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This content is taken from the Humanists UK's online course, Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 secondsOften it’s easy to be good: to hold the door open for someone carrying heavy bags, to give honest directions to someone who’s lost, or to bake a cake for a friend who’s feeling down. Most of the time we have a pretty good idea of what is the right thing to do. And we just do it. But we don’t always do the right thing. And let's be honest - who isn't sometimes tempted to lie or cheat or act purely in our own self interest, even if, obviously, we don’t go on to do it. Who hasn't run through a wheat field when they're not supposed to? Okay- that may not be a good example for everyone...

Skip to 0 minutes and 45 secondsAnd there are situations when working out what is the right thing to do is far from obvious. If we have no book of rules or universal laws to guide us, then how do we know what is the right thing to do? What reasons do we have to do the right thing? Would right and wrong even exist? Or can we find another basis for explaining the difference between right and wrong? Some other means of building morality? When we find ourselves faced with moral decisions, can we work things out for ourselves?

Skip to 1 minute and 22 secondsThe questions we’ll be exploring this week are: Where do humanists think morality comes from? How can we build morality without universal rules to guide us - won’t morality just become a matter of personal preference? How, in practice, might a humanist work out what is the right thing to do? Are human beings the only objects of moral concern for humanists? And how can I balance my own needs and wishes with those of other people? Hopefully, by the end of the week, you’ll be able to explain and evaluate a humanist understanding of what it means to be good.

Welcome to Week 4

‘For many cultures the end of morality has been expressed in non‐human terms. The rightness or wrongness of an action has been measured in the extent to which the action accords with some greater purpose: the extent to which it conforms with what some non‐human entity wants for us, for example. The humanist idea that, instead, we should judge the morality of actions based on their effect on persons’ welfare and fulfilment and, further, that in these considerations we must consider every person (and, more recently, every sentient being), has rarely been articulated.’

Andrew Copson, Handbook of Humanism

Why should we be good to others? What do we mean by ‘behaving well’? What is the aim of morality? Can we be good without a god? How can I know what to do? Who or what tells us what is right or wrong? Should people be free to do whatever they wish?

The terms ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ are used in various ways, sometimes confusingly. For many people the word ‘morality’ has connotations of a rigid and restrictive set of rules listing things which people must not do. More generally, however, it means a set of values which guide people’s actions, ideas about what is right and what is wrong, and about how to decide what one ought to do and how one ought to live. That is the sense in which we shall be using the word here. The word ‘ethics’ is sometimes used to mean the same as ‘morality’. It is also used to refer to the branch of philosophy concerned with the study of ideas about values and how to live.

This week

This week we will explore a humanist approach to morality. To do so, we will need to reflect upon the importance humanists place on reason and science that we learned about in Week 2. We’ll learn that humanists believe that our ethical framework should be strongly informed and shaped by a rational and empirically-grounded understanding of the realities of human nature (as discussed in Week 1), and of what enables human beings to live flourishing lives. Last week we asked whether the belief that we each need to make the most of the one life we know we have was compatible with a concern for the needs and welfare of others. That is a question we will return to this week.

This week you will explore:

  • What are the origins of morality? Can a scientific understanding of our nature support us to answer where moral questions come from?
  • Without religion, does knowing the right thing to do simply become a matter of personal preference
  • What foundations do we have on which to build morality? Can shared human values support us?
  • How, in practice, might a humanist, work out what is the right thing to do in a particular situation?
  • Is there a necessary conflict between satisfying our own needs and desires and acting in the best interests of others?

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This video is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life, with Sandi Toksvig

Humanists UK