Morality (n.) conformity to ideals of right human conduct
Toward a Humanist Morality
by Roy Speckhardt
QualiaSoup: Morality Playlist
…science, atheism & the natural world.
For many, the idea of morality approached scientifically brings to mind scientists in lab coats measuring chemicals, firing-up Bunsen burners, or analyzing brain tissues. But science isn’t confined to research institutions. Rather, it’s a basic method for gaining improved understandings. It’s applicable to any natural phenomenon, including morality.
Albert Einstein said, “There is nothing divine about morality, it is a purely human affair.”
Developing the pieces for the puzzle of your Humanist morality is literally child’s play.
Psychologist Jean Piaget came to understand this when he looked for morality in very young children, who had not had much time to be exposed to a complex moral system in their secular or religious education. Nor did they have the mental equipment yet to understand a taught morality.
He looked for morality in the game of marbles. Piaget found several stages of development among small children. In the first phase, marbles were simply an object of motor skills; and infants tasted them, buried them, piled them up, threw them; and so on. Next, some of these behaviors became ritualized, as if associated with particular thoughts of the infants performing them.
Within two years, small children old enough to speak were making some effort to imitate the rules of the game as practiced by older children. They were incapable of remembering or understanding all these rules, and each child played only against herself or himself, but they still considered the rules sacred.
Later, as children mastered the rules of marbles, a keen sense of fairness arose that influenced the creation and use of the rules.
Finally, though fairness remained key, older children came to regard the rules as their collective creation, a contract they formed to be able to play with one another. Sound familiar?
Thus, the rules evolved to define the conditions for cooperation, the penalties for defection, and how rules might be amended or replaced. This research nicely shows how humans are rule-creating animals that start developing individualized moralities in early childhood.
The key today is to check your choices against your existing morality, and that morality against its foundation and goals. You can change if you discover inconsistencies.
What should be our guiding goal?
Philosopher Paul Kurtz agrees that the goal of humanistic morality “is the enhancement of the good life: happiness and well-being for the widest number of individuals.” To continue with Kurtz, he mentioned that this goal is not limited to our humanist minority. “This point of view came into prominence [in Europe] during the Renaissance; it is expressed in the Declaration of Independence, and indeed in virtually every modern democratic system of ethics. People may dispute about the meaning of happiness, but nonetheless most humanists say that the good life involves satisfying and pleasurable experience, creative actualization, and human realization.” Both religious and nonreligious people can share this goal. To reject it would be to repeal the modern world.
What about tough choices?
When considering our options, sometimes we may contemplate unethical actions. But using unethical means—from murder to “simple” dishonesty—can have unforeseen results, they can degrade the character, and they can even damage the very end for which they were engaged. Under humanistic ethics, such actions shouldn’t be entered into lightly and should be avoided save in exceptional circumstances.
What makes our moralities uniquely Humanist?
Just like many aspects of our personality, a web of interactions between our genetics and our environment influences our values. We know that education and conscious decision can gradually develop our personal morality in the direction we seek to take it. As it says in Humanist Manifesto III, “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.”
Since it’s possible, I’d argue that we have a moral imperative to develop our moralities. We can direct our moral compass toward a path consistent with humanistic aims so that we’re doing what we can to ethically maximize happiness and minimize suffering. In constructing this morality humanists and other freethinkers don’t look to ancient books or supernatural revelations, but instead depend on the core principles of: the scientific method, compassion, and an egalitarianism that guides our sense of fairness. Let’s drill a little deeper.
Our unflagging dedication to the scientific method is relied upon because experience has proven it reliable. For the humanist, this method for deriving answers is supreme. Believing that knowledge of the world is derived through observation, experimentation, and rational analysis automatically discards many possible conclusions. Because of this approach, Humanists tend to reject supernatural sources, unexamined dogma, and simplistic concepts of good and evil. Humanists don’t simply disbelieve religious explanations; rather, we find that such explanations don’t stand up to reasonable scientific scrutiny. And we tend to be skeptical of large concentrations of power, be they religious, governmental, or economic.
The second core principle is a deep-seated compassion for humankind and the world at large because benefiting society maximizes individual happiness and raises the potential of humanity. Indeed, a primary purpose of engaging the scientific method is to pursue compassionate goals, improving the world through the quest for knowledge and using that knowledge to benefit ourselves and society. For us, only reason, observation, experience, and action provide truly reliable tools for realizing compassionate ends.
Such a commitment to compassion might have only a modest effect on our positions were it not for the accompanying commitment to an egalitarian based sense of fairness. This third principle is the conviction that humans are basically equal and that each person should be treated as having inherent worth. While early Hindu society may have been filled with compassionate aims, its caste system, in denigrating whole segments of society to lesser than human status, prevented it from fully realizing its compassionate aims. Acceptance of considerable group inequality is insupportable through humanist reasoning.
So, if we’re serious about developing our moralities, we must examine our own maxims and really think about what they mean, and go further by finding positive ways to integrate our rules for living into our daily lives.
As UU minister Kendyl Gibbons said, “If there is no personality governing the universe and promising us love, justice, and meaning on some ontological bottom line, then it is all the more necessary for us, flawed and finite as we are, to give love, to enact justice, and to build meaning here and now.”