The Philosophical Basis
of Humanist Ethics
A Paper Presented to the Regional Congress
of the IHEU and CAHS (Sydney, November 2000)
by Victor A. Gunasekara
Note by the Publisher This Paper was presented to
Australis2000, a Regional Congress of the International Humanist and
Ethical Union and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, held
in Sydney 12-14 November 2000. The format of the Congress permitted
only a summary presentation. The present document gives the full text
of the paper. This Essay incorporates sections of the Author's Essay
entitled The Ethics of Humanism which was published as Manussa Tract
Aims and Abstract of Paper
The principal objective of this Paper is to examine the philosophical
underpinnings of Secular Humanist Ethics. It is the claim of secular
humanism that it can provide a scheme of practical ethics that is not
inferior to any other system of practical ethics and in many respects is
superior to them. However any system of ethics requires a theoretical
basis to justify it. This aspect of ethical enquiry if often referred to
as meta-ethics  . This paper therefore deals
with the meta-ethics of Humanism.
The philosophical basis of humanist ethics has not received the
attention it deserves. Most ethical discussion amongst Humanists relate
to various issues of practical ethics, e.g. euthanasia, abortion, sexual
preferences, capital punishment, etc. Secular humanism takes a stand on
this type of question but this is often stated without validating it on
specific humanist or philosophical principles.
After a consideration of some basic issues relating to ethics the
Paper outlines the main philosophical approaches to ethical theory and
considers their relevance for secular humanism. This is followed by a
critique of religious ethics especially the Divine Command theory of
ethics which underlies the Mosaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and
Islam). There is a brief consideration of the treatment of ethics in
Eastern religion especially those which derive their ethics from the
doctrine of karma (kamma).
The paper then considers the alternative foundations for a
non-religious system of ethics. This involves an examination of
Rationalism, Naturalism, the Golden Rule (and Contractarianism),
Utilitarianism and the Moral Sense theory. While their superiority with
respect to religious ethics is established it is also shown that none of
these can by themselves provide a basis for a system of humanist ethics.
This is followed by the main contribution of this paper viz. the
identification of a basis for humanist ethics which will be called the
axiomatic theory of humanist ethics. This requires a careful statement
of the core principles of humanism, and the ethical system in then
deduced from this set of core principles. A set of twelve core
principles of Secular Humanism adequate to ground a system of humanist
ethics is provided in an appendix to the paper.
While the emphasis is on the philosophical and meta-ethical issues
relating to secular ethics two sections explore the main rules of
practical humanist ethics. One deals with rules of personal individual
ethics and the other with the rules of social or group ethics. This is
because a purely theoretical consideration of ethics will not give rules
by which people can lead the good life, and humanism has as its main aim
the provision of a system of practical ethics which people can live by.
Finally there are a few comments on the post-modernist critique of
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. Morals are
said to deal with normative concepts like good', bad', right' or wrong'
while ethics is concerned as taking a more positivist approach defining
what is permitted and what is not without ascribing normative values to
them. However since the definition of good often is that which is
permitted this distinction may be too subtle. We will use the terms
ethics and morality as synonyms. Both the Greek root for ethics (ethos)
as well as the Latin root for morals (mores) mean habits'. So at its
inception both ethics and morals meant that which was habitually
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 social or 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  . 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
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?
A full treatment of this subject is neither possible nor necessary in
the present context. The word humanism' came into usage during the
Renaissance in connection with the revival of interest in classical
learning. 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 took either the prevailing Christian position or a
deistic stance. In the area of moral philosophy they used human reason
or natural law as the basis of ethics, but some place was still reserved
to God in some ultimate sense.
Secular humanism has progressed far from the early concerns of the
Enlightenment. In the twentieth century several well known manifestos
and declarations of humanist principles have been published. The core
principles of Secular humanism as used in this essay are given in the
Appendix as a set of twelve principles  . When
we refer to Humanism (with a capital H) in this essay we shall mean
secular humanism. The term humanism' (with a simple h and without a
qualifying adjective) is often used in a general way to denote any
concern with human beings. Such concerns are better described as
humanistic concerns rather than humanist concerns, certainly not
Significance of Ethics to Humanism
There are several cognate areas of thinking which are akin to
Humanists and is often confused with Humanism. These include atheism,
agnosticism, free-thought, secularism, scepticism, human rights, etc.
What sets Humanism apart from these (with which it has much in common)
is the centrality of ethics and morals for Humanism. Of course it is not
implied that all these other non-religious concerns completely lack an
ethical dimension. Where they do express a concern for ethics the system
of ethics favoured may not be identical to Humanist ethics. Thus a
consideration of the ethics of Humanism is very important.
2. Philosophical Approaches to Ethical Theory
Ethics and Philosophy
Ethics or moral philosophy has always been an integral part of
philosophical discourse. Over the course of time several approaches to
this subject have been developed. A systematic classification of these
approaches in not possible here. It might however be necessary to
identify the more important of these approaches in order to determine
which of these approaches are must appropriate to develop a scheme of
The approaches outlined here are not mutually exclusive and most
ethical systems share several of these approaches.
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.. This view is sometimes attributed to
Nietzsche, even though his views are more complex than a simple denial
of moral standards. Some modern-day anarchists espouse a system of
Clearly humanist ethics does not entail any moral nihilism. Humanism
assets quite emphatically that some acts are moral and others are
unethical. It also recognises a whole range of acts which fall into
neither category. This area of amoral actions may be broader than in
some other ethical systems, but they do not cover what we may call the
fundamental areas of human activity.
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 agree that Humanist ethics does not belong to the
species of absolutist morals. There should however be some degree of
fixity (as well as flexibility) in Humanist ethics. This relates to the
area of ethics involved. The fixity must apply especially to individual
or personal ethics, while flexibility will apply to social or group
ethics which are subject to a greater degree of change. Neither
characteristic can be associated with the notion of moral absolutism.]
There are at least two meanings to the notion of moral subjectivism.
One is to take it as the opposite of moral objectivism, i.e. moral
principles cannot be derived from purely objective criteria existing
externally to the individual. The other is to assert that moral
principles apply to the agent alone and that there is no need for the
individual to bother with anybody else's moral principles.
A case could be made that Humanist ethics is subjectivist on both
these grounds. The first interpretation of the non-positivist nature of
ethical rules implies that they are essentially value judgements and
cannot be considered either correct or incorrect on purely logical
grounds. Humanist ethics are non-positivist in this sense, e.g. we
cannot prove that euthanasia is morally correct on purely objective
grounds like for instance the quantum of paid which a person seeking
euthanasia must undergo.
In the second sense identified we may say that individual ethics is
subjective whether the ethical system is Humanist or not. However it may
not apply to social or group ethics which might require some agreement
from a number of agents
This may be considered as the opposite of moral subjectivism in both
the meanings we had identified for this term. In both senses we could
consider Humanist ethics as "objective" to a certain degree.
Some philosophers consider moral objectivism as asserting that moral
principles could be derived from natural law. This was a position for
instance argued by the Thomas Aquinas. He argued for an "extrinsic
principle" behind moral law and identified this
"objective" principle with God: "... the extrinsic
principle moving to good is God, who both instructs us by means of his
Law and assists us by his Grace." While God to the religionist may
be "extrinsic" it is certainly not an objective reality. Moral
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. Thus moral relativism cannot be a characteristic of a system
of Humanistic ethics.
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. Some Humanists consider Humanist
ethics as a species of ethical conventionalism.
However Humanist cannot and should not be derived by a process of
consensus. The issues involved in Humanism pose a clear choice between
alternatives, and Humanist morality cannot be got through some form of
democratic process to establish some kind of golden mean.
This claims that we cannot know whether there are moral truths. It is
a position asserted by thorough-going sceptics, but is not one which
Humanists will not endorse. However a degree of scepticism must be
attached to any rule of practical ethics particularly social or group
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 three
Mosaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which share a great
deal of common ground there are significant differences in their
respective ethics. If we compare these systems of 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 mainly to the Mosaic religions, and specifically to
Christianity. All of them postulate a monotheistic God, and this God
stands in the very centre of their ethical theory.
God as the Source of Ethics
The question whether a divine agency could serve as the basis of
ethics 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
The ethics set out in the Old Testament has been the starting point
of the ethical system adopted by the three Mosaic religions. These are
generally referred to as the Law and a presented as commands laid down
by God. The best known of these Laws re the Ten Commandments
communicated to Moses by God, generally referred to as the Decalogue.
They define the basic ethical rules of Judaism and Christianity.
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; 9. Do not covet the neighbour's house, his wife,
his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his 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 Rule 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
New Testament Ethics
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 severely (e.g. the traders in the
temple). Nietzsche regarded the love that Jesus advocated as actually
being a mask for evil. Nietzsche 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.
Nietzsche'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, rather ironically, by exhortations to love,
charity, etc. as in Matthew, considered earlier.
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. 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 revelation.
There is also 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
To a greater extent than the other two Mosaic religions Islamic
ethics consists of detailed rules of conduct specifying, sometimes down
to minutest level, such things as personal hygiene, dress codes
(especially for women), methods of eating, etc. Details of proper family
relations, even proper sexual relations are combined with more
profounder ethical rules. Most of Islamic ethical rules are especially
enjoined for relations with other muslims, not with human beings in
The Divine Command Theory
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. Jesus' 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". 
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.
Ethics in Eastern Belief Systems
The two main sources of Asian belief systems have been India and
China. These belief systems may be considered as the counterpart of
religion as it is understood in the Mosaic tradition. Asian religions,
except Hinduism, are not theistic and have a different approach to
ethics than the Mosaic religions.
Indian religions base their ethics on the operation of a presumed
natural law, the law of karma. However the three main Indian religions
(Hinduism  , Buddhism and Jainism) have
different views of how the karmic law operates, and what constitutes
good and bad action in the operation of this law.
In Hinduism karma came to be seen as the performance of duty, in
particular caste duty. Starting from the four classical castes (varna)
given in the vedas it gradually developed a complicated caste hierarchy
in which people were not allowed to transgress their divinely ordained
caste duties. Another aspect of Hindu ethical conduct was the
performance of various rites, whether associated with the worship of the
deity, or in secular life by the delimitation of specific stages (ashrama)
where specific duties were expected in each stage. In later Hinduism
when faith and devotion (bhakti) became a dominant virtue and elaborate
systems of rites and austerities came to be praised pure ethical action
tended to recede even further
By contrast Buddhism classified karmic action in accordance with its
moral quality. The minimum ethical conduct for lay persons were governed
by the five precepts. Four of these are similar to the Mosaic rules 6 to
9 in the Decalogue. But the Buddhist rules are more extensive in scope,
e.g killing applies to all sentient beings not only humans. The precepts
are directly framed in a negative manner as a system of "do nots".
However it is complemented by a number of positive virtues, not only the
four "divine abodes"  but also a
series of right action, right speech and even right livelihood.
Jain ethics is probably the most thorough going of all Indian
religious ethics because of its universal extolling of the principle of
non-injury (ahimsa). This principle was extended to all forms of life
and Jainism contains the most comprehensive system of animal rights of
all ethical systems.
The ethical system of China is largely associated with the work of
Confucius. He too gives primacy to ethical conduct: "He who rules
by moral force is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while
all the lesser stars do homage to it" (Analects, II, 1). But the
content of his morality is different to that which informs the Indian
tradition. There is less emphasis of abstract principles and more on
actual rules of conduct. These are centred mainly around appropriate
family conduct and the conduct towards the state and authority in
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.
This is particularly true of the three Mosaic religions whose history is
one of mutual conflict and persecution. The greatest culprits in this
respect have been Christianity and Islam.
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.
This is probably the most fatal of the arguments against divine command
theories of ethics. Those who subscribe to the divine command theory
rarely generally ascribe the moral precepts to God' without identifying
who the specific God is. Clearly the rules ascribed to Yahweh, Jesus,
Allah, or Rama are quite different from each other.
4. Non Religious Systems of Ethics
In sharp contrast to ethical systems based on religion are those
based on non-religious principles. It is to this category that a
Humanist ethical system must also belong. These systems too are
confronted by the same questions which have been posed in relation to
religion-based ethics. In this section we shall consider some of the
principles that have been used to advance a non-religious system of
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 several approaches that have been used to
justify Humanist ethics. These include Rationalism, Naturalism, the
Golden Rule (as associated Contractualism), Utilitarianism, and the
theory of the Innate Moral Sense. Finally we shall advance an
"axiomatic" approach which uses an a priori definition of the
core principles of Humanism.
Rationalism and Empiricism
The most commonly argued basis for secular ethics is reason and human
experience. The following is a typical statement of how Humanists arrive
at their system of ethics: "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 life forms." (From the booklet The
Humanists issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland) This statement
argues that humanist ethics could be derived from empiricism
("human experience") and rationalism ("exercise of
reason"). Empiricism relies on the sensory input which individuals
receive and rationalism is primarily a method of logical reasoning. Some
philosophers see these two processes as opposites of each other - i.e.
if you rely on sensory inputs only then you are not relying on reason,
while the exercise of reason may not require specific sensory inputs.
Both were products of philosophical speculation in the 17th and 18th
centuries. While philosophers of the period have been classified either
as empiricists (e.g. Bacon, Locke, Hume) or as Rationalists (e.g.
Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz) the difference between the two approaches
is not as sharp as it may seem and they are not always mutually
exclusive. The problem with these two approaches in relation to moral
theory is that neither process is not sufficient to derive a system of
ethics. Indeed it could be argued that the two together too may not
succeed in this task.
The 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 agnostic), 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 the Left Hegelians and Nietzsche in
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 can
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.
A glossary of ethical terms defines Naturalism as "The theory
that ethical terms are defined through factual terms in that ethical
terms refer to natural properties."  This
view of naturalism will fall foul of "Hume's Guillotine", i.e.
the proposition of Hume tow which we have alluded that "factual
terms" have to be separated from value judgements. (the
"is-ought" distinction). This has since become a central plank
of the natural and even the social sciences. If the positive-normative
distinction is adopted then science cannot serve as the basis for any
ethical system which must be primarily concerned with normative issues.
Naturalism has also come to be identified with the method of the
natural sciences. Thus even though Humanism has placed great faith on
the scientific method this method cannot be used to establish the system
of morality which Humanism considers so essential.
The Golden Rule and Contractarianism
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. It is a rule that appeals to
enlightened self-interest rather than to any religious principle even
though most religions have equivalents to the Golden Rule. It is
contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.7:12; Luke 6:31), and
quotations have been given from Confucius, the Buddha, Epictetus,
Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, etc. supporting this rule.
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. There is no theoretical justification for the
Golden Rule in terms of some higher meta-ethical principle. 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.
The Golden Rule has been advanced for providing the rationale for
people to enter into a contract or compact in order to achieve common
political or moral ends. This view has been termed "Contractarianism".
While contractarianism may have some validity in political theory, as is
seen in Hobbes' theory of the social contract as a device for the
creation of the state, its application for morality is more doubtful. On
certain critical moral issues, like those that involve differences in
religious and sectarian morality a moral contract may not be possible.
Thus contractarianism is not a feasible ground on which to construct a
system of Humanist ethics. Contractarianism is now not seriously argued
for either political or ethical positions.
Sometimes the Golden Rule is amended to read "to do unto others
as they would like to be done by". Such a reformulation does not
undo the undesirable aspects of the original rule. The Golden Rule is
not sufficient to base a system of Humanistic ethics.
Utilitarianism is the principle that asserts that the value of an
action is determined by its ability to generate some desirable property
which is generally referred to as its utility 
. Utility is very often identified with hedonic pleasure but it could be
any other desirable property. Religious morality is often seen as
anti-utilitarian, and the fact the utilitarianism gained popularity at
the time when conventional religion was on the decline endeared it to
The utilitarian principle first 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. There are
several problems associated with utilitarianism. 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. A simple
aggregation of utility against all individuals may itself not be just,
even if it is possible  . As economic systems
became increasingly complex and inter-dependent many ethical problems
could arise which cannot be resolved on the utilitarian principle. Some
kind of utilitarianism underlies both classical and neo-classical
economics which forms the current economic orthodoxy.
Some Humanists see the purpose of life as the enhancement of
enjoyment. This kind of hedonism has brought on it the charge from its
opponents, especially religionists that Humanism lacks
"higher" goals. However there is no reason to suppose that the
aim of Humanism is to ensure the "greatest enjoyment of the
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
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 if not impossible.
Axiomatic Basis for Humanist Ethics
In view of the shortcomings we have identified in the non-religious
approaches to the problem of the construction of a system of humanist
ethics it is necessary to seek a new approach which either replaces or
complements these approaches.
This alternative may be called the axiomatic basis for humanist
ethics. Under this system the humanist 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 system of
beliefs. 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 Twelve
Basic Principles of Humanism. One of the Principles is the very
axiomatic basis for the formulation of Humanist ethics (Principle X).
This scheme will be used to illustrate the different problems in our
discussion of humanist ethics.
It will be noticed that some of the principles, particularly
Principle XII, are themselves definitions of ethical rules. These are
the minimal rules that cannot be deduced from more fundamental ones, and
must themselves be taken as data. These ethical principles that belong
to the set of axioms defining Humanism are irreducible principles of
personal conduct which have to be taken as given. But most of the other
ethical propositions should be capable of being deduced from the basic
axioms defining Humanism.
The task of justifying the twelve core principles of Humanism given
here are beyond the tasks of this paper. Some notes are given which
explain some of the implications of the twelve principles set out.
What needs to be done is to show that the practical rules of Humanist
ethics could be derived from the basic principles given. The practical
rules that are needed will change as social and technological changes
take place. For example at the present time with technology making
genetic engineering possible a whole range of ethical problems is opened
up which a previous generation would not have had to deal with. The
basic principles of Humanism given should be robust enough to derive
Humanist solutions to the new ethical problems that have arisen.
The question could be posed as to whether the principles themselves
are relative and should be changed when new circumstances arise. While
it is possible to conceive of some need for flexibility the basic
principles of Humanism cannot be changed without changing the character
of Humanism itself.
In the next two section we shall deal with some common practical
ethical rules, concentrating firstly on individual ethics and then on
social or group ethics. This is not meant to be a complete compendium of
Humanist ethics. Such a task cannot be attempted here. There are given
more in the nature of examples of the kind of ethical issues which
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). It will be seen that these
ethical rules are not derived from other principles but are considered
basic principles in themselves. The first four of these ethical rules
are contained in various religious codes. The Mosaic Decalogue contains
four of them (killing, theft  , sexual ethics,
and false speech) as also 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, or be subject to serious qualifications. Thus
Hinduism does not contain these individual rules explicitly even though
they may be implicit is some of the rules in their legal books (Dharmastra).
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 also 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
axiomatic definition where they are admitted as ethical rules by
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 whether 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 
. 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 lie.
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. Social and Group 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  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 Speciesism
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
Humanists have traditionally neglected animal rights 
. 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
humanist principles. Abortion and Euthanasia
Many Humanists recognise the unconditional right of women to the
abortion of a fetus they may be carrying. Others seek to impose some
limits to this right, e.g. confining it only to the first six months of
pregnancy. The "right-to-life" activists deny abortion at any
stage after conception, and have recently even resorted to killing of
doctors offering this service. The ethic of non-killing certainly
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 by DNA. Principle V gives a definition of who
a human being is. Without such a basic principle abortion as a moral
right of women may not apply.
A similar position may be taken in the case of voluntary euthanasia.
The right to terminate one's life would come under the principle of
freedom of choice which should be a basic human right. Yet governments
under the sway of religious principles have made this practice illegal
even in the case of patients with a very low quality of life. In
practice the question arises in the case of patients too feeble or
incapacitated to exercise this right without the assistance of others.
It is these others who tend to fall foul of the law.
Other Ethical Issues
There is a large number of rules of practical ethics which remain
controversial. These include a whole host of things like property rights
 , civil rights, rights in the educational
area, etc. which have been problem areas for ethicists in general though
not so much for humanists. There are others which are less well known
and on which there is differences exist even 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 religionists.
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
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 emancipation, 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"  . 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 "Annunciation" 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
The failure of post-modernism is most clearly seen when we examine
its ethical implications. It is clearly impossible to assert that two
contradictory systems of ethics can both be correct, or have a
"relative" validity. Thus abortion on demand by a pregnant
female cannot both be right or wrong.
Twelve Core Principles of Secular Humanism
- 1. The relevant spheres of human action are humanity (collectively
and individually), and the natural environment in which humans
- 2. Humans are not subject to God or any divine agency. They have
no obligation to obey, fear or love any such supernatural agent.
- 3. Beliefs must be founded on reason and human experience.
- 4. Humans have inalienable human rights such as those given in the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights including the freedom of
belief and expression.
- 5. Human rights inhere to humans from the time of birth when the
human being can exist as a viable biological entity without physical
or organic dependence on another human being.
- 6. Children shall not be subjected to physical and mental abuse,
nor to religious indoctrination by parents or others in authority.
The rights of children should be codified in a charter of children's
- 7. 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.
- 8. 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.
- 9. There is no conclusive evidence that life exists after death so
humans should exert themselves primarily in terms of their present
- 10. Ethical rules should be derived from, and be in conformity
with, the principles set out in this Declaration of Principles.
- 11. Common ethical principles should be based on (i) the
recognition of the common humanity of all persons irrespective of
racial, ethnic, or ideological differences; (ii) a sense of
compassion towards other humans (iii) recognition of the rights of
non-human species over whom humans do not have a right of dominion.
(iv) minimisation of damage to the environment by human action and
protection of the environment and other species when warranted.
- 12. Individual practical ethics 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
B - Some Notes on the Principles of Humanism
- Principle I gives the legitimate arena for human action. It
naturally is concerned primarily with the human world, but it also
includes the environment in which humans operate, The environment in
turn includes non-human species. This builds and ecological concern
right at the very beginning.
- Principle II firmly asserts the secular and non-theistic aspect of
Humanism. Humanism is incompatible with any belief system that
asserts some supernatural agency. This rules out religionists as
being true Humanists; indeed a true humanistic may not even take an
- Principle III provides the rational and experiential element in
humanism. These were traits affirmed by the philosophers of the
Enlightenment. This rules follows from the previous one.
- Principle IV affirms the fundamental nature of human rights. The
reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is not
meant to be an endorsement of the current Declaration. Humanists
have argued in many crucial respects the current UDHR is inadequate.
- Principle V affirms that the point of physical birth is the point
of personhood. The full set of human rights defined in Principle 4
cannot be applied to the unborn fetus. The affirmation of this
principle is important in the light of attempts to make conception
the point of personhood.
- Principle VI calls for a charter of Children's right on par with
the UDHR which of course applies to children as well. But the
extreme vulnerability of children require that the extra protection
of a Children's charter is recognised by Humanists. The freedom of
Children from religious indoctrination is an important area of
children's right now totally neglected by society.
- Principle VII has two aspects. The first is an endorsement of a
democratic process even though there is no mention of the specific
norms of democracy. The second is the non-establishment of any
religion or even a secular belief system.
- Principle VIII is the principle of non-discrimination. It
prohibits both favourable and adverse treatment of any group.
- Principle IX reinforces the non-religious aspect of humanism and
defines the primary goal of humans to be this worldly. The question
of post-mortem existence in some form is not explicitly denied, only
that no reasonable proof exists for it. Unlike the case of God a
certain degree of agnosticism is permitted with respect to this
- Principle X asserts that humanist ethics must be derived from the
core principles laid down in this Declaration of Principles. This
builds the axiomatic principle relating to the determination of
humanists ethics into the very basic principles of Humanism.
- Principles I to X form the core principles of humanism. The final
two principles relate to the ethical dimension of humanism.
- Principle XI asserts some specific criteria which the ethical
rules derived as provided in Principle 10 should conform to. It
restates the principle of non-discrimination and asserts that
compassion, recognition of non-human existence and environmental
concerns are also integral parts of humanist ethics.
- Principle XII asserts the five basic rules of individual or
personal ethics. They are taken as primitive ethical principles that
are valid in their own right.
1. The term meta-ethics literally means that
which comes after ethics, implying that the practical rules of ethical
conduct are first formulated and their justification then established.
The term may be used to denote the reverse procedure in which the
practical rules are derived after the theoretical basis is established.
We shall be using the term in the latter sense.
2. 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).
3. No attempt is made to justify these 12 core
principles in this Essay. This is done in the author's The Twelve Core
Principles of Secular Humanism (Manussa Tracts on Humanism No. 1).
4. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (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. Hinduism has been an evolving religion with at
least three phases generally identified. The earliest phase is the
original vedic religion and the texts known as the Brahmanas which
followed it. This phase of the religion has been termed Brahmanism.
There is very little ethical content in this phase. Then came the
Upanishadic period which gave a metaphysical interpretation to the
divine principle. Moral issues are now given greater prominence. Finally
we have Hinduism proper which could be dated from the adoption of the
Bhagavat Gita as the central text. This last phase commenced about the
second century BCE (or later) and reached fruition when Buddhism died
out in the country of its origin.
7. These divine abodes (brahma viharas) are not
derived from a divine authority but seen as uplifting states. They are
compassion, loving-kindness (or detached love), sympathetic joy (the
opposite of jealousy) and equanimity. Only the last of these can be seen
8. Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory. Wadsworth,
9. For references see the booklet The Humanists
issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland.
10. Philosophers distinguish between
act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. The former evaluates each
action in terms of its utility, the latter in terms of a set of rules
which itself is evaluated (in relation to other sets of rules) by its
utility. For our purpose it does not matter which form of utilitarianism
11. The early utilitarians assumed that utility
could be measured in a cardinal way. Gradually this idea was given up
and the notion of ordinal utility was adopted by some utilitarians. This
of course completely invalidates the utilitarian principle although it
is possible to construct other substitutes.
12. Theft involves a definition of property and
thus may not be completely a "personal ethic" in the way we
have defined it. This aspect will be considered in the next section or
group or social ethics.
13. 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).
14. 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.
15. See the present writer's article
"Humanism and Speciesism", Queensland Humanist 34:3. July
16. The legitimacy of property rights have been
questioned by some philosophers. Prudhon made the famous statement that
"All property is theft". Marxians do not recognise the
legitimacy of property rights to the means of production. The tendency
today seems to extend the scope of property rights, not restrict it. In
particular the extension of property rights to "intellectual
property" poses some serious problems which has not been adequately
17. 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.
Taken from: http://www.uq.net.au/slsoc/manussa/hethics.htm