Manussa Tract No. 7

 The Philosophical Basis
of Humanist Ethics 

A Paper Presented to the Regional Congress
of the IHEU and CAHS (Sydney, November 2000) 

by Victor A. Gunasekara 


Note by the Publisher This Paper was presented to Australis2000, a Regional Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, held in Sydney 12-14 November 2000. The format of the Congress permitted only a summary presentation. The present document gives the full text of the paper. This Essay incorporates sections of the Author's Essay entitled The Ethics of Humanism which was published as Manussa Tract No. 6. 

1. Introduction 

Aims and Abstract of Paper

The principal objective of this Paper is to examine the philosophical underpinnings of Secular Humanist Ethics. It is the claim of secular humanism that it can provide a scheme of practical ethics that is not inferior to any other system of practical ethics and in many respects is superior to them. However any system of ethics requires a theoretical basis to justify it. This aspect of ethical enquiry if often referred to as meta-ethics [1] . This paper therefore deals with the meta-ethics of Humanism.

The philosophical basis of humanist ethics has not received the attention it deserves. Most ethical discussion amongst Humanists relate to various issues of practical ethics, e.g. euthanasia, abortion, sexual preferences, capital punishment, etc. Secular humanism takes a stand on this type of question but this is often stated without validating it on specific humanist or philosophical principles.

After a consideration of some basic issues relating to ethics the Paper outlines the main philosophical approaches to ethical theory and considers their relevance for secular humanism. This is followed by a critique of religious ethics especially the Divine Command theory of ethics which underlies the Mosaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). There is a brief consideration of the treatment of ethics in Eastern religion especially those which derive their ethics from the doctrine of karma (kamma).

The paper then considers the alternative foundations for a non-religious system of ethics. This involves an examination of Rationalism, Naturalism, the Golden Rule (and Contractarianism), Utilitarianism and the Moral Sense theory. While their superiority with respect to religious ethics is established it is also shown that none of these can by themselves provide a basis for a system of humanist ethics.

This is followed by the main contribution of this paper viz. the identification of a basis for humanist ethics which will be called the axiomatic theory of humanist ethics. This requires a careful statement of the core principles of humanism, and the ethical system in then deduced from this set of core principles. A set of twelve core principles of Secular Humanism adequate to ground a system of humanist ethics is provided in an appendix to the paper.

While the emphasis is on the philosophical and meta-ethical issues relating to secular ethics two sections explore the main rules of practical humanist ethics. One deals with rules of personal individual ethics and the other with the rules of social or group ethics. This is because a purely theoretical consideration of ethics will not give rules by which people can lead the good life, and humanism has as its main aim the provision of a system of practical ethics which people can live by.

Finally there are a few comments on the post-modernist critique of humanist ethics. 

What is Ethics?

At its most general level ethics deals with the standards of conduct. It seeks to establish rules by which the quality of actions can be determined. This is sometimes also called morality and the two terms are often used synonymously. Ethical or moral conduct is conduct that conforms to a set of permissible rules, while acts which are contrary to the permissible rules are deemed to be unethical or immoral. Clearly it is possible that some acts could ethically neutral or amoral.

A distinction is sometimes made between morals and ethics. Morals are said to deal with normative concepts like ‘good', ‘bad', ‘right' or ‘wrong' while ethics is concerned as taking a more positivist approach defining what is permitted and what is not without ascribing normative values to them. However since the definition of good often is that which is permitted this distinction may be too subtle. We will use the terms ethics and morality as synonyms. Both the Greek root for ethics (ethos) as well as the Latin root for morals (mores) mean ‘habits'. So at its inception both ethics and morals meant that which was habitually accepted.

There are several ways in which the subject matter of ethics could be analysed. In the literature on ethics its subject matter has been dichotomized in at least three different ways. The first of these is the distinction between theoretical ethics and practical ethics and the second that between individual ethics and social or group ethics. There is also a third distinction made by philosophers between normative ethics and meta-ethics. Normative ethics considers the rules for evaluating the human moral element, while meta-ethics analyses the meaning and nature of the moral element [2] . We shall not deal with this third distinction, treating as a variant of the first distinction equating meta-ethics with theoretical ethics and normative ethics with practical ethics, even though this is not strictly correct.

Theoretical ethics deals with the general principles that can be used to determine the ethical value of various forms of conduct. The formulation of such general principles has been the concern of philosophers, and in this sense ethical or moral theory has been an important part of most schools of philosophy. Practical ethics, on the other hand, deals with specific ethical rules which govern the conduct of a given group of people. It is usually presented as a list of things to do and things not to do. This is the aspect of ethics that is of most interest to ordinary people. It is also the aspect to which preachers and moralisers most often allude to. In both meanings the subject has been of concern from ancient times and discussion of the subject has never ceased.

It might appear that a consideration of ethical principles must precede the construction of a set of ethical rules, or theoretical ethics must precede practical ethics. In reality the relationship is very often the other way around. A set of rules can be given which people are expected to conform to, and then some rationale developed to justify these rules. Sometimes of course rules may be drawn up for which there is no theoretical justification, or none is offered. Practical ethics is not identical with the system of law that is in force in various States. There is an obligation to obey the law with penalties attached to a breach of the law. Moral or ethical principles have to be followed voluntarily and there is usually no legal sanction against violations of ethical principles. However the civil law may be based on general ethical principles, so that punishment for breaking the law may be seen as a penalty for breaking an ethical rule.

The second distinction we made is between the ethics of the individual and that of the group. At the individual level we are looking at the conduct of a single individual. It is true that some kinds of individual conduct have an impact on others, but the ethical rule is formulated from the standpoint of the primary agent, not necessary from that of others who may be affected by that action. This is ethics at its most basic level, and every system of ethics has attempted to formulate its own set of personal ethics. Individual ethics is often termed psychological ethics because psychology is at the root of the formulation of individual ethics. For a long time ethics was concerned exclusively with individual ethics, and even now most ethical discussions are confined to it.

Gradually the notion that a group ethic exists came to be recognised. Sometimes the group is restricted to smaller subset of the whole population, as when it relates to a profession or a trade. It is in this sense that we can speak of medical ethics or advertising ethics. However the group can also encompass a broad community even the whole of society. At this level we are dealing with social ethics. Even now there is some reluctance to admit social ethics is a legitimate area of moral theory and practice. Some of the most controversial areas in ethics belong to social ethics. 

What is Humanism?

A full treatment of this subject is neither possible nor necessary in the present context. The word ‘humanism' came into usage during the Renaissance in connection with the revival of interest in classical learning. The modern usage of the term begins with the views of a number of philosophers in the period referred to as the Enlightenment (1680 - 1815). These writers challenged the accepted views in a number of areas, most importantly views based on the dominant religion (Christianity). Only a few philosophers like David Hume took a nearly atheistic stand, but most others took either the prevailing Christian position or a deistic stance. In the area of moral philosophy they used human reason or natural law as the basis of ethics, but some place was still reserved to God in some ultimate sense.

Secular humanism has progressed far from the early concerns of the Enlightenment. In the twentieth century several well known manifestos and declarations of humanist principles have been published. The core principles of Secular humanism as used in this essay are given in the Appendix as a set of twelve principles [3] . When we refer to Humanism (with a capital H) in this essay we shall mean secular humanism. The term ‘humanism' (with a simple h and without a qualifying adjective) is often used in a general way to denote any concern with human beings. Such concerns are better described as humanistic concerns rather than humanist concerns, certainly not Humanist concerns.. 

Significance of Ethics to Humanism

There are several cognate areas of thinking which are akin to Humanists and is often confused with Humanism. These include atheism, agnosticism, free-thought, secularism, scepticism, human rights, etc. What sets Humanism apart from these (with which it has much in common) is the centrality of ethics and morals for Humanism. Of course it is not implied that all these other non-religious concerns completely lack an ethical dimension. Where they do express a concern for ethics the system of ethics favoured may not be identical to Humanist ethics. Thus a consideration of the ethics of Humanism is very important.


2. Philosophical Approaches to Ethical Theory 

Ethics and Philosophy

Ethics or moral philosophy has always been an integral part of philosophical discourse. Over the course of time several approaches to this subject have been developed. A systematic classification of these approaches in not possible here. It might however be necessary to identify the more important of these approaches in order to determine which of these approaches are must appropriate to develop a scheme of Humanist ethics.

The approaches outlined here are not mutually exclusive and most ethical systems share several of these approaches. 

Moral Nihilism

This denies that morality exists and that all actions have an equal value. It is also sometimes called amoralism even though this term may mean that there are acts which are amoral co-existing with acts to which a moral value can be attached.. This view is sometimes attributed to Nietzsche, even though his views are more complex than a simple denial of moral standards. Some modern-day anarchists espouse a system of nihilistic ethics.

Clearly humanist ethics does not entail any moral nihilism. Humanism assets quite emphatically that some acts are moral and others are unethical. It also recognises a whole range of acts which fall into neither category. This area of amoral actions may be broader than in some other ethical systems, but they do not cover what we may call the fundamental areas of human activity. 

Moral Absolutism

This is the view that there is one true morality which does not entail any moral conflicts. So there is no need to override moral principles. Moral Absolutism is based upon a simple rule which is used to evaluate the moral quality of alternatives. An example of moral absolutism is a version of the moral philosophy of Emmanuel Kant. The principle Kant employs is called the Categorical Imperative which states something like "there is good" rather than the Hypothetical Imperative which asserts something like "if there is good".

Most people will agree that Humanist ethics does not belong to the species of absolutist morals. There should however be some degree of fixity (as well as flexibility) in Humanist ethics. This relates to the area of ethics involved. The fixity must apply especially to individual or personal ethics, while flexibility will apply to social or group ethics which are subject to a greater degree of change. Neither characteristic can be associated with the notion of moral absolutism.]

Moral Subjectivism

There are at least two meanings to the notion of moral subjectivism. One is to take it as the opposite of moral objectivism, i.e. moral principles cannot be derived from purely objective criteria existing externally to the individual. The other is to assert that moral principles apply to the agent alone and that there is no need for the individual to bother with anybody else's moral principles.

A case could be made that Humanist ethics is subjectivist on both these grounds. The first interpretation of the non-positivist nature of ethical rules implies that they are essentially value judgements and cannot be considered either correct or incorrect on purely logical grounds. Humanist ethics are non-positivist in this sense, e.g. we cannot prove that euthanasia is morally correct on purely objective grounds like for instance the quantum of paid which a person seeking euthanasia must undergo.

In the second sense identified we may say that individual ethics is subjective whether the ethical system is Humanist or not. However it may not apply to social or group ethics which might require some agreement from a number of agents 

Moral Objectivism

This may be considered as the opposite of moral subjectivism in both the meanings we had identified for this term. In both senses we could consider Humanist ethics as "objective" to a certain degree.

Some philosophers consider moral objectivism as asserting that moral principles could be derived from natural law. This was a position for instance argued by the Thomas Aquinas. He argued for an "extrinsic principle" behind moral law and identified this "objective" principle with God: "... the extrinsic principle moving to good is God, who both instructs us by means of his Law and assists us by his Grace." While God to the religionist may be "extrinsic" it is certainly not an objective reality. Moral Relativism

This assumes that groups of individuals can choose their own moral principles, and while they apply to the group as a whole they may not be relevant for a different group. Some schools of post-modernists argue in this way but ethical relativism violates some fundamental principles of Humanism. Thus moral relativism cannot be a characteristic of a system of Humanistic ethics. 

Moral Conventionalism

This is a form of moral relativism but instead of the values being determined by the individual alone it is arrived by a process of social choice or interpersonal agreement. Some Humanists consider Humanist ethics as a species of ethical conventionalism.

However Humanist cannot and should not be derived by a process of consensus. The issues involved in Humanism pose a clear choice between alternatives, and Humanist morality cannot be got through some form of democratic process to establish some kind of golden mean. 

Moral Scepticism

This claims that we cannot know whether there are moral truths. It is a position asserted by thorough-going sceptics, but is not one which Humanists will not endorse. However a degree of scepticism must be attached to any rule of practical ethics particularly social or group ethics.


 3. Religious Ethics

While from the philosophical perspective several kinds of ethics may be identified for secular humanist ethics one particular distinction is important. This is the distinction between religious ethics and secular ethics. It would therefore be useful to make some comments on religious ethics before considering secular ethics.

Most religions present some schema of ethics or other. Indeed some religions like to present themselves as the sole repository of morality. Advocates or propagandists for religion very often advance the argument that without religion there will be no morality. This is best reflected in the oft-quoted statement by Dostoevsky that "If God did not exist then everything will be permitted".

Religious ethics comes in several different packages corresponding to the different religions. Even if we confine ourselves to the three Mosaic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) which share a great deal of common ground there are significant differences in their respective ethics. If we compare these systems of religious ethics to other religions originating in India or China the differences in their respective ethics become even greater. In this essay we shall confine ourselves mainly to the Mosaic religions, and specifically to Christianity. All of them postulate a monotheistic God, and this God stands in the very centre of their ethical theory. 

God as the Source of Ethics

The question whether a divine agency could serve as the basis of ethics was posed quite early in Western philosophy. Plato in a dialogue ascribed to Socrates (Euthyphro) raised the question whether the moral rules favoured by the gods were good because the gods favoured them, or whether the gods advocated them because they were good. In the latter case, which is what Plato appeared to favour, the goodness of moral rules are anterior to, and exist independently of, the gods. God merely discover these moral laws and commend them to people. But if the gods can discover these moral laws, then so could humans through the exercise of some other faculty like reason.

The Greek philosophers were not monotheists, but later scholastics like St Augustine and Aquinas recast Greek thought into the monotheistic Christian mould from which it was not rescued until the Renaissance. In the Christian interpretation of Plato's thought the position becomes reversed and God is made into the giver of all values. However the view that the goodness of things are independent of God is not strictly an atheistic or even an agnostic view. Even Kant who was very influential in modern Western ethics supported a position similar to that of Plato. 

The Old Testament Ethics

The ethics set out in the Old Testament has been the starting point of the ethical system adopted by the three Mosaic religions. These are generally referred to as the Law and a presented as commands laid down by God. The best known of these Laws re the Ten Commandments communicated to Moses by God, generally referred to as the Decalogue. They define the basic ethical rules of Judaism and Christianity.

The Mosaic Commandments (Exodus 20:3-17) are: 1. Do not have any other gods before Yahweh; 2. Do not worship "graven images" 3. Do not take the "name of the Lord thy God in vain"; 4. Keep the Sabbath day.; 5. Honour the father and mother. 6. Do not kill; 7. Do not commit adultery; 8. Do not steal; 9. Do not bear false witness against the neighbour; 9. Do not covet the neighbour's house, his wife, his male slave, his female slave, his ox, his ass, nor anything else. The first four of these commandments are religious ones and would not usually figure under ethical conduct. The fifth one (honouring one's parents) may be admitted as an ethical rule provided the parents are worthy of honour. The next four (Rules 5 - 9) are basic rules of personal ethical conduct. The final one is a milder version of Rule 8, i.e instead of stealing the things mentioned people are exhorted not even to "covet" (i.e. desire) them.

Thus the basic ethical commandments of Moses are the rules against murder, theft, adultery, and false witness. These rules of course were not originated by Moses, or, as he alleges, by God. They have been stated many times before even in the area in which Moses and his people lived and wandered, e.g in decrees of some Pharaohs, in the laws of Hammurabi, etc.

 New Testament Ethics

To the ethics of the Old Testament we have to add the ethics given in the New Testament. Christians like to present Jesus as advocating a higher morality than that contained in Judaism, so it may be appropriate to consider the moral teachings of Jesus. The principal source for these teachings is the so-called "sermon on the mount". This occurs in two places in the New Testament (Matt. 5 - 7 and Luke 6:17-49) with the usual inconsistencies that are evident in the different Gospel stories. The "Sermon" contain both pure moral rules as well as religious duties such as instruction on how to pray. Most of the prohibitions in the Decalogue are repeated, but there is an attempt to go beyond them and complement the negative statements with positive ones.

If we take the longest version of the Sermon, that given in Matthew (ch. 5) there is first of all the statement of support for the old laws (5:17-20) beginning with the statement: "Think not I have come to destroy the law, or the prophets". This involves an acceptance of the Mosaic commandments and other laws, but these are extended in several respects (5:21-30) and some new laws promulgated (5:31-48).

The precept against killing is expanded by exhorting his followers to desist from anger against their "brothers", even asserting: " whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire" (5:22). The prohibition against adultery is expanded by saying "whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery" (5:28) and the addition of the new law: "whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery" (5:32). The proscription against swearing is expanded by excluding several other things being used as objects of swearing. There is also a curious restriction speaking: "But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil" (5:37). More extensive changes are made in connection with the old rule of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth". These include the following maxims: "whoso-ever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also ... if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also... whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain. Give to him that asketh thee, and from him that would borrow of thee turn not thou away" (5:39-42). The maxim on love is expanded to include: "Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you".

These virtues, especially that of love, are usually held up as constituting the high point of Jesus' ethical teachings. However love for one's fellow is always held as inferior to love for one's God and compared to the few instances where the former is extolled there are far more instances of the latter.

These exhortations to generosity, love, etc. were made to his followers; they strictly applied to the brotherhood. In this it parallels the Mosaic restriction of the moral rules to the chosen people. Jesus himself seems to have adhered to this rule of excluding those who did not agree with him from the virtues which he exhorts his followers to extend to their brothers. It has been noticed that his treatment to those who did not choose to hear him was met with a degree of resentment, e.g. by cursing. And those who indulged in practices disapproved of were treated more severely (e.g. the traders in the temple). Nietzsche regarded the love that Jesus advocated as actually being a mask for evil. Nietzsche looked on the Jewish morality, and in particular that of Christianity, as being the morality of the slave as against the morality of a superior class. He held that slaves may be motivated for love for each other combined with a common hatred for their oppressors. As slaves may not have any realistic hope of release so is prone to look for delivery in an other-worldly state.

Nietzsche's interpretation of the moral teaching of Jesus get greater support from the version of the sermon in the mount given in Luke which is quite inferior from an ethical point of view. Here the religious tone is greater and it starts with Jesus performing his healing miracles (6:17-19). The beatitudes also emphasise the poor and the weak: "Blessed be ye poor ... Blessed are ye that hunger ... Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you... for your reward is great in heaven" (6:19-23). This is followed by curses to the opposite kind: "But woe unto you that are rich! ... Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. ... Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you!" (6:24-26). This is then followed, rather ironically, by exhortations to love, charity, etc. as in Matthew, considered earlier. 

Islamic Ethics

In Islam too ethical rules derive principally from God. Muhammad claimed to have received his revelation from an arch-angel who communicated what God had written down in the Koran. Muhammad claims it is the same God who spoke to Moses, so God seems to have changed his mind from the time he gave the commands to Moses and to Muhammad. Muhammad claimed that as the "seal" of the prophets there would be no further revision in the divine revelation.

There is also a second level of Islamic jurisprudence (the Hadith) which relate to the actual practices of Muhammad. The rules of conduct, ethical or otherwise, from both the Koran and the Hadith have been compiled into the set of Islamic laws, the Sharia. Judicial interpretations of the Sharia have added a further tier to Islamic ethical rules.

To a greater extent than the other two Mosaic religions Islamic ethics consists of detailed rules of conduct specifying, sometimes down to minutest level, such things as personal hygiene, dress codes (especially for women), methods of eating, etc. Details of proper family relations, even proper sexual relations are combined with more profounder ethical rules. Most of Islamic ethical rules are especially enjoined for relations with other muslims, not with human beings in general. 

The Divine Command Theory

In the Old Testament there is no justification given for the Mosaic rules other than simply stating them as instruction received by Moses from God. Jesus' additions in the N.T. are also in a similar vein. However later theologians have attempted to justify these in terms of broader principles. The best known of these justifications are those advanced on the grounds of natural law and divine command.

The best known advocate of the natural law theory of biblical ethics is the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas. It is official position of the Catholic Church in the modern day and has been defended by a school of Catholic philosophers called the neo-Thomists such as the French Catholic Jacques Maritain.

Aquinas seems to start from the reasonable premiss that people have the capacity to discover for themselves what is good and what is evil out of their basic human nature. This he calls a natural law. In his Summa Theologica (Part II, section XIII on The Law) he poses the question "Whether there is in us a natural law?" (Question 92). As he answers this in the affirmative it might appear that he does not rely on divine providence for the discovery of moral laws. However this is a illusion when we examine what he means "natural law". This is not for him something separate from divine law, or as he calls it "eternal law", but actually rests on the basis of divine law. Thus he writes: "...since all things subject to divine providence are ruled and measure by the eternal law, in so far as, namely, from its being imprinted on them, they derive their respective inclinations to their proper acts and ends. Now among all others, the rational creature is subject to divine providence in a more excellent way, in so far as it itself partakes of a share of providence, by being provident both for itself and for others. Therefore it has a share of eternal reason, whereby it has a natural inclination to its proper act and end; and this participation of the eternal law in the rational creature is called the natural law". [4]

It is clear from this that the ultimate sanction for natural law and the exercise of reason by people is the divine law. For Aquinas God was part of Nature, in fact the first principle of nature. Thus God's commands could be seen as part of natural law. Even though Aquinas may argue that the Christian ethics are natural because normal person acknowledge them almost intuitively, such as for instance the proscriptions against killing, theft, and the like, this is by no means true of the first five rules of the Mosaic decalogue. Either these have to be left out, and there is no case argued for doing this by Aquinas, or we have to justify them on some other schema of what constitutes nature. So ultimately even though Aquinas formally rejects the proposition that we have to accept the Mosaic rules because they are God given this is in fact what he finally acknowledges by his view that natural is itself "imprinted" on humans by divine providence [5] .

However this is not the way in which Nature is seen by secularists. They look on nature as consisting only on those things in the Universe which are empirically observable. Many scientific laws which have not been refuted by contrary evidence can be considered as part of natural law. And there is nothing in these laws which would validate the scheme of values set out in the Mosaic commandments.

During the Protestant reformation its leaders repudiated the theories of Aquinas along with other sources of Papal authority. This led to a rehabilitation of the Divine Command theory for ethics. This simply states that what is good and bad, right and wrong is set out by God in the divine revelation and that human reason cannot go beyond the divine command.

From the rationalist point of view the Divine command theory of ethics can only be considered if it can be shown that the divine author exists and has the requisite powers and capacities to make the right judgement. But belief in God is simply a matter of faith. Something taken on the basis of faith does not require evidence or proof.

Ethics in Eastern Belief Systems

The two main sources of Asian belief systems have been India and China. These belief systems may be considered as the counterpart of religion as it is understood in the Mosaic tradition. Asian religions, except Hinduism, are not theistic and have a different approach to ethics than the Mosaic religions.

Indian religions base their ethics on the operation of a presumed natural law, the law of karma. However the three main Indian religions (Hinduism [6] , Buddhism and Jainism) have different views of how the karmic law operates, and what constitutes good and bad action in the operation of this law.

In Hinduism karma came to be seen as the performance of duty, in particular caste duty. Starting from the four classical castes (varna) given in the vedas it gradually developed a complicated caste hierarchy in which people were not allowed to transgress their divinely ordained caste duties. Another aspect of Hindu ethical conduct was the performance of various rites, whether associated with the worship of the deity, or in secular life by the delimitation of specific stages (ashrama) where specific duties were expected in each stage. In later Hinduism when faith and devotion (bhakti) became a dominant virtue and elaborate systems of rites and austerities came to be praised pure ethical action tended to recede even further

By contrast Buddhism classified karmic action in accordance with its moral quality. The minimum ethical conduct for lay persons were governed by the five precepts. Four of these are similar to the Mosaic rules 6 to 9 in the Decalogue. But the Buddhist rules are more extensive in scope, e.g killing applies to all sentient beings not only humans. The precepts are directly framed in a negative manner as a system of "do nots". However it is complemented by a number of positive virtues, not only the four "divine abodes" [7] but also a series of right action, right speech and even right livelihood.

Jain ethics is probably the most thorough going of all Indian religious ethics because of its universal extolling of the principle of non-injury (ahimsa). This principle was extended to all forms of life and Jainism contains the most comprehensive system of animal rights of all ethical systems.

The ethical system of China is largely associated with the work of Confucius. He too gives primacy to ethical conduct: "He who rules by moral force is like the pole-star, which remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it" (Analects, II, 1). But the content of his morality is different to that which informs the Indian tradition. There is less emphasis of abstract principles and more on actual rules of conduct. These are centred mainly around appropriate family conduct and the conduct towards the state and authority in general. 

Conflicts in Religious Ethics

One of the greatest objections to religious ethics is that the different religions do not present the same moral values, and often there is a serious disagreement on the moral value of certain actions. This is particularly true of the three Mosaic religions whose history is one of mutual conflict and persecution. The greatest culprits in this respect have been Christianity and Islam.

Islamic ethics resolves itself into a large number of specific rules governing the conduct of those who follow the faith. Many of these rules, like those relating to the position of women in Society have become highly retrograde.

With contradictory ethical values advocated in the various religions it is clear that they all cannot emanate from the same divine agency. This is probably the most fatal of the arguments against divine command theories of ethics. Those who subscribe to the divine command theory rarely generally ascribe the moral precepts to ‘God' without identifying who the specific God is. Clearly the rules ascribed to Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, or Rama are quite different from each other.


 4. Non Religious Systems of Ethics

In sharp contrast to ethical systems based on religion are those based on non-religious principles. It is to this category that a Humanist ethical system must also belong. These systems too are confronted by the same questions which have been posed in relation to religion-based ethics. In this section we shall consider some of the principles that have been used to advance a non-religious system of ethics.

We shall in the rest of this section consider some of principles that had been used in constructing a system of humanist ethics. While none of these in itself may be adequate a combination of these approaches may be useful. We shall consider several approaches that have been used to justify Humanist ethics. These include Rationalism, Naturalism, the Golden Rule (as associated Contractualism), Utilitarianism, and the theory of the Innate Moral Sense. Finally we shall advance an "axiomatic" approach which uses an a priori definition of the core principles of Humanism. 

Rationalism and Empiricism

The most commonly argued basis for secular ethics is reason and human experience. The following is a typical statement of how Humanists arrive at their system of ethics: "Humanists promote a secular system of ethics that is derived from human experience. They do not subscribe to the view that an ethical stance requires the adoption of supernatural dogmas. Through the exercise of reason it is possible to construct an ethical system that permits society to function smoothly and for individuals to follow an enjoyable life stance without detriment to their fellow humans or other life forms." (From the booklet The Humanists issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland) This statement argues that humanist ethics could be derived from empiricism ("human experience") and rationalism ("exercise of reason"). Empiricism relies on the sensory input which individuals receive and rationalism is primarily a method of logical reasoning. Some philosophers see these two processes as opposites of each other - i.e. if you rely on sensory inputs only then you are not relying on reason, while the exercise of reason may not require specific sensory inputs. Both were products of philosophical speculation in the 17th and 18th centuries. While philosophers of the period have been classified either as empiricists (e.g. Bacon, Locke, Hume) or as Rationalists (e.g. Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz) the difference between the two approaches is not as sharp as it may seem and they are not always mutually exclusive. The problem with these two approaches in relation to moral theory is that neither process is not sufficient to derive a system of ethics. Indeed it could be argued that the two together too may not succeed in this task.

The fundamental problem here is that it may not be possible to derive through the application of the scientific method moral laws comparable to, say, the laws of physics. While reason is a highly prized human faculty there are limits to reason and may be the derivation of moral laws may be one of them. One of the earliest philosophers to sound a caution on this is David Hume whose final position was one of skepticism. This is particularly important because Hume was the only philosopher of the Enlightenment who could be called an atheist (or at least an agnostic), even though others like Spinoza came quite close to it. Hume was also a critic of Christianity refuting many of the so-called proofs for the existence of God, certainly the most important critique of Christianity before the Left Hegelians and Nietzsche in Germany.

Hume established the distinction between the positive and the normative. Positive statements may either be true of false, and this could be established by empirical or rational methods. Normative statements are value judgements and the normal scientific criteria can be used to derive them. Moral philosophy belongs to the normative category and would thus pose a great difficulty for anyone trying to establish a system of secular ethics entirely on empirical and rational grounds. However rational methods is not entirely useless if we base the search for humanist ethics on some specific principle. 


A glossary of ethical terms defines Naturalism as "The theory that ethical terms are defined through factual terms in that ethical terms refer to natural properties." [8] This view of naturalism will fall foul of "Hume's Guillotine", i.e. the proposition of Hume tow which we have alluded that "factual terms" have to be separated from value judgements. (the "is-ought" distinction). This has since become a central plank of the natural and even the social sciences. If the positive-normative distinction is adopted then science cannot serve as the basis for any ethical system which must be primarily concerned with normative issues.

Naturalism has also come to be identified with the method of the natural sciences. Thus even though Humanism has placed great faith on the scientific method this method cannot be used to establish the system of morality which Humanism considers so essential. 

The Golden Rule and Contractarianism

The Golden Rule has sometimes been cited as providing the rationale for humanist ethics. This rule states that one should do to others what one would expect others to do to oneself. It is a rule that appeals to enlightened self-interest rather than to any religious principle even though most religions have equivalents to the Golden Rule. It is contained in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt.7:12; Luke 6:31), and quotations have been given from Confucius, the Buddha, Epictetus, Hinduism, Jainism, Judaism, etc. supporting this rule. [9] .

The rule is relevant only for personal ethics and will not be relevant for many issues of a social ethics . Even as a basis for individual ethics it is highly subjective in character and will depend on the person considered. There is no theoretical justification for the Golden Rule in terms of some higher meta-ethical principle. Not all people have the same system of individual values, so it is quite possible that different ethical codes could be operative at the same time. While this may be technically possible in actual fact it is likely to create conflict.

The Golden Rule has been advanced for providing the rationale for people to enter into a contract or compact in order to achieve common political or moral ends. This view has been termed "Contractarianism". While contractarianism may have some validity in political theory, as is seen in Hobbes' theory of the social contract as a device for the creation of the state, its application for morality is more doubtful. On certain critical moral issues, like those that involve differences in religious and sectarian morality a moral contract may not be possible. Thus contractarianism is not a feasible ground on which to construct a system of Humanist ethics. Contractarianism is now not seriously argued for either political or ethical positions.

Sometimes the Golden Rule is amended to read "to do unto others as they would like to be done by". Such a reformulation does not undo the undesirable aspects of the original rule. The Golden Rule is not sufficient to base a system of Humanistic ethics. 


Utilitarianism is the principle that asserts that the value of an action is determined by its ability to generate some desirable property which is generally referred to as its utility [10] . Utility is very often identified with hedonic pleasure but it could be any other desirable property. Religious morality is often seen as anti-utilitarian, and the fact the utilitarianism gained popularity at the time when conventional religion was on the decline endeared it to secularists.

The utilitarian principle first emerged in the Enlightenment but was refined by Bentham and Mill in the nineteenth century. A society organised according to the utilitarian principle was supposed to guarantee the greatest happiness of the greatest number. There are several problems associated with utilitarianism. The big problem with utilitarianism is resolving the conflict when one person's enjoyment or happiness is purchased at the cost of another person's. A simple aggregation of utility against all individuals may itself not be just, even if it is possible [11] . As economic systems became increasingly complex and inter-dependent many ethical problems could arise which cannot be resolved on the utilitarian principle. Some kind of utilitarianism underlies both classical and neo-classical economics which forms the current economic orthodoxy.

Some Humanists see the purpose of life as the enhancement of enjoyment. This kind of hedonism has brought on it the charge from its opponents, especially religionists that Humanism lacks "higher" goals. However there is no reason to suppose that the aim of Humanism is to ensure the "greatest enjoyment of the greatest number".

Moral Sense Theory of Ethics

The Moral Sense theory was also advanced in the Enlightenment partly to counter the notion of self-interest implicit in utilitarian thinking. Like utilitarianism it used some aspects of Locke's psychological theory and it argued that moral obligations come from benevolent feelings which are also natural to humans. The theory of the existence of a natural moral sense is usually associated with the Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson. Other philosophers who also embraced in whole or part the notion of a moral sense were David Hume and Adam Smith. They argued that human being possessed a natural sense of empathy towards other humans which they called sympathy. This trait could co-exist with its opposite, the competitive instinct, which puts humans in an adversarial position with respect to each other. Sympathy is what we would today call compassion. It was not generally emphasised in Judeo-Christianity, and is quite different from the notion of love which became prominent in Christianity.

Adam Smith illustrates very well the interplay of these two forces. In his work on moral philosophy The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1760) he used Sympathy as the dominant human feeling, but in the economic work The Wealth of Nations (1776) he opted for the competitive instinct. It was the latter which was to be adopted by the mainstream of economic thinking.

Many people intuitively feel that people are endowed naturally with a moral sense, i.e. a conscience even though they may not follow the dictates of conscience. If this is so then a system of humanist ethics could be built on this principle. But we can never be sure whether the conscience of two people will be the same confronted with the same set of circumstances. If conscience or moral sense is not innate but an educated feeling then of course there is no natural moral sense and we are cannot ground a system of humanist ethics purely on such an entity.

Charles Darwin in his last major work ventured the opinion that any animal with well-developed social instincts will "acquire a moral sense or conscience, as soon as its intellectual powers has become as well, or nearly as well, developed as in man" (The Descent of Man). However empirical proof of this in man, let alone other species, is extremely difficult if not impossible. 

Axiomatic Basis for Humanist Ethics

In view of the shortcomings we have identified in the non-religious approaches to the problem of the construction of a system of humanist ethics it is necessary to seek a new approach which either replaces or complements these approaches.

This alternative may be called the axiomatic basis for humanist ethics. Under this system the humanist ethics are derived from a pre-existing definition of humanist principles. Then actions which are supportive of these rules, and do not violate them, could be considered as coming within the ambit of Humanist ethics. The first step is not to start with ethics but to start with a statement of the fundamental principles of humanism. This method will avoid the problems associated with the methods discussed earlier.

This will of course shift the entire burden of the definition of ethics onto the definition (or formulation) of humanist principles. This is fundamentally an a priori choice relating to the kind of system one favours, e.g. a religionist one or a humanist one. There is nothing necessarily arbitrary in this other than the exercise of deliberate choice in choosing what one considers the most appropriate system of beliefs. This way of formulating humanist ethics involves adopting a teleological or consequentialist position while the other kinds of criteria we have discussed appear to be more deontological (i.e. conforming to criteria laid down anterior to the event).

As to how the principles of Humanism are defined there are several approaches to take. These principles must be stated in clear and succinct terms with every term used capable of an unambiguous definition. The Appendix to this document contains a scheme of Twelve Basic Principles of Humanism. One of the Principles is the very axiomatic basis for the formulation of Humanist ethics (Principle X). This scheme will be used to illustrate the different problems in our discussion of humanist ethics.

It will be noticed that some of the principles, particularly Principle XII, are themselves definitions of ethical rules. These are the minimal rules that cannot be deduced from more fundamental ones, and must themselves be taken as data. These ethical principles that belong to the set of axioms defining Humanism are irreducible principles of personal conduct which have to be taken as given. But most of the other ethical propositions should be capable of being deduced from the basic axioms defining Humanism.

The task of justifying the twelve core principles of Humanism given here are beyond the tasks of this paper. Some notes are given which explain some of the implications of the twelve principles set out.

What needs to be done is to show that the practical rules of Humanist ethics could be derived from the basic principles given. The practical rules that are needed will change as social and technological changes take place. For example at the present time with technology making genetic engineering possible a whole range of ethical problems is opened up which a previous generation would not have had to deal with. The basic principles of Humanism given should be robust enough to derive Humanist solutions to the new ethical problems that have arisen.

The question could be posed as to whether the principles themselves are relative and should be changed when new circumstances arise. While it is possible to conceive of some need for flexibility the basic principles of Humanism cannot be changed without changing the character of Humanism itself.

In the next two section we shall deal with some common practical ethical rules, concentrating firstly on individual ethics and then on social or group ethics. This is not meant to be a complete compendium of Humanist ethics. Such a task cannot be attempted here. There are given more in the nature of examples of the kind of ethical issues which confront Humanists. 


5. Personal or Individual Humanist Ethics 

Significance of Individual Ethics

Individual ethics has usually been at the core of ethics. Most systems of religious ethics are confined entirely to it. Personal ethics here refers to the comportment of a human being considered as a unit in himself or herself. Usually acts of individuals have an impact on others. For instance stealing is usually considered a transgression of an individual ethic. This act however impacts on other individuals, in this case the person whose property is stolen. But one may not classify it as a group ethical rule because it may be possible that the act may be committed without there being a specific "victim", or the victim may not be aware of the theft, or might not care about it. But the act could be evaluated nonetheless and deemed to be contrary to accepted ethical conduct. Five Rules of Individual Ethics

The five rules of individual ethics which are advocated here are given as the Basic Principles 11(i) to 11(v). It will be seen that these ethical rules are not derived from other principles but are considered basic principles in themselves. The first four of these ethical rules are contained in various religious codes. The Mosaic Decalogue contains four of them (killing, theft [12] , sexual ethics, and false speech) as also the maxims of Confucius. The Precepts of the Buddha contain all five although in an extended form. Other religions may imply these but they may not be stated explicitly as religious commands or maxims, or be subject to serious qualifications. Thus Hinduism does not contain these individual rules explicitly even though they may be implicit is some of the rules in their legal books (Dharmastra). Islam justifies holy war (jihad) and killing people for this purpose is sanctioned not only in theory but also by the personal example of Muhammad. However Islam (along with Buddhism) are the only religion to explicitly admit something like Principle 11(v).

While there is a great similarity between religious and secular ethics as far as these maxims of individual ethics are concerned, there is also a great difference in the reasons for their adoption. The religious justification is ultimately the Divine Command Theory. For secular humanism we may justify these on some rule like the Golden Rule, Utilitarianism, or the argument from Moral sense, or as I prefer the axiomatic definition where they are admitted as ethical rules by definition. 

Ethical Relativism or Absolutism?

A question that must be addressed is whether humanist ethical rules, either the personal ones given above, or the social ones given later, are absolute or relative. I would contend that Humanist ethics must have some degree of absoluteness although not perfect inflexibility. Religious ethics often claim to be inflexible, but very often later "revelations" may abrogate or nullify existing ethical rules.

By relativity I do not mean that one set of people have one set of ethical values and another a different one. I think secular ethics, like any other scheme of ethics, must be universalist. But relativity could mean relativity to circumstance in the sense that one circumstance will determine whether a particular action is deemed ethical, while another circumstance will makes its opposite the correct course of action. It could also imply whether exceptions can be allowed for humanist ethical rules. For instances is killing in self-defence justifiable? Should the man who is hiding a Jew answer the Gestapo man's questions truthfully? I feel that even in some situations exceptions can be tolerated but not in others.

There is a criterion that could be used in evaluating such conflicts between ethical rules. One way of applying this criterion is to determine which of the two principles involved is the more fundamental [13] . If this can be determined then the lesser principle can be sacrificed. Another is to determine which of the two virtues is deemed the higher and this could be used. Thus a doctor who had determined that his patient has only a few days to live may chose to lie.

Humanism does not generally prescribe penalties for the violation of its ethical principles. Religions however do postulate various forms of punishment. In theocratic states this punishment may be imposed by ecclesiastic courts, e.g. the Inquisition under Christianity, or the punishment may be inflicted after death on the day of judgement. Today in Islamic countries the religious courts have the power to impose punishment, even the death penalty, for transgressions, e.g. for apostasy or blasphemy.

Humanists argue that the question of crime and punishment is a matter for the state. They of course would argue for changes in the penal code where the existing definition of crimes or punishments involve conflicts with what they would regard as a humanist scheme of ethics.


 6. Social and Group Humanist Ethics

The other areas of practical ethics may be described as social because they involve other agents. The range of things that can be included in this kind of practical ethics is enormous. Not only do most areas of private and public decision making involve some ethical principle, new areas of ethical enquiry are constantly emerging. Thus many of the ethical problems created by new technologies like genetic engineering were not known even a decade ago. This constantly changing area of practical ethics means that we cannot exhaust even the most common ones adequately in an essay like the present one.

Let us first look at the issues of practical ethics advanced by Peter Singer [14] in his book Practical Ethics (Cambridge, 1979). The issues selected by Singer are those that he sees as relevant to contemporary times. In this book he mentions "treatment of racial minorities, equality for women, the use of animals for food and research, abortion, euthanasia, and the obligation of the wealthy to help the poor". It will be seen that this includes some of the concerns of Humanists, and indeed Peter Singer has been considered to be humanist even though there is no declaration on his part that he is one. 

Ethics of Equality

Some of the concerns voiced by Peter Singer like treatment of women and ethnic minorities really relate to the principle of non-discrimination. We have adopted this as an axiom. Since these ethical maxims have received a measure of social consensus a further discussion of them may not be warranted beyond the treatment of the subjects in Singer's book. The basic humanistic principle involved is principle 9, the principle of non-discrimination.

However we have to deal with a more radical ethic, the ethic of economic equality. Singer speaks of "the rich helping the poor". If it is pure charity then there would be no ethical problem but suppose it is claimed that economic inequality is intrinsically unethical. Not many humanists would support a distribution of wealth that is perfectly equal, but not many will support the inequality that is currently existing. 

Ethics and Speciesism

Peter Singer has been very pro-active in supporting the rights of animals. In Christianity God is supposed to have given dominion to man over animals. This is the basis for the massive exploitation of animals for human use and human consumption that has now reached enormous proportions. Other religious ethics like those of Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism recognise the rights of non-human species to a much greater extent.

Humanists have traditionally neglected animal rights [15] . I am not sure what the humanist position on this is. The principles laid down in the charter in the appendix exclude the rights of species. Perhaps this is a principle that should be included in the list of humanist principles. Abortion and Euthanasia

Many Humanists recognise the unconditional right of women to the abortion of a fetus they may be carrying. Others seek to impose some limits to this right, e.g. confining it only to the first six months of pregnancy. The "right-to-life" activists deny abortion at any stage after conception, and have recently even resorted to killing of doctors offering this service. The ethic of non-killing certainly applies to humans (even if we exclude other species). Now crucial to this is the definition of who a human is. Humanists do not consider this as been purely determined by DNA. Principle V gives a definition of who a human being is. Without such a basic principle abortion as a moral right of women may not apply.

A similar position may be taken in the case of voluntary euthanasia. The right to terminate one's life would come under the principle of freedom of choice which should be a basic human right. Yet governments under the sway of religious principles have made this practice illegal even in the case of patients with a very low quality of life. In practice the question arises in the case of patients too feeble or incapacitated to exercise this right without the assistance of others. It is these others who tend to fall foul of the law. 

Other Ethical Issues

There is a large number of rules of practical ethics which remain controversial. These include a whole host of things like property rights [16] , civil rights, rights in the educational area, etc. which have been problem areas for ethicists in general though not so much for humanists. There are others which are less well known and on which there is differences exist even between humanists. These include things like eugenics, genetic engineering, genetically modified foods, etc. It also includes the right for secularists to be entitled to privileges now available to religionists.

Many of the practical ethical issues advocated by Humanists are also advocated by other groups dedicated exclusively to these goals. If we consider the ethic of environmental conservation this is now advocated by a growing number of bodies dealing with this ecological issues. It is therefore not surprising that Humanists have tended to emphasise those issues which are not generally advocated by other groups.


 7. Post-modernist Critique of Secular Ethics

Humanist ethics is not without its critics. Humanism has always been opposed by religionists and the religionist critique of humanist ethics is to be expected. Fortunately it is also the easiest to refute. Despite the passage of time the religious apologia is still fundamentally the same. Theologians are constantly spinning new theories but they have to use the same old materials and these have been exploded over and over again. There is nothing worthwhile remaining in the religious critique of humanism and its ethics.

However in recent times Humanist ideas have been attacked from a new quarter, /which we shall call post-modernism. There is no clear ideology behind this movement and indeed the very definition of the term is subject to great dispute. A modern Critique has defined it as follows: "Postmodernism is a style of thought which is suspicious of classical notions of truth, reason, identity and objectivity, of the idea of universal progress or emancipation, of single frameworks, grand narratives or ultimate grounds of explanation. Against these Enlightenment norms it sees the world as contingent, ungrounded diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations..." Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Blackwell, 1996), p.vii

While many people confine post-modernism to recent trends in art and literature others extend it to philosophy in general. Under this extension it is sometimes argued that all ethical values are relative and all schemes of ethics are "valid". This would mean that equal importance should be attached to Christian ethics as to Muslim ethics, to religious ethics as to secular ethics, to Nazi ethics as to democratic values. Clearly this exposes the absurdity of this approach.

While we cannot expose this critique of humanism here we may refer to an implicit critique by a Queensland academic A. Tuan Nuyen in the course of a re-interpretation of an early essay by Bertrand Russell "A Free Man's Worship" [17] . The free man of Russell is the free man liberated from religious dogma. But Tuan Nuyen says: "I wish to argue that Russell's do not constitute a philosophical prohibition of religion despite appearance to the contrary... Russell's ‘renunciation' in the essay, if it is a renunciation of God and religion, is ironically an Annunciation".

The proof of this extraordinary claim is based on a clear distortion of Russell's argument. Russell says, quite metaphorically: "Man creates God, all-powerful and all-good, the mystic unity of what is and what should be" and "Shall our God exist and be evil, or shall he be recognized as the creation of our own conscience?" Such statements do not imply an affirmation or an "Annunciation" of God, religion or divinely ordained ethical rules, but merely the statement that "God" is pure a creation of the human mind and could be invested with any property, good or bad.

Postmodernist thinking is no different from the shallow argument of Tuan Nuyen. What can be demonstrated is the post modernism is incapable of refuting the position of secular humanism on ethics or any other subject.

The failure of post-modernism is most clearly seen when we examine its ethical implications. It is clearly impossible to assert that two contradictory systems of ethics can both be correct, or have a "relative" validity. Thus abortion on demand by a pregnant female cannot both be right or wrong. 



Twelve Core Principles of Secular Humanism

B - Some Notes on the Principles of Humanism



1. The term meta-ethics literally means that which comes after ethics, implying that the practical rules of ethical conduct are first formulated and their justification then established. The term may be used to denote the reverse procedure in which the practical rules are derived after the theoretical basis is established. We shall be using the term in the latter sense.

2. There are two main kinds of meta-ethical theories, the cognitive and the non-cognitive depending on whether they affirm or deny that moral terms are qualities in the world and that moral judgements are a kind of knowledge. Normative ethics has also two broad divisions: deontological (derived from principles antecedent to the act) or teleological or consequentialist (derived from the consequences of the act).

3. No attempt is made to justify these 12 core principles in this Essay. This is done in the author's The Twelve Core Principles of Secular Humanism (Manussa Tracts on Humanism No. 1).

4. Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas (ed. A.C.Pegis) Random House, 1945, Vol. II, p.750.

5. Some people have even called Aquinas a humanist. This is almost completely in appropriate on almost any interpretation of humanism, and certainly not on the secular humanist interpretation. In fact in this regard, by his subsuming God in nature he actually takes an anti-humanist position.

6. Hinduism has been an evolving religion with at least three phases generally identified. The earliest phase is the original vedic religion and the texts known as the Brahmanas which followed it. This phase of the religion has been termed Brahmanism. There is very little ethical content in this phase. Then came the Upanishadic period which gave a metaphysical interpretation to the divine principle. Moral issues are now given greater prominence. Finally we have Hinduism proper which could be dated from the adoption of the Bhagavat Gita as the central text. This last phase commenced about the second century BCE (or later) and reached fruition when Buddhism died out in the country of its origin.

7. These divine abodes (brahma viharas) are not derived from a divine authority but seen as uplifting states. They are compassion, loving-kindness (or detached love), sympathetic joy (the opposite of jealousy) and equanimity. Only the last of these can be seen as non-ethical.

8. Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory. Wadsworth, 1988.

9. For references see the booklet The Humanists issued by the Humanist Society of Queensland.

10. Philosophers distinguish between act-utilitarianism and rule-utilitarianism. The former evaluates each action in terms of its utility, the latter in terms of a set of rules which itself is evaluated (in relation to other sets of rules) by its utility. For our purpose it does not matter which form of utilitarianism is used.

11. The early utilitarians assumed that utility could be measured in a cardinal way. Gradually this idea was given up and the notion of ordinal utility was adopted by some utilitarians. This of course completely invalidates the utilitarian principle although it is possible to construct other substitutes.

12. Theft involves a definition of property and thus may not be completely a "personal ethic" in the way we have defined it. This aspect will be considered in the next section or group or social ethics.

13. The relative order of importance of the various humanist principles is one to which some thought has to be given. The order in which they are listed can be used to indicate their ranking order. In the scheme of principles given in the appendix the personal ethical rules figure as the last principle. This is however something that may be argued and some might consider it of sufficient importance to figure after the core principles of humanism (e.g. principles 1 - 4).

14. Peter Singer is an Australian academic who has advocated several controversial positions in ethics. He has been interested in problems of equality (gender, ethnicity etc.), the taking of "life" (e.g. in euthanasia, abortion, etc.), animal rights, political violence, civil disobedience, etc.

15. See the present writer's article "Humanism and Speciesism", Queensland Humanist 34:3. July 2000.

16. The legitimacy of property rights have been questioned by some philosophers. Prudhon made the famous statement that "All property is theft". Marxians do not recognise the legitimacy of property rights to the means of production. The tendency today seems to extend the scope of property rights, not restrict it. In particular the extension of property rights to "intellectual property" poses some serious problems which has not been adequately dealt with.

17. Russell's essay was published in 1903 and not revised since. Tuan Nuyen's critique is in the article "What Does the Free Man Worship", International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, 46 1999 pp 35-48.