Expanding on the Definition of Humanism – Full Repost
As social animals, we tend to align ourselves with people who are “like us”; We associate with those who share our outlook on life, with those with whom we are related, with those that we share ideas and thoughts, with those who inspire us, and with those from whom we can learn and grow. That is the key to our interpersonal relationships, a sense of familiarity with those around us. Some of us are fortunate enough that we can find this in our daily lives, while others have to search farther afield in clubs or social groups, and others again may find it difficult to find these people and may struggle to interact with people who see the world as they do. But one thing we all have in common is our humanity; We are all human, we are all born from a mother, we all have a father, we all live and breathe and die. It is undeniable that we all share this, even as varied and disparate as we may seem.
The like-minded people we seek to be with lend to us our identities, individually and collectively, and in the best of circumstances give us a sense of belonging, a sense of being part of a greater whole. In the worst of circumstances, this “collectiveness” gives rise to division from people who do not fit into our definition of identity, revealing itself in the form of sexism, racism, factionalism, tribalism, and nationalism. The disparaging of the “other”, the “xeno” in “xenophobe”, or the “outsider”, is used as a way for people to reinforce the “rightness” of their collective, or as a way to feel more secure within their group. When one can distinguish what separates them from others, and have a group of people who fit to their ideals, values and social aspirations, it is much easier to demonise the “other” as being against you.
However, the one thing that binds us, our humanity, should be the most compelling reason for unity that we have available to us. Without exception, all of humanity has, at its core, a group of physical and emotional needs that need to be met if we are to meet a minimum standard of well-being in our lives. To me, that is the definition of the “human” in “humanism”.
I can see how religious folk might see the idea of humanism as abhorrent, especially given the above definition; It could be (and often is) interpreted to place all importance on humans in an individualistic, nihilistic and narcissistic manner, forsaking the rights and happiness of others only seeking for hedonistic pleasures of the flesh. In the mind of some religious people, this narrow interpretation misses the point of what it means to be human, because in their minds without the existence or intervention of a higher power the only viable alternative is a life of debauchery and consumption at the expense of others. It misses the point because of the very binding nature of being human, namely our similarities as a species.
This is to say, that from an objective and (almost) universal standpoint, all of humanity experiences life in a similar fashion; Our physical needs (food, water, rest, sex) and our emotional wants (comfort, safety, happiness, love) are things that any human can talk about with a certain sense of knowledge. (Note: I say “almost” because there are certain cognitive and physical disorders which can effect the way a person interacts with or experiences the world around us. However these are so uncommon as to be negligible in this context, the exception rather than the rule.)
As Sam Harris talks about in his book “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values”, there is a base level of well-being that we can all agree on, but only once we take away all the social and religious baggage that brings with it its moral prejudice of what it is to be “right and wrong” on a human level. Harris, in his 2011 Huffington Post blog piece, a response to critics of “The Moral Landscape” he describes his argument in brief:
“Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds – and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, of course, fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.”
And he goes on, specifically to talk of my friend Russell Blackford’s review of the book:
“I argue that the value of well-being — specifically the value of avoiding the worst possible misery for everyone — is on the same footing. There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it. To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.” Our spade is turned. Anyone who says it isn’t simply isn’t making sense.”
This description, particularly with relation to avoiding misery and the universality we all feel for this need, is what I am interested in here. But instead of harping on about what constitutes an objectively and universal well-being, as Harris and Blackford are tackling this question themselves, I’d rather like to look at humanism from a slightly different angle.
Let’s take it as a given that nobody wants to suffer. Granted, there are certain facets of society that see suffering as a natural part of life, and that experiencing suffering can give rise to deeper and altered states of awareness or as a virtue which makes life richer. That aside, let’s just say that if well-being were in fact quantifiable, as Harris alludes to, then I think we could all come to some sort of agreement as to what “being well” is at a base level. Well-being, however, involves aspects outside of humanity that I’d like to explore.
We require many things in order to attain well-being, apart from the direct physical and emotional aspects of being human. For instance, well being depends upon being; without being there is no well-being, as there is nothing to “be well”, if you will. There are aspects of nature that we depend upon in order to “be” at all, and many of these are overlooked when describing “humanism”. We depend upon our physical world and its other inhabitants in order that we can live at all, let alone in a state of well-being.
This being the case, what, in fact, does “humanism” mean? Is it a total focus on humans as the most important thing on earth, or is it something more? Given that we are all so heavily dependent upon our planet and its environment, as well as life-sustaining plants and animals therein, would it be too much of a stretch to include these aspects of our well-being into an extended and more inclusive definition of humanism? Since the world’s people depend upon something as small as the simple honey-bee to sustain the agriculture and plant life on earth, which in turn sustains the lives of all other plants and animals on earth, it is imperative that we take these aspects of our being into account.
The idea that “humanism” should only relate to aspects of being that relate directly to the immediate well-being of humanity is short-sighted at best. All of the aspects of social justice that pertain to well-being, human rights and societal justice are extremely important, but we should never overlook aspects of our being that depend upon the very earth we live on.
Where some religious people see the “human only” interpretation of humanism (narcissistic, self-centred, nihilistic), as described in the image above, I doubt that many true humanists are naive enough to truly see humans as the most important aspect of life on this planet. But I think it is important to state that with well-being comes a huge line of precursors, ones that we can’t live without. The irony of this definition of humanism, when looked upon as selfish by some religious people, is that some of the most harmful, anti-humanist of ethics are coming from ranks inside American evangelical Christianity, namely The Cornwall Alliance.
In an email I received from them on October 9, titled “A Humane Ethic for Beasts?” (yes I am on their mailing list), the founder of Cornwall Alliance and author E. Calvin Beisner claims that we must put humans first, far ahead of other creatures on the planet, for our own well-being. He gives the example of great-white shark attacks of the coast of Western Australia:
“In the past year Great White Sharks have killed five swimmers along beaches in Western Australia. Understandably, area residents, who (like millions from tourists from around the world) like to swim at their beaches, began pressuring their government to act to reduce the risk of shark attack.”
Now this is all well and good, we should, where we can, reduce the risks of attacks to people by sharks, or tigers, or bears, or even bees. But he goes on to defend decisions to kill sharks at will, because humans are more important than animals:
“The (Conservation Council of Western Australia)’s objection to the new policy rests implicitly but squarely on the worldview of biological egalitarianism common to much environmentalism: all life forms are equally sacred. Does the (Conservation Council of Western Australia) consciously embrace that? Does (Tim) Nicol (from the Conservation Council of Western Australia)? Maybe, maybe not. But their objection indicates that, intentionally or not, they reason as if they did.
That’s why (Colin) Barnett’s response to critics like the Council was right on target: “We will always put the lives and safety of beachgoers ahead of the shark. This is, after all, a fish—let’s keep it in perspective.”
Right. Keep it in perspective. A fish is a fish. A human being is a human being.”
And how does he back all this up?
“The ethical and legal standard the Council wants applied to sharks is a standard appropriate for human beings because of the sanctity of their life as bearing the image of God. Neither mosquitoes nor any other animals—including sharks—are in the same category.”
He is right about one thing at least; humans and other animals are categorically different, by definition. But what this attitude (and other human-centric attitudes of The Cornwall Alliance) misses is that it is actively destructive of the environment, actively encouraging the killing of wild animals in their own environment. If it means stopping the deaths and maiming of humans, by this edict, we should kill all potentially hazardous animals before they get us.
What is required here is a huge shift in consciousness about the nature of humanity within our natural environment; in order for humanity to achieve well-being and in order to flourish, humanity must first look after the planet and environs that sustain us. It makes sense that, if humanists are to promote the well-being of humans on this planet, that we must also promote the well-being of the planet upon which we live. One follows naturally from the other; Without a healthy planet it is impossible to promote well-being for humanity, for without the planet we cease to exist.
I guess my main argument here is this: The dictionary definition of humanism (and in some sense the very word “humanism”) places far too much importance on the “comfort” aspect of humanity, and not enough on the very aspects of our lives that sustain us. In order for us to move forward we must recognise that each of us is only alive due to factors that many corporations and religious members wish to see subdued, if only for the sake of a short-term convenience such as McDonalds and petroleum. The biggest danger to humankind lies in the dismissal and neglect of these factors that sustain us. And there are many who, like the Cornwall Alliance”, see the end times approaching, and see themselves as God’s messenger telling the world to “Keep calm and carry on consuming”.
Because of this, I see that a broader definition of “humanism” is required, for so much is taken for granted in its current definition if a person truly does care for the future of humanity.