Humanism and morality

Defining non-religious rules about ethics and morality is an issue of major concern for humanists and atheists. This is partly due to a common religious conception that those without religion may be somehow lacking in morality or have no ethical foundation. When defining what they believe in, humanists have produced statements of their beliefs and purposes which often include expressions of support for things such as human rights, democracy, liberty, social responsibility, scientific method and the need to provide an alternative to religion. Perhaps among the most authoritative of these statements have been the International Humanist and Ethical Union’s resolution concerning humanist principles as expressed in its Amsterdam Declaration 2000, and the American Humanist Association's Humanist Manifesto III of 2003.

A motivation for these statements is a need to identify fundamental principles that may be used by humanists in a general way as an alternative to religious belief to assist moral decision making. A concise and effective statement of universal ethical values would be of advantage not only to humanists but to all humanity. An attempt is made here to suggest a possible way in which this may be done. This draws not only on humanist values as published, but also on some relevant insights in contemporary ethical and moral philosophy.

Moral theory and principles

Most people are familiar with a "common sense morality", based on norms such as "treat others as you would like to be treated", "keep your promises", "be fair" and "do your best". Along with these common sense guides to behaviour, there are also values that are generally held to be "good": happiness, honesty, justice, charity, courage, integrity, community, love, knowledge and freedom. Most people are familiar with these ideals, which do not depend on any religion, but "common sense" principles of morality may be insufficient when considering complex situations . Philosophers have used these ideals to develop moral theories to help guide behaviour and have postulated ethical standards and principles based on them.

Historically, some of the most prominent of these moral theories are, divine command theory, utilitarianism and  natural rights theory. Divine command theory holds that morality should be based on God’s commands. This is the morality derived from religious texts, and is the major form of morality provided by the world’s religions. Utilitarianism holds that morality should be guided by "the greatest good for the greatest number", meaning that utility or happiness for all should be maximized. The natural rights theory holds that all individuals have natural rights to life liberty and property, which should only be limited by the need not to violate the rights of other people. It has sometimes also been assumed that such natural rights have a religious foundation. There are also many other theories using different rules or methods to specify ethical human behaviour and obligations. None of these has gained universal acceptance.

The failure of any predominant theory to emerge is because in practice it may be difficult to rely on any one theory in all situations. Some flexibility may be needed in applying different theories at different times or in combination. Rather than specifying a theory and then trying to apply it in all cases, a better alternative may be to attempt to specify a comprehensive set of basic principles, that may universally be regarded as having general moral value. A moral decision making process may then be defined as an attempt to optimally implement a balance of these principles in given circumstances. The problem then becomes initially one of defining what principles that are "good" for this purpose. The approach of defining principles was described by W.D.Ross, "The Right and the Good", OUP, 1932. He suggested that moral issues could be understood as conflicts between certain duties, which could be expressed as 'prima facie' principles, but which are not absolute rules. Field says these may be described as "moral presumptions", to be followed unless there is a justifiable reason not to. If any circumstance arises where one principle is not observed, then this exception must be justified by the overriding need to fulfil a different principle.

A basic set of eight such principles, together with brief annotations, has been suggested by Resnik:

Non-malificence: Do not harm yourself or other people.
Beneficence: Help yourself and other people.
Autonomy: Allow rational individuals to make free and informed choices.
Justice: Treat people fairly: treat equals equally, unequals unequally.
Utility: Maximize the ratio of benefits to harms for all people.
Fidelity: Keep your promises and agreements
Honesty: Do not lie, defraud, deceive or mislead.
Privacy: Respect personal privacy and confidentiality.
While the meaning of words such as "harm", "benefit", fairness", "rational", and "deception" may be debated, it can be seen from this list that it is indeed possible to postulate a reasonably comprehensive list of principles that may form a useful guide to a general moral system. The list incorporates many principles that are common to all cultures. It may accord in part with certain religiously inspired principles but does not rely on them. The principles are not absolute rules but guidelines to be used in conjunction with each other. There may be conflicts between them. For example it is generally presumed that honesty is good, but there may be circumstances where it is not, for example if honesty would assist a person with known and immediate malevolent intentions. When faced with an ethical dilemma, it is suggested that after gathering information and exploring different options, a balanced decision could then be made by evaluating the options in relation to these principles. This procedure is known as "moral reasoning" leading to a state of "reflective equilibrium", or balanced judgement.

The advantage of using a such a set of principles is that they are easier to understand, teach, and learn than moral theories. The simplicity of the framework is illustrated by the fact that the range of principles can be encapsulated in just eight key words. But why should these principles be universally regarded as good, (at least as general but not absolute rules) and what is their motivation? To examine this we can apply to them the "golden rule" test, which is not dissimilar to Immanuel Kant's idea that ideal moral principles should be ones that everyone could consistently adopt. Would you like others to behave towards you with non-malificence, beneficence, fidelity and honesty, allowing you autonomy, justice, and privacy? Of course, because no-one wants to be harmed, neglected, betrayed, lied to, suppressed, cheated or invaded. By this means, it is reasonable to accept them as universal objective principles. This does not imply that the interpretation and application of them may not remain partly subjective.

The list of eight principles has broad scope and incorporates in part some of the prior moral theories such as natural rights (autonomy) and utilitarianism (utility). Utilitarianism has been criticized because of the difficulty in comparing the utility of one person with that of another. Many questions of morality or practical policy affect a balance of interests of more than one individual. If one person may benefit but another may lose, it may be impossible to make a decision based on the notional combined utility of both individuals. In this situation "preference utilitarianism" has been proposed, where an action is considered desirable if it satisfies the preferences of some but does not frustrate the preferences of others (economists may recall "Pareto optimality") . However this particular ethical theory, and others like may be difficult to apply, or may not be relevant, in all circumstances. Rather than an all encompassing theory, it is thus preferable to use utility it in the form of a principle, as a matter of judgement, in conjunction with other principles. This judgement should be exercised in the light of all available knowledge. Similarly, theories that centre on individual autonomy, some of which seek to derive ethics from this principle in a all encompassing manner (e.g. Ayn Rand philosophy), benefit from being seen in a wider context, in which all principles are considered, in balanced judgement.

The concept of utility as a moral principle is broad. It may include anything useful or beneficial to human welfare. This can mean happiness, love, and knowledge as well as material well-being. It is a principle that is of relevance not only in inter-personal morality. The aim and purpose of all legislation and government economic policy can be seen as a form of utilitarianism, as being motivated by a concern for community utility, by a need to maximize community welfare. When considering the material welfare of the community in particular, the information provided as a result of impartial economic analysis may provide a useful guide. While the notion of economics being associated with morality may disconcert some people, much of economic theory is also devoted to the maximization of utility, paying due regard to autonomy as exercised in market choice. The implication of this is that the moral reasoning approach may apply between individuals, between an individual and a society, and also in defining the obligations of society towards individuals. The inclusion of autonomy and utility as principles enables the set of principles to be applicable to the moral process of either individuals, groups, organizations or government. It comprises a set with potentially universal applicability.

The notion of autonomy, of individual human rights, is most famously defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As stated, the exercise of these rights and freedoms may be limited only "for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in democratic society" (Article 29). This implies that there is to be a balance between individual rights and public welfare, i.e. between autonomy and utility and also that morality is an element of this process. Thus, the balancing of the competing objectives of these principles is implicit in much public policy decision making, and can also be observed at work in international documents of the highest importance.

The application of the many of the other principles is perhaps more obvious at the individual level, in the context of inter-personal morality. The issue of abortion for example, may be considered as one in which the competing interests represented by the principles of non-malificence, beneficence and autonomy with regard to the mother and foetus are some of the issues that must be weighed and balanced. Thus we already employ an implicit moral reasoning. Expressing it in the form of a range of principles simply makes it more explicit.

An advantage of this approach is that it does not attempt the impossible task of defining absolute rules applicable in all situations. It merely defines a decision making process based on certain moral principles. It does however have practical benefits in application. While morally deviant behaviour, wilful or inadvertent, will always occur, the principles provide a universal reference for its evaluation. Bad behaviour may involve denial or neglect of a principle, or inappropriate emphasis on one principle. If someone accepts the principles but then maintains there is some extraneous rule, such as a higher religious imperative, then they need to accept that this cannot be justified in terms of universal principles. Most people seek to adopt a moral position in some way, but may fail in this process because they are unaware or have overlooked or disregarded issues and principles that are relevant and necessary.

Religion and morality

How the various moral principles are finally weighed may contain an element of subjective judgement, but is based on objective reasoning. Many moral decisions involve an implicit balance of judgement between competing objectives. Decisions may be a matter of judgement as to the implicit relative weights applied to the competing objective principles. People may differ on the implicit weights applied, that is, the emphasis applied to relevant principles, but the advantage is that the nature of their reasoning is open, apparent and explicit. This is not so in the case of religious morality, where something may be believed to be bad merely because the Pope or the Koran says it is bad. Such a process, by comparison, is closed and rigid and may result in the complete denial of certain moral principles, possibly without this denial being apparent. It is of relevance then to evaluate religious morality in comparison with this proposed form of universal morality.

In this context, a fundamental flaw in the application of religious morality is that it cannot be universal, as different religions define different laws of morality. Another problem is a difficulty that is apparent in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, which defines freedom "of thought, conscience and religion". There is an inherent contradiction here, because religions may serve to limit freedom of thought and conscience. Freedom of religion implies the freedom of religious morality. However this cannot be universal, contradicting the universality of the Declaration. A statement of a moral system based on universal principles may assist in resolving these difficulties. The human rights requirement for religious freedom is intended to advance the noble cause of religious tolerance. But unlimited religious tolerance involves an additional contradiction. It implies tolerance of religious beliefs that may not themselves be tolerant. All these problems may be generally described as problems associated with moral relativism – the idea or implication that no universal morality is possible or desirable. Before suggesting what form a solution to these problems may take, it is worthwhile to consider some further difficulties religious beliefs face in comparison with the explicit objective moral principles outlined.

In relation to moral justice, people should be treated equally. However some religions clearly violate this principle because they do not treat women equally. Like many religions, Islam, considers women inferior to men (Koran 4:34). In relation to utility it is evident, despite their charitable features, that religions in general have not always been beneficial to human welfare. Apart from motivating countless wars, social strife and acts of violence, it may be argued that religions in past centuries held back the development of science and technology and hence economic welfare and prosperity. It may be said that in many Islamic countries in particular, this effect still persists. Religions may thus also be held to be in violation of the principles of utility, non-malificence and beneficence. However it is in relation to personal autonomy and honesty that religious ideology has the most serious apparent problems.

It could be argued that the very basis of the survival of religions is their denial of freedom of thought. In contrast to "freethinkers", religious believers are effectively denied this autonomy or induced to surrender it. Children are indoctrinated. Doubt is discouraged by threats of eternal damnation. Thought is constrained according what is deemed permissible in sacred books. This is no more apparent than in Islam where in almost its very first line, the Koran indicates "This book is not to be doubted" (Koran 2:1). Religions do not allow freedom of choice regarding religious belief. This is no more explicit than in Islam, "He that chooses a religion other than Islam, it will not be accepted of him." (Koran 3:85), a sanction that which may be enforced on pain of death. This is in spite of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration, which states that everyone has the right, the autonomy, to change their religion.

Religions have further difficult problems when evaluated in reference to the most important universal principle of honesty. An essential ingredient of most religions, are claims regarding the existence of supernatural beings and events. These claims are beliefs based on faith rather than knowledge, that is, they lack an essential element of epistemological validity - proof. The evidence for supernatural claims may be said to reside in sacred books, but the claims are not independently substantiated by what is otherwise elsewhere regarded as evidence. When those people expounding the doctrines of religions refer to these claims as "truth", it is difficult to understand how they are not guilty of at best, intellectual dishonesty. Individual believers of course, cannot be blamed for stating what they genuinely believe to be true. However those in positions of religious authority bear this responsibility. At best, what they espouse relies on  a reversal of the usual onus of proof. At worst, it amounts to blatant deception. In areas other than religion, legislation often protects consumers from unfounded product claims and dishonesty in advertising. Unfounded religious claims are really no more than speculation, used to induce belief. Yet Christian evangelists for example, particularly in the USA, are able to use what would otherwise be regarded as deception to great personal advantage.

Religious leaders also knowingly make claims of truth that contradict other opposing religious claims of truth. No honest attention is paid to the reconciliation of such contradictory claims, perhaps because the leaders themselves realize that such reconciliation is not logically possible. While purveying speculative claims as truth may be excused as intellectual dishonesty,  purveying as truth matters that are in direct contradiction to known scientific fact, such as creation myths, cannot.  In summary, measured against some universal moral principles, religions appear to be in material breach of the universal morality that they often proudly but misguidedly claim to represent.

A humanist alternative

The most unfortunate consequence of the current predominance of the religious world view is that it causes a massive diversion away from universal values that, if respected, would have real benefit to humanity. While proclaiming morality in absolute terms, the various religions in effect give rise to the moral relativism that they claim to oppose. While each religion may mistakenly assume its own moral code to be universal, tolerance requires respect for the moral codes of others, the result of which is a malaise of religious moral relativism. This, combined with the divisiveness of religious ideologies and the "chosen people" mentality, may be seen as contributing to a range of dire world problems such as endemic poverty, trade and income inequality, terrorism and unilateralism.

Most believers are captivated by their religious ideologies because they have been taught, and they believe, that there is no better alternative. They believe, or wish to believe, that their compliance with the requirements of their religion is the only course open to them. It could be of great service if an authoritative statement of universal moral values could be offered as an alternative. Such a statement would implicitly generally coincide with a statement of humanist moral values or with a statement of humanist moral decision making procedures. One of the motivations that humanist organizations have had in providing the existing statements of humanist values has presumably been a hope or an intention that such statements could be universally accepted. A task of attempting to express a statement of a universal moral code is something that may only be accomplished from a humanist perspective.

The set of eight moral principles listed here has been put forward recently by an ethicist in the context of an introduction to a study in professional ethics. The potential of a set of principles such as these in providing a comprehensive description of all aspects of moral problems, and their use in a moral reasoning process, has perhaps not yet been realized. Within the constraint implied by possible contradictions between principles, each principle may be regarded as one that everyone could consistently adopt. In that sense, they may be described as universal principles. If the principles are sufficiently comprehensive, there may be no moral issue that cannot be described in terms of application of a principle or reasoned judgement involving a choice or a balance between principles. The list appears to be sufficiently comprehensive. If this is true then the method of using the principles may be said to have universal application. By reference to common examples, it may be shown that the principles are implicitly already in operation throughout the range of human activity, from personal issues to international relations. It may then be suggested that the field of application for the use of the method has universal scope. Thus it would appear that the current set of principles may be useful in proposing a general statement of universal ethical values.

If a formal statement of these principles and their method of use could be devised, what shape would it take and what would it define? The intention would be to provide a universal statement of guidelines for moral decision making. If these guidelines are an expression of a universal method of moral practice, then by implication, all individuals should consider it an obligation to act in accordance with the guidelines. Thus what may be defined by such a statement may be described as universal obligations. While most people are accustomed to the idea of universal rights, they are perhaps less reluctant to accept the idea of universal obligations. Rights are free whereas obligations imply costs. But one person's right is another's obligation - they are two sides of the one coin. If a universal ethical method is to be contemplated, the concept of universal obligations is a necessary corollary. It is reasonable then, that a statement of universal values should be expressed in terms of a statement of obligations.

Regarding universal rights, we are familiar with the concept of the declaration of such rights. Similarly, a statement of universal obligations could be expressed in the form of a declaration, however that would presuppose the existence and agreement of a body with authority and inclination to make such a declaration. While such an eventuality is not impossible, in the meantime any attempt to formalize universal moral obligations along the lines suggested may best simply take the form of a statement. Sceptics may doubt what any possible formal statement of universal values may hope to achieve. In response it could be said that the provision of a formal statement fulfils a need. It would be helpful if the non-religious could point to a reference that indicates they require no religion in order to practice their morality. It would provide a demonstration to the religious that their beliefs not only do not provide a universal standard of morality but are inconsistent with one.

In terms of the style of the document there is perhaps no better example that may be followed than that of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The form it could take would be a short document of two pages or less, in an authoritatively legalistic but readable format, consisting of a preamble that describes the general nature and purpose of the document, with particular details set out in subsequent numbered Articles. Accordingly, a draft of a Universal Statement of Moral Obligations has been prepared along the lines described here. The primary purpose of this is to demonstrate the feasibility of creating such a document. It is hoped that others may see the value of this task and offer suggestions, improvements or alternatives. The existence of such a statement issues a challenge to detractors to state what they regard as faults and inadequacies of the document. As with the Universal Declaration, the fulfilment of its requirements may fall lamentably short of the ideal. However the statement may, in a similar manner, provide a valuable reference as to what we may aspire to.

The current statement has been drafted in such a way as to gain widest acceptance. It is worth emphasizing that this does not attempt to define specific moral rules, but outlines general principals and a universal method of applying them to moral questions. However several Articles do attempt to resolve the serious problem within the Universal Declaration of the contradiction that may arise between freedoms of thought and of religion.  In this regard it states that precedence should be given to freedom of thought.

Religions assume a prominent but unwarranted role in the perception of most societies as being arbiters and custodians of morality.  It could be hoped that by providing a concrete, viable and visible guide to a humanistic moral process, an alternative may be provided to the established moral authority assumed by organized religions.  This presumption of authority by religion in moral matters does not serve the best interests of humanity.

Resnik, David B., "The Ethics of Science: An Introduction". Routledge, New York 1998.
See also
Fox R M, & J P DeMarco "Moral Reasoning" Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Chicago, 1990
which is referred to by Resnik in the context of his proposed set of principles. Some relevant references available on line are:
Richard Field: A Practical Guide to Ethical Theory
Victor A Gunasekara: The Philosophical Basis of Humanist Ethics
David Resnik: Some Definitions of Key Ethics Concepts

This paper has been revised with regard to many helpful critical comments provided by members of the Council of Australian Humanists email discussion group. An earlier version of this paper was published in the Australian Humanist, No.69, Autumn 2003.
Updated January 2004. Please direct further comments to John L Perkins
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