.....CENTRAL HUMANISM HUB continued
1. Centralisation (first meaning) - affinity and local responsibility
Central humanism encourages people to think for themselves and, whenever possible, to take responsibility for their own actions. Furthermore, this philosophy embraces a version of the popular maxim that charity begins at home. Our responsibilities lie firstly with ourselves and our families, and then tend to recede through the wider circles of friends, country, fellow human beings, animals....* Not only would it be unreasonable to expect people to set their priorities in a substantially different order, but the consequences of their doing so would undoubtedly be ruinous. The concepts of person, family and nation, as we understand them now, would be destroyed. And there are very good reasons for defending these concepts and the values they represent. People are, and should be, protective of their own security, the security of their loved ones and the nation which affords them that security. One might also say: it is natural for people to try to live within their own comfort zones, though many are condemned to lives of hell. This outlook is one of the defining features of Central Humanism. "Centralisation", in this context, means beginning with oneself (where else could one possibly begin?). Obviously it is built into this idea of centralisation that we, as individuals, treat other individuals with varying degrees of concern. But although this reflects the norm of virtually every stable society, Central Humanism acknowledges that in Australia and other developed nations at the present time this concern tends to be too centred, often overlooking the basic rights of millions of people (as well as the rights of other sentient creatures) throughout the world.
*There are some significant omissions from this list, in particular a couple of r-words which (in Australia and many other countries) are so highly politically sensitive that some explanation defending their inclusion is first required. #7, #9, #10 and some of the comments in Central Humanism Footnotes might be helpful.
The root of this outlook is probably genetic, and can be explained evolutionally in terms of survival value for the species, or perhaps psychologically in terms of the natural empathy people have with other creatures, especially other human beings and especially those closest to them (see #14 and especially #15). Central Humanism is also "centred" in several other ways, outlined below (#12 - #15), but most of these concepts probably have their roots in this same biological mechanism (see #15. One could be forgiven for thinking that the reference to various "centres" makes this account look more than a little wobbly, and perhaps it is, or perhaps it is just that the name "Central Humanism" was badly chosen.)
This attitude is not a form of egoism. Far from it: if people think clearly and reponsibly they should find their interests will in fact extend to those wider horizons. Still, one of the dangers of centralisation is that those who pursue it may become so involved in their inner circle of cameradery that they never get around to confronting the really important issues in life. Centralisation is a starting point, not a goal, and must never be allowed to collapse into egocentricism and narrow-mindedness.
2. Humanism - another meaning
Humanism is not the same as humanitarianism, philanthropy or altruism. While many humanists do identify with these principles, they can hardly ignore the undeniable fact that the human species is far and away the world's greatest pest, and human beings are their own worst enemy. The world's most serious problem is that it is home to far too many people - and our numbers are increasing at an alarming speed. If nothing is done to halt (if not reverse) the population explosion, in the near future we will be like rats at each others throats, if we have not first succeeded in poisoning ourselves in our own effluent. Then goodbye to altruism, and goodbye to everything that is special about human beings. You could put it like this: Any future human being is a pest, but once born it is normally a little miracle to be venerated. (See #21 and Footnote 5).
"Evil is the condition of an uneducated society"
The key to the humanist way of life is a broad education. A poor education or one that is geared solely to future employment or the development of a specific talent will not provide the kind of diversity – in knowledge and wisdom, in rational thought and inquisitiveness, in grace and artistry and in social conscientiousness and empathy – which are the marks of a civilized human being. But above all, a proper education gives one a sense of proportion: humanists and theists tend to be alike in getting their priorities muddled and in over-glorifying the status of man in the universe - as a biophysical entity, as a sensitive, caring creature and/or as a bastion of intelligence. Currently education (like diet and religion!) depends very much on country and culture, and only partly on the particular educational institutions one has attended. From the individual's perspective, a sound education demands an all-encompassing sense of curiosity backed by the ability to question and criticise, but these are traits that still receive little encouragement except in some western societies.
An obvious implication of the idea that people can improve their humanity is that there are varying degrees of humanity. The significance of this depends on whether "desirable" qualities such as those mentioned above are human in some fundamental sense, or whether we are just mincing words by referring to them as "human". From an ethical standpoint, the concepts of education, self-improvement and elevated degrees of sophistication raise many questions. In particular, they imply the existence of certain values and of a broad partition of human interests between excellence and trash. This might well be "right" (at least from an intellectual's point of view), but another implication is that most people actually prefer excellence to trash, and this is almost certainly false. The combined effect of these two conjectures is that the values of the majority are inferior to those of a more enlightened minority, and this could be interpreted as implying that the former group of people are inferior to the latter, on some cardinal but seemingly artificial scale of human-ness. While it might be difficult to justify so bold a presumption, it would also be difficult to deny that it contains at least a small grain of truth. If it were not the case that humanity could be improved, there would be no value in the idea of progress nor any limit to the depths of depravity into which humanity could sink. The human enterprise is very obviously concerned with promoting wellbeing and progress and with fighting savagery, ignorance, pain and poverty. There is no intelligible philosophy of life, humanist or otherwise, that can survive in an atmosphere that is so relativistic as to ignore these basic human ideals. (Also see #5 and #17.)
Besides, it is perfectly clear that society reveres some human beings and despises others, while tolerating and often relishing the incredible diversity of interests, strengths and weaknesses that shape the vast majority. Some are placed on pedestals, others put behind bars, and the rest of us just keep trudging along the middle of the road. To the best of the best the State awards knighthoods, the Church sainthoods, while the worst are excluded from society altogether. It is true that these days there's an increasing tendency to bestow honours for accomplishment in a specific field (such as cricket or pop music!) instead of complying with more traditional stereotypes of nobility and nationalism, but this diversification only underlines the fact that the real objects of our admiration are the human qualities that led to these achievements rather than the specific exploits themselves. And there can be no doubt that all of us make judgements of a similar kind throughout life - almost daily we find ouselves weighing up people as human beings, often using nothing but "intuition", and reacting to them according to what we find or imagine there. (See #7 and Footnote 18.)
In poor countries environmental, social and political factors seriously hinder the development of individuals as humans, and it is here that the humanitarianism of people in richer countries is especially pertinent. Clearly, basic physical needs and security, the fundamental components of human welfare, must take precedence over educational and aesthetic aspirations. To put it crudely, animal needs come before human needs, and this is an inescapable precept of Central Humanism - if you like, another way in which the philosophy is "centred", and a primary reason why humanists everywhere support the relief of people caught up in natural disasters or born into third world poverty. But even in the developed world there are all kinds of social pressures that make it difficult to maintain one's humanity - impossible, if these pressures are written into the laws of the country. Central Humanism, more than most other ethical agendas, tends to lay much of the blame for poor ethical values on society itself rather than on the inherent failings of individuals. The conventional wisdom sees ethics as being chiefly occupied with the question: how should individuals behave in order to maintain the integrity of society? Central Humanism is a double-sided coin. It is equally concerned with the question: how should a society behave in order to maintain the integrity of individuals? (see Footnote 11). Consequently social reform is a high priority interest.
The most pressing ethical issues of our time, however, are global and national and have little to do with relations among individuals. Ethics today more than ever concerns the behaviour of states and international bodies, i.e in particular, of governments and the United Nations. On the whole their behaviour is abysmal, marked by poor judgment, the most unspeakable negligence, injustice, unnecessary aggression, corruption and self-interest, encroaching authoritarianism, appalling deception and lack of foresight, and often partly driven by nonsensical philosophies. Humanists urgently need to find ways of bringing pressure on governments to rectify these deficiencies. However, they could also achieve much by being more aware of the impact of their own behaviour and lifestyle on the world at large, including world population, climate, environment and the lives of other people and animals (see #3, #12, #21).
This is the capacity of a person to show concern for matters that apparently don't affect his or her own wellbeing, such as the plight of people in faraway places or the condition of our planet after our lifetime. Secular humanists offer no satisfactory account of why they tend to behave transcendentally rather than egoistically - in which case they would not be "humanists" in the ordinary sense of this word. Central Humanism values the transcendental attitude and seeks to explain its ethical basis.
Note: This special usage of the word “transcendental” has no connection with mystical or Kantian usages.
In theory, transcendentalism implies the maxim: Everything for its own sake. Anything done for people is for the good or pleasure of those people, not for oneself, not for the Party, not for God. Anything done for inanimate objects is for the undisturbed survival of those objects. On the face of it, this makes little sense. It seems that “transcendental” behaviour is either ultimately for oneself, or it is due to uncontrollable biological urges (i.e. purely mechanical), or the universe is a stranger place than we think. Humanists (as opposed to mere atheists and mere rationalists) are bound to keep their options open on this dilemma: they must realise that either they are egoists (no matter how deeply or distantly), or their behaviour is caused by physical factors beyond their control (or which they don’t know how to control), or mind, life and everything are not what they seem. Most thoughtful people find the first two options objectionable – and that’s why many philosophers go hunting for other explanations. (Also see #6.)
Lest we forget.....
As well as the giving or outgoing aspect, transcendentalism has a receiving aspect which in some ways is just as important. We all have an inconceivably deep indebtedness to other human beings, especially those who have endured, and may well have been consumed by, the horrors of war. Not only shall we never know them, usually we do not even know who they are. (Incidentally, while we Australians generally hold our "diggers" and war veterans in high esteem, some of our community, notably the trade unions, have on occasion treated them very badly, even when they are engaged in battle. If nothing else, this says a lot about the character of the unions.)
Anyone feel like meditating? Try watching this World Statistics Clock for ten minutes instead.
4. An open society
An open society does not mean one that opens its doors to anything and anybody. It means a society of open-minded, free-thinking individuals (for more information on what constitutes free thought see Wotser Proper Filossofer? - Principal requirements and concerns of Proper philosophy: 1 and 7).
An open society also embraces "freedom" in a more conventional sense - a pre-requisite, as it were, for open mindedness. Open societies are peopled by individuals who are free from hunger, fear and stress. Their households flow with both water and love, their streets can be walked at night, their homes and shops need no barricades of steel, their military is minding its own business, their civilians carry no weapons, their thieves are dealt with as effectively as their smallpox, their newspapers can speak their minds but tell no lies. Open societies are unlikely to survive as such if infiltrated by elements that conflict with the ideal of freedom. One must consider not only the risks from inappropriate globalisation (see Footnote 23) and immigration policies, but also the disturbing escalation of neo-sociological humbug, media-hype etc within the society itself - not to mention the increasing trend of "democratic" governments toward authoritarianism, aggression, deception and sheer bad judgment (the current Bush administration, possibly the worst in America's history, is a prime example).
5. The equality myth
"The only thing people really have in common is that they are all going to die" - Bob Dylan
Some humanists apparently still believe in the innate "equality" of all human beings. In reality, however, there are no ethically or socially relevant qualities of people in respect of which they are all equal. They are not born equal, they don't have equal "rights" and opportunities, and they don't possess any inherent right to be treated as equals (see #8). How they get treated depends on the whims of you, me and the mob. (In some countries "the mob" is the police and/or the military.) It requires but a moment's reflection to realise that all this is unquestionably the actual state of affairs. However, it is one of the principal functions of an ethical social system to (at least partially) redress certain kinds of "inequality". Obviously to achieve this end society must treat individuals unequally. Fair treatment = unequal treatment (see Footnote 4).
Adopting a slightly different perspective, however, one could say there are a number of important areas in which the social system, in Australia and elsewhere, does not treat people with sufficient equality. For example, it does not give everybody equal access to the law, nor every child equal access to a high standard of education. These services are currently much too dependent on individual means (and here we are referring to differences in wealth over and above those that relate to basic human inequalities). There are certain key components of the social environment that should be available to all on equal terms, regardless of individual capabilities. In other words, to begin with there must be a level playing field, and only then can we make appropriate allowances for less privileged players.
But what is "the social environment"? Your idea of equality, in the sense of aiming to equalise the opportunities and lifestyle within a society, is always relative to your ethical and political outlook. It depends how widely you cast your net. The well-off egoist probably believes he is entitled to keep everything he has earned, and couldn't care less about anyone else. The liberal may promote "equality" within his family but is less concerned with others - scanty welfare services will take care of them well enough. The tribalist may share his wealth and resources amongst the clan, but to hell with other clans! The socialist may think all the members of the nation to which he belongs should be levelled out by heavily taxing the rich and giving to the poor (etc etc), but would not be prepared to include Angolians or Somalians in his equation. The altruist says he'd like to see all people everywhere on a similar welfare plane, but has probably not thought through either the practicality or the consequences of creating his perfect world. And none of these groups seem willing to extend their net to non-human animals. Central Humanists are neither egoists nor altruists, taking a "graded" approach consistent with the centralist principle stated in #1. All people (and some or all animals?) should have access to basic resources such as food, water, habitation, education, medical aid and protection from hostile forces, but after that people should be encouraged to accept responsibility for their own lives and the lives of their dependants. As regards the means of achieving these basic living standards, however, Central Humanism differs from present-day altruism: it advocates tackling the underlying causes of poverty, such as population growth and incompetent government (see #21 - Conclusions).
Innate equality is a myth, human beings differ from one another in many different ways, and what they make of their lives is largely their own lookout. Still, there may be one or two ethically important inherent characteristics of normal human beings that we might do well to assume are possessed by all equally, because we apparently have little evidence to the contrary. The most important of these is the capacity to suffer pain and misery. Also note, however, that this is a quality of creatures other than human beings, and that the extent to which many creatures "feel" pain is unknown and beyond guesswork (though comparison with human behaviour and structure of the nervous system might provide a guide). We seem obliged to accept that there is a gradation of sensitivity. Why, then, should we be so afraid of asking whether certain variations in human behaviour might indicate differences in susceptibility to pain and misery among individuals within the human species? (For an aside, see footnote in this travel site.)
A reasonable usage of equality occurs in the phrase "All citizens shall be afforded equal consideration under the Law" and in "This company has a policy of equal opportunity". In most circumstances, however, usages of this kind merely imply that no person should be discriminated against on the basis of irrelevant attributes. The problem is to decide when various attributes are irrelevant. The widely held opinion that certain attributes (e.g. race, gender, sexual preferences, beliefs, age) are never relevant is mistaken. But this concept of equality is nonetheless very important in the democratisation of nations whose governments have hitherto suppressed certain classes of people.
One could describe the general situation loosely as follows. There are two kinds of inequality - intrinsic difference and unequal opportunity. In attempting to provide equal opportunity in a wide range of spheres, people may need to be treated differently because of their intrinsic differences. But this raises problems because of the wide variety of kinds of intrinsic difference, some psychological and some physical; and especially because classes can often be created arbitrarily, dependent on selected characteristics by which people differ. A clear but cynical example (which will anger women the world over) can be found here. In essence it says men and women are segregated in sports because on average men have superior abilities. They are segregated because supposedly this gives women equal opportunity to compete. But in fact from an athletic point of view the male/female distinction is quite arbitrary and makes no more sense than, say, creating classes of competitors aged below and above 45 years old, or lighter and heavier than 80kg, or (in swimming) with large and small feet, or from rich and poor economic backgrounds... In sports as in many other spheres of life, people with inferior abilities in any specific field are thrown into classes so that their weakness in that field can be neutralised or rectified, either by improvement or more often by compensation.
Here's another rather similar example which this time will anger the elderly and, I suspect, most other Australians! It relates to "inequalities" brought on by old age and uneven population growth, a phenomenon described here and asking the question: Isn't it time we started to ask ourselves why we feel obliged to prolong life at any price? The huge number of elderly, often grossly overweight, people jamming up our health services at great cost to society is very disturbing. I'm not a politically correct altruist and this is one of several areas where I believe a degree of discrimination by our government is justifiable (after all the government already discriminates unjustifiably in some departments). Perhaps those old people who have nothing more to contribute to society should be refused treatment by the public health system except for problems unrelated to their age. If they were looking forward to longer lives worth living, they should have learnt long ago to take responsibilty for controlling life-endangering conditions such as obesity and smoking. Those who think all this sounds draconian should perhaps try to root out the truly barbaric attitudes that have been implanted in their brains! (see here.)In practice, our society tends to treat people very differently indeed, in line with their own moral outlook and social conduct. We revere some human beings and despise others, at the same time accepting the bizarre assortment of strengths and weaknesses embraced by the vast majority. Some are placed on pedestals, others are put behind bars, while the rest of us just keep on paying our taxes! Some are decorated with State honours or granted awards of distinction in various fields of endeavour; others may suffer severe financial penalties or have some of their civil rights removed. We do not suffer extreme malefactors and intractable criminals in our society. Even Australia’s leaders sometimes join in the chorus of expletives – scum, monster, ratbag, not human at all. Clearly we evaluate people for their general social and ethical competence just as we do for their competence in specific areas from football to dental surgey. We give people different social worths. On a personal level, sometimes I marvel at the talent, courage, compassion and generosity of the fine individuals surrounding me, at other times I wonder why so many of my compatriots are thieves, thugs, destructive hooligans, trouble-makers with no respect for anyone except themselves, or just fat bogan slobs (no apologies for lack of political correctness, which I abhor). In spite of all this negativity (of which more is yet to follow in #17), I believe there remains an underlying reason for treating people as if they are "equals", that is, for treating them as if they had intrinsic rights to be treated with equal respect under the law. The reason is that every human being (if not every animal to which one might attribute consciousness) is indeed endowed with an unassailable inner sanctity, by virtue of the fact that each one of us is an island, dwelling in a universe that belongs to himself and to nobody else. A person has nothing apart from what is in his own mind, his own interpretation of whatever there is "out there" (if anything, some might add). Whatever may befall a person, this inner world remains inviolable until his powers of conception fade or until he dies, when the world dies with him. So the basic notion of "intrinsic equality", if not the entire characteristic moral and political disposition of our free Western society, stems primarily from the conviction that the individual is sacrosanct, on account of his ownership of the universe as conceived by him. While this may provide some licence for using the "equality" word, unfortunately it remains true that in common usage equality often entails levelling people, an imperative of religion and the political extreme left.
To summarise, in practical terms the most we can wrest from the notion of equality is this: that we employ a uniform, consistent set of values in dealing with people. This is obviously not an inborn right of people to be treated "equally", but a dispensation by those who believe themselves to be treating people equally, i.e. it is sometimes a personal responsibility and sometimes the responsibility of the social system. As it stands, this injunction does not entail that all people receive just and fair consideration. That can only come by specifying a correct set of values - presumably a set of absolute values. But the danger in this view is only too evident. Historically, egalitarian states have also been the most repressive, where unremitting fear and loss of freedom combined to produce societies of zombies. Any state that seeks to enforce equality of any kind and by any means upon its subjects runs the risk of undermining even more important human values than those embodied in the Australian catch-phrase "a fair go for everyone". (see #11. More on the equality myth in #17.)
6. Subdued scepticism
Humanists are often deeply sceptical, but many modern sceptics seem to have closed minds on a number of issues, most conspicuously the questions of the existence of so-called paranormal phenomena and the genuineness of the elevated states of mind (producing a feeling of oneness with the universe) achieved by meditation. The most ardent sceptics appear to make the same mistake as the believers – that of confusing the incomprehensible with the supernatural. They tend to dismiss out of hand various phenomena for which there might well be a rational explanation (see e.g. my suggestions in the postscript of Six kinds of proposition and the edges of normality, following on from the discussion of mathematics in section 8). Furthermore, their uncompromising stance (shared with Central Humanism) against theism, spiritualism and divine intervention tends to get confused with deep questions about the nature of existence: although the prevailing view is that physical reality is the primal stuff of the universe and the cause of mental processes, the possibility that consciousness is fundamental remains open, and in some ways allows for an easier solution to the mind-body problem.
On the question of religion there are no grounds for not being sceptical. Central Humanism is fiercely opposed to all traditional religions and their offshoots (see #9, para 1), so of course it dissents from belief in, and denies the existence of, any of the conventional gods (see #9, para 2). Religion is accountable to truth, reason, decency and fairness. Therefore if any honest, reasonable person is disposed towards matters of the soul, may his or her motto be "Truth before God, God before scriptures". And in this, may he or she be able to give a meaningful description of "God".
"If you spit on the Earth, you spit on yourself" - attrib. David Suzuki
As against this, the transcendental aspect of Central Humanism hints at an underlying unity of life, if not of everything that exists, but if this sounds mystical it is only because of ignorance. Maybe everything is interconnected in ways that current ideas in chemistry and physics fail to accommodate. Maybe one day there will be a Great Religion (if "religion" is the right word) embodying the transcendental attitude of all humanists and the inevitable developments (or breakdown?) in scientific thought and methodology. But the "god", or unifying principle, of that religion would presumably have to be just as amenable to objective investigation and rational explanation as any other entity to which human beings can relate - allowing that our notions of objectivity and rationality might change. What Central Humanism now adamantly shuns is Faith*, especially in the incredible, and all the ballyhoo and balderdash that invariably goes along with it. (A useful website on atheism is Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc.)
*Note: Faith means an unreasoned and unknowing trust in the power of God to act benevolently in the progress of one’s life. In some people, of course, Faith may induce certain beneficial psychological effects, which may in turn modify their health or behaviour. But this is only to acknowledge the vitality of the human imagination and the existence of psychosomatic interactions. The further supposition that there is in fact a God who directly influences worldly events is without foundation.
7. Classification, knowledge, discrimination, prejudice and the right to make informed judgments
The way we treat other people necessarily depends on classifying them in this way or that. Human minds just work like this - we can only think thoughts, thoughts are "concepts" and we have nothing to work with except all those concepts that we amass in relation to any particular person (or thing). Consciously or subconsciously, we use pretty much the same techniques as do insurance companies (not to mention immigration authorities, tax and welfare departments and the police), only our statistical methodology is usually quite subjective and tacit. To do this successfully and fairly depends on using the best available information, so if we make judgments without relevant knowledge we may be lead to deal with particular individuals inappropriately.
Then again, given the best available knowledge of the characteristics of a person or group, we should be entitled to behave toward them as our "insurance company conscience" dictates. Unfortunately wide-sweeping antidiscrimination laws do not always allow people and businesses to assess risks (or opportunities) and make informed judgments about individuals in the same way that insurance companies can. Why not? It appears to be a reasonable procedure for insurance companies (but see Footnote 8), so it is surely just as reasonable for persons (e.g. employers) to use information such as sex, age, country of origin (cultural background), religion, disability, congeniality, sportsmanship, physical appearance, bodyweight and whether or not a person is pregnant or smokes (see Footnote 10) to assist them in making decisions about individuals. Of course, the information must be used relevantly, rationally and without unfounded prejudice (which is more than can be said about the way some government agencies use it). And where there is any risk of wrongful treatment, individuals should normally be afforded the benefit of any doubt, depending on such matters as the perceived threat to the welfare of other people. But to simply forbid the use of this information without qualification is to undermine freedom of choice and human reason. Central Humanism regards current antidiscrimination laws as overly oppressive. (Also see Footnote 7A on racism and Footnote 14 on unfamiliarity as a rational criterion of choice).
* It’s a bit mystifying why many members of the Aboriginal community so readily take offence at words like “Abo”, originally used to refer to them by others. To my mind "Abo" is a rather endearing name for an Australian Aborigine, while the recommended term, "Indigenous Person", strikes me as a pretentious stupidity to be used only with contempt - not indeed for Aborigines, but for the crazy system that invents such politically warped absurdities.It would not do to leave this section without mentioning that one of the worst examples of bigotry, practised by most governments including the Australian Government, is their deep-seated prejudice against humanist organisations. That our Government should give certain valuable privileges to religious bodies, whilst withholding them from humanists, is an injustice of the most serious kind. These privileges apply to such areas as taxation, fringe benefits, rates on property and access to schools to conduct religious instruction. You’d think, if there is reason for allowing special concessions like these at all, they would go to the organisations that are free from superstition and hokey-pokey rather than to those that indulge in these fantasies. Evidently the bureaucracy itself is party to mysticism, its avowed commitment to secularism is phony and its handling of discrimination policy is burdened by hypocrisy.
8. Natural rights - another myth
"Natural" rights here refers to inborn, inalienable rights that are universally held by all people in all circumstances (the French terminology is droits subjectifs). It's impossible to discern any sense at all in this notion. While there may be legal and social rights, e.g. to education, employment, similar conditions for men and women and access to legal aid, there are no "automatic" rights to any of these things, or to food, shelter, property ownership, free speech or even life itself (see note 4 below*). And of rights in general, it's difficult to understand how they can apply to anything other than sentient, conscious individuals, and only then as a privilege conferred by others, under a social licence, so to speak (droits objectifs). Some secularists use "rights" in much the same way as religionists use God - as an excuse to commit all kinds of atrocities, from plundering the Earth to abandoning personal responsibility for one's actions and family.
In practice "rights" can be translated into other language; for example the right to free speech as: it's better to live in a society where the law allows people to say whatever they want when and wherever they want (with qualifications - there's good reason for placing various restrictions on the telling of downright lies, even by politicians!)
So what kind of rights are of most importance and upon
9. Opposition to religion
of these notes and the associated "footnotes" can be found in Religious Gunk )
"What the world needs is not dogma but an attitude of scientific inquiry combined with a belief that the torture of millions is not desirable, whether inflicted by Stalin or by a Deity imagined in the likeness of the believer" - Bertrand Russell
Central Humanism is strongly anti-religious. The main objection to religions is their utter contempt for truth, personal integrity and human intelligence. Religions are unethical because they compel people to behave irrationally and eccentrically by indoctrinating them with lies, myths, infantile nonsense and ritualism. The dogmatism of religion hinders moral progress, undermines self-determination and responsibility and obstructs the development and application of technologies that promise enormous benefits for mankind. Religion is the world's most persistent divisive force and one of the chief causes of war and unrest.
Of course, not everyone who calls himself a believer is steeped in religion to this extent, nor do all religions make the same demands - which is to say, essentially, that they all feature different gods - or, rather, demons. (see Footnote 9 on this point and non-theistic religions). It is clear, too, that not quite everything about every religion is bad. Humanists recognise that the churches are places of comfort and counsel and applaud the humanitarian work carried out by many religious organisations. The new-style Christian churches in particular attract some wonderful, generous-hearted people as well as some exasperating zealots. But while the spirit of voluntary community work in many churches is very commendable, humanists often argue that (1) Churches get funding and tax breaks while humanist organisations don’t, (2) do-gooders who are not especially religious nonetheless tend to gravitate towards the churches because that’s where they find like-minded people and resources, (3) religious people often have ulterior motives for "doing good", moreover many Churches bludgeon the members of their flock into altruism (also see paragraph on benevolence below), (4) the humanitarian work done by many churches is often negated by their anti-humanitarianism in certain areas where brutish dogmatism has gained a stranglehold. (For example, consider the immense harm done to women by the anti-pill anti-abortion lobby in the Philippines and other poor countries where Catholicism holds sway.) So, while God's commandments seemingly include both good and evil, it is clear that the good attributed to religion flows mainly from the residue of humanity lingering in the believer, who draws out of the scriptures only what was in his heart from the beginning. How much more noble, how much stronger might that good be, had he the courage to fling off the shackles of his religion!
Religionists will often say: Atheists spend all their energy bashing religion. If a person replaced his religion with atheism, what positive things would it have to offer? The answer to this is that religion doesn’t need to be replaced by anything. One does not replace a cancer of the brain with another intrusion – one simply attempts to remove it. The positives in life were always there, lying dormant because they were stifled by the cancer’s presence. After the cancer has been excised, the positive aspects of life will flourish as never before. Atheists generally promote all the good things that religion suppresses, and most accounts of atheism make it abundantly clear what these are.
Although it's true the spin-off from some religions has included much of great cultural value, for example in architecture, music and the graphic arts, nearly all this is historical. Nor is it clear that artistic enterprise would not have been better off without religion - church architecture, for example, seems inordinately limited in scope. In modern times the arts have well and truly shaken off the fetters of religion, and the contribution of religious organisations to the arts today leans towards performance rather than creativity. However, even if we take a generous view of the role of religion in artistic enterprise, in most cases this input is far outweighed by the negative impact of religion on cultural development. The enormous amount of time and energy expended by the devotees of certain faiths in absurd mental activity and ritual would be much, much more wisely spent in acquiring some genuine knowledge and aesthetic capacity. Although one occasionally comes across that most incongruous of beasts, the educated religionist, in many countries almost all the followers of these time demanding religions appear to be incredibly ignorant and narrow-minded. Undoubtedly they could lead a fuller life - a more human life - if they could escape the grim confines of their faith.
While humanists proclaim their adherence to “the scientific attitude”, it isn’t hard to see why some scientists are not atheists (in some sense of that word - see below and Epigrams & Maxims (no. 41.)). The more science one knows, the more one stands in bewildered admiration of nature’s complexity and improbability. To say that the universe is awe inspiring is to make the greatest understatement of which any person is capable. But this does not imply that it was created by a divine being who also happens to be a dispenser of peculiar moral instructions to people, a being who listens to a billion contradictory prayers, who demands our acquiescence in his power and glory and our commitment to obscene ritual, and who rescues or tortures our souls upon our death. Surely no scientist would be party to this kind of nonsense? (Also see Footnote 21.)
There’s little difference in principle between religion and cultism. The leading brands of religion use essentially the same brainwashing methods as closed communities like the Exclusive Bretheren and the Gloriavale Christian Community (Cooperites). Although they may not physically isolate all their disciples from the rest of the world, they do succeed in obstructing their disciples’ view of reality. Both the major religions and the minor cults fill a need for psychological security, a need presumably caused by the poor ability of the relatively intelligent, sensitive human mind to cope with the harshness of reality. Historically, however, religion has also provided a degree of social security, owing to its powerful control over the organization and behaviour of society. In the modern world this function of religion is breaking down because of the globalisation and intermingling of many different religions, because science and education enable us to handle life more effectively and because of the growing realisation not only that a secular organization can provide better security but that its rules are a product of common sense rather than fantasy, promoting increased freedom of behaviour and liberating the human spirit from the confines of dogmatism and ritual.
In modern times religions, especially of the softer breed, have tended to change, usually for the better. In other words they have relinquished some of their own barbaric decrees in favour of humanist values! The process has been painful. To the atheist, much of the bickering has seemed pointless. (For example, all the fuss about whether women can be priests seems frivolous to anyone who won't rest content until every last priest vanishes from the face of the Earth. Who cares whether men, women or Dandie Dinmont terriers fill the pulpits?)
"There is no justice higher than that of Man"
A humanist may act benevolently for two possible “reasons”: either he has a natural sympathy for the plight of others, or he has worked out that people will get on better together if they act thoughtfully and humanely towards one another. A strongly religious person, on the other hand, may act benevolently on account of various beliefs: for example, he believes it is his duty to God or an instruction from God, or God’s loving spirit propels him in that direction, or God will ultimately reward him in an afterlife - or punish him in eternal hell if he does not act benevolently - see related note. (Islamists, in particular, quite openly do everything “good” for ulterior motives – to receive “blessings from Allah”. What a sickening, wimpish attitude, plunging the depths of insincerity!) These ulterior or "fake" motives are among the shackles that prevent him acting with complete veracity. Indeed reason and personal (agnostic) compassion or concern may not enter the picture at all. Furthermore his beliefs might be just as likely to lead him to act unethically (according to modern secular standards) as to act kindly. To engage in an activity purely and simply because one’s religion dictates it is foolish, irresponsible, insensitive and morally wrong. Religious beliefs as such never provide either moral grounds or cogent reasons for any particular kind of behaviour. Thus religiously motivated altruism is a sham and ultimately self-centred - religion is a form of solipsism which (as Christopher Hitchens puts it) “imagines that the universe is preoccupied with one’s own fate”. To be blunt, anyone who says "I'm doing this for God" is psychologically deranged.
Many religionists, however, do attempt to justify the ethical aspects of their faith with "reason". The absurdity of this is only too plain. If religionists can think of good reasons for behaving in the way they do, why bother with the god that dictates such behaviour? If they are capable of behaving according to their own astuteness and moral sense, why don't they use these human faculties and forget about the supernatural? Of course, most of these "argumentive" religionists (usually made insecure by a little education) do not employ their best powers of reasoning, but simply try to justify their beliefs by producing what look like reasons, good or bad. They are fake reasons, easily demolished by thinkers with no hang-ups. In fact, most religionists don't go down this track at all, because they are terrified of knowledge, truth and reason.
It seems obvious that in civilized western societies the ethical values of religions are measured against humanist standards, not vice-versa, and that the bad in religion far outweighs the good. In less advanced nations where countless missions have gained a foothold, and secularism is definitely not the norm, moral confusion reigns as depraved religious ministers trumpet their miscellaneous untruths and obscene advice to bemused communities. Many of the cultural values promoted by the ancient religions and their offshoots, now entrenched in societies worldwide, represent the most worrying threat to the welfare of future generations. The traditional religions - incoherent bundles of ideas accumulated many centuries ago and barely relevant even then - act as a powerful brake on moral progress - a brake that is "power assisted" by political correctness and the whimpishness of politicians, afraid to say or do anything that might cause offence even to those who are deserving targets of vigorous disapproval.
Despite these considerations, Central Humanism regards tolerance as a virtue and promotes a tolerant society - including, to a limited extent, religious tolerance. However,
tolerance is a much misunderstood and misused word (see Footnote 2). Moreover, words like "tolerance" and "respect" may be inappropriate in the context of religion and its adherents. We do not use these words when speaking of other mental illnesses: we simply seek a cure. But regardless of whether religion be considered a disease, curable or not, something needs to be done to modify its many adverse effects on our society. The present broad-sweeping laws relating to religious discrimination in Australia are unsupportable. It is completely contrary to Australian ideals, or to any humane code of ethics, to sanction the practice and promotion of religious beliefs that endow men with fundamentally superior rights to women, or incite violence against unbelievers, or aspire to oust the secular state, or shrug off a person's wrong-doings with a nod and a prayer, or extort money from their followers by slick salesmanship and emotivism, or deny young children access to life-saving technologies, or trap their disciples by threat of punishment or death should they attempt to change their allegiance.
The notions of freedom, open society and religious tolerance tend to go hand in hand. "Freedom" normally includes freedom to follow whatever religion you please (even though some religions do not themselves respect this freedom). Although on the whole supporting this point of view, Central Humanism maintains that one of the greatest freedoms is freedom from religion, and that by rejecting religion you increase your chances of realising your humanity to the fullest extent. But if people wish to follow a particular religion, let them do so, provided that the choice is genuinely their own. Two essential preconditions for freedom of religion for individuals are: freedom from religion in the Government of the people, and freedom from brainwashing during childhood. Where the Government is religiously biased, sound education lacking and religious brainwashing rife, individuals will be denied both the opportunity of making wise choices and (if they subscribe to a minority religion) the empowerment to conduct their lives in the way they would wish.
Religionists of the live-and-let-be variety might say to non-believers “Leave us with our faith and respect our right to practice it – this is what we believe, you can believe whatever you want”. How wrong they are! Atheists don’t believe anything. They simply live in accordance with plain facts and with regard for human dignity. Belief is a state of mind with no foundation of truth or integrity. The beliefs of religionists comprise nothing but delusions. What they believe is very plainly confuted by overwhelming evidence, straight thinking and an ordinary sense of decency. In other words what they believe is a cocktail of obvious falsehoods, nonsense and incitements to decadence – with perhaps a smattering of good advice shaken in, but always offered for the wrong reasons. There is no question of pitting one set of beliefs against another. Atheism is not a system of beliefs at all, but a resolve to eliminate all unfounded beliefs from one’s thinking. It is simply one of the results of a sincere, enquiring frame of mind.
An apt definition of an atheist might be: a person who understands the difference between truth and falsehood, fact and fiction, sense and nonsense, who loves truth, knowledge and reason, who accepts responsibility for his life and who lives in tune with the world around him. The literally atheistic part of atheism, the elimination of gods, is just a nuisance thing, to be got out of the way (like trolls, unicorns and astrology) so that we can get on with life. One of the aims of these notes, therefore, is to show resolve in rejecting the primitiveness and negativity of fettered beliefs and to acclaim the freedom and richness of an intelligently orientated, yet sensitive and compassionate, way of life.
On more specific issues (recognising the deep-seated immorality of all the major creeds and their offshoots), the Central Humanist philosophy strongly and unreservedly condemns the religious indoctrination of young children (see Footnote 12), by their parents or anyone else - this is plain intellectual abuse, generally deserving the same censure as any other kind of child abuse. When augmented by military instruction, religious indoctrination of the young constitutes one of the most horrendous atrocities against mankind, and those responsible should probably be classified as "anti-humans" (see Footnote 18). However, this is by no means the very worst calamity that children worldwide may have to face: the irreversible consequences of malnutrition, disease and injury, loss of parents and lack of shelter are obviously more serious. It is a prime tenet of Central Humanism that basic physical needs take priority over educational and ethical matters. Even most religions apparently concur with this!
Thus there are probably many aspects of most religions that should not be acquiesced in at all by any sane, caring person or by any government. If we are ever to be released from the scourge of religion, it's time all secular humanists started uncorking their bottled-up antagonism. Thankfully there are some with the courage and strength of will to speak up, as have many of the greatest western philosophers over the past 2500 years. Why, in this liberal day and age, do we approach the subject of religion so gingerly, instead of damning it for what it is - one of the most lamentable and irrational of human perversions, teetering on the edge of inhumanity? (See Footnote 17 on "Which are the most inhumane religions?".)
There are, of course, some sensible rebuffs to this point of view. Even those who agree with it may be disposed to accept the overriding need for restraint, if not respect for the rights of the faithful. After all, religion has for centuries been regarded as a uniquely human occupation, and there is no denying the steadying influence of almost all religions on the societies over which they have held sway. (Religion, it has been said is "the opium of the masses" or "a necessary evil".) At the very least, humanists of every kind are bound to show a deep regard for the needs, dignity and freedom of all people, whatever their beliefs. But regardless of our attitude to believers, the plain facts are that:
Any religion sporting a god that is supposed to interact with the real world, in any way whatsoever, is of course open to scientific investigation, just to the extent of the alleged physical operations of the god. And any religion whose god is aloof from the real world is open to the questioning of reason. Most gods possess both these aspects. Humanists and rationalists often make much of the distinction between religion and scientific knowledge, either because they believe (usually incorrectly) that the two fields are poles apart, or because they believe (usually correctly) that the findings of science disprove factual religious dogmas such as creationism, as well as the possibility of any practical outcomes from religious worship and ritual. However, this religion/science contrast seems hardly necessary: plain common sense and consideration are enough to disparage religion, as Greek philosophers realised hundreds of years before either scientific methodology or Christianity and Islam were invented (see #6 para 3 and Footnote 21).
A claim of Central Humanism is that there is ample evidence for the non-existence of God. Some may regard this as (1) an "unscientific" statement and (2) an admission that, after all, humanists need to substantiate their "beliefs".
This attack, it must be emphasised, is directed against conventional religions - those based on belief in the supernatural, antiquated scriptures and faith - and all forms of cultism that follow the patterns of conventional religion. There is no denying the personal utility of positive thinking and meditation (of a certain kind) for those able to harness these forces. And the possibility that mental activity can directly affect extra-corporeal physical events has not been completely disproved. Some cosmological theories do allow for mind/reality interaction. However, it's obvious to anyone with eyes and ears that God never answers the prayers of the faithful and hasn't the slightest concern for the millions killed, injured or made destitute by earthquakes, tsunamis and famine. In fact, whenever there’s an appalling disaster, with thousands of people killed, there always seems to be a priest or imam on hand to proclaim that it is the will of God. So either God is a mass murderer or the priest is a bloody-minded fake. (One thing’s for certain – at these times my anger comes close to exceeding my sadness.) But of course the real reason why prayers are never answered is - there is no God.
In summary, traditional dogmatic religions are the enemies of both truth and humanity. The world's greatest evils are religion and population expansion (the two are quite closely related - not poverty, global warming etc etc (these are effects, not causes). Also see Atheist Foundation of Australia for some excellent articles opposing religion; and The Skeptic's Annotated Bible (+ Qur'an + Book of Mormon) for a detailed guide to everything vulgar and unbelievable in the scriptures. An excellent new (late 2006) book covering everything anti-religious on this website, and a great deal more besides, is Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (see pages 237-253 for comments on the Bible). Even more recent (May 2007) is Christopher Hitchens' vitriolic book God is not Great (but his writing style, of which he was very proud, is disconcerting).
10. Limitation of multi-culturalism
“Australians are sick and tired of people who come here and want to enjoy all the benefits that Australian life has to offer and either criticise the society they have chosen to enter, or by their behaviour and their utterances progressively undermine its foundations” (Alan Jones, 30 Aug 2006)
Most Australian humanists support the development of a "multi-cultural" society here. If all they mean by this is an "ethnically diverse" society, and the colourful assortment of "shallow" cultural traditions that goes along with this, then Central Humanism is entirely in accord with them. But if they mean "culture" in a deeper sense that includes rules and organisational elements drawn from their society of origin, along with some of their more extreme ethical and political persuasions and customs, then a "multi-cultural society" is virtually a self-contradiction, an impossibility. (See Footnote 19 on cultural collisions in France).
In general Australian ideals are undoubtedly among the finest in the world. Although these ideals include a level of acceptance of cultural diversity unequalled by any other nation (with the possible exception of India), we must be careful not to let our standards become weakened by an undue tolerance of moral perversity. Nobody would want to see cultural horrors such as honour killings, female circumcision and child marriage happening in this country (Hmm! - it seems they are already with us). We do not even sanction them in those countries where they are regularly practised. But at present we do allow the importation of various anti-human customs into our society, mainly because they are associated with religion and we are supposed to show a degree of respect towards different religions. An incredibly irrational attitude! Humanists in western society should think deeply about the real meaning of multi-culturalism and ask themselves whether they are prepared to live with the consequences of promoting it, notably the threat to our democratic and predominantly "free" society (though here in Queensland we appear to be revitalizing the Joe Bjelke-Petersen era). Here's a link to an (unauthenticated) series of short video clips which might help to squash any doubts about the reality of this threat.
Regardful of this cautionary proviso, however, Central Humanism supports the development of a rich, diverse, vibrant society and the voluntary preservation of harmless ethnic customs, art and folklore, whether or not they are of religious origin, at the recreational level and in so far as they enhance the fullness of society - including the sub-societies whose cultures are at issue. (The inclusion of the words voluntary and harmless particularly implies intolerance towards any attempts to foist male-dominated or restrictive cultural values onto women and children, or to hinder the efforts of individuals to assimilate into the wider society.) Humanists should also recognise that some cultures do have much of moral value to offer - in particular, the people of many eastern societies generally accept their responsibilities and obligations towards family members much more willingly than most westerners do. It's time we recognised that Australia is a part of Asia and that our country must learn to harness the talents of its Asian immigrants - including the capacity for hard work.
Accordingly, Central Humanism is opposed to political correctness and is unsympathetic to low tolerance and the tendency to be offended by superficialities (see Footnote 1).
To take examples from the Christian culture, there’s surely no problem with the traditions of Easter eggs and bunnies, carol singing, nativity plays and displays, Christmas decorations and even Santa Claus (that is, if you think it's OK for parents to deceive their children and prime them for the acceptance of religious brainwashing). To suggest that these customs should be "contained" on the grounds that they might offend the followers of other religions is claptrap of the most pathetic kind. Provided they are not taken too seriously, legend and myth are essential ingredients of every culture, they greatly enrich a multicultural society like ours and they must not be confused with religious piety. Thus Central Humanism supports the ideal of "unity in diversity", within the limits defined by concurrence with Australian values, i.e. the values of a free and open society.
Perhaps this is the place to enhance the charity begins at home list begun in #1. Our responsibilities and interests lie firstly with ourselves and our families, and then tend to recede through the wider circles of friends, country and culture, fellow human beings, people of different race and religion, intelligent and useful animals, less intelligent and nuisance animals....
11. Moral absolutism
Note: In this article "absolutism" means "anti-relativism". It does not mean "strict compliance with an authoritarian, cast-iron set of moral (or immoral!) principles". Needless to say, Central Humanism does not condone absolutism in this sense.
The modern trend in ethics appears to be towards moral relativism. Central Humanism is entirely opposed to this trend, holding that all forms of relativism are incoherent and indefensible - there must be absolute standards or else there are no genuine standards at all. It maintains this position in spite of, and in conjunction with, the apparently subjective idea that the ability to identify both truth and right depends on self-integrity (see #12). However, it is arguable that if there are no absolute values the notion of integrity is itself untenable.
NB: For consideration by the philosophically minded - Moral absolutism does not entail the existence of moral facts. And if there are no moral facts then there can be no moral knowledge.
12. Centralisation (second meaning) - personal integrity and the broader scope of ethics
"Morality is truth in full bloom" - Victor Hugo, Les Miserables.
A fundamental principle of the basic philosophy underlying Central Humanism is the interdependence of the ideas of meaningfulness, truth and integrity. "Integrity", in a nutshell, means being true to oneself (or true to life, or interpreting one's life-experiences rationally - apologies for the verbal circularity in trying to express these ideas so briefly! For an example of lack of integrity, see Footnote 24). One of the maxims of this philosophy is "No truth without integrity". The notion of self-integrity is what links the ethical philosophy of Central Humanism with objective notions of truth. Morality is founded on integrity, a personal condition that could exist even in a world devoid of other people. In that sense, morality is centralised - it begins with oneself and is not primarily social. Morally appropriate behaviour depends on the abilty to consistently distinguish truth from falsehood, sense from nonsense and fact from fantasy. It would seem that most people (worldwide) lack this ability.
On the other hand, the same fundamentals of personal integrity and conscience that underpin our social behaviour operate to extend our moral responsibilities naturally to distant and future communities, to other creatures and life in general and to the environment. For Central Humanists the scope of ethics is particularly broad, as it tends to endow objects and ideas with an intrinsic value, regardless of any potential benefit to observers or users. Although we humans possess a number of special intellectual attributes (see #2), we also have much in common with most other animals, especially the apes, and should extend to them some of the consideration we show to members of our own species (see Footnote 5 on "potential"). You don't need to be a zoologist - you only need to watch a few of David Attenborough's remarkable documentaries to realise that even the lowliest animals often show a very capable devotion to their mates and offspring. There appears to be nothing uniquely human about love and caring. Central Humanism advocates respect for the needs of all intelligent animals and the conservation of their natural habitats. It is strongly opposed to the needless exploitation of animals, especially to hunting wild animals for sport (this certainly includes birds and probably most species of fish). As for the farming of animals for food, there are also other very compelling reasons for drastically reducing this practice. For example, while barraged with information on how to reduce domestic water and electricity consumption, people remain blissfully unaware that they could achieve a lot more for the environment by not eating meat - also see end of When Society comes First and the michaelbluejay site on vegetarianism (however, some of the claims of the latter site are exaggerated). In regions where vegetable food is plentiful, meat and fish appear to have no place in human nutrition, possibly excepting the diets of children under the age of about 15 and pregnant women. In general, therefore, Central Humanism advocates vegetarianism, and is especially opposed to the consumption of products from animals raised or slaughtered by obviously cruel methods.
This outlook, however, does not sit well with all intellectuals. Some philosophers (among them D.C. Dennett and Steve Pinker) believe that the adult human mind is on an altogether higher plane than animal minds. Dennett apparently goes so far as to say that consciousness isn't possible in the absence of some kind of language ability, and that probably human beings alone (other than infants who haven't learnt to speak) possess the required level of ability. (My personal view is encapsulated in the epigram "No perception without conception", but I certainly do not believe that having concepts necessitates having linguistic abilities.) Regardless, most normal human beings undoubtedly demonstrate conceptual powers far exceeding those of most animals, and, as noted in #2, Central Humanism advocates the nurturing of these powers, as opposed to "mere animal" characteristics. For example, domestic dogs copulate, have an appetite for gourmet food and chase after little balls. Why should these activities be so highly valued in human beings?
Still, I'm wondering if it's possible that some of our academics, accustomed to sitting comfortably in their lounge chairs after a sumptuous Sunday repast of roast pork, feel obliged to defend one of the most obnoxious and powerful inventions in the history of the human race, namely the great biblical myth of the unique ascendancy and separation of man from the rest of the animal kingdom, bestowing him with certain exclusive rights, including the right to kill, eat and use other animals as workers*. Forget Darwin, this belief and its culture remain deeply embedded in western and middle eastern societies to this day, assisted by another misguided, more modern idea: that only man amongst animals has a well developed consciousness while the behaviour of other animals is purely "instinctive". What an incredible shemozzle this concoction has generated! How is it possible in Australia that a person can get fined for feeding a live rat to a snake, or that the insitution of greyhound racing might be banned because some breeders have been using live rabbits as bait, yet the agricultural industry faces no prosecution for slaughtering baby animals for human consumption? Remember how only a short time ago we slaughtered millions of rabbits most cruelly by infecting them with the excruciatingly debilitating myxamatosis virus, or poisoning them with carrot baits loaded with 1080 leading to a slow, painful death, or blowing up entire warrens with a mixture of diesel and ammonium nitrate? Huh! Now you can't say boo to a cat! Whatever happened to simple common-sense priorities? Murder is widely regarded as the most despicable crime that can be committed against humans. Are there good reasons for ordering our priorities with animals differently? Inconsistencies in ethical thinking such as these are entirely unacceptable. Yet in Australia and many other "civilized" countries the abuse of animals has ascended the heights of glorification, due mainly to the intense, outrageous popularisation of gastronomy by the media.
*The guilty text is in Genesis 1:26: Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
13. Centralisation (third meaning) - personal worlds
The ethics of Central Humanism recognises that your own life is everything you will ever know about the world. You carry your world around with you, so to speak, dwelling at the centre of your own unique universe, the only universe that exists for you. That is why every person is supremely important. (This notion is further explained in Wotser Proper Filossofer? - Principal requirements and concerns of Proper philosophy: 6.) The numbers game tends to collapse, and arguably the classical utilitarian formula for calculating the most moral course of action becomes irrelevant (see Footnote 3). Still, there are millions of people whose circumstances confine them to abhorrent world views, reflecting hardly any of the elements of being human and incarcerating them in dungeons of unbelievable wretchedness. This is perhaps the ground where humanism faces its greatest intellectual and practical challenges.
14. Centralisation (fourth meaning) - moral conscience
Many humanists probably think of themselves as being essentially utilitarians or "consequentialists" (see Footnote 13). Utilitarianism as such, however, could operate purely as a legal system or as a behavioural code for machines. The idea that consequences can be evaluated at all presupposes some moral imperatives, and it is these, surely, that form the backbone of a moral philosophy and create its distinctive tenor. Consequentialism as such could be applied to any (genuinely) ethical standards whatsoever, or to none. It becomes a moral philosophy only when it is guided by the moral consciences of those who endorse it. The cause of this conscience and the justification for going along with it are difficult questions which many humanists are apt to shun (see #15). Clearly these questions demand attention: one cannot engage in moral behaviour unless one has an accountable moral conscience. Morality is centralised. (However, in defence of certain aspects of consequentialism, I hope shortly to place a link here to an argument that, in the administration of criminal justice, offences should be gauged by their effects regardless of the psychology of the criminal. This apparently begs the question whether morality as a whole has any genuine psychological basis - even though the subject matter of morals is clearly psychological.) (Also see Footnote 15 on the difference between social and moral conscience).
The main consequence of this position is that one's standards of truth, right and good cannot be imposed by an external authority (either man or god) but must somehow be worked out for oneself. To accept other standards without question is to shirk a foremost responsibility and to live a life of fakery. This does not imply that moral standards themselves are subjective. One has to make just the same kinds of judgments and choices as one does in interacting with the physical world – it’s essentially a question of survival.
15. Centralisation (fifth meaning) - the biological basis of moral behaviour
The biological evidence is clear: the aim of life is to pass on your genes to the next generation - your own genes, not those of your partner, nextdoor neighbour, fellow countrymen or race. Yet rather would you countenance the transmission of your compatriots' genes than those of foreigners or other races: your instincts take command. The moral life appears to be at odds with the biological. Or is it just that by living in harmony with your biological "enemies" you believe your chances of preserving your inheritance are better? In that case, many social dissenters are simply people who believe otherwise, and who is to say who's right?
Still, it's arguable that most aspects of "common" morality do have their roots in biological mechanisms, particularly in the genetic code that has evolved in association with the relationship of individuals to their kin, to broader social structures and to various other environmental factors. As has been suggested, integrity concerns the complex biological interface between an individual and his environment, a marriage which is the product of many thousands of years of wooing, so to speak. Similarly, moral conscience can be regarded as the psychological manifestation of a highly evolved genetic configuration, representing an advanced development of basic biological urges. No further justification would be required, were it not for the unfortunate fact that both the integrity and the moral consciences of many individuals seem to be gravely askew, posing questions of value that place unreasonable pressure on mere evolutionary explanations.
Of course this is not to suggest that people should behave like animals (though often it might be better if they did). But the Central Humanist view is that one of the main purposes of the moral code of a civilized society is to ensure the survival of the society and of the human species in an amicable environment. In this respect Central Humanism is fundamentally biological. However, biologism, like utilitarianism, does not justify ethics or any particular moral attitude - it only helps to characterise it. Presumably morality can't be "reduced" to evolutionary causes, any more than a person can be reduced to the workings of his brain or body (although some people do accept this kind of reductionism).
In general Central Humanism is strongly opposed to torture, cruelty and all forms of violence, whether amongst individuals or in war, except in defence. However, the new face of war, the ascent of terrorism and the ever-increasing fuzziness between domestic and international interests, and between warlike and criminal activity, create a number of problems with the concept of defence. Increasingly, situations arise in which, it is argued, defence is best served by intervention.
Many undisputably shared resources and assets, such as rain forest, ocean and atmosphere, exist partly or wholly in other people’s territory. Among these assets may be counted people themselves and their interests, including their ethnicity, their ideologies and culture and, above all, their dignity. Well, we rightly create storms over disgraceful activities such as bear-farming in China and whaling by the Japanese (but see entry about whaling). Shouldn't we be stirring up tornadoes over similar atrocities against human beings? Who or what are we defending - a nation, a way of life or the rights of people everywhere to be free from needless suffering and oppression? Are we not chiefly defending humanity against those we do not regard as fully human? As our prime minister, John Howard, recently remarked in relation to the worst kinds of terrorist, we are dealing with people "outside the bounds of human behaviour" - implying that they are not to be treated as human beings? (see Footnote 18). Whatever, can we achieve anything worthwhile without any kind of aggression against other states? Very doubtful! (After the unspeakable horror of Beslan, who could not sympathise with Russia’s avowel to strike at terrorists anywhere in the world to prevent further acts of terrorism in their country? – though this is not a good example, as bungling by Russian security officials has been blamed for much of the carnage.)
There's a bit of a problem with the media. Sometimes one wonders whether they are even vaguely aware of these fundamental facts: (1) Violence is rife! (2) Violence is wrong! You’d think they’d show a smattering of approval for those occasional attempts to reduce it, as well as disapproval for the persistent failure of the United Nations to stem pandemic violence in such places as Sudan and the Congo. But no matter how good the cause, the media seem to concentrate on reporting the downside of intervention by "western" forces in a foreign country. (They look at an appealing body, see only the warts, blow them up out of all proportion and turn them into an acute embarassment.) At the same time, the media in the country controlled by the regime under attack inevitably report to the people only what the authorities dictate, which is usually a mass of lies.
Central Humanism is also opposed to the death penalty, as an outcome of any trial in a court of law. However, as a formal edict (heaven forbid!) this currently conflicts, in a moral sense, with views such as those expressed in Footnote 18. Presumably an extreme case could arise where a person is judged to be "sub-human", and therefore the edict could theoretically be overridden. Since Footnote 18 ventures into unfamiliar territory, the “official” stand on capital punishment should take precedence. (Also see #7, para 3.)
17. More on the equality myth
“There is no essential difference within mankind … Nor is there any member of any nation who cannot attain moral excellence by using nature as his guide.” (Cicero,106-43 B.C.)
Central Humanism applauds the intentions of the last statement but rejects the first. Cicero’s argument seemed to be that because we use one word, man, to refer to people in general, their differences must be minimal. Well, the use of one word does imply that people have something in common (though Wittgenstein might have doubted this), but this is no excuse for brushing aside important differences. You might just as well say there’s no essential difference within the animal kingdom or in the exam results! Let’s not be fooled by language into believing in essences (see below).
The differences between people are to be esteemed more than their similarities – provided they do not lead to social disruption and strife. Variety is the spice of life, both across the human spectrum and for oneself. Any system that imposes uniformity on people, or on the way they think, is evil. And this includes systems in which an underlying foundation of "natural equality" is assumed. As an intrinsic property of human beings, equality is the great social lie, the imaginary force that binds modern society. Yet if equality were real, the notions of freedom, progress, justice, goodness and ethics would be entirely without meaning or use - there would be nowhere left for them to go.
18. Trust, the social environment and neo-socialist madness
Central Humanism promotes a trusting community and opposes the sociological trends in our society that undermine trust and pamper the ratbags to the disadvantage of the majority. Our society is losing the thread when it comes to protecting civil liberties and dealing with crime. In a trusting society (and one in which crime is properly managed) we should not need to lock our doors at night.
19. "Inverted discrimination"
This is a terrible heading, but it's supposed to draw attention to the fact that our society spends a lot of energy highlighting the evils of so-called discrimination, i.e. finding differences which are irrelevant or which don't exist, but very little energy rectifying the equally immoral custom of glossing over differences which are relevant and do exist, or, just as bad, refusing to acknowledge relevant similarities. ("Relevant" here means relevant to positive social relationships, ethical behaviour and the fair treatment of individuals in our society.) This concept draws together some of the points already raised in sections 6, 12, 15 and 17, and footnotes 5, 10 and 13.
Another quite different concept which relates to individuals rather than societies could also be called inverted or reverse discrimination, but I'll call it self-discrimination. This occurs in uncommon circumstances where a person considers himself/herself to belong in a category that should be discriminated against. I can only provide an example that applies to myself. As noted elsewhere I am disturbed by the huge number of elderly, often grossly overweight, people jamming up our health services at great cost to society, especially when they can make no further contribution to that society. I'm not a politically correct altruist and this is one of several areas where I reckon a touch of discrimination of a similar sort is justifiable! In this respect, as I'm in this category, I'm a self-discriminationist. Which is to say at least that I should be paying for most of my health care if I want to go down the track of prolonging my life.
Central Humanism is a philosophy for free thinkers, not for mindless disciples. Therefore it is to be expected that most readers who have come this far will find much to disagree with. It is certainly not a fixed philosophy: it remains open on a wide range of ethical issues and asks only that the arbitrators should be empirical knowledge and reason. Nothing is certain in this life - "Certainty is one of the most unyielding and malicious of prejudices", in the sphere of human relations and ethics even more than in science. Once we become convinced of anything, a part of our soul becomes embedded in concrete, a part of us dies. Let us do our best to keep ourselves and others fully alive.
21. Conclusions and reservations
Although the various concepts of "centralisation" take precedence in this version of humanism, the world today is such that humanist concerns are driven to focus mainly on the plight of people in third-world countries, and of destitute children abandoned to the streets and horrendous institutions throughout the world. As far as possible the remedies must be applied in situ, in lavish amounts, but together with and subject to various conditions, such as implementation of birth control policies, political reform, provision of a sound, secular education for all children and guarantees that the right people will benefit. Without those kinds of assurances the whole business of overseas aid is a waste of time and resources. If these strategies entail armed intervention, then so be it. (The attempts of charities, governments and major international organisations to deal with the problem have frequently been unimpressive.) The most important "instant remedy", however, usually consists in providing basic infrastructure, such as clean water supplies and sanitation. Indeed clean water is often the key to health, wealth and wisdom. Without it, diseases run riot, healthy food cannot be grown or sold, and if children have to spend hours every day carting water, there's no time left for them to get any kind of an education. It's a sobering thought that the per capita water usage in Australia is up to 100 times that of some rural communities in the poorest nations.
"If anyone's interested in the alleviation of poverty...the only thing we know definitely works is giving women control over their own reproduction." (Christopher Hitchens)
Unfortunately in gravely overpopulated regions (e.g. parts of Africa), it appears that the instant remedies prescribed by the richer nations, such as providing food, water and health care, don't have the remotest chance of keeping pace with the increases in mortality and disease generated by the continuing high population growth. Let me repeat: "Any future human being is a pest, but once born it is normally a little miracle to be venerated". The plain fact is that, in the long run, curbing birth rates in overpopulated regions is going to save many more lives than stop-gap measures such as providing famine relief. It could also save the world from disaster. But will the citizens of western nations ever come to think of population control as being more humane than reducing the suffering of human beings here and now? No, their compassion will be spent in vain and birth control may never get the priority attention it deserves. We've already left it far too late and have put ourselves in a position of being forced to deal with the effects of the population explosion rather than the cause. (Good grief, Malthus foresaw some of these consequences more than 200 years ago!) Without doubt overpopulation is the world's number one problem, from which one might conclude that unbridled procreation is the world's greatest social evil. The sooner we understand this, the better. Breeding is not a human right but an environmental disaster.
At home, the ridiculous commitment of politicians and big business to expanding the population of Australia, especially through immigration (other than refugees) is also a grave error that must be put right. Other concerns include equal access to justice, examining some of our own barbaric customs, lackadaisical attitudes towards the environment and appropriate measures to deal with criminal behaviour (including juvenile crime, on which the system appears to have gone overly soft, being unduly influenced by the sloppy neo-sociologist brigade). But perhaps the foremost domestic concern is the preservation of a society of open-minded, free-thinking individuals (with the emphasis on "thinking" just as much as "free"). Paradoxically, an open mind needs a security grill. And in the present world climate an open society needs a security grill, an alarm system, video surveillance, an electric fence and a pack of rottweilers. A most desirable aim of Central Humanism is to make some small contribution towards the establishment of a global society in which none of these safety measures is necessary.
While humanists are right to distance themselves from the absurdities of classical religion, still they (in particular those of an extreme rationalist disposition) have a great deal of soul-searching to do. If it’s really true that our entire being consists of nothing but a few fleeting moments of consciousness here on Earth, there’s no knowing what perspective on life the machinations of reason might hurl at us. Reason alone does not make a humanist, but it might well create egoists. The mind of every humanist also includes many seemingly irrational strands such as love, compassion and transcendence (in at least some of its manifestations - see #3). How can he justify his reliance on such emotive elements as these in his humanist philosophy? Are they sufficient to see him through his diminutive, sometimes disappointing, frequently theatrical performance on the world's stage? Can reason supply the answers? Or is the belief in immortality a "categorical imperative"?
Humanists should also carefully consider whether humanism is a philosophy only for the relatively intelligent and well educated. The humanist movement embraces not only compassion and concern for the future, but the application of reason and insightful, objective knowledge. These elements are spread quite thinly throughout the globe, particularly in underdeveloped regions. Would a society without education, despotism or religion* simply disintegrate? Can poorly educated people control their lives through a proper understanding of moral issues, or do they have to be told how to behave by some higher authority? If the latter, then Central Humanism (and probably most other kinds of humanism) may be a lost cause - unless it sets universal education as its first priority.
* It is indeed the writer's opinion that religion (along with a lot of related nonsense such as the belief in equality and natural rights) is currently a necessary evil, especially in third world and developing countries, but that education could change this absurd state of affairs. Social responsibilty is apparently not a natural or common human characteristic.
But the possibility of a sound education in third world and developing countries depends on so many other things, all interlinked. Poor parents cannot educate their children, even with massive state assistance, when they have six or more of them! They cannot even feed them properly. So population control comes before education, but population control is only possible with education. Again, when the people suffer from poverty, hunger and disease, when they are living under the axe of a corrupt ineffective government, when they have been besotted by the invasive, anti-life dogmas of catholic, pentecostal and muslim hogwash pedlars, when security is almost non-existent and crime and civil unrest rule, when even the most basic resources such as water are hard to find - what chance in hell is there for education? How can we even begin to think of it as a "priority", in any practical sense of the word?
Most modern-world humanists do not even educate themselves properly. Like the majority of the populace, they ignore all evidence calling for behavioural changes that would upset their comfortable lifestyle - a lifestyle based on traditions that have been shaped in part by religion. For example, they choose to overlook the facts concerning animal production - the deep inroads it makes into the world's water and land resources, its contribution to environmental degradation and global warming and the pointless suffering that mass farming methods impose on animals. The reluctance of many humanists to take on board inconvenient truths is totally at odds with their professed rationalism.
Not that this blindness is at all surprising. The peoples of industrialised societies have long since lost contact with Nature. In days gone by, ordinary people knew when water was scarce because they had to fetch it for themselves. They appreciated the value of energy because they had to chop their own firewood. They did not waste any bread because every grain of wheat was planted by hand. This is a form of education most of us no longer get. Now everything comes off a supermarket shelf or through a cable or a pipe, and god only knows where it came from. Our relationship to Mother Earth has become distant and complicated. We cannot understand our dependence on her - or how we are ravishing her - unless we make a real effort to find out. And, for all the science accompanying the menu, we understand our needs less well than ever before, because the corporate giants of industry inundate us with a huge variety of mysterious packages that probably contain few if any of the essentials of life.
The preservation of our society in its present state of detachment from the Earth is hugely dependent on the supply of a single commodity - oil. It is chiefly because of oil that we have managed to become so remote from Nature. (Another contributer to our condition is money, a near-fictional entity which we tend to substitute for real goods.) However, world oil production is forecast to begin declining quite dramatically in 3-20 years from now (2006) - not so much because the Earth's oil reserves are running out, but because of the complexity and prohibitive cost of the technology needed to extract it from ever more inaccessible places. Viable alternative energy sources still seem to be in the notebook stages of development. Furthermore the technologies which sustain our current isolation from Nature are geared to the use of oil and will require extensive modification to make them compatible with other forms of energy. In view of our unpreparedness for the decline in oil production, one can only envisage economic chaos. The means by which all the nameless bounties of the Earth are transported from source to factory, converted into modern consumer goods and again transported to the cities, will be swept from under our feet, along with the make-believe wealth tied up in shares and superannuation. The only consolation is that the decline in oil use may help to reduce the severity of global warming. Or will it just add one crisis to another?
So what should be the first priority of humanists? Much depends firstly on whether you are an absolute centralist pre-occupied with home affairs, or an altruist with thoughts only for others, or somewhere in between; and secondly whether your concern is predominantly with the reality of the present or the uncertainties of the future. Your position on each of these two scales will determine which adverse consequences you are prepared to accept for the sake of certain good consequences. Who's to say whether there's a right or a wrong position (especially if you're not a consequentialist anyway)? But the more speculative humanist might wish to cast his net further afield than the grinding problems of the third world. We are living on a planet where time is fast running out. Some of the areas in which humanists (including the writer of Central Humanist Hub) traditionally expend most of their energy, such as religious denunciation and the secularisation of education and government, are longterm agendas with largely unknown outcomes (in terms of their real effect on society assuming they are successful). In a sense, by devoting themselves to religious, cerebral and sociological matters, humanists are demonstrating a surprising lack of pragmatism and neglect for their own empiricist ideals. Although promoting humanist ideology as such is a necessary activity, there appear to be more insidious, universal issues that the world needs to deal with first - issues that could very soon affect the lives of all human beings regardless of the present circumstances of their society. Surely these cannot be ignored by humanists. We must wake up to the fact that a rapidly increasing number of activities, particularly those relating to population growth and the way we use basic resources, are turning into moral issues. It's high time we diverted some energy into finding solutions to those problems that present the most immediate threat to our very existence. (We should never loose sight of the fact that today - as yesterday - unrestrained procreation is the greatest social evil. No longer can individuals assume they have a "natural right" to produce more than two offspring during their lifetime.)