Sunday, March 23, 2008

Humanist discussion of Ethics

Here are some excerpts from BHA on the subject of Ethics:
  • Humanists recognise that moral values are properly founded on human nature and experience alone:
  • Humanists do not refer to sacred texts or religious authorities when making moral decisions.
  • Humanists base their lives on guiding principles, not dogmatic rules.
  • Despite that, humanists do not believe that basic moral principles are simply matters of personal preference or that they can vary much from place to place or time to time - humanists are not relativists
  • Humanists value ideas for which there is evidence
  • Humanists believe that it is reasonable to enjoy the good things in life if we can do so without harming others or the environment.
  • They think we should all try to live full and happy lives, and that one way to do this is to help other people to do the same. So humanists believe in making responsible choices.
  • Humanists believe that we should review moral codes in the light of our principles and of developments in society and human knowledge.
  • The fact that we can do certain things does not mean that we ought to, but who is to decide what we do? Scientists? Doctors? Politicians? Moral philosophers? Religious leaders? Each individual?
  • reason is what distinguishes human beings from animals and that we therefore ought to use reason to solve problems and make life better.
  • There are some actions, like murder, that we can generally accept as wrong - we do not have to weigh up the pros and cons every time we are faced with a murder. And, in a democratic nation like the UK , we should obey the law. If humanists think a law is immoral, they work to change it
  • But there are many moral situations where we do have to think for ourselves. Humanists consider carefully the particular situation and the effects of choices on the happiness or suffering of the people (and sometimes animals) concerned and the wider community. They weigh up the evidence, the probable consequences of the action, and the rights and wishes of those involved, trying to find the kindest course of action or the option that will do the least harm and will not compromise their personal principles or integrity. Often humanist perspectives on moral issues are not very different from those of liberally-minded religious people. However, a humanist view is explicitly based on reason, experience, and empathy and respect for others, rather than on tradition or deference to authority, which often influence religious views.
  • All this may seem like simple common sense, but it is far from simple in its application.
    • Although many people (including many religious people) do make moral decisions this way, others decide very differently.
    • Some people just obey the teachings of their religion;
    • others accept the conventional wisdom of the day.
    • Some people adopt rigid rules which they apply in all circumstances;
    • others avoid thinking about moral issues at all or let individual personal preference decide the issue.
    • We are all confronted sometimes with moral choices, perhaps because the situation involves us, or because we are in a position to decide for or advise other people - even voting in an election or shopping might involve making moral choices. As intelligent rational beings, we ought to think about how we make these choices.
  • Shared values Communities can survive and work efficiently, and increase the welfare and happiness of their members, only if the people who live in them co-operate and accept certain principles, based on shared human values. These include:
    • looking after the young and other vulnerable people;
    • valuing the truth and respecting promises;
    • fair allocation of power and property according to some recognised system which includes merit;
    • mutual assistance in defence and disasters;
    • disapproval and punishment of wrongdoers, restraints on violence and killing.
  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has gained wide international acceptance, and which celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1998, is underpinned by a belief in shared human needs and values.
  • Statement of values by the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community
  • The Golden Rule
    • Although many of the less important rules vary, all traditions seem to have come up with a version of the "Golden Rule": "Do as you would be done by" or "Treat other people in a way you would like to be treated yourself".
    • Humanists have been impressed with the apparently universal nature of this rule and with its egalitarianism and usefulness as a basic principle. It is based on human nature and experience, using our need to be treated well by others and our aspiration to live harmoniously with others as its foundation. It can be worked out by anyone, anywhere, by reference to experience. It does not need to be given to us by a deity.
    • It has been called "a searchlight, not a map", a metaphor which summarises its undogmatic appeal to humanists. The Golden Rule can be the foundation for other principles.
  • Morality without religion
    • Humanist ethics makes human beings solely responsible for working out and implementing moral values and codes. Of course, we do not choose these completely arbitrarily - they must be based on principles that respect the autonomy (or personal freedom) of others and the general welfare.
    • Morality is much more necessary than religion, and in an era of declining religious belief it is a dangerous mistake to confuse the two.
    • Religious faith does motivate and support some people in living better lives, and that is surely a good thing for the community - the more good people there are, the better for all of us.
    • But religion and dogmatic authorities are not essential for morality.
    • Many non-religious people think that it is actually more moral to think for oneself, and to make responsible and independent choices without divine authority or the hope of divine reward in an afterlife. Freely choosing to help someone else could be considered more virtuous than helping someone out of obedience or because you expect a reward

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