Is there a single answer?
When it comes to the question of what makes a good life, there is no one single answer. No one size fits all way to live. Different people’s diverse preferences and talents can give rise to diverse ways of living. A humanist can believe we should focus on our own personal development, call forth our individuality, and cultivate it. We may also create many different meanings for ourselves as we go through life. Our attitudes and goals may change as we age. We may have many worthwhile purposes and projects that make us feel that life is worth living.
Ways that humanists have suggested we can make our lives meaningful include being creative, enjoying the creations of others, learning about the human or natural world, making connections and building relationships with other people, finding comfort in whom we are, fighting injustice, relieving the suffering of others, and contributing to human knowledge. What is important for a humanist is that individuals are able to decide what is of value in their lives and decide for themselves how they wish to live.
Not only do we differ in our answers as to what makes a good life, but it is good that we differ, both because people are inherently different in their talents, temperaments, and inclinations, and because it allows different experiments in living. It permits us the opportunity to try out different models that can inform each other and lead to a diverse, interesting, and flourishing human society.
‘Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself.’
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism And Humanism
Autonomy is therefore of great importance to humanists. We should be free to decide for ourselves how we live the one life we have. This involves more than just an absence of barriers or constraints on how we wish to act (negative freedom) but requires the power to consciously create and choose our own purposes and to develop our capacities and talents (positive freedom). A humanist naming ceremony will often emphasise a recognition of the freedom the new child has to shape his or her own life.
This freedom also places a responsibility on us as individuals not to leave our personal passions and potential unexamined. We should not attempt to escape from whom and what we are, nor should we delegate decisions about how we should live to someone else.
‘He who lets the world, or his own portion of it, choose his plan of life for him, has no need of any other faculty than the ape-like one of imitation. He who chooses his plan for himself, employs all his faculties. He must use observation to see, reasoning and judgment to foresee, activity to gather materials for decision, discrimination to decide, and when he has decided, firmness and self-control to hold to his deliberate decision…Human nature is not a machine to be built after a model, and set to do exactly the work prescribed for it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of the inward forces which make it a living thing…’
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Are all ways of life equally acceptable?
The fact that humanism places great value on our freedom to choose how we live our lives does not necessarily mean that all ways of living are equally acceptable. It is possible to be mistaken about the best way to live. We must be able to offer a good case for our way of life in a way that others can understand. For humanists, it is important to consider the potential consequences of our choices, examining the evidence while trying to avoid harm to others and to the environment. Our way of living should not restrict others from the possibility of living a good life themselves.
A humanist will typically claim that we should show tolerance to those ways of living that differ from our own, instead of trying to impose our own views onto others. However, where there is evidence that people’s free choices lead to suffering, we should be free to argue against those choices and offer alternatives.
We will explore more about humanist attitudes towards our obligations to others next week.
Question: Are all ways of life equally acceptable? How free are we to choose?