Digest of terms

Humanist ethics

Humanism is today mostly taken to mean secular humanism. The focus is exclusively this-worldly, with a strong affirmation of the possibility of a moral and meaningful life despite - for some, because of - the lack of a transcendent ground or purpose. Either an agnostic or an atheist stance is adopted, it being held either that there is no convincing rational justification for belief in God, gods, or any religiously transcendent goal or reality, or that there are convincing reasons to disbelieve.

Morality, then, is rooted in the nature of human existence, although there is no unanimity regarding just how this is to be understood. Still, a coherent overall approach can be sketched in. Priority is given to the satisfaction of basic human needs and interests. What these may be is a matter of rational appraisal, and judged in the context of what might reasonably be thought to be conducive to forms of human flourishing. On this basis many humanists advocate some form of utilitarianism, though others uphold a modified Kantian ethic, and others still, drawing on Aristotle, are attracted to a kind of eudaimonism. Some humanists concede that without a religious anchor moral values are ultimately relative, but many today see an account of human nature rooted in ethology and evolutionary psychology as providing a secure secular anchor for an emerging non-relative ethic.

While there is substantial disagreement regarding ethical theory, there is considerable consensus regarding core humanist values. These include respect for others, tolerance, freedom of thought, social justice, the authority of reason, individual autonomy, and human rights. These should be safeguarded by a liberal democratic state in which education is free from political or religious indoctrination. While being opposed to faith schools, most humanists would accept open-minded forms of religious education in schools in which, as elsewhere in the curriculum, skills of reasoning, critical analysis and critical questioning are encouraged.

Most philosophical work in ethics today presupposes a secular framework and may be regarded as contributing to humanist ethics, albeit tacitly. Explicitly humanist ethics are highlighted in the writings and activities of organisations such as the individual national Humanist Associations.

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