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Summary of Week 4

Watch Sandi Toksvig round up what we have learned about the humanist approach to morality.
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Congratulations! You’ve completed Week Four. This week we’ve learned about how humanists find the origins of morality inside human beings, in our evolution as a social animal. Morality is not a set of non-negotiable rules handed down to us from on high, nor is it just a matter of personal preference. Instead morality is rooted in our nature as human beings. Our shared values give us ground on which we can build. We’ve seen how there need not be an unbreachable dividing line between our own interests and those of others. Being good to other people can enrich our own lives. It can be an important ingredient of a life well lived. We’ve also learned how it isn’t always easy.
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Values will sometimes come into competition with each other. We therefore need to think for ourselves. We cannot escape this responsibility. Thankfully our capacity for reason and empathy can support us to decide how we should act. There won’t always be right answers, but sometimes there will be, and sometimes we will be able to find them. Perhaps most importantly, we’ve seen how, for humanists, claims about what is the right thing to do need to be open to question. We need to be able to argue about morality if we are to make progress in our moral understanding.
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Things are far from perfect - But as a humanist, and as a woman, I’d certainly prefer to be alive today than at any other point in human history. I believe it is a more humanist approach to ethics, one which values reason, empathy, evidence, and respect for the autonomy of others, that has allowed us to make progress. However, I also don’t believe the journey stops here. See you next week!

Well done! You’ve completed Week 4.

We said at the start of the week that a humanist approach to ethics attempted to take into account the realities of human nature we explored in Week 1. In Week 2, we learned about the humanist reliance on reason and science. This week we have seen how science can underpin our understanding about where morality comes from and how reason can support us to decide how we should behave. Last week we asked whether the goal of individual fulfillment left any space for a concern for others. We have addressed that question in the latter part of this week.

Let’s summarise what we have learned:

  1. Morality is a product of our biological and cultural evolution as social animals; the origins of morality lie inside human beings
  2. Evolutionary biology might be able to explain the origins of morality, but it cannot tell us what we should do; nonetheless, to try to build a morality that had nothing at all to do with our natural instincts and desires, would be an inappropriate, and largely futile, exercise
  3. We do not need religious motives to persuade us to be good; stories can provide an alternative moral motivation by teaching us what it might be like to be somebody else
  4. Religion and divine commands do not provide the foundation of our morals; rather our morality predates religion and religion often adapts itself to fit our evolving moral understanding
  5. If moral relativism were true, it would mean there was no point thinking critically about morality; it would be impossible for our moral beliefs to be wrong
  6. Reason cannot give us the foundation of morality, but our shared human values can give us ground on which we can build; however, we must recognise that these values can come into conflict with each other and that can lead us into moral dilemmas
  7. Human beings have moral autonomy: we need to think for ourselves about how we should behave and take individual responsibility for our actions
  8. Rules can support our moral behaviour, but a humanist will typically believe we must also consider the consequences of our actions
  9. Reason can support our moral decision-making by revealing new facts, unacknowledged consequences, and faulty logic; it can help us to make sure our moral views are more consistent with each other
  10. Empathy makes morality possible; many humanists believe the Golden Rule is a helpful guiding principle
  11. Humanists, basing their morality on evidence, experience, and empathy, will typically be unwilling to cause animals unnecessary suffering
  12. The morally good life is not something set apart from our own needs and interests, but is one dimension of a life well lived, because our lives are shared
  13. Humanists might disagree on how far our moral obligations stretch; some will argue that an ethical and meaningful life needs to involve both responsibilities to others and our own individual fulfillment
  14. Humanists typically believe we have made moral progress; it is the possibility for disagreement and the opportunity to challenge received wisdoms with reason and evidence that make progress possible

Reflect on what you have learned this week and share some of your conclusions in the comments box.

Remember this summary step is a good space to ask any questions you still have in the comments area and to take the opportunity to help out your fellow learners with their queries.

Next week

Ethics is an attempt to explore how we should live our lives. We’ve looked at two related aspects of this over this week and last. But what does this all mean in practice? Many humanists will say that whether a person is leading a good life or not depends not so much on what they believe, but on what they do.

Next week we will explore a humanist vision for society. What are the consequences of a humanist approach to ethics for the kind of society we ought to build? Where are the examples of people today who are unable to lead full and flourishing lives? And what actions are humanists carrying out in order to work towards what they believe would be a better world?

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

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