Ethics by V. A. Gunasekara
Manussa Tract No. 6
THE ETHICS OF HUMANISM
What is ethics?
At its most general level ethics deals with the standards of conduct.
It seeks to establish rules by which the quality of actions can be
determined. This is sometimes also called morality and the two terms are
often used synonymously. Ethical or moral conduct is conduct that
conforms to a set of permissible rules, while acts which are contrary to
the permissible rules are deemed to be unethical or immoral. Clearly it
is possible that some acts could ethically neutral or amoral. A
distinction is sometimes made between morals and ethics on the ground
that morals deals with concepts like 'good', 'bad', 'right' or 'wrong'
while ethics is concerned with actions which are permitted without
investigating whether they are good, bad, right or wrong. However since
the definition is good is that which is permitted this may be too subtle
a distinction to make, and we will use ethics and morality as synonyms.
Both the Greek root for ethics (ethos) as well as the Latin
root for morals (mores) both mean habits. So at its inception
both ethics and morals meant that which was habitually accepted.
There are several ways in which the subject matter of ethics could be
analysed. In the literature on ethics its subject matter has been
dichotomized in at least three different ways. The first of these is the
distinction between theoretical ethics and practical ethics
and the second that between individual ethics and group
ethics. There is also a third distinction made by philosophers
between normative ethics and meta-ethics. Normative
ethics considers the rules for evaluating the human moral element, while
meta-ethics analyses the meaning and nature of the moral element
(1). We shall not deal with this third distinction, treating
as a variant of the first distinction equating meta-ethics with
theoretical ethics and normative ethics with practical ethics, even
though this is not strictly correct.
Theoretical ethics deals with the general principles that can be used
to determine the ethical value of various forms of conduct. The
formulation of such general principles has been the concern of
philosophers, and in this sense ethical or moral theory has been an
important part of most schools of philosophy. Practical ethics, on the
other hand, deals with specific ethical rules which govern the conduct
of a given group of people. It is usually presented as a list of things
to do and things not to do. This is the aspect of ethics that is of most
interest to ordinary people. It is also the aspect to which preachers
and moralisers most often allude to. In both meanings the subject has
been of concern from ancient times and discussion of the subject has
It might appear that a consideration of ethical principles must
precede the construction of a set of ethical rules, or theoretical
ethics must precede practical ethics. In reality the relationship is
very often the other way around. A set of rules can be given which
people are expected to conform to, and then some rationale developed to
justify these rules. Sometimes of course rules may be drawn up for which
there is no theoretical justification, or none is offered. Practical
ethics is not identical with the system of law that is in force in
various States. There is an obligation to obey the law with penalties
attached to a breach of the law. Moral or ethical principles have to be
followed voluntarily and there is usually no legal sanction against
violations of ethical principles. However the civil law may be based on
general ethical principles, so that punishment for breaking the law may
be seen as a penalty for breaking an ethical rule.
The second distinction we made is between the ethics of the
individual and that of the group. At the individual level we are looking
at the conduct of a single individual. It is true that some kinds of
individual conduct have an impact on others, but the ethical rule is
formulated from the standpoint of the primary agent, not necessary from
that of others who may be affected by that action. This is ethics at its
most basic level, and every system of ethics has attempted to formulate
its own set of personal ethics. Individual ethics is often termed
psychological ethics because psychology is at the root of the
formulation of individual ethics. For a long time ethics was concerned
exclusively with individual ethics, and even now most ethical
discussions are confined to it.
Gradually the notion that a group ethic exists came to be recognised.
Sometimes the group is restricted to smaller subset of the whole
population, as when it relates to a profession or a trade. It is in this
sense that we can speak of medical ethics or advertising ethics. However
the group can also encompass a broad community even the whole of
society. At this level we are dealing with social ethics. Even now there
is some reluctance to admit social ethics is a legitimate area of moral
theory and practice. Some of the most controversial areas in ethics
belong to social ethics.
What is Humanism?
The term Humanism became a term of intellectual discourse during the
Renaissance, an intellectual movement that began in the 14th century
associated with the revival of interest in classical philosophy. The
name most associated with the Renaissance is Erasmus (1466 - 1536) but
his humanism was far from what would be understood by the term now. The
modern usage of the term begins with the views of a number of
philosophers in the period referred to as the Enlightenment (1680 -
1815). These writers challenged the accepted views in a number of areas,
most importantly views based on the dominant religion (Christianity).
Only a few philosophers like David Hume took a nearly atheistic stand,
but most others downgraded the reliance on God as the basis for the
explanation of many things including moral philosophy, and replaced God
with human reason even though some place was still reserved to God in
some ultimate sense.
Secular Humanism has progressed far from the early concerns of the
Enlightenment, and today presents itself as an alternative to
supernatural religion in all areas including ethics. The basic statement
of the Humanist Society of Queensland puts it as follows: "As a
philosophy Humanism asserts that human beings have arisen out of the
operation of natural physical and biological laws, that they are not
subject to any extra-human supernatural agency, and that they are the
arbiters of their own destiny." The first two of the basic
principles of Humanism identified by the HSQ are:
- The primary concern of human beings should be with humanity
(collectively and individually), and the environment (including
nature and other species) in which they operate.
Since humans could also be included in 'nature' in its widest sense
this simply asserts that humanism deals only with the natural. Thus the
supernatural is ruled out. But this exception is so important that it
should be stated explicitly. Thus the second principle of humanism is:
- Human beings are not subject to God or any divine agency, and have
no obligation to love, fear or obey any supernatural power.
When we refer to humanism in this essay we shall mean secular
humanism unless the term is qualified in some way. Some people use the
term 'humanism' is a very general way to denote any concern with human
beings, but such concerns will be described as being humanistic
Significance of Ethics to Humanism
Ethics is more important for humanism than it is for other
non-religious approaches like scepticism, atheism or free-thought. All
these aspects are also important for humanism, but it is the ethical
concern of humanism that sets it apart from them. Thus a consideration
of the ethics of humanism is very important.
2. Main Approaches to Ethical Theory
Over the course of time several approaches to moral philosophy or
ethical theory have been developed. The following are some of these main
approaches which will be useful in the subsequent discussion.
(a) Moral Nihilism. This denies that morality exists
and that all actions have an equal value. It is also sometimes called amoralism
even though this term may mean that there are acts which are amoral
co-existing with acts to which a moral value can be attached. Clearly
humanist ethics does not entail any moral nihilism. This view is
sometimes attributed to Nietzche, even though his views are more complex
than a simple denial of moral standards.
(b) Moral Absolutism. This is the view that there is
one true morality which does not entail any moral conflicts. So there is
no need to override moral principles. Moral Absolutism is based upon a
simple rule which is used to evaluate the moral quality of alternatives.
An example of moral absolutism is a version of the moral philosophy of
Emmanuel Kant. The principle Kant employs is called the Categorical
Imperative which states something like "there is good" rather
than the Hypothetical Imperative which asserts something like "if
there is good". Most people will argue that humanist ethics does
not belong to the species of absolutist morals.
(c) Moral Subjectivism. This holds that moral
principles apply to the agent alone. It implies that there is no need
for the individual to bother with anybody else's moral principles. There
are some humanists who adopt a position like moral subjectivism but I do
not think that humanist ethics should be based purely on subjective
(d) Moral Relativism. This assumes that
groups of individuals can choose their own moral principles, and while
they apply to the group as a whole they may not be relevant for a
different group. Some schools of post-modernists argue in this way but
ethical relativism violates some fundamental principles of humanism.
(e) Moral Conventionalism. This is a form of moral
relativism but instead of the values being determined by the individual
alone it is arrived by a process of social choice or interpersonal
agreement. Sometimes humanist ethics is considered as a species of
(f) Moral Objectivism. This considers moral
principles as having universal validity, but they could be overridden by
other principles under certain circumstances. Many systems of ethics,
including secular humanism, imply such a position, but of course they
differ radically amongst each other.
(g) Moral Scepticism. This claims that we cannot
know whether there are moral truths.
These positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It is
possible for a particular ethical system to share more than one of these
properties and some do.
3. Religious Ethics
While from the philosophical perspective several kinds of ethics may
be identified for secular humanist ethics one particular distinction is
important. This is the distinction between religious ethics and secular
ethics. It would therefore be useful to make some comments on religious
ethics before considering secular ethics.
Most religions present some schema of ethics or other. Indeed some
religions like to present themselves as the sole repository of morality.
Advocates or propagandists for religion very often advance the argument
that without religion there will be no morality. This is best reflected
in the oft-quoted statement by Dostoevsky that "If God did not
exist then everything will be permitted".
Religious ethics comes in several different packages corresponding to
the different religions. Even if we confine ourselves to the
Judeo-Christian-Islamic (JCI) family of religions which share a great
deal of common ground there are significant differences in their
respective ethics. If we compare these religious ethics to other
religions originating in India or China the differences in their
respective ethics become even greater. In this essay we shall confine
ourselves to the three middle-eastern religions, and specifically to
Christianity. All three religions postulate a monotheistic God, and this
God stands in the very centre of their ethical theory.
Is God essential for Ethics?
This is a question which was posed quite early in Western philosophy.
Plato in a dialogue ascribed to Socrates (Euthyphro) raised the
question whether the moral rules favoured by the gods were good because
the gods favoured them, or whether the gods advocated them because they
were good. In the latter case, which is what Plato appeared to favour,
the goodness of moral rules are anterior to, and exist independently of,
the gods. God merely discover these moral laws and commend them to
people. But if the gods can discover these moral laws, then so could
humans through the exercise of some other faculty like reason.
The Greek philosophers were not monotheists, but later scholastics
like St Augustine and Aquinas recast Greek thought into the monotheistic
Christian mould from
which it was not rescued until the Renaissance. In the Christian
interpretation of Plato's thought the position becomes reversed and God
is made into the giver of all values. However the view that the goodness
of things are independent of God is not strictly an atheistic or even an
agnostic view. Even Kant who was very influential in modern Western
ethics supported a position similar to that of Plato.
The Old Testament Ethics
We first encounter the ethical theory of the JCI religions as
commands laid down by God. The Old Testament records these commands as
being communicated to Moses by God. Thsi scripture is recognised by both
Christianity and Judaism. The Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, define the
principal ethical rules of these two religions.
In Islam too ethical rules derive principally from God. Muhammad
claimed to have received his revelation from an arch-angel who
communicated what God had written down in the Koran
(2). Muhammad claims it is the same God who spoke to Moses, so
God seems to have changed his mind from the time he gave the commands to
Moses and to Muhammad. Muhammad claimed that as the "seal" of
the prophets there would be no further revision in the divine
The Mosaic Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) are:
1. Do not have any other gods before Yahweh.
2. Do not worship "graven images".
3. Do not take the "name of the Lord thy God in vain".
4. Keep the sabbath day.
5. Honour the father and mother.
6. Do not kill.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal
9. Do not bear false witness against the neighbour.
10. Do not covet (in the following order) the neighbour's house,
wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, ass, nor anything else.
The first four of these commandments are religious ones and would not
usually figure under ethical conduct. The fifth one (honouring one's
parents) may be admitted as an ethical rule provided the parents are
worthy of honour. The next four (Rules 5 - 9) are basic rules of
personal ethical conduct. The final one is a milder version of 8, i.e
instead of stealing the things mentioned people are exhorted not even to
"covet" (i.e. desire) them.
Thus the basic ethical commandments of Moses are the rules against
murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. These rules of course were
not originated by Moses, or, as he alleges, by God. They have been
stated many times before even in the area in which Moses and his people
lived and wandered, e.g in decrees of some Pharaohs, in the laws of
They have also been stated by ethical teachers in other places, e.g.
the Buddha and Confucius before the time the Old Testament was composed.
Thus the minimum level of ethical conduct in Buddhism are the five
precepts and four of these could be identified with the four Mosaic
rules. But the Buddhist rules are more extensive in scope, e.g killing
applies to all sentient being not only humans (3).
In fact the Mosaic commandments appear to be even more restrictive and
to apply only to relationships between the "chosen people"
amongst each other as the emphasis on the "neighbour" seems to
Before considering how Jews and Christians have justified the Mosaic
laws we may consider the contribution of Jesus to the question of
The Ethics of Jesus
To the ethics of the Old Testament we have to add the ethics given in
the New Testament. Christians like to present Jesus as advocating a
higher morality than that contained in Judaism, so it may be appropriate
to consider the moral teachings of Jesus. The principal source for these
teachings is the so-called "sermon on the mount". This occurs
in two places in the New Testament (Matt. 5 - 7 and Luke 6:17-49) with
the usual inconsistencies that are evident in the different Gospel
stories. The "Sermon" contain both pure moral rules as well as
religious duties such as instruction on how to pray. Most of the
prohibitions in the Decalogue are repeated, but there is an attempt to
go beyond them and complement the negative statements with positive
If we take the longest version of the Sermon, that given in Matthew (ch.
5) there is first of all the statement of support for the old laws
(5:17-20) beginning with the statement: "Think not I have come to
destroy the law, or the prophets". This involves an acceptance of
the Mosaic commandments and other laws, but these are extended in
several respects (5:21-30) and some new laws promulgated (5:31-48).
The precept against killing is expanded by exhorting his followers to
desist from anger against their "brothers", even asserting:
" whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell
fire" (5:22). The prohibition against adultery is expanded by
saying "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath
committed adultery" (5:28) and the addition of the new law:
"whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth
adultery" (5:32). The proscription against swearing is expanded by
excluding several other things being used as objects of swearing. There
is also a curious restriction speaking: "But let your communication
be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of
evil" (5:37). More extensive changes are made in connection with
the old rule of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth".
These include the following maxims: "whoso-ever shall smite thee on
thy right cheek, turn to him the other also ... if any man will sue thee
at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also...
whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him
that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou
away" (5:39-42). The maxim on love is expanded to include:
"Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that
hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute
These virtues, especially that of love, are usually held up as
constituting the high point of Jesus' ethical teachings. However love
for one's fellow is always held as inferior to love for one's God and
compared to the few instances where the former is extolled there are far
more instances of the latter.
These exhortations to generosity, love, etc. were made to his
followers; they strictly applied to the brotherhood. In this it
parallels the Mosaic restriction of the moral rules to the chosen
people. Jesus himself seems to have adhered to this rule of excluding
those who did not agree with him from the virtues which he exhorts his
followers to extend to their brothers. It has been noticed that his
treatment to those who did not choose to hear him was met with a degree
of resentment, e.g. by cursing. And those who indulged in practices
disapproved of were treated more severly (e.g. the traders in the
temple). Nietzche regarded the love that Jesus advocated as actually
being a mask for evil. Nietzche looked on the Jewish morality, and in
particular that of Christianity, as being the morality of the slave as
against the morality of a superior class. He held that slaves may be
motivated for love for each other combined with a common hatred for
their oppressors. As slaves may not have any realistic hope of release
so is prone to look for delivery in an other-worldly state.
Niezche's interpretation of the moral teaching of Jesus get greater
support from the version of the sermon in the mount given in Luke which
is quite inferior from an ethical point of view. Here the religious tone
is greater and it starts with Jesus performing his healing miracles
(6:17-19). The beatitudes also emphasise the poor and the weak:
"Blessed be ye poor ... Blessed are ye that hunger ... Blessed are
ye, when men shall hate you... for your reward is great in heaven"
(6:19-23). This is followed by curses to the opposite kind: "But
woe unto you that are rich! ... Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall
hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. ...
Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!" (6:24-26).
This is then followed buy exhortations to love, charity, etc. as in
Matthew, considered earlier.
Natural Law and Divine Command Theories.
In the Old Testament there is no justification given for the Mosaic
rules other than simply stating them as instruction received by Moses
from God. Jusus' additions in the N.T. are also in a similar vein.
However later theologians have attempted to justify these in terms of
broader principles. The best known of these justifications are those
advanced on the grounds of natural law and divine command.
The best known advocate of the natural law theory of biblical ethics
is the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. It is official position of
the Catholic Church in the modern day and has been defended by a school
of Catholic philosophers called the neo-Thomists such as the French
Catholic Jacques Maritain.
Aquinas seems to start from the reasonable premiss that people have
the capacity to discover for themselves what is good and what is evil
out of their basic human nature. This he calls a natural law. In his Summa
Theologica (Part II, section XIII on The Law) he poses the question
"Whether there is in us a natural law?" (Question 92). As he
answers this in the affirmative it might appear that he does not rely on
divine providence for the discovery of moral laws. However this is a
illusion when we examine what he means "natural law". This is
not for him something separate from divine law, or as he calls it
"eternal law", but actually rests on the basis of divine law.
Thus he writes:
"...since all things subject to divine providence are ruled and
measure by the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being
imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their
proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is
subject to divine providence in a more excellent way, in so far as it
itself partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for
itself and for others. Therefore it has a share of eternal reason,
whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end; and this
participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the
natural law". (4)
It is clear from this that the ultimate sanction for natural law and
the exercise of reason by people is the divine law. For Aquinas God was
part of Nature, in fact the first principle of nature. Thus God's
commands could be seen as part of natural law. Even though Aquinas may
argue that the Christian ethics are natural because normal person
acknowledge them almost intuitively, such as for instance the
proscriptions against killing, theft, and the like, this is by no means
true of the first five rules of the Mosaic decalogue. Either these have
to be left out, and there is no case argued for doing this by Aquinas,
or we have to justify them on some other schema of what constitutes
nature. So ultimately even though Aquinas formally rejects the
proposition that we have to accept the Mosaic rules because they are God
given this is in fact what he finally acknowledges by his view that
natural is itself "imprinted" on humans by divine providence
However this is not the way in which Nature is seen by secularists.
They look on nature as consisting only on those things in the Universe
which are empirically observable. Many scientific laws which have not
been refuted by contrary evidence can be considered as part of natural
law. And there is nothing in these laws which would validate the scheme
of values set out in the Mosaic commandments.
During the Protestant reformation its leaders repudiated the theories
of Aquinas along with other sources of Papal authority. This led to a
rehabilitation of the Divine Command theory for ethics. This simply
states that what is good and bad, right and wrong is set out by God in
the divine revelation and that human reason cannot go beyond the divine
From the rationalist point of view the Divine command theory of
ethics can only be considered if it can be shown that the divine author
exists and has the requisite powers and capacities to make the right
judgement. But belief in God is simply a matter of faith. Something
taken on the basis of faith does not require evidence or proof.
Conflicts in Religious Ethics
One of the greatest objections to religious ethics is that the
different religions do not present the same moral values, and often
there is a serious disagreement on the moral value of certain actions.
We have seen that even as between Judaism and Christianity there are
important differences. However the differences between Islam and the two
other religions to which it is related are very much greater.
Islamic ethics resolves itself into a large number of specific rules
governing the conduct of those who follow the faith. Many of these
rules, like those relating to the position of women in Society have
become highly retrograde.
With contradictory ethical values advocated in the various religions
it is clear that they all cannot emanate from the same divine agency.
4. Is there a Rational Basis for Ethics?
When we turn to humanist ethics we have to pose the same questions
that have been posed in the consideration of religious ethics. These are
the basis for the ethics concerned and the specific ethics involved.
This first question will be considered in this section and some
practical humanist ethics in the next two sections.
Human Reason and Humanist Ethics
A conventional statement of humanist ethics is given in a Humanist
Society of Queensland leaflet a follows:
Humanists promote a secular system of ethics that is derived from
human experience. They do not subscribe to the view that an ethical
stance requires the adoption of supernatural dogmas. Through the
exercise of reason it is possible to construct an ethical system that
permits society to function smoothly and for individuals to follow an
enjoyable life stance without detriment to their fellow humans or other
This statement argues that humanist ethics could be derived from
empiricism and rationalism. Both strands were developed by the
philosophers of the enlightenment Empiricism is largely associated with
philosophers like Hobbes and Locke and they originated the utilitarian
approach to moral theory. Specifically it is claimed that the exercise
of reason enables us to construct a scheme of humanist ethics. But a lot
of things are hidden in that simple statement and it is the purpose here
to explore some of these.
Fundamental problem here is that it may not be possible to derive
through the application of the scientific method moral laws comparable
to, say, the laws of physics. While reason is a highly prized human
faculty there are limits to reason and may be the derivation of moral
laws may be one of them. One of the earliest philosophers to sound a
caution on this is David Hume whose final position was one of
skepticism. This is particularly important because Hume was the only
philosopher of the Enlightenment who could be called an atheist (or at
least an agnotic), even though others like Spinoza came quite close to
it. Hume was also a critic of Christianity refuting many of the
so-called proofs for the existence of God, certainly the most important
critique of Christianity before Nietzsche.
Hume established the distinction between the positive and the
normative. Positive statements may either be true of false, and this
could be established by empirical or rational methods. Normative
statements are value judgements and the normal scientific criteria cann
be used to derive them. Moral philosophy belongs to the normative
category and would thus pose a great difficulty for anyone trying to
establish a system of secular ethics entirely on empirical and rational
grounds. However rational methods is not entirely useless if we base the
search for humanist ethics on some specific principle. We shall in the
rest of this section consider some of principles that had been used in
constructing a system of humanist ethics. While none of these in itself
may be adequate a combination of these approaches may be useful. We
shall consider four approaches, ethics based on the Golden Rule, on
Utilitarianism, on an innate moral sense, and on a priori
principles defining Humanism.
The Golden Rule
The Golden Rule has sometimes been cited as providing the rationale
for humanist ethics. This rule states that one should do to others what
one would expect others to do to oneself. This rule owes its popularity
in the West because it is one of rules given out by Jesus in the Sermon
on the Mount (Matt.7:12; Luke 6:31). It is also said to be contained in
other religions as well (6), but it
has rarely been given the prominence given to it in Christian scripture.
The rule is relevant only for personal ethics and will not be
relevant for many issues of a social ethics . Even as a basis for
individual ethics it is highly subjective in character and will depend
on the person considered. Not all people have the same system of
individual values, so it is quite possible that different ethical codes
could be operative at the same time. While this may be technically
possible in actual fact it is likely to create conflict.
There is no theoretical justification for the Golden Rule in terms of
some higher meta-ethical principle.
This is the principle that only conduct which yields satisfaction or
enjoyment is the approved conduct. The booklet The Humanists
puts this principle in its section on Humanist Morality as follows:
"Humanists believe that a fulfilling life including harmonious
relationships with other people is an adequate although not complete
guide to behaviour. The best code of behaviour is that which promotes a
happy and satisfying life for all, not only in the short term but into
the distant future".
The utilitarian principle was one which emerged in the Enlightenment
but was refined by Bentham and Mill in the nineteenth century. A society
organised according to the utilitarian principle was supposed to
guarantee the greatest happiness of the greatest number. The big problem
with utilitarianism is resolving the conflict when one person's
enjoyment or happiness is purchased at the cost of another person's. As
economic systems became increasingly complex and inter-dependent many
ethical problems could arise which cannot be resolved on the utilitarian
Because of its advocacy of the principle of self-interest
utilitarianism became a dominant influence in the free-market economic
which emerged in the nineteenth century, and after a retreat in the
middle half of the twentieth has again emerged as the dominant economic
ideology of the last quarter of the twentieth century.
Moral Sense Theory of Ethics
The Moral Sense theory was also advanced in the Enlightenment partly
to counter the notion of self-interest implicit in utilitarian thinking.
Like utilitarianism it used some aspects of Locke's psychological theory
and it argued that moral obligations come from benevolent feelings which
are also natural to humans. The theory of the existence of a natural
moral sense is usually associated with the Scottish philosopher Francis
Hutcheson. Other philosophers who also embraced in whole or part the
notion of a moral sense were David Hume and Adam Smith. They argued that
human being possessed a natural sense of empathy towards other humans
which they called sympathy. This trait could co-exist with its
opposite, the competitive instinct, which puts humans in an adversarial
position with respect to each other. Sympathy is what we would today
call compassion. It was not generally emphasised in Judeo-Christianity,
and is quite different from the notion of love which became prominent in
Adam Smith illustrates very well the interplay of these two forces.
In his work on moral philosophy The Theory of Moral Sentiments
(1760) he used Sympathy as the dominant human feeling, but in the
economic work The Wealth of Nations (1776) he opted for the
competitive instinct. It was the latter which was to be adopted by the
mainstream of economic thinking.
Many people intuitively feel that people are endowed naturally with a
moral sense, i.e. a conscience even though they may not follow the
dictates of conscience. If this is so then a system of humanist ethics
could be built on this principle. But we can never be sure whether the
conscience of two people will be the same confronted with the same set
of circumstances. If conscience or moral sense is not innate but an
educated feeling then of course there is no natural moral sense and we
are cannot ground a system of humanist ethics purely on such an entity.
Charles Darwin in his last major work ventured the opinion that any
animal with well-developed social instincts will "acquire a moral
sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers has become as
well, or nearly as well, developed as in man" (The Descent of
Man). However empirical proof of this in man, let alone other
species, is extremely difficult.
Axiomatic Definition of Humanist Ethics
An alternative to principles like the Golden Rule, Utilitarianism and
Innate Moral Sense is what may be called the axiomatic definition of
humanist ethics. Under this the ethics are derived from a pre-existing
definition of humanist principles. Then actions which are supportive of
these rules, and do not violate them, could be considered as coming
within the ambit of Humanist ethics. The first step is not to start with
ethics but to start with a statement of the fundamental principles of
humanism. This method will avoid the problems associated with the
methods discussed earlier.
This will of course shift the entire burden of the definition of
ethics onto the definition (or formulation) of humanist principles. This
is fundamentally an a priori choice relating to the kind of
system one favours, e.g. a religionist one or a humanist one. There is
nothing necessarily arbitrary in this other than the exercise of
deliberate choice in choosing what one considers the most appropriate.
This way of formulating humanist ethics involves adopting a teleological
or consequentialist position while the other kinds of criteria we have
discussed appear to be more deontological (i.e. conforming to criteria
laid down anterior to the event).
As to how the principles of Humanism are defined there are several
approaches to take. These principles must be stated in clear and
succinct terms with every term used capable of an unambiguous
definition. The Appendix to this document contains a scheme of 11 Basic
Principles of Humanism. This scheme will be used to illustrate the
different problems in our discussion of humanist ethics.
5. Personal or Individual Humanist Ethics
Significance of Individual Ethics
Individual ethics has usually been at the core of ethics. Most
systems of religious ethics are confined entirely to it. Personal ethics
here refers to the comportment of a human being considered as a unit in
himself or herself. Usually acts of individuals have an impact on
others. For instance stealing is usually considered a transgression of
an individual ethic. This act however impacts on other individuals, in
this case the person whose property is stolen. But one may not classify
it as a group ethical rule because it may be possible that the act may
be committed without there being a specific "victim", or the
victim may not be aware of the theft, or might not care about it. But
the act could be evaluated nonetheless and deemed to be contrary to
accepted ethical conduct.
Five Rules of Individual Ethics
The five rules of individual ethics which are advocated here are
given as the Basic Principles 11(i) to 11(v). The first four of these
ethical rules are contained in various religious codes. The Mosaic
Decalogue contains four of them as also does the maxims of Confucius.
The Precepts of the Buddha contain all five although in an extended
form. Other religions may imply these but they may not be stated
explicitly as religious commands or maxims. Thus Hinduism does not
contain these individual rules explicitly even though they may be
implicit is some of the rules in their legal books. Islam justifies holy
war (jihad) and killing people for this purpose is sanctioned
not only in theory but also by the personal example of Muhammad. However
Islam (along with Buddhism) are the only religion to explicitly admit
something like Principle 11(v).
While there is a great similarity between religious and secular
ethics as far as these maxims of individual ethics are concerned, there
is a great difference in the reasons for their adoption. The religious
justification is ultimately the Divine Command Theory. For secular
humanism we may justify these on some rule like the Golden Rule,
Utilitarianism, or the argument from Moral sense, or as I prefer the
Ethical Relativism or Absolutism?
A question that must be addressed is whether humanist ethical rules,
either the personal ones given above, or the social ones given later,
are absolute or relative. I would contend that Humanist ethics must have
some degree of absoluteness although not perfect inflexibility.
Religious ethics often claim to be inflexible, but very often later
"revelations" may abrogate or nullify existing ethical rules.
By relativity I do not mean that one set of people have one set of
ethical values and another a different one. I think secular ethics, like
any other scheme of ethics, must be universalist. But relativity could
mean relativity to circumstance in the sense that one circumstance will
determine whether a particular action is deemed ethical, while another
circumstance will makes its opposite the correct course of action. It
could also imply whetehr exceptions can be allowed for humanist ethical
rules. For instances is killing in self-defence justifiable? Should the
man who is hiding a Jew answer the Gestapo man's questions truthfully? I
feel that even in some situations exceptions can be tolerated but not in
There is a criterion that could be used in evaluating such conflicts
between ethical rules. One way of applying this criterion is to
determine which of the two principles involved is the more fundamental
(7). If this can be determined then the lesser principle can
be sacrificed. Another is to determine which of the two virtues is
deemed the higher and this could be used. Thus a doctor who had
determined that his patient has only a few days to live may chose to
Humanism does not generally prescribe penalties for the violation of
its ethical principles. Religions however do postulate various forms of
punishment. In theocratic states this punishment may be imposed by
ecclesiastic courts, e.g. the Inquisition under Christianity, or the
punishment may be inflicted after death on the day of judgement. Today
in Islamic countries the religious courts have the power to impose
punishment, even the death penalty, for transgressions, e.g. for
apostasy or blasphemy.
Humanists argue that the question of crime and punishment is a matter
for the state. They of course would argue for changes in the penal code
where the existing definition of crimes or punishments involve conflicts
with what they would regard as a humanist scheme of ethics.
6. Other Issues in Practical Humanist Ethics
The other areas of practical ethics may be described as social
because they involve other agents. The range of things that can be
included in this kind of practical ethics is enormous. Not only do most
areas of private and public decision making involve some ethical
principle, new areas of ethical enquiry are constantly emerging. Thus
many of the ethical problems created by new technologies like genetic
engineering were not known even a decade ago. This constantly changing
area of practical ethics means that we cannot exhaust even the most
common ones adequately in an essay like the present one.
Let us first look at the issues of practical ethics advanced by Peter
Singer (8) in his book Practical
Ethics (Cambridge, 1979). The issues selected by Singer are those
that he sees as relevant to contemporary times. In this book he mentions
"treatment of racial minorities, equality for women, the use of
animals for food and research, abortion, euthanasia, and the obligation
of the wealthy to help the poor". It will be seen that this
includes some of the concerns of humanists, and indeed Peter Singer has
been considered to be humanist even though there is no declaration on
his part that he is one.
Ethics of Equality
Some of the concerns voiced by Peter Singer like treatment of women
and ethnic minorities really relate to the principle of
non-discrimination. We have adopted this as an axiom. Since these
ethical maxims have received a measure of social consensus a further
discussion of them may not be warranted beyond the treatment of the
subjects in Singer's book. The basic humanistic principle involved is
principle 9, the principle of non-discrimination.
However we have to deal with a more radical ethic, the ethic of
economic equality. Singer speaks of "the rich helping the
poor". If it is pure charity then there would be no ethical problem
but suppose it is claimed that economic inequality is intrinsically
unethical. Not many humanists would support a distribution of wealth
that is perfectly equal, but not many will support the inequality that
is currently existing.
Ethics and Specism
Peter Singer has been very pro-active in supporting the rights of
animals. In Christianity God is supposed to have given dominion to man
over animals. This is the basis for the massive exploitation of animals
for human use and human consumption that has now reached enormous
proportions. Other religious ethics like those of Jainism, Buddhism and
Hinduism recognise the rights of non-human species to a much greater
I am not sure what the humanist position on this is. The principles
laid down in the charter in the appendix exclude the rights of species.
Perhaps this is a principle that should be included in the list of
Humanists recognise the right given to women of abortion in the early
months of pregnancy. The "right-to-life" deny abortion at any
stage after conception. The ethic of non-killing applies to humans (even
if we exclude other species). Now crucial to this is the definition of
who a human is. Humanists do not consider this as been purely determined
Principle 5 of our Basic Principles of Humanism defines what is meant
by an autonomous human being and this would exclude abortion in early
pregnancy as an unethical act.
This again is permissible under secular humanism but not under most
systems of religious ethics. Central to this is the definition of
killing involved in Principle 11(i) of the Basic Principles.
Other Ethical Issues
There are a vast number of other specific humanist ethics which are
not mentioned in Peter Singer's book. These include a whole host of
things like prperty rights (particularly the newly developed right to
intellectual property), civil rights, rights in the educational area,
and many other issues which have general agreement between humanists.
There are others which are less well known and on which there is some
differences between humanists. These include things like eugenics,
genetic engineering, genetically modified foods, etc. It also includes
the right for secularists to be entitled to privileges now available to
Many of the practical ethical issues advocated by Humanists are also
advocated by other groups dedicated exclusively to these goals. If we
consider the ethic of environmental conservation this is now advocated
by a growing number of bodies dealing with this ecological issues. It is
therefore not surprising that Humanists have tended to emphasise those
issues which are not generally advocated by other groups.
7. Post modernist critique of secular ethics
Humanist ethics is not without its critics. Humanism has always been
opposed by religionists and the religionist critique of humanist ethics
is to be expected. Fortunately it is also the easiest to refute. Despite
the passage of time the religious apologia is still fundamentally the
same. Theologians are constantly spinning new theories but they have to
use the same old materials and these have been exploded over and over
again. There is nothing worthwhile remaining in the religious critique
of humanism and its ethics.
However in recent times Humanist ideas have been attacked from a new
quarter, which we shall call post-modernism. There is no clear ideology
behind this movement and indeed the very definition of the term is
subject to great dispute. A modern Critique has defined it as follows:
"Postmodernism is a style of
thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason,
identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or
emanicipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate
grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms it sees the
world as contingent, ungrounded diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set
of disunified cultures or interpretations..." Terry Eagleton, The
Illusions of Postmodernism (Blackwell, 1996), p.vii
While many people confine post-modernism to recent trends in art and
literature others extend it to philosophy in general. Under this
extension it is sometimes argued that all ethical values are relative
and all schemes of ethics are "valid". This would mean that
equal importance should be attached to Christian ethics as to Muslim
ethics, to religious ethics as to secular ethics, to Nazi ethics as to
democratic values. Clearly this exposes the absurdity of this approach.
While we cannot expose this critique of humanism here we may refer to
an implicit critique by a Queensland academic A. Tuan Nuyen in the
course of a re-interpretation of an early essay by Bertrand Russell
"A Free Man's Worship" (9).
The free man of Russell is the free man liberated from religious dogma.
But Tuan Nuyen says: "I wish to argue that Russell's do not
constitute a philosophical prohibition of religion despite appearance to
the contrary... Russell's 'renunciation' in the essay, if it is a
renunciation of God and religion, is ironically an Annunciation".
The proof of this extraordinary claim is based on a clear distortion
of Russell's argument. Russell says, quite metaphorically: "Man
creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and
what should be" and "Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall
he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?" Such
statements do not imply an affirmation or an "Anunciation" of
God, religion or divinely ordained ethical rules, but merely the
statement that "God" is pure a creation of the human mind and
could be invested with any property, good or bad.
Postmodernist thinking is no different from the shallow argument of
Tuan Nuyen. What can be demonstrated is the post modernism is incapable
of refuting the position of secular humanism on ethics or any other
Basic Principles of Secular Humanism
1. The only relevant spheres of action for humans are humanity in a
collective sense, human beings as individuals and the physical
environment (including nature) in which they operate.
2. Human beings are not subject to God or any divine agency. They
have no obligation to love, fear or obey any such supernatural agent.
3. All beliefs must be founded on reason and human experience. Where
the progress of knowledge reveals that any belief is or becomes
untenable it should be abandoned.
4. All human beings are entitled to inalienable human rights such as
those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
5. These rights inhere to humans from the time the human fetus
becomes a viable biological entity capable of independent existence
without physical or organic dependence on another human being.
6. Humans do not have a right of dominion over animals and the
environment, it being recognised that humans along with many other
species of animals do change their environment by their very existence.
7. Children shall not be subjected to physical and mental abuse, nor
to religious or political indoctrination by parents or others. The
rights of children should be codified in a charter of children's rights.
8. Civil laws should be arrived at by a collective consensual process
and should promote the common good, not the tenets of a particular
religion or philosophy.
9. Special privileges should not be given to any group on the basis
of religious or philosophical belief, nor should any group be
discriminated against on an unfair way.
10. There is no conclusive evidence that life exists after death so
humans should exert themselves primarily in terms of their present life.
11. Ethical rules should be based on reason and human experience and
should inter alia promote:
(i) Non-injury to life and the physical well-being of persons.
(ii) Respect for rights and property of others
(iii) Avoidance of sexual violence
(iv) Abstaining from falsehood, fraud and deception
(v) Avoidance of addiction to substances causing physical or mental
1. There are two main kinds of meta-ethical
theories, the cognitive and the non-cognitive depending on whether they
affirm or deny that moral terms are qualities in the world and that
moral judgements are a kind of knowledge. Normative ethics has also two
broad divisions: deontological (derived from principles antecedent to
the act) or teleological or consequentialist (derived from the
consequences of the act).
2. There is a second level of Islamic
jurisprudence (the Hadith) which relate to the actual practices of
Muhammad. The rules of conduct, ethical or otherwise, from both the
Koran and the Hadith have been compiled into the set of Islamic laws,
the Sharia. Judicial interpretations of the Sharia have added a further
tier to Islamic ethical rules.
3. On Buddhist ethics see the reference to the
author's article on Buddhist ethics on the link given in the internet
4. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Acquinas
(ed. A.C.Pegis) Random House, 1945, Vol. II, p.750.
5. Some people have even called Aquinas a
humanist. This is almost completely in appropriate on almost any
interpretation of humanism, and certainly not on the secular humanist
interpretation. In fact in this regard, by his subsuming God in nature
he actually takes an anti-humanist position.
6. The booklet The Humanists issued by
the Humanist Society of Queensland has citations from Hinduism,
Confucius, the Buddha, Jainism, Judaism, Jesus and Epictetus supporting
7. The relative order of importance of the various
humanist principles is one to which some thought has to be given. The
order in which they are listed can be used to indicate their ranking
order. In the scheme of principles given in the appendix the personal
ethical rules figure as the last principle. This is however something
that may be argued and some might consider it of sufficient importance
to figure after the core principles of humanism (e.g. principles 1 - 4).
8. Peter Singer is an Australian academic who has
advocated several controversial positions in ethics. He has been
interested in problems of equality (gender, ethnicity etc.), the taking
of "life" (e.g. in euthanasia, abortion, etc.), animal rights,
political violence, civil disobedience, etc.
9. Russell's essay was published in 1903 and not
revised since. Tuan Nuyen's critique is in the article "What Does
the Free Man Worship", International Journal for Philosophy of
Religion, 46 1999 pp 35-48.