Manussa Tracts on Humanism No. 1

The Core Principles
of Secular Humanism

Twelve Fundamental Principles
Stated and Examined

by Victor A. Gunasekara




1. What is Humanism?

The concept of "Humanism" first entered the vocabulary of intellectual discourse in the West during the Renaissance period when it was used to denote the revival of interest in the ancient writings of Greek and Roman philosophers. Ever since the conversion of Constantine to Christianity the Christian Church had severely suppressed all alternative views and this extended to the ancient classical writings. There were some exceptions. Christian theologians (St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, etc.) had used some ancient Greek philosophers (notably Aristotle) to support some of Christian dogmas, but in general the more critical and liberal aspects of the classical writings were suppressed. This was a period of stagnation for European civilization and has been rightly referred to as the Dark Ages. The attempt by the early humanists to go to a period prior to the triumph of Christianity in Europe may be regarded as the first tentative attempt to find an alternative to the stifling dogmas of Christianity. However many of these early Humanists could not free themselves from Christianity and for the most part were concerned with interpreting Christian teachings in what they considered to be a more humanistic light.

Humanism progressed from this early start and by the nineteenth century was able to adopt a secular form completely freed from the Christian religion and indeed combating the principal dogmas of this religion. It was greatly assisted in this by the growth of science both in the physical and biological areas. Early scientists like Galileo had indeed realized the conflict between the discoveries of science and Christian teaching. For this they were often persecuted by the Church. It was the triumph of Darwinism in the nineteenth century which for many humanists clinched the issue between theistic religion and science.

Today secular humanism stands in sharp contrast to supernatural religion which is based on the existence of God. Its principal concern is the advancement of humanity, and it does so using the methods of rational thinking and analysis. It differs from science only to the extent that it tries to construct an ethical code that is conducive to human welfare. Some forms of science are completely value-neutral and are not concerned with evolving a system of ethical norms that should govern human conduct. Rationalism, which many associate with humanism, is concerned primarily with the methodology of deriving valid propositions and is somewhat different from humanism. Scepticism, another trend usually associated with Humanism, is concerned with refuting claims relating to supernatural or supernormal abilities and devotion to things like the UFOs and alien abductions. By definition humanism is concerned with the human being and not with any external divine authority who stands in a superior position to man.

It must also be mentioned that the term humanism has also been appropriated by religionists and some even speak of " theistic humanism" (e.g. Gardner Williams in The Humanist Alternative, ed. Paul Kurtz). This is often an attempt to empty humanism of any real content and to make it a synonym for their own dogmatic beliefs, especially relating to what they regard as proper human conduct. In this essay we shall completely ignore this kind of humanism and confine ourselves to what is called "secular humanism", the qualifying adjective "secular" being used to dissociate this kind of humanism from the confusion introduced by theists.

2. Twelve Basic Humanist Principles

The fundamental principles of secular humanism have been stated in many ways. In fact there is no complete agreement on this amongst Humanists and a good part of the humanist debate revolves around the correct enunciation and delineation of Humanist principles.

The basic principles of secular humanism are set out here as twelve cardinal principles (numbered H1 to H12). They are given below with a few brief comments on each.

H1. The only relevant spheres of action for humans are humanity in a collective sense, individual human beings, and the physical environment (nature) in which they operate.

What this principle asserts is that there is no external divine agency between human beings and the physical environment in which they operate. Nature in the sense of the physical world and non-human species is the given datum which humans have to operate in. Humans have a natural curiosity to investigate the laws of nature, physical and biological, and use them to advantage but there are limits to the extent of intervention in nature and these are given in principle H6.

With respect to interaction with other humans a distinction has to be made with interaction with humanity in a generic sense and interaction with specific human beings. The nature of this interaction will be governed by certain ethical principles. Principle H11 is a tentative attempt to codify these ethical relationships.

H2. Human beings are not subject to God or any divine agency. They have no obligation to love, fear or obey any such supernatural agent.

Even though this may be regarded as a negative principle (i.e. what humanism is not rather than what it is) yet it is so fundamental that it must be stated explicitly.

Secular humanism rejects the notion of God, but some humanists prefer to take an agnostic position on this question. This principle in a strict sense rules out agnosticism. The problem with agnosticism is that people can be agnostic about anything, e.g. the tooth fairy, little green men on Mars, alien abductions by extra-terrestrials, etc. The scientific position is that the onus of proof is on the person making the positive assertion. So if we cannot adduce evidence about the existence of the tooth fairy, little green men, or even God then we are entitled to reject them until some evidence is produced. In the case of God one can go further than the tooth fairy, etc. because on most definitions God is omnipotent, omniscient and benevolent. Such a being cannot be reconciled with the empirically observed fact of suffering, etc. Thus agnosticism too has to be rejected along with theism.

H3. All beliefs must be founded on reason and human experience. Where the progress of knowledge reveals that any belief is or becomes untenable it should be abandoned.

This is the principle of rationalism. Thus humanists are by definition rationalists but the contrary does not prevail. Not all rationalists are humanists. Rationalism is a methodology, a methodology which humanists accept, but humanism also entails some specific beliefs which some rationalists may reject. The precise methodology of the scientific investigation, e.g. logical positivism, falsificationism, etc. may be debated by humanists and there could be some progress here as in all areas of knowledge. But readiness to abandon positions revealed to be incorrect should be a cardinal feature of humanism. Both inductive and deductive methods should be used. Pure deduction can lead to errors.

H4. All human beings are entitled to inalienable human rights such as those enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In this example the Universal Declaration (UDHR) is cited as an example of Human Rights, but there is no endorsement of all the rules enunciated therein. There are defects in the present UDHR and it does not go far enough in certain areas. However the prospect of another universally agreed Declaration is rather remote. Humanists should engage in a discussion how the present UDHR could be amended or expanded. The proposition is now advanced that Human Rights could differ in different areas has to be rejected. Humanism affirms that despite physical and cultural differences there is a basic similarity in all humans. It is this common area that should be addressed in a declaration of human rights. As such human rights cannot be watered down by cultural or local factors. These rights should be inalienable.

H5. These rights inhere to humans from the time the human fetus becomes a viable biological entity capable of independent existence without physical or organic dependence on another human being.

This principle involves the question when a new human being can be said to begin. The two extreme limits are conception and birth. Some religions consider conception to be the start of a new life. The problem here is that in the early period when the fertilized ovum begins to develop it has to depend on another human being (the mother). Since both beings are inextricably intertwined the question of assigning precedence may arise where the existence of one may result in detriment to the other. In such situations it may be logical to assign primacy to the mother. The other extreme would be birth at which time the new individual can exist independently of the mother. A case can be made for dating the existence of the new individual from the moment of birth. Principle H5 essentially involves a compromise between these two extremes. It involves the definition of the point of time when the fetus is a viable biological entity. This is a biological or medical question, and the precise point may differ between individuals and of course will depend on the state of development of medical science and technology. A moral principle is involved here, but for the sake of completeness some stand on this issue has to be made by humanists.

H6. Humans do not have a right of dominion over animals and the environment, it being recognized that humans along with many other species of animals do change their environment by their very existence.

What this principle asserts is that the Biblical right extended to humans to exercise "dominion" over animals and even nature is not a human right at all. Humanists should not restrict their horizons to humans alone and should respect this right of existence. This principle should not be taken as a proscription against modifying the environment. Any species, human or animal, has to make certain modifications in the natural environment to accommodate its basic living requirements. What the principle asserts is that wanton and deliberate destruction of animal life and ecosystems is not an automatic right of humans. At the very least it must include what now described as ecological conservation and responsibility, but a case can be made to take it much further.

H7. Children shall not be subjected to physical and mental abuse, nor to religious or political indoctrination by parents or others. The rights of children should be codified in a charter of children's' rights.

While parents, guardians and elders have a responsibility towards their children (and vice versa) this responsibility does not give a carte blanche for them. Today most legal jurisdiction interdict physical and sexual abuse of children by anybody including parents. This is as should be. But what the law does not do is to prevent the political and religious indoctrination of children. Religions are allowed to conduct ceremonies like Baptism in Christianity, circumcision in Judaism and Islam and the thread ceremony of Hinduism. Children are incapable of understanding what is done to them in such ceremonies. Humanists should deny the existence of such rights for parents, priests and the like. This rule does not mean that children should not be inculcated in ethical standards. But these should be a basic non-religious kind of ethical standards such as those that Humanists promote. There is still no formal charter of Children's' Rights. The biggest impediment to the creation of such a charter will come not from theists who will not give up their right to automatically impose their religion on their children.

H8. Civil laws should be arrived at by a collective consensual process and should promote the common good, not the tenets of a particular religion or philosophy.

This could be a prescription for democracy. The word however is not used in the enunciation of this principle as different people mean different things by democracy. There is no ideal of setting up a system of representative government (cf. Arrow's Impossibility Theorem) and no particular system should be considered as a universal norm. What it argues is against despotic rule by dictators and argues for a kind of "rule of law" which should bind everybody the ruler and the ruled. Ideally the rules of law must also be based on some ethical principles of general acceptance.

H9. Special privileges should not be given to any group on the basis of religious or philosophical belief, nor should any group be discriminated against on grounds such as race, ethnicity, beliefs, gender or age.

This is the principle of non-discrimination and should be asserted as a basic humanistic principle. Such things as racism, sexism, discrimination based on sexual preference, etc. are all examples where the principle is violated. It also asserts that there should not be an established religion. Unfortunately many theistic religions have established themselves as the sole or dominant religion in certain countries. Islam is perhaps the most extreme in this regard, but Christianity was no better for most of its recorded history, and even now countries like the UK, USA and Australia, normally regarded as modern democratic states, have established Christianity to varying degrees.

H10. There is no conclusive evidence that life exists after death so humans should exert themselves primarily in terms of their present life.

This principle undermines what could be regarded as a basic rule in many religions. Some religions postulate a heaven or hell as the destination of all humans after death, while others see life as a continuous process with a deceased person being reborn or reincarnated in some way. Obviously the proposition of life after death has not been established in any scientific way. It is therefore to either rule it out or be agnostic towards it. On the other hand the present life in indisputable, and should be the basis of humanistic action.

H11. The following ethical principles should in general be promoted:

  1. Abstaining from conduct injurious to life and the physical well-being of persons.
  2. Abstaining from the theft of property of others
  3. Abstaining from sexual violence and misconduct
  4. Abstaining from falsehood, fraud and deception
  5. Abstaining from drunkenness, narcotics and mind bending drugs

These five rules should be considered the basic principles governing ethnical conduct. The are not based on any religious principle or divine commandment. They are vindicated by the fact that without them peaceful and civil society may be an impossibility. Many ethical systems interpret these rule much more widely. Brief comments on each of these rules may be appropriate. The first rule may be considered similar the Mosaic commandment not to murder. However both Judaism and Christianity have not considered this rule as absolute and justifiable killing (e.g. in warfare) has been allowed. Some religions like Jainism, Buddhism and some forms of Hinduism extend this principle to exclude even the killing of animals, but this may not be possible in many societies where the large scale of rearing and killing of animals for food is a widespread practice with religious sanction. The second rule about theft is bedeviled by the difficulty of defining what is legitimate property. Some philosophers like Prudhon have argued that "all property is theft". Then there is the problem of public and private property, and more recently the problems associated with " intellectual property". But if property can be defined legally or by consensus (if not morally) this the second rule has some validity. The third rule excludes sexual relationships based on force, fraud etc. More specific definitions of what is wrong sexual conduct could lead to differences even between humanists. The question of homosexuality may be cited on which there is no complete agreement even amongst humanists. The fourth rule hinges on the definition of "truth". There are the obvious gross falsehoods which are clearly demonstrable, but today there is a proliferation of statements in the grey areas which remain problematical. This involves not merely statements made by advertisers, public relations persons, politicians but even by religious preachers. However it is a useful rule to include in any recension of ethical principles. The fifth one might not need justification given the level of substance abuse that is taking place in contemporary society. Some might consider it the least important of the five principles and one that could be struck out in a purely humanist list of ethical principles.

H12. Humanism should develop an attitude of compassion to those in a state of suffering from whatever cause that leads to the suffering, and seek to engage in action that alleviates this suffering.

Suffering in this context includes pain but is not confined to the case of physical pain.  It is a reflection of the unsatisfactoriness of the existential situation in which those subject to suffering finds themselves.  This involves an active effort to change the situation in which suffering occurs and make appropriate changes in social, environmental or other factors.

Those subject to suffering can include animals and this would require Humanists to act in ways which take the suffering of animals into consideration

Many religions require their followers to make events associated with the life-career of persons (birth, marriage, death) into religious rites. The purpose may have been to empower the priests over the lives of the lay followers. Many Western humanists seem to detect a need for celebrations to mark birth, marriage and death. This is perhaps a hang-over from their Christian past. Christians celebrate birth because they think that it is a gift from God, marriage because they think that it is a sacrament, but what do humanists who devise secular equivalents to these see in them?

3. Some Methodological Issues

Two extreme approaches are possible in formulating a set of principles as has been attempted here. One is to make the principles as broad as possible; the other is to make them as detailed as possible.

The position is adopted here is somewhat intermediate between these two extremes but perhaps closer to the former than the latter. This requires some justification. A general declaration should state a basic principle in a broad way emphasising the essence of the principle involved. To enter all kinds of qualification, exemptions, etc. into the general statement is likely to reduce its force and even negate it. Naturally a principle once stated in general terms could be expanded in a commentary on the principle. Any explanations, definitions and exemptions should be contained in the commentary and not in the general declaration itself.

Also particular cases which are likely to be covered by the general ambit of a principle should not be dealt with in the statement of the problem itself. For example principle H5 attempts to define the origin of an independent human being. This has now become involved with the " right to life" issue, and with it moral validity of abortion as a medical procedure. Sometimes an attempt is made to state precisely when an abortion is permissible, what are the obligations of those performing abortions, etc. While these are important issues to put them down as fundamental principles may detract from other principles which are more important for the definition of humanism. However the question of abortion should be dealt with an appropriate context, but not in the general statement of humanist principles. Specific instances like that of abortion should be capable of being determined in terms of the general principles laid down. Sometimes more than one principle may be involved.

The analogy would be with a general statement of the law and case law where particular instances are dealt with (but this analogy should not be carried too far). Another disadvantage of getting bogged down in detail is that critics of humanism can use these detailed points to mount a general attack on humanism. Some humanists attach great importance to homosexuality. But if this particular sexual orientation is stated as a general principle then humanists will get entangled in a debate on the appropriateness or otherwise of this particular sexual practice. What is important for this question is the principle of non-discrimination. Persons favouring this particular sexual practice should not be discriminated legally or otherwise and this is all that humanists have to say with regard to this. It is for other organisations like the gay lobby to carry the argument further if they want to. Then there is the question of the number and the order of the principles. The actual number will depend on the degree of detail that is regarded as necessary, and it is always possible to split a given statement into one or more separate principles. This document has identified twelve principles. Some arguments could be used to justify this particular number. It is mathematically more elegant (being divisible by more integers) and also does away with a possible comparison with the Judeo-Christian decalogue. It is not an attempt to find an alternative to the Ten Commandments but to define a set of rules which are defensible on rational grounds. As to the degree of importance of the various principles the order given is roughly in descending importance. However it is possible to place some principles (e.g. principle H11) much higher up.

4. Conclusion

By way of conclusion we may consider some of the problems faced by humanism especially in the area of developing a set of values. Humanism differs from related movements like rationalism, scepticism, free-thought and atheism, in that it claims to offer an ethical alternative to religion based on human experience. This statement issued by the American Humanist Association and published in each edition of its journal The Humanist can be taken as representative of the general approach of humanism to this question:

Free of supernaturalism it [Humanism] recognizes human beings as a part of nature and holds that values - be they religious, ethical, social or political - have their source in human nature, experience, and culture. Humanism thus derives the goals of life from human need and interest rather than from theological or ideological abstractions, and asserts that humanity must take responsibility for its own destiny.

As an abstract principle there is much to commend it but the difficulty comes in defining the exact content of the value systems that are referred to. We may concentrate on the " religious" and ethical values that are mentioned in this statement ignoring for the moment the political or social values which are likely to be even more contentious. Despite a great deal of discussion on the need to develop a value system that is based on human reason and experience there is very little effort put into developing a code of ethics, such as that given in principle H11 above, on which most humanists will agree. This makes the task of finding what the basic ethical postulates of humanism are an extremely difficult task.

In the publication The Humanists issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland a case was made for accepting the Golden Rule as the basic ethical postulate of humanism. This rule states that people should do to others what they would like to be done unto themselves. However this involves a dangerous degree of relativism. Because of this failure to agree on general ethical principles most efforts of humanists in the ethical realm have been devoted to promoting specific ethical issues. Amongst such specific issues that are popular in the current debate are euthanasia, abortion of demand by women in the early stages of pregnancy, population control, genetic engineering, homosexual rights, etc. Now each one of these issues involve basic ethical principles and unless these principles are first established any position taken on these questions must have a certain degree of arbitrariness. Another question which humanists have to resolve is whether their value system is going to deal with absolutes or be contingent on the specific situation. The quote given earlier seems to suggest that relativism is the favoured solution. However the adoption of a relativist position may lead to contradictions, e.g. advocating one policy in a certain situation and its opposite in others. In this connection it is interesting to note that some humanists are supporting what is generally called " post-modernism". This term has different meanings and is generally used to denote a completely value-relative position. Indeed some post-modernists even give equal credibility to theism as to atheism. It is clear that support for post-modernism of this kind can even knock down some of the basic principles of secular humanism.

Modern Western humanism arose from the background of Judeo-Christianity. Even though it ultimately took a different stand some left-overs from its Christian past seem to linger. In fact many of the practical ethics of humanism seem to be barely disguised echoes of Christian values. It has been claimed that humanists are "motivated by compassion" but what it means by compassion is really what Christianity means by "love". Compassion is not a virtue generally promoted by Jesus compared to his constant urge to love God first then Humans as an afterthought. Humanists do not generally use the word " love" and this is probably related to this belief that humanism should be an alternative to Christianity. But the compassion they promote is barely distinguishable from Christian love. The ethical precepts which humanists promote, when they rarely list them, seem to be derived from the Mosaic commandments. Some elements that are in the decalogue such as he first Mosaic commandment are ignored. But others like the commandment not to murder is taken over. But even here it is not an absolute, neither in the Judeo- Christian nor in the humanist versions. Much of the humanist discussion on ethics concentrate on the issues in which it differs from Christianity (e.g. euthanasia, abortion on demand, homosexuality). Implicit in this in the belief that when it comes to the rest is agrees with Christianity.

However no ethical position can be just taken over from Christianity or any other religions, it must be justified in its own right. Sometimes humanism is seen as a doctrine affirming the primacy of man (humans referred to generically). This once again this smacks of Christian thinking where God is said to have favoured humans above all other of his creatures, and indeed even of the environment which is there simply to serve humans. Today there is emerging an environmental crisis and humanists seem to be divided over the proper response to it. Some argue that human population should be limited even though there is strong disagreement how this could be done. Others argue that the standard of living should be reduced and if we go back to the standard of living of a century back then the threat to the environment from population growth would be reduced. Some humanists, for example, agree with some advocates of population restriction that the optimum population for Australia should be around 20 million (or even less). This seems to tacitly assume that Australians are "naturally" entitled to their standard of living which is many times above the world average. The irony of this is that the indigenous people are held to a standard of living similar to that in third world countries. An active population policy like the one-child policy in China is rarely advocated on the ground that it violates a fundamental human right. Humanism should not be transformed into a glorification of the human species entitled to uninhibited hedonism. It should be regarded as a philosophy that places humanity in the universal context and develops a code of behaviour that frees humans from the supernatural and the unreasonable but still places mankind in the appropriate universal context.