Positive Humanism: A Primer

The Morality of Positive Humanism

One time, I remember, going into the Strand, a poor and infirm old man craved his alms. He beholding him with eyes of pity and compassion, put his hands in his pocket, and gave him 6d. Said a divine (that is Dr. Jasper Mayne) that stood by— ‘Would you have done this, if it had not been Christ’s command?’ ‘Yes,’ said he. ‘Why?’ said the other. ‘Because,’ said he, ‘I was in pain to consider the miserable condition of the old man; and now my alms, giving him some relief, doth also ease me.’

John Aubrey, Brief Lives (late 17th Century) on Thomas Hobbes

Understandably, theists find comfort in the idea that there exists a God who is the foundation of human morality.  A common theistic understanding is that good and evil are not dependent on God nor superordinate to God, but rather that good is God’s nature. This images-1provides theists with the idea of an objective morality that is absolute and unchanging—one that also happens to be knowable by mankind.  However, this belief often comes at the expense of collective well-being.  Aside from the strong probability of God not existing, there are also many serious flaws with the classic theistic position of God as the foundation of morality that are beyond the scope of positive humanism.  This chapter is about how humanists can understand morality in a world without God, and explain it to others.

So Man Created God in His Own Image

From a psychological perspective, God can be defined as humanity’s projection of human ideals and values.  This explains why “God’s” position on gay rights, forbidden foods, sexual practices, capital punishment, forgiveness and justice, getting into Heaven, avoiding Hell, and virtually every other political, moral, and imagined issue is a clear reflection of the culture and the believer, and not the other way around.  It is easy to imagine a single God with one morality, but if morality is based on human ideals and values, it would reason that it would naturally contain variation given the seven billion humans that comprise what we call “human ideals.”  This variation is responsible for the subjectivity and relativity of morality that many people fear.

Objectivity, Relativity, or Both?

The thought of living in a world where what is “right” and “good” is decided by people and not some transcendent law is terrifying to most—even those who don’t believe in any gods.  The idea that there is an objective morality, that is, a universal law that exists that makes something right or wrong, good or bad, for everyone, in all situations, at all times, is a comforting thought and generally harmless.  However, it is the belief that we have direct knowledge of this objective morality that is dangerous and a major cause of conflict on both personal and global levels.  While we may never know if such “moral truths” exist independently of the human mind, there are ways of understanding morality that are internally consistent (i.e., philosophically sound), in line with scientific understanding, have both personal and prosocial benefits, and do not rely on magical thinking or the supernatural.  The first step is to recognize that the “objective” and “subjective/relative” dichotomy in morality is a false one.  Morality can have components of both, addressing the fears of the “anything would be permissible” crowd while not requiring some unexplainable magic law.

The Collective Well-Being of Humanity: The Humanistic Moral Foundation

As demonstrated by the opening quote, empathy is the biological foundation of what constitutes much of moral action.  But this feeling-based foundation can only get us so far, especially in a world where physical distance and rational facts replace the intimate and emotionally charged climate of our ancestors.  As humanists, we have chosen to ground morality in human well-being just like theists have chosen to ground their morality in their specific god or holy book.  As humanists, however, we should acknowledge this as images-2a choice rather than some universal or divine law.  In one sense, this is an objective morality because it is based on the well-being of every human, and what is “good” and “right” is always based on human well-being.  In another sense, well-being is ultimately a subjective concept, meaning that the specific feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that constitute well-being are not the same for everyone.  For example, my personal sense of well-being is largely dependent on the achievement domain whereas yours may rely mostly on positive emotion.  Therefore, you may feel it is immoral for me to ask employees to work overtime to complete a major project, whereas I may see it as immoral not to.  Objectively, one of the two actions will lead to greater collective well-being despite our subjective beliefs and values—we just can’t know which.

Morality is unimaginably complex primarily because of our inability to predict long-term outcomes and far-reaching effects of our actions.  In other words, we cannot always predict how an action, behavior, or thought might affect the overall well-being of humanity.  In the previous example, we don’t know which course of action will ultimately lead to greater collective well-being so we must act according to the best available evidence and be quick to correct and learn from our mistakes.  People on all sides of issues frequently believe they have the moral high ground because they believe they can better predict effects on well-being than their opponents.  No matter what people believe about well-being, there is some objective level of subjective well-being that is experienced even though we most likely will never be able to measure it with 100% accuracy.

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