principles can best be justified in the light of reflective cognitive inquiry. Humanists today often talk about “revisionary ethics” or a “moral revolution.” What is meant by this is simply that we should be willing to modify our ethical principles and values in the light of current realities and future expectations. The continuing need to develop new solutions for old moral dilemmas can best be seen in medical ethics. The debate over euthanasia, for example, has intensified because medical technology now enables us to keep patients alive who earlier might have died. The age-old moral virtues do not always help us when dealing with the new powers that have been made possible by scientific developments: in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, genetic engineering, organ transplantation, cloning, and the like. We cannot look back to the general theological absolutes of the past for guidance here.
How shall we proceed? Although there is a body of ethical wisdom that we draw upon–the basic moral decencies and individual excellencies–there are always new principles that need to be developed in the light of evidence and in relation to the new situations that we encounter. These principles need to be judged comparatively and melioratively by their concrete practical consequences. Most moral philosophers today agree with some form of modified neo-Kantianism–that is, that we ought to abide by “an ethic of principles.” This means that we cannot say that the end justifies the means; on the contrary, our ends are shaped by our means, and there are limits to what we are permitted to do. This is especially important today when we recall the brutal gulags of the twentieth century which compromised moral means to achieve visionary ideological ends.
The Need for Global Institutions
As I indicated earlier, we have a special, dramatic, and urgent challenge to meet today, particularly with the globalization of all aspects of life. That challenge is to develop a new global ethics that transcends our chauvinistic, nationalistic, ethnic, and racial perspectives of the past.
As humanists, we need to continue to defend the growth of democratic institutions; we need to guarantee human rights not only for our own society or country but for all members of the world community. Today, I submit, there is an especially compelling need to resist the oligarchical control of the media of information, whether by powerful economic interests or the state. We need to keep alive a free market of ideas, respecting diversity of opinion and the right to dissent. The mass media today are often concerned more with selling products than conveying information; they are at the beck and call of commercial advertisers, locusing on entertainment to the near exclusion of education. Humanists eschew any form of censorship, but we need to mount a democratic movement to take back control of the media from the powerful conglomerates and to allow for cultural enrichment.
The development of global democratic institutions must include some procedure for the regulation of multinational corporations. We should encourage free-market economies, yet we cannot ignore or disparage social needs. We need to recommend daring and innovative proposals to maximize global human progress. The disparities between the affluent and the underdeveloped sectors of the globe remain a problem today, as they were in 1973 and 1933. We can help overcome this in part by encouraging self-help and by providing capital, technical aid, and educational assistance. Many humanists have argued that we should develop an international system of taxation in order to assist the underdeveloped sectors of the human family and fulfill social needs not fulfilled by market forces. I submit that we have a moral commitment to help banish drudgery, poverty, hunger, pain, sorrow, and disease wherever we encounter them, using the best means at our disposal to do so. Many parts of the globe are already eliminating conditions of dependency and deprivation. We need to encourage this process.
We also need to deal with the following challenges on a global level: reducing environmental pollution, including carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases; developing alternative fuels; reforesting denuded lands; counteracting the erosion of topsoil in cultivable areas; facilitating environmentally friendly businesses; limiting fishing that threatens the extinction of entire fish populations; protecting endangered species; encouraging birth control and smaller families to stem runaway population growth; encouraging the reverse flow of populations from the cities to the countryside; retraining the unemployed; providing better working conditions, especially for women and the underprivileged; reducing the addictive lifestyle of conspicuous consumption; allocating more resources to health care, education, and cultural enrichment; and banning all weapons of mass destruction.
Concomitant with the growth of the global economy, we need to develop a federal transnational democratic system of law and, especially, a workable security system to resolve military conflicts that threaten peace. It is essential that nation-states transfer some of their sovereignty to a world body. This latter proposal will no doubt engender extreme opposition from conservative nationalists like Senator Jesse Helms in the United States and National Front party leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in France.
A new World Federal Constitution should be concerned with our common and interdependent human interests, yet it should allow for maximum freedom and decentralization on the local and regional level. This new world society can only develop when a global ethical consensus has been achieved. Humanists were among the first to defend human rights. We now need to define and defend the concept of shared human values on the transnational level. Humanists can lead the way in helping to create a genuine new planetary society.
Optimism about the Human Prospect
Last and perhaps most important, we, as humanists, need to instill a sense of optimism about the human prospect. Although many problems may be difficult to solve or even seem intractable, humanists believe that we can marshal our best talents to solve them and that, by goodwill and dedication, a better life is achievable by more and more members of the human community. Humanism holds forth great promise for humankind. We wish to cultivate a sense of wonder, an excitement about the potential opportunities for achieving enriched lives for ourselves, for our children, and for generations to come.
Humanism rejects nihilistic philosophies of doom and despair, those which advise an escape from reason and freedom, which fester in fear and foreboding, and which are focused on apocalyptic and Armageddon scenarios. The human species has always faced challenges. That is the continuing saga of the human adventure. Humanists reiterate today, as in the past, that no divine power will rescue us. We are responsible for our own destiny; the best we can do is marshal our intelligence, courage, and compassion to achieve our highest dreams and aspirations and to actualize our noblest ends and ideals. Humanists declare that the good life is possible for each and every person of the planetary society of the future.
Life can be meaningful for those willing to assume the responsibility and to undertake the cooperative efforts necessary to fulfill it. Humanists can and ought to help create the new world of tomorrow. The future can be wholesome and bountiful, and it can open up new, daring, and exciting vistas. Humanism can contribute significantly to the development of positive attitudes so necessary if we are to realize the unparalleled opportunities that await humankind.
Paul Kurtz is professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His most recent book is The Courage to Become: The Virtues of Humanism (1997).
COPYRIGHT 1998 American Humanist Association
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