Why I am not a secular humanist

Massimo Pigliucci and Stephen Law had a very interesting discussion concerning the project of secular humanism and whether it needs to incorporate some form of naturalism in its philosophic foundations (http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/stephen-law-on-humanism-and-naturalism/ and http://scientiasalon.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/why-you-shouldnt-make-naturalism-a-tenet-of-secular-humanism/).
My comments were limited to clarifications; but I did find it necessary to remark:
“I support secular humanism, because I think its project, if successful, will leave us with a better world; but technically, I am not a member of the club, because of my own ethical commitments and the pessimistic view of human nature they derive from. ”
Going into my own ethics in a comment to those articles would have been inappropriate; but I would like to explain exactly why it is “I am not a member of the club” of secular humanism.
But first, of course, we need an understanding of what secular humanism, in the current context, really means.

This was one reading I gave of the matter: ” In review of some of the material, it seems clear that humanism holds our ethics to have arisen from our evolutionary inheritance, but can not be reduced to it. This inheritance is clearly naturalistic in a strong sense, but its later development may not be, since certain principles are universalized, reasoned through, and promoted, regardless of what biology has to say on the matter. We can certainly say that the human organism seeks some form of ‘happiness’ (pleasure, contentment, security, etc.). But it takes considerable reasoning to get from there to the claim that we ought to build a society in which every individual has at least the opportunity to realize this. Secular humanism not simply claims that we have some sort of ‘ethical sense’ hard-wired into us, but that in the social development of this sense emerges a shared morality that can thus provide guidance for further social development.”

And more contextually:  “First, I don’t think he (Law) is using the term “secular humanist” in a broad sense, but in direct reference to the secular humanist social movement, which has some very clearly expressed political aims (see: http://americanhumanist.org/Humanism/Humanist_Manifesto_III, and the more strident declaration http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php/11). This movement is in many ways admirable, but its history is not without problems (e.g., yes, back in the ’30s, its adherents did refer to it as a ‘religion’). Even today, it has some interesting issues to work out.  Secondly, Law is writing in the context of British social policy. Here, it is well to remember that, unlike the US, the UK has a state religion (CoE), which thus technically has right to determine certain privileges for religious believers. (…)  Although we do not face issues such as these in the US, we have political problems of our own regarding implementation of theistic and none-theistic thought, particularly in education. E.g., arguably science does not necessitate atheism, but the teaching of it cannot involve theism on any level, because its explanations are naturalistic (they concern nature, what else are they going to be?). Consequently, I think we can be sympathetic to Law’s request for a ‘big tent’ humanism for political purposes, although we can argue, as Massimo does, that naturalism is necessarily woven into the fabric of the tent.”

Along with the 2 citations to American secular humanist position papers, above, I also commend the IHEU Amsterdam declaration http://iheu.org/humanism/the-amsterdam-declaration/.   And beyond such necessarily brief organizational position papers, one could cite a virtual library of philosophic texts arguing for what we now know as secular humanism, from Mill, to Julian Huxley, to John Dewey – too many to list here.

So OK; secular humanism is a noble endeavor, and I hope its project is successful, and I am willing to march in support of it.  So why am I not a secular humanist?

“So that in the first place, I put for a generall inclination of all mankind, a perpetuall and restlesse desire of Power after power, that ceaseth onely in Death. And the cause of this, is not alwayes that a man hopes for a more intensive delight, than he has already attained to; or that he cannot be content with a moderate power: but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. And from hence it is, that Kings, whose power is greatest, turn their endeavours to the assuring it a home by Lawes, or abroad by Wars: and when that is done, there succeedeth a new desire; in some, of Fame from new Conquest; in others, of ease and sensuall pleasure; in others, of admiration, or being flattered for excellence in some art, or other ability of the mind. ”  Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3207/3207-h/3207-h.htm).

In Leviathan, Hobbes makes the case that it is the natural order of being human, that (1.) humans want what others have; and (2.) there is no principle found in nature (or human nature) by which to deny human attempts to take what others have; nor to deny human attempts to defend what they themselves have.  (This lack of principle actually forms a positive principle, human rights, derived from the basic equality of all humans.)  This leads to a state of “warre of every man against every man,” which includes not only actual violence, but preparations for aggression and defense.  However, this ‘warre’ is intermittent; and in periods of peace, humans have a moment, to act on the “Passions that encline men to Peace, (which) are Feare of Death; Desire of such things as are necessary to commodious living; and a Hope by their Industry to obtain them. And Reason suggesteth convenient Articles of Peace, upon which men may be drawn to agreement,” to join together in a society, which then contractually forms the basis of enforceable human law providing for the constraint of individual aggression, and hence enhancement of individual security.  The need for the contract lies in the fact that to achieve the social laws, individuals must be willing to transfer certain rights to the society as a whole, else ways the laws are unenforceable.  (In order to secure a law preventing my neighbor from killing me and taking my goods, I need to surrender any claim of right I might have to kill and rob my neighbor.)

Now, this is clearly not what we like to hear these days.  We want to believe that humans are inherently decent, they have a natural sympathy for one another.   We have been hearing this from philosophers and politicians, educators and self-help trainers, since at least the early 19th century.  Even today, neuroscientists and evolutionary psychologists assure us we are on the brink of discovery of the evolutionary need for greater harmony among men and women, while sociobiologists and some geneticists promise us that we can find genetic reasons for predispositions to empathetic behavior, making aggression some weird epigenetic flaw.  And there are of course philosophers, et. al., relying on this promised knowledge to build hope for a better tomorrow.

I certainly hope we can build a better tomorrow.  But I’m afraid most of these promises and assurances amount to less than a hill of beans.

In the Ethics, Aristotle notes of friendship, in the words of Richard Kraut:  “One might like someone because he is good, or because he is useful, or because he is pleasant”  (http://plato.stanford.edu/cgi-bin/encyclopedia/archinfo.cgi?entry=aristotle-ethics).  But the second and third reasons actually collapse together since they are selfishly motivated – the one person cultivates the other person’s friendship, because the other person is someone to be used, in both cases, either as a way to acquire some good, or as a source of pleasure.

I suggest that any ‘instinct’ or ‘drive’ or ‘genetic disposition’ toward socialization, is not any sort of evolutionary development of ‘sympathy’ or ’empathy’ whatsoever.  It is the evolution of the organism’s successfully experienced efforts to use others.   One can easily see what the species gains by this; far more than any amount of ‘sympathy’ which always requires complex articulation to achieve its ends.  We humans certainly value love and intimacy; but the real pleasure of satisfying the sex drive is found in the use of another’s body.  And it is doubtful that our pre-human ancestors would have  been much persuaded that there was ought else to the matter.

Consequently, I honestly don’t believe that we can successfully develop a better tomorrow based on the reliance on a natural human sympathy for others, or some sort of ‘moral feeling,’ as Mill called it.  I believe it is a good thing to persuade our selves and others that we can; but I would caution against hope for the success of such a project.  Nonetheless, if we can get a society filled with healthy-minded people who believe that they should be creative while caring for others, even if this is not completely accomplished, the effort to accomplish it will get  us better off than where we are today.

However, if it doesn’t….  Well, that’s why I insist on the importance of law and politics.  Differing interests should present their cases publicly and learn to negotiate for greater security for all.   There’s still a notable streak of Hobbes there, but this is really derived from Dewey.  Hobbes, after all, lived in a era dominated by monarchs and thrown into chaos by political turmoil (the English Civil War).  Dewey was a child of the US Constitution, and strong supporter of the need to find equanimity among various factions that still allowed for the free development of the individual.

Now, it may be remembered, that I have professed two ethics, a public ethic (which I have been discussing) and a personal ethic, derived from the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths.  Someone may be persuaded that, while my Hobbesean political vision (however tempered by Deweyan social democracy, and American legal theory), is certainly very pessimistic, then at least I can find hope for the human prospect in my secular Buddhism.  In its extrapolations, and flourishing, its demands for compassion and willingness to enhance the well-being of others, certainly.  But in its grounding ontology, that is it’s basic understanding of human nature – absolutely not.  The Buddha is in fact far more critical of our human propensity for harm than Hobbes could ever imagine.  The First Noble Truth is that life is disappointing, and the second is that the source of this disappointment is the self.  There is nothing esoteric in this claim, it means exactly what it says:  Humans are selfish ego-centric organisms who hunger and grasp and act on impulse in ways that hurt others and themselves – this is their nature, and this is what they must learn to harness and dismantle, to the point of cessation.  (It’s not surprising that the first Western thinker who had any idea of what the Buddhists were really getting at was the arch-pessimist Arthur Schopenhauer.)  Only when we have achieved at least this much realization can we recognize that others around us are in the same boat and suffering in the same way, and thus experience compassion; after which we can offer them assistance and help them find their own paths out of their misery.

Again, this is my personal ethic.  Someone not feeling this kind of misery, or who is not convinced of its inevitable recurrence throughout the course of life, will not be persuaded to it.

But the point here is, the ontological assumptions of both my public ethic and my personal ethic are actually the same.  Humans, as animal, are inherently selfish, greedy, lustful, truculent, fearful.  (For the epistemology of this, see Fichte’s Science of Knowledge – it may be the case that we don’t need to ‘become’ solipsists: we may be born that way.)

It is probable that  in our present state, with our highly developed ability to construct weapons of war, and our mastery of persuasive language and imagery, were we to unleash the primary feelings of our ‘lizard brain’ (the amygdalae), we might persuade ourselves to wipe ourselves off the planet.  And we may do so eventually anyway.

But why haven’t we done so yet?

In their reflections on what made humans what they are, despite their otherwise animal natures, the Greek philosopher Aristotle, and the Indian philosopher  Nagarjuna made surprisingly similar remarks.  I am citing from memory, so I could be wrong; but I remember how surprised I was to read in Nagarjuna an example similar to one I remembered Aristotle having made:

Dogs drink and piss, they eat and shit, they fornicate, they sleep, they groom themselves, they scratch their itchings, they fight, they run away in fear.  All this can be extrapolated into analogous human behavior.

But dogs do not reason.  They cannot decide not to do this.  They can not think beyond their immediate impulses, they cannot discover goods beyond their bodies, they cannot articulate purposes that do not serve their inherited drives, or determine when to temper these, delay these, or abandon these all together.  Only a reasoning consciousness can get an animal any of that, and only the human animal has a fully developed reasoning consciousness, as far as we can tell.

It is not our feelings, our value judgments, our sympathies, our fears or our desires, that can save us from the wild impulses of our self-centered nature.   It is our ability to reason otherwise and to invent ourselves anew.

But human reason is imperfect; and at best can only achieve a shadow of the kind of society which would best suit us.  We are anchored in our profoundly lonely individuality, our simmering passions that always threaten to boil over, our oft unrecognized prejudices that blind-side us into thinking we ‘know the score’ when all we have is a best-guess, and of course our inevitable mortality and the concerns this raises for us.   It is a never ceasing effort to reason through these, either collectively or individually.  Doing so can certainly contribute to many good and useful projects, but frequently, I find, it is a project in itself requiring much attention.

To return to our beginning, and conclude, then:

Because secular humanism can offer, and accomplish, social alternatives to theistic social programs (which seem not to be doing much good in the present era), and thus increase the the social space in which reasoning can determine means of bettering our lives and shared experiences, I support its project.

However, I cannot agree to sign on to its fundamentally optimistic interpretation of human nature, nor can I put off my own commitments to helping myself as well as others to realizing increased peace through diminution of the greedy selves we all were unfortunately born into.   Reasoning seems best used in limiting our potential for harm; I don’t see it successfully realizing our potential for good.  I sometimes wonder whether we have that potential.  But, I suppose, one can hope.  There’s certainly no harm in trying.


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