Ethical Humanist; A Redundant Term?

A question came to me Sunday morning that I found intriguing and involves two things many do not understand completely – Ethics and Humanism.

Barry Scheckner asked in a threaded discussion, “Is ‘ethical humanist’ redundant?” Here he means an excessive use of words that have the same or similar meanings.

Now. Mr. Scheckner is a very smart and well-educated gentleman. He and Patricia Scheckner run a 501(c)(3) called Jewels 4 Charities. Scheckner and I have had some discussions concerning religiosity and philosophy, and I honor his positions. Yet I find this question quite intriguing.

Can we approach the question by asking about ethical Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhist, etcetera? Are these versions of the same redundancy? Are all humanists “ethical?”

Ethics and humanism are two separate issues that can and do often overlap. However, too many believe that the two terms are interchangeable – they are not.

In reality most, but not all humanists, atheists, agnostics, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists lead moral lives, personal and business. There are small percentages in each that do not.

Humanism is a bit like Zen as a method of emphasizing the value of meditation and intuitive thought over worship of a god or gods and the study of the various scriptures. One could be a Zen Buddhist, Zen Christian, Zen atheist. We also have Buddhist Humanists, Christian Humanist, Jewish Humanists and so on.

A large portion of this intuitive thought process involves logic and verification, and trial and error. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” concerns the Zen thinking process, whereby the great general’s lessons of war and strategy were developed through his own learning, his own trials and errors, and thought experiments.  Tzu’s ability to comprehend the nature of battle fall in to the same category as Einstein’s ability to understand the time-space continuum, through thought experiments.


Fred Edwords, & AHA placards

Fred Edwords, national director of United Coalition of Reason, found that even defining humanism is problematic. In his essay, “What is a humanist?” he wrote, “The sort of answer you get to the question “What is humanism?” depends on the sort of humanist you ask!” The broad range of humanist relations run the complete dimension of secular and sectarian ideals of humanity’s treatment of man and all creatures upon this planet.

As with humanism, ethics is not some universal value system, though there are universal values such as do not murder, do not steal, and do not covet for your neighbor’s house, wife or husband, or things.

I have come to define ethics as the study of social rights and wrongs, the morals of a society. These morals are temporal in nature, changing with time, knowledge and education. Morals are rarely static.

Within each societal group – home, work, school, etcetera – moral rules are a bit different. In one’s family life, for example, there may be no secrets between wife and husband. However, in the lodge one belongs to, there is a code of silence of the activities within the lodge’s facilities and those “secrets are kept from the spouse.

In the same sectarian groups, Jewish, Christian or Islam, there are different “values” that must be contended with as each interprets their version of scripture differently. Even within the same faith, there are hundreds of sects, each maintaining their own standard of how to pray, dress, eat and socialize, to name a few. These can and do drastically differ and can cause conflict in the communities themselves.

The same holds true in the atheist communities as it does in the religious communities.

Each sect has those who are more orthodox or secular than others. The problem is any attempt to find an orthodoxy within humanism. The differing number of humanists sects, from those who seek their humanism through their church, temple or mosque, or through their more secular side as skeptics, agnostics, atheists and free thinkers, have the same defining humanism and ethics as do religious organizations.

As individuals, we all have a sense of morality, but our individual sense of right versus wrong may differ from our neighbors’, a point that is not lost by most philosophers.

This could not be better illustrated than by Luke Muehlhauser’s  November, 2009 essay, “Why I am not a Humanist Atheist.” He disagrees how The Humanist Manifesto III defines the ethics of Humanism, which states,

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond.

 His argument is that “moral values are derived from human desires. I believe moral values are derived from desires, period. To focus on human desires and ignore all other desires in the universe is blatant speciesism.”

Personally, I could not disagree more. I am a humanist atheist. I also hold strongly to the ethics of our society, as understood through my definition above, is a human invention. I tend to agree with  Helene Guldberg, Ph.D. who disputes the idea of speciesism by writing,

[T]here is a world of difference between an instinctual connection between organisms – including some of our instinctual responses, such as yawning when others yawn – and human empathy involving a Theory of Mind, that is, the ability to recognize that one’s own perspectives and beliefs can be different from someone else’s.

Because humanists and atheists have no “doctrine” per se, it is hard to pin down morality as “group thing.” Austin Cline of seems to have targeted the problem with defining the “doctrine” of humanism as simply and directly as anyone when he postulates,

…because the happiness and suffering of other human beings matter to us such that we should seek, whenever possible, to increase their happiness and decrease their suffering. It’s also the “point” that morality is required for human social structures and human communities to survive at all. Neither the presence nor the absence of any gods can change this… [that theists] cannot claim that their beliefs are prerequisites for making any moral decisions at all.

We all believe in the Golden Rule, though I prefer Nobel Laureate Linus Pauling’s version better; “Do unto others 20% then you expect them to do unto you – to correct for subjective error.”

In fact, it is Man who designed anthropomorphism as to give other animate and inanimate things, creatures and mythologies human values. Hurricane Sandy did not kill anyone; that would be giving the storm human qualities. People died as a result of the damages caused by nature.

Back to “ethical humanist” and if the term is redundant? My conclusion is no, they are not, nor are they an oxymoron as another reader suggested. A humanist, whether secular or sectarian, old school or new, is different from living a moral life according to the morals of a specific society.

The term is used in denoting an Ethical-Humanist society, which has chapters worldwide, including the United States. The Ethical Humanists of Chicago include in their credo,

We nurture a sense of wonder about life, nature, and the universe, and are inspired by positive models of human achievement. Shaped by the forces of humanism, democracy, science, and religious reform, we cherish human diversity, and we focus on what we have in common, not on what keeps us apart.

The Ethical Humanist Society of Long Island states its 12 values as,

  • Ethics is my religion
  • Every person is important and unique
  • Every person deserves to be treated fairly and kindly
  • I can learn from everyone
  • I am part of this earth, I cherish it, and all the life upon it
  • I learn from the world around me by using senses, mind, and feelings
  • I am a member of the world community, which depends on the cooperation of all people for peace and justice
  • I can learn from the past to build for the future
  • I am free to question
  • I am free to choose what I believe
  • I accept responsibility for my choices and actions
  • I strive to live my values

The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU), “the sole world umbrella organization embracing Humanist, atheist, rationalist, secularist, skeptic, laïque, ethical cultural, freethought and similar organizations world-wide,” state their values as

… a world in which human rights are respected and everyone is able to live a life of dignity. The mission of IHEU is to build and represent the global Humanist movement that defends human rights and promotes Humanist values world-wide.

So what is ethical humanism? How about: The moral obligations of a society or organization while maintaining the dignity and worth of all people.

Could an organization’s moral code conflict with the moral code of a single person who is a fervent believer in a religion, organization or mythology? Absolutely. Does one need to believe in a god, religion or dogma to be ethical? Absolutely not. 

About David Rosman

David is the winner of the Missouri Press Foundation's "Best Columnist" in 2013 (First Place) and 2014 (Second Place), the 2016 Harold Riback Award for excellence in writing, and the winner of the 2007 Interactive Media Award for excellence in editing.
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