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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 is not dependent on God nor superordinate to God, but rather that good is God's nature.  This provides 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 article 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 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 a god.  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, but 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 a 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 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 the 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.

No Moral Anarchy Nor Utility

As long as morality is grounded in human well-being, "anything" is not permissible.  Rape is wrong because it clearly subtracts from human well-being.  The pleasure the rapist might feel from the act pales in comparison to the suffering of the victim, the victim's family, the victim's community, and the world at large might experience by living in a world where something like that can happen to them or someone about whom they care.  In this example, we see that collective well-being extends beyond utility and the direct benefits of a few, and incorporates the psychological well-being of all humanity.  It is not morally permissible for doctors to grab a healthy person from the waiting room and dissect him for his organs in order to save ten lives.  The idea of living in a world where such an act is permissible (and can happen to you or your loved ones) does far more damage to overall well-being than saving ten lives.

Changing Morality: A Tough Pill To Swallow

Even though there is an objectively correct moral choice (albeit often unknowable), the collective well-being on which morality is based is subject to change over time.  An individual or group of people can have an effect on morality if they can influence others' thoughts, feelings, and beliefs on well-being.  For example, if society generally accepts that gay marriage is immoral, the idea of gay marriage may have negative psychological effects (no matter how irrational they may be) on the vast majority of people that result in decreased overall well-being.  If a person or group can influence enough people to change their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, then the balance of negative to positive well-being can shift to the point where the moral position changes.  This idea is difficult to accept for some because of the historian's fallacy,  an error in reasoning that occurs when one assumes that decision makers of the past viewed events from the same perspective and having the same information as those subsequently analyzing the decision.  It may be incomprehensible for us today to imagine how an issue such as women's voting rights could have ever even been an issue worthy of debate, but this is because we are putting a moral issue of 100 years ago in today's moral climate.

Morality does change over time, but only because our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about the world are constantly changing based on new information being available.  Understood in this way, the relativity of morality is temporal only—objective in the moment, but relative over time.  Morality is not geographically relative since the foundation of morality, human well-being, is geographically ubiquitous.  A tribe living in the jungle that eats their babies as a form of population control may experience a high level of well-being within their tribe, but knowledge of such a practice by the rest of humanity has a deleterious effect on overall well-being.  From a Humanist perspective, the well-being of humanity takes precedence over cultural practices that violate human rights even if these practices might be "free expressions of religion."  In the Humanist world view, there is no privileged status for religious practices that negatively affect human well-being making them exempt from moral judgment.

A Complex Topic Too Often Made Simplistic

I have presented examples that generally do not present moral dilemmas—issues such as rape, infanticide, and cannibalism.  As we have seen, despite any objectivity that may exist in a morality grounded in well-being, our inherent inability to know the long term and far reaching effects that an action might have on well-being adds the subjective element to morality, and the reason for moral disagreement.  Like it or not, morality is functionally democratic.  What is considered moral is a collective reflection of human ideals and values.  It may be the case that our collective moral judgment is one that detracts from our well-being—but we just don't know it—or it may be that the moral majority is in need of an attitude change due to the suffering of an ignored minority.  If there is a "moral truth" we should accept, it is that morality is a highly complex issue that cannot be encapsulated in one rule or even ten commandments.

As Humanists, we must never accept "moral truths" (including mine) without carefully considering the effects they may have on the well-being of all of humanity.  Science can certainly inform moral decisions since, although far from perfect, well-being is a measurable construct.  We must practice empathy and anticipate how choices might affect the well-being of others.  We need to think both short-term and long-term.  Most importantly, we must have the wisdom and the courage to distinguish morality from obedience, and act in accordance with maximizing collective well-being to the best of our ability.

Action Items

1) Think about how you would respond to the claim that you "cannot be moral without God" and have your elevator pitch response ready. 2) Make a list of controversial topics involving morality that interest you.  Where do you currently stand on those issues?  Understanding morality in the way described above, does your moral position change for any of the issues?

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Positive humanism is an applied secular humanistic philosophy based on the scientific findings of positive psychology that focuses on personal, professional, and societal flourishing. As an applied philosophy its focus is on ideas that lead to increased well-being. As a secular humanistic philosophy, there are no appeals to the supernatural, the magical, or the mystical.

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