‘When the trustful child becomes a critical adolescent. He may then cast off all his religious beliefs; and, if his moral training has been closely tied up with religion, it is more than possible that the moral beliefs will go too…’
Margaret Knight, Morals without Religion
So far we have learned that humanists believe the origins of morality lie in our nature as social animals. They do not believe the answers to moral questions can be found in divine commands. They also reject a moral relativism that says that what is right and wrong is simply a matter of personal preference.
Many humanists might worry that there is a potential danger in tying up morality too closely with religion. If we do, people might assume that without religion there is indeed no reason to behave decently, and fall back on relativism as the only alternative. The humanist challenge is, then, to show people in an increasingly secular world that we have reasons to be good to one another that are independent of religion, and that we can work out the difference between right and wrong.
Let’s now begin to explore if this is possible.
Can reason give us the answer?
‘It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.’
David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature
Reason alone cannot provide us with a foundation for morality. Someone who feels it is acceptable to commit acts of harm need not be any less rational than someone who believes we should try to make others happy. If someone believes harming others is the right thing to do, they have not made a mistake of logic. We have already learned that we cannot derive truths about how we should act from facts about the world. We cannot derive an ought from an is. The fact that stealing toys from children makes them unhappy, no more leads to the logical conclusion ‘we should not steal toys from children’ than it does to ‘we should steal toys from children’. What it is rational to do depends on your goals, and our goals can differ.
‘Human nature and human need fills the gap that reason alone cannot fill.’
Simon Blackburn, Does Relativism Matter?
There is a great deal of evidence that many of our values and needs are shared with other human beings around the world. They have evolved alongside us. Critics of humanism may say there are no such things as shared human values, pointing to the many different customs, practices, and beliefs that exist in different societies. But if we focus on what we share, rather than how we differ, it is not difficult to see what we have in common. We share basic needs for food, shelter, and health. But our needs also stretch wider. The desire to be happy, to avoid misery, to be loved, to be free to make independent choices, and to be treated with respect are almost universal amongst our species. These are the necessary ingredients of a flourishing life. We recognise the virtues of compassion, fairness, justice, and honesty, and across the globe we see human beings looking after the young and vulnerable, valuing truth and respecting promises, disapproving of wrongdoers, and seeking fair distribution of wealth and power. Despite the many differences between people, there is still considerable agreement about what human beings value.
These values are not out there in the world, existing as something independent of human beings. They are grounded in our shared human nature. They are built into our understanding of what it means to live a flourishing life. They provide us with a shared vocabulary with which we can pose moral questions and look for answers. They open the possibility of discussion about the best way to act. We are not, therefore, just left in a vacuum when we come to think about how we ought to act. Our awareness of human needs and values gives us a kind of objectivity and helps us to see what is wrong with the relativistic account of morality.
A humanist can claim that the reason many religions and philosophies share many values is that they are human values. If human civilisation were rewound and set to evolve all over again it is unlikely that the same religions would develop, but very likely that many of our basic moral principles would be the same. We should work towards a common morality based upon such values. They can provide us with a foundation from which we can build; a foundation not grounded in reason, but rooted in our nature as human beings.
Question: Do we have shared values? Can they support us to work out what is right and wrong?