Why I Am Not a Humanist

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 11, 2009 in Ethics,General Atheism

humanismSome people think atheism is synonymous with humanism. If you’re an atheist, you must be a humanist.

Not so. I am an atheist but not a humanist.

Why?

Let’s look at at what humanism is. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, humanism is “a rationalistic system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters.”

I can already distance myself from this position, but before I say why, let’s get more specific.

The “standard” positions of humanists are summarized in the latest (2003) Humanist Manifesto, which states:

  1. Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis.
  2. Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change.
  3. Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.
  4. Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.
  5. Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships.
  6. Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.

It’s #3 that bothers me. I do not believe that moral values are derived from human desires. I believe moral values are derived from desires, period. To focus on human desires and ignore all other desires in the universe is blatant speciesism.

But can’t I just sign on with humanism, understanding there’s one qualification to be made on point #3?

No, for speciesism is central to humanism. Heck, it’s in the name of the thing. Humanity is the whole point of humanism. Now that is good progress beyond religious ethics, but it’s not progress far enough.

I count humanists as my brothers as sisters. We’re fighting for the same things. Mostly.

But if this post persuades you to cancel membership in a humanist association, please don’t quit activism altogether. Please join another organization that will help you live out your moral values.

That way, we can all work together to make this world a better place, for all of us.

chimpanzee_with_baby

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

David Evans November 11, 2009 at 3:30 pm

I think that’s an unnecessary scruple. We have no access to any competing set of values based on the desires of another species. Our own desires necessarily form the basis for our judgements. If we ever encounter intelligent aliens, then will be the time to reconsider.

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lukeprog November 11, 2009 at 4:07 pm

David,

What do you mean that we have access to any competing set of values based on the desires of another species? Do you mean that we cannot know the desires of animals?

Of course we always act such as to fulfill the strongest of our own desires. That is true no matter what theory of morality is true. But it is not impossible to consider the desires of others. Millions of people have become vegans on moral grounds.

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Jeff H November 11, 2009 at 5:10 pm

I have a friend who considers himself a humanist. He comes at it in sort of a different way, though. He says that essentially we should live according to human values such as compassion, empathy, love, etc. He sort of comes at it from a virtue ethics point of view, but the way he says it, anyway, it’s not necessarily speciesist. We can use human values and apply them to other species as well. (Incidentally, he is also a vegan.)

Anyway, I just found his approach interesting. Just something to think about.

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lukeprog November 11, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Jeff H,

Does your friend mean to say that he is a ‘humanist’ because he thinks we should live according to traits that humans have traditionally considered to be moral?

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urbster1 November 11, 2009 at 5:36 pm

At least you didn’t go so far as to say secular humanism was “a cult,” as Fakesagan put it back in his Youtube days.

Still, for only being 30% confident in desirism, you seem to talk about it a lot. You mentioned a while back wanting to talk about Richard Carrier’s goal theory, of which he has commented to Fyfe that he thinks desirism is just a subset. It will be interesting to see what you have to say about that when you reach that point in his book. Or have I have missed out on any recent commenting on Fyfe’s blog? I must admit some of it is over my head so I only check back occasionally.

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Pablo Stafforini November 11, 2009 at 5:38 pm

It is quite striking that a movement built around the rejection of all forms of supernaturalism should insist in defining itself by according humans a unique place in the natural world. Theism seems the only plausible justification for human exceptionalism; once the idea of God is rejected, there ceases to be any convincing reason for thinking that the members of our species deserve, as such, special moral consideration. William Lane Craig is absolutely right in stressing the essential tension between naturalism and speciesism. (Where he goes wrong is in construing this as an argument for theism. It is, instead, an argument for vegetarianism.)

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Chuck November 11, 2009 at 5:48 pm

Luke,

Different people define humanism in different ways. (For example, see Stephen Law for another take on what it means.)

Why take one groups definition with such authority to the exclusion of all the others?

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John Quincy Public November 11, 2009 at 6:53 pm

Hold the phone. If mere homophobia or racism are evil desires — no action, just desire — then how can it be anything other than the love-child of Hitler to eat the poor dears?

Seriously Bub, we’re omnivores. If it moves, doesn’t move, or might move if it rots long enough we’ll club it, cook it, and eat it. Sometimes we even wear the remains or use it to cover ottomans.

You don’t get to call something so inconsequential as banning homosexual acts to guard and improve the individual and community health a massive act of evil and then nom on some sushi without calling it the Holocaust.

But there’s this little problem of biology. We require the consumption of animal proteins. (Spare me the vegan moralizing and religious mythology; this is simple biology here.)

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Pablo Stafforini November 11, 2009 at 7:40 pm

John, it is simply untrue that we require the consumption of animal protein. You can get all the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet. Indeed, animal protein tends to be high in methionine, and restricting consumption of this amino acid seems to mimic the life-extending effects of calorie restriction.

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John Quincy Public November 11, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Pablo Stafforini: You can get all the essential amino acids from a plant-based diet

Of course. It was sloppy terminology on my part. We do still require the consumption of animals and their products for various vitamins, minerals, etc. This is especially true from pregnancy on up through adolescence.

Now yes, you could possibly posit that we should all go on massive dietary supplements. Problemtically the science is going back and forth on the validity of such things right now. And that’s aside from other common health issues that vegetarians face. Notably a loss of libido; which is notable for our hosts defense of homosexuality on the fulfilling of such desires.

But that’s hardly the point. We are omnivores. And the post is headlined with a picture of an omnivore and her child. So unless we’re going to go round up such barbarians and put them on wholly unnatural diets in captivity to the detriment of their health and liberty? Then it’s speciesism.

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TK November 11, 2009 at 10:26 pm

Luke, you bring up a legitimately interesting philosophical point which haunts me in a very nerdy way.

I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons. One of the ideas that is central to the D&D cosmology/philosophical framework is that there are genuinely things like “good” and “evil” and it is okay for the player characters (who are usually “good”) to kill things that are “evil”. There are clear absolutes.

Some entities, like animals, are simply considered “unaligned” (in 4th edition D&D) or “no alignment” (in other versions). Presumably, they do not make intelligent, rational decisions regarding their behavior. A lion who kills a gazelle doesn’t consider its moral implications or have any strong opinions regarding these implications. It’s just doing what comes naturally.

But a demon who has to flay innocent children alive to sustain its existence (for example) is considered “evil”, even though a) it’s only doing what comes “naturally” to it (the same way, say, a human who eats meat is only doing what comes naturally) and b) from your perspective, it’s only seeking to fulfill its desires (although I’m sure you’d argue that the demon thwarts more/stronger desires than it fills).

I’m not sure where I was going with this. Drunk commenting for the win.

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Scott Scheule November 12, 2009 at 6:34 am

You can keep desirism and humanism by just positing animal desires are much less powerful than human desires. As you have no way of measuring the strength of a desire, there’s not much one can say in response.

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Jeff H November 12, 2009 at 8:24 pm

lukeprog: Jeff H,Does your friend mean to say that he is a ‘humanist’ because he thinks we should live according to traits that humans have traditionally considered to be moral?  

Umm, yeah I guess that’s likely how he would put it. I mean, you could certainly argue against his moral theory, as I know you would (like I said, he seems to come at from a virtue ethics standpoint), but nevertheless the way he’s framed it at least seems to avoid the charge of speciesism. Unless of course, you try to say that there are other moral traits that animals possess that we do not normally, and so we should live according to those too…but I think that’s an argument for another day. A stranger day.

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LDB November 13, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Luke,
Thanks for this post! I agree that we should be generous with our compassion and extend it to animals as much as we are able. I have been following your blog for a few weeks, have learned a lot, and appreciate your insights. This is the first post I’ve read that addresses this issue, and though I realize it’s not the focus of your blog, I was excited to see it and wanted to say so.

JQP- I just have to say, my health greatly improved after becoming a vegan. My libido is just fine-as is that of my vegan husband-, my 2 vegan pregnancies and kids have been very healthy, and none of us has ever required “massive amounts of dietary supplements” in order to be in our good health.

There is a difference between an omnivore that can eat raw meat from the source with its teeth and one that eats meat wrapped in plastic from walmart that must be properly cooked before consuming it, and then must likely take heart medication or undergo bypass surgery to combat the effects of eating that meat. Seems like one is a more of an omnivore.

I don’t understand the cry of speciesism when it’s suggested that an omnivore eat only plants (denial of liberty), but the unwillingness to acknowledge speciesism in the violent and needless cruelty toward those simpler than we are but no less able to experience suffering. It seems to me that if we can make the choice not to be cruel to those who can suffer (a liberty we all have), then we should make that choice.

Well, enough of my vegan moralizing :)
Thanks again Luke for the encouraging post.

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lukeprog November 13, 2009 at 10:30 pm

Thanks, LDB!

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Bebok December 5, 2009 at 10:33 am

Luke,

Are you a vegan, by the way?

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lukeprog December 5, 2009 at 2:49 pm

Bebok,

Not yet! I think it’s on my to-do list, though. :)

And I’m very happy they are developing artificial meat.

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Bebok December 7, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Luke,

Good luck, then.

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Timothy Mills March 10, 2010 at 7:17 am

Luke,

I see where you’re coming from with this. I even, to a certain extent, agree.

And yet I will continue to call myself a humanist.

I’d like to point out that it is trivially true that, to a human, there simply *is* something special about the human perspective. This is in the same sense that the “Tim Mills” perspective occupies a privileged place in *my* approach to daily activities.

I think that, philosophically, that justifies my continued use of the label despite the validity of the objections you raise.

But of course, there will continue to be humanists who hold to other perspectives, such as the one you reject.

In the end, I think humanism, as a “belief community”, suffers from the same plurality of definitions that, say, Christianity or Islam do. What does it mean to be a Christian? The answer you get will vary depending on whether you ask a Pentecostal, a Mormon, or a Catholic.

Similarly, what it means to be a humanist depends on whether the humanist you ask is a Hitchensian anti-theist, a non-theistic Unitarian Universalist, an enchanted naturalist, or (say) a desirist.

I have no particular desire to persuade you to use the same label as me. I’m happy simply knowing that we would tend to pull the same way on most issues of practical social importance.

(For the record, I’m a mostly-vegetarian with aspirations to veganism.)

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lukeprog March 10, 2010 at 9:49 am

Timothy,

I might start calling myself a humanist, too, after my interview with John Shook. This would just be a broader notion of ‘humanism’ that says humans are responsible to figure out morality, rather than saying that human life has intrinsic value.

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MC March 10, 2010 at 10:11 am

Luke,

I call myself a Humanist (and I think you should too) because I think the word means what it meant during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: that we should look to the morals and virtues of the Greeks, viz. that naturalistic, rational, empirical, and secular inquiry is the guide to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.

Philosophy was born with the proto-scientists from the pre-Socratics to the late antique philosophers giving natural explanations for natural phenomena, including ethics. Humanism is the respect for, and continuation of, that tradition including, but not limited to, the Enlightenment virtues.

To reject that tradition wholesale for the reasons you’ve given in this post is so much sawing at the branch on which you (and I) sit.

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Nathan H March 21, 2011 at 12:20 am

Sounds to me like Peter Singer’s “Personism” would suit you better i.e. we must begin with considering the wellbeing of all sentient beings, and not merely humankind.

I don’t agree that Humanism necessitates speciesism, by the way (although many humanist groups are guilty of this). I think Humanism needs to include people with views such as yourself, as well as those who still eat meat. Similarly, I think Humanism needs to include both theists and non-theists. The ultimate purpose is to build an ethics based on the practical considerations of humankind.

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Nathan March 21, 2011 at 12:22 am

Luke,I call myself a Humanist (and I think you should too) because I think the word means what it meant during the Renaissance and the Enlightenment: that we should look to the morals and virtues of the Greeks, viz. that naturalistic, rational, empirical, and secular inquiry is the guide to metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, etc.Philosophy was born with the proto-scientists from the pre-Socratics to the late antique philosophers giving natural explanations for natural phenomena, including ethics. Humanism is the respect for, and continuation of, that tradition including, but not limited to, the Enlightenment virtues.To reject that tradition wholesale for the reasons you’ve given in this post is so much sawing at the branch on which you (and I) sit.  

I agree with MC on this point. There is certainly a place within Humanism for you – and perhaps you can help persuade others within Humanism that they need to move away from speciesism.

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Marty Brandon November 27, 2011 at 6:17 am

My sentiments exactly Luke. Though I tend to use “humanist” as a convenient label, it’s puzzling to me why a group that aligns itself with reason would encode its principles in such exclusionary language. Not only is it inconsiderate of other sentient life on earth, but shortsighted of all the other forms of life that might be encountered and/or created. If those objecting to your post would imagine the humanist principles written in a way that is Euro-centric, and omits non-caucasian races, then I think they’d better understand how poorly the principles are phrased. The core ideas are a great leap forward, but the self-centered wording diminishes that greatness and tends to alienate those who feel the justice in a more expanded circle of humanity.

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Nathan H November 27, 2011 at 11:31 am

For me, Humanism has a very simple principle at its core – that we need to put people first. Now, before others start saying “this is speciesism!”, let me simply point out that it need not be. I see Humanism as being fully compatible with respect for all other species of life, and insist that we shouldn’t inflict pain on other forms of sentient life. If it came down to it, however, the life of a human being still needs to hold more value than that of a cow or an ape in our value system. Likewise, human beings need to be placed above money, the state, and religion in our value systems. For me, it’s really that simple.

And I’m a vegetarian out of respect for other sentient beings too, by the way.

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Marty Brandon November 29, 2011 at 6:00 pm

“a human being still needs to hold more value than that of a cow or an ape in our value system”

That’s speciesism.

You may practice a very benovoloent form of it, but when one believes that being Homo sapien automatically elevates their interests above all other forms of life, then by definition that person is a speciesist.

Singer’s form of utilitarianism provides a less arbitrary alternative. And his approach has the advantage that it often arrives at the same conclusions as those advocated by Humanists, while also providing a rational framework for probing more nuanced situations. Morality really isn’t simple at all, and it’s easy to show contadictions in any hierarchy of organisms.

Consider. Is a human life worth more than a bacterium? How about an entire bacterial species? All microbial life? Obviously not. Rather than establish rankings, we should work at understanding our place in a complex network of interconnected organisms.

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