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Rules and consequences

‘It is rare that two moral situations in life are exactly the same, and so we have to use our intelligent judgment in repeatedly new situations. To apply one rule in such different situations is not going to work. It is not that our values necessarily change, it is more that that the conditions in which we have to apply them alter. In other words we have to adjust our values to new situations.’

Jeaneane Fowler, Humanism: Beliefs and Practices

Being responsible for reaching our own conclusions does not mean that rules cannot be helpful. However, humanists will normally reject the idea that all our moral decisions can be made by following unquestionable rules.

Agreeing collectively to sign up to certain rules and codes related to stealing, lying, and killing can be beneficial for society. Anyone who refused to sign up to such standards of behaviour would not be embracing a humanist morality. Like most people, humanists recognise the law and think it should be obeyed. Our freedoms can be constrained for the good of society. However, our freedom (and our education) should not be restricted to the extent that we are unable to think for ourselves or to make our own moral judgements. If there are laws we don’t approve of, then we should have the right to argue the case for removing or replacing them.

Rules are not without their problems. They often need interpreting in particular situations. Inflexible rules can sometimes complicate, rather than solve, moral dilemmas. And they can also sometimes contradict each other, so we can be left asking which rule we should follow. So if we accept that we need to think for ourselves about the best way to act in any given situation, how can we best do this?

Typically, humanists believe we should consider the potential consequences of our actions. They won’t simply take a rule or commandment for granted, particularly if it appears to lead to potential harm. Lying, for example, is generally to be disapproved of. However, it may, in some circumstances, be acceptable if one is doing it to protect somebody (or perhaps if an honest opinion of your friend’s cooking might hurt their feelings).

When deciding how to act, a humanist might claim that we should consider carefully the particular situation, weigh up the evidence, and try to assess the likely consequences of our actions. We should reflect upon the potential impact of our actions on the happiness or suffering of the people (and sometimes other animals) concerned, consider their rights and wishes, and try to find the kindest course of action or the option that will do the least harm.

Consequences may not be the only thing a humanist will take into consideration when deciding how to act. However, a morality that refused to take the consequences into account at all would not be one which was compatible with humanism.

Of course, weighing up the potential consequences is not always easy. Sometimes the consequences are difficult to foresee. Sometimes it is difficult to compare the immediate consequences to those which lie further into the future. Telling a friend you love their singing might make them feel good in the present, but a more honest answer might save them from humiliation in the upcoming talent show.

Following rules and considering the consequences are not, of course, mutually exclusive ways to make moral decisions. Sometimes, following rules can lead to the best consequences for all, even if the immediate consequences appear to be bad, because there might be greater overall benefits to society of demonstrating respect for such a rule.

Rules can also help us in other ways. They can limit our obligations by providing a guide to what is generally the best way to act: being forced to consider all the consequences in every situation can become impossibly demanding. Rules can make our responsibilities feel more personal. They can also support us to educate the young about what we generally agree is appropriate behaviour.

None of this, however, supports the view that moral rules ought to be obeyed in all cases, nor that a child’s education should neglect the need for them to learn that there is more to morality than following rules. As we have seen, humanism requires one to think for oneself, and that means using one’s own reason.

Question: Are there any rules we should follow at all times whatever the consequences?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK

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