Much of humanist morality is based on our common human heritage of living in communities. Humanists respect the Golden Rule and value generosity, bravery and honesty. Most religious people share these values.
But there are some points on which humanists differ sharply from the religious. Many religious people feel themselves to have duties to god. They feel obliged to perform certain rituals, such as daily prayers, and to preserve their ritual purity by refraining from eating certain foods, touching certain people or wearing certain kinds of clothing. Humanists do not recognize any such duties and will make their own decisions on taking part in rituals, such as the minute’s silence on Remembrance Day, or eating pork.
Though many religious people are far from compulsive about rituals and ritual purity there are some, amongst them many of the most vocal, who put these duties ahead of the values they share with Humanists and people of other religions.
Humanists focus on results not rules
Humanists judge decisions by their results. For many religious people morality is about following god-given rules: Pray five times each day. Be faithful to one wife. Humanists reject this ‘compliance-based’ model of morality.
Because they care about consequences humanists have to put effort into identifying the likely consequences of decisions. Further, humanists, like most people, value many things: Safety, comfort, pleasure, excitement, love. They recognize that moral decisions must often be compromises. In short humanist morality reflects the complexities of the human condition. Every thinking person would like to find a magic formula that would resolve every moral problem. Humanists know that, in morals as in science, there is no magic formula and accept the need to think through every situation.
Humanist morality derives from four distinctive principles
In deciding moral questions humanists rely on four principles: They are materialism, benevolence, liberty and egalitarianism.
Of course, being materialists, Humanists don’t have to consider the impacts of their actions on fairies, gods, ghosts or other immaterial entities. Equally, as materialists, they cannot simply dismiss the interests of non-human animals or the need to preserve the environment that sustains us all.
As materialists they:
· Value the pleasures provided by their bodies, including sex. They support all non-exploitative forms of sex. They recognize that people have different, innate sexual preferences so that no one sexual lifestyle is right for everyone.
· Recognise that some transient pleasures can have long-term costs, not least in health. They encourage people to show consideration for the welfare of their sexual partners.
· Support women’s right to choose abortion since they do not confuse actual and potential human personalities.
Humanists seek the welfare of other people. They:
· Understand ‘welfare’ to include both physical and psychological aspects.
· Consider the impacts of their decisions on everyone who may be affected, near and far, women and men, whether sharing their values or not.
· Favour public policies that protect the poor, sick and oppressed.
They believe that people (well, adults of sound mind) should be free to make their own decisions provided that they don’t hurt others. Therefore they
· Recognize the right of people to make their own decisions. They don’t believe that they should always do what their parents, managers or clergy tell them to. They support freedom of speech, publication and assembly, and the freedom to change one’s religion.
· Accept the right of people in great pain or distress to end their lives. They support laws that enable doctors to assist those who cannot end their lives without assistance.
· Recognise the right of people to choose their sexual partners, of either sex. They defend the right of homosexuals to sexual pleasure and family life.
Humanists believe that everyone has equal rights.
· They recognize the rights of others and respect their autonomy.
· They judge people by their abilities and behaviour, not their sex, race or religion.
· They believe that opportunities should be open to all on equal terms.
See also this article on “Living in a secular Society”
by Margaret Nelson of Suffolk Humanists:
what I said about secularism at another forum.