Taking responsibility

We will now turn to how humanists might believe we can best promote human wellbeing and flourishing in line with our shared human values. In this section we will explore what humanists believe we should do in practice.

Before we begin it is important to understand that, typically, humanists will say that the responsibility for deciding how we act lies on each of us as individuals. Some people might try to evade this responsibility. Perhaps when deciding what to do, they simply defer to the conventional wisdom of the day, or they might argue that the best thing to do is to appeal to authority. There are people, they may say, who can tell us what we ought to do, perhaps because such people have thought a great deal about moral problems, or perhaps because they have some special ‘hotline’ to the answers.

Sometimes it can be wise to defer to an authority, eg if we want advice on how to fix our car or we are looking for a medical opinion. However, Stephen Law in The War for Children’s Minds highlights two different cases in which we might be given advice from an ‘authority’ to draw attention to something problematic about simply following authority unquestioningly in the case of moral decisions.

He describes firstly the case of a student whose chemistry teacher tells them it will be safe to dispose of a large lump of potassium down the sink. The student follows the advice and in doing so causes a huge explosion which leads to the death of another student. In this case most of us would feel the student was not to blame. She would be able to excuse herself by pointing out the advice her chemistry teacher gave her.

Law then asks us to consider the case of another individual who asks a moral authority figure how they should treat someone who does not share their beliefs. The authority tells her she should kill any such person. She then goes ahead and follows this instruction, murdering another person. In this case most people would not feel the individual was blameless. She cannot avoid moral responsibility for what she has done. This is because ‘the judgment whether someone is a moral expert whose advice ought to be followed is itself a moral judgement’. She has still made a decision that following the authority’s advice is the morally correct thing to do. The difference here is between accepting the authority of an expert on a factual question, and yielding to the authority of someone else on a moral question. The latter is an evasion of one’s own responsibility.

This does not mean one can never look to the wisdom of others for guidance on how we should act, but we cannot escape our individual responsibility for our actions. We all have to interpret instructions given to us by others and decide whether to follow them.

‘Each one of us has to decide what ends he thinks it right to pursue and what principles he is prepared to stand by… there is no escaping this responsibility. Even those who surrender their independence of judgement, or those who merely go by current fashion, are tacitly making a fundamental moral choice.’

AJ Ayer

Richard Norman highlights another example. Take the case of being faced with a rule or commandment written in a text that is considered to have a certain authority. For example, the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Does this mean we should not ever kill or does it only exclude unlawful killing? What about killing in war? What about in cases of self-defence? What about killing non-human animals?

‘The important point here is that one cannot settle the question of interpretation without engaging in independent moral debate.’

Richard Norman, On Humanism

We need therefore to interpret the moral guidance we are given, and decide whether or not to follow it. We must think for ourselves.

Such moral autonomy – the self-awareness of our freedom and responsibility – can potentially appear intimidating, but it can also be liberating and can lead to greater self-respect. A good moral education will be one that avoids encouraging passive, uncritical acceptance of any particular moral teaching, but instead focuses on developing the intellectual and emotional skills necessary to decide to discharge our responsibility appropriately.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK