Jone E. Johnson
Towards an Initial Declaration of a Global Ethic
In late summer of 1993, I was among a delegation of American Ethical Union members who attended the Parliament of the World's Religions. I spent time, as did many of those people, at the "humanist" booth in the exhibit hall--the "spiritual bazaar" as one speaker referred to that place--and I also presented a talk on "Ethics as Religion."
I do want to make clear that not all Ethical Culturists are humanists, and not all humanists are Ethical Culturists. I am one who happens to be both. I was one of those who helped to organize both the humanist presence, and the AEU presence, at the Parliament. One basis for the presence of the AEU was that in 1893, at the first Parliament of the World's Religions, Ethical Culture was a part of the Parliament, and a fair number of speakers at that 1893 Parliament came from Ethical Culture. In fact, in 1893, the American Ethical Union's assembly was scheduled to be held just after the Parliament, so that many of our members could attend.
An estimated 8,000 total people attended the Parliament, representing a wide range of the world's faiths as well as interfaith groups. We were there to communicate, to open dialog, to consider the state of the world and what religion might have to contribute, both to the problems that exist now, and to the solutions that must be found.
In conversations at the Parliament with people of other faiths, I found that many were curious why someone who was a humanist would be there. Their questions on humanism tended to fall, I found, into two main categories:
1. Why bother to be good? Without an authoritative scripture or supernatural being, what is the foundation of ethics?
This question wasn't phrased, as it often is in classical philosophy, as a question about ultimate justice and rewards, but rather as a question about meaning and comfort. In fact, most people phrased it quite personally: "How dare you take away my security! I could not survive life if I didn't think I would survive death!" or "Who are you to take away my hope that I will see my father/mother/spouse/etc. again after death?" That recurring question, while profoundly important to those who asked it, is not, however, my topic in this paper.
The question of ethics, in the center of a Parliament of people of many faiths who were there primarily because of their ethical concern, was quite important. I found that many of the Moslems who were there, and the very few fundamentalist Christians who attended, were especially convinced that all the world's ethical and moral problems are caused by: HUMANISM.
The reasoning goes like this: to a Moslem, humanism puts humans to the front, allowing us to put ourselves above all else (God, Nature, etc.). In this situation, they reason, values and ethics would be purely relative and therefore nonexistent. I realize that not all Moslems believe this, but it is clearly a common "line" in the Moslem community to blame "scientism" and "humanism" for the mess humanity has created.
In answering the question of "Why bother to be good?" we attempted not to argue--for the basic agreement of the Parliament was that we were all there to share our beliefs and faiths but not to convert anyone--but to explain. The answers we gave to the question tended to be, in some form, one of these three:
1. Look at us: we do live moral lives, we put ethics at the center of our "religious" faith and practice. This statement was a big surprise to many, who have listened to humanism's enemies and believed that we are completely without ethics. Many had simply believed that we were anti-ethics.
These conversations proved great learning experiences, for those of us answering and for those questioning. They were true conversations; usually we ended up listening more than we talked. And we found common ground in the fact that all these people thought it so important that a religion must ground its ethics, implying that they, too, recognize that ethics is central. (It is only fair to note that the Parliament drew primarily from the liberal end of the various faiths.)
Ethical humanism cuts out the middleman, if you will. We don't need to argue about whether or not the ethics have been sent from on high, or whether or not there is a deity with a consciousness behind them. We understand the measure of a religion to be the ethics it produces.
David Muzzey in Ethics as Religion describes traditional religions like Christianity as beginning with a creed, moving to a form of worship and liturgy, and then to an ethics. Ethical Culture, Ethical Humanism, turns this around. What is the common ground among ethical humanists is our ethics. Our form of meeting--not only on Sunday morning, but in our more social gatherings, our educational work, our committee meetings--ought, if we are at our best, to enhance our ethical goals. These ought to be ways we live out our ethics. And our belief systems, the individual credos by which each of us live, ought to be regularly reexamined and rethought in light of the ethics to which these lead. We begin with, not end with, the ethical quest.
I believe that religions are human inventions, created for human purposes in response to particular human needs of a particular human group in a particular place. Thus, humans have developed religions quite differently--and the history of religious development that is recorded shows that religions do grow and evolve, to meet changing human needs.
Even if you believe that religion was revealed from a divine source--the reality is that it is real human beings, with all our limitations and creativity, that understand those religions, interpret those religions, and selectively communicate those religions. It comes down to the same thing.
One major purpose of religion as an aspect of human living is to regulate human conduct, to bring some security and order to social life.
Another major purpose is to help individuals find meaning in an often-unjust, often-chaotic universe.
It is well documented that other living creatures have some kind of ethics--by which I mean rules that govern individual behavior in a social setting. For ethics, at the core, is about individuals acting in society with other individuals.
Ethics is action--action in situations in which there are alternate possibilities for action. Ethics is about choices, but not just choices in an intellectual sense. Ethics is not just a habit of thought, but how we actually live out our choices.
We are choice-makers, and cannot avoid making choices. If we do not act, that in itself is an act. We may not ever have infinite choices--but there is in every moment some range of choice.
Further, ethics assumes that our choices matter. We do have an effect on the world around us. The acts of others--and their failure to act, too--will affect our lives, our ability to make good choices and take actions for the good. Our actions and failures to act will affect others, and ourselves. What we do matters in the world and in the larger human community. Every choice opens up some further choices; every choice closes off some other further choices.
To go another step: we have some consciousness about making choices, and out of that consciousness also comes responsibility for making the best choice possible.
Stephen Jay Gould, scientist and author, has written powerful essays on the natural world showing how living creatures act in their lives as if they have these purposes in mind:
preserve the individual who is acting
Gould does not claim that such acts--on the part of viruses, bees and ants, starfish, apes, and others--are always purposeful in the sense that there is intent. In fact, the greatest lesson may be that there is NOT usually intent in making the choices that even non-sentient beings constantly make. And Gould acknowledges that the most selfish of those ethical levels may be the most common--but life could not have existed thus far unless a basic cooperation existed, over and above the individual struggles for survival of self and close relatives.
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, in their new book, In Search of Forgotten Ancestors, also show the many ways in which animals besides humans use what we would call ethical behavior. Close relatives of ours, like the chimps, will sacrifice their own welfare to keep from causing pain and suffering to others, even others who are unrelated.
Human babies, immediately after birth, can be shown to have empathy. When a newborn human baby hears the cry of another baby, she will respond with a similar cry, one that is motivated not by her own needs, but by her identification with the other's needs.
So one answer to "Why bother to be good?" is that we are born with the tendency to do so. Ethics is a natural phenomenon, even though it often doesn't look like it's a common one.
In fact, religion and the ethics that have usually been linked to religion probably evolved in humans to the extent that they have because these helped our ancestors to live more successfully. Ethics may be a gift of the evolutionary process.
Philosophers--David Hume is one--have talked of an "inborn ethical sense" or "moral sensitivity." Others have stressed the logical and rational base, or among those who follow authoritarian religions, the revealed nature or divine instigation of ethics and morality. My own conclusion, based on our parallels with our cousins in the rest of the animal world, is that we do have some kind of inborn capacity for ethics, for sensing something we call "right" from something we name "wrong." We seem to have a sense of "good"--and of its counterpart, "evil."
One distinction in humanist ethics is this: that we don't claim divine authority or authorship. We don't have a scripture that we can agree on as the only and inerrant source of rules of behavior. I once heard a fundamentalist Christian define a humanist as someone who doesn't believe in something, just because it says so in a book or because someone says so. The speaker thought this was pretty strange. Most of us here wouldn't be comfortable any other way!
But now we approach the source of the critique of humanist ethics. Our ethics, our enemies tell us, are "relativistic." I don't use the term "enemies" lightly, by the way; there are those who consider our ideas quite dangerous and worth fighting to destroy. As one gentleman at the Parliament told me, "No one has the right to be wrong." (I found this statement frightening.)
Relativism, or subjectivism, is an important charge against humanism. "Anything goes" if you don't have an authoritative foundation. It just doesn't happen to be accurate.
We humanists disagree among ourselves on how subjective and how objective ethics can be. I happen to think there is an objective reality outside the human mind, and that certain kinds of actions will work better than others in preserving the social order and fostering the ability to function as a human individual of worth and dignity. But we can only know that objective reality through our subjective experience. And so, to say that ethics is subjective is to acknowledge a practical reality--that each person's perception will differ, each person's needs are different, the interests of different individuals will often collide.
But to say that humanist ethics acknowledges the subjectivity of human knowing and human wanting, is not the same as saying "Anything goes." We are interdependent beings, not independent, and that means that complete subjectivity is also an illusion.
I prefer the term "contextual" ethics and not "relativistic" ethics. What we must do, how we must act, depends on the context. There is no rule-based ethic--even those in revealed, authoritative religions--that can be enforced completely and consistently! This is especially true when we acknowledge that we live in a world of ethical imperfection.
A classic case of contextual ethics is this one: A Nazi stormtrooper comes to your front door and asks if you are hiding any Jews. You are. Do you commit the ethical sin of lying, or do you commit the ethical sin of contributing to the doing of harm to a human being? Do you tell the truth, or protect human life?
An ethical person is always asking, "What is there in the context of this decision that helps me choose between conflicting goods, or conflicting bads?" There is no truly pure case in real life where we have perfect knowledge of the consequences of our acts, or where, if we did have such perfect knowledge, we could avoid all bad and do all possible good!
Yet, there are underlying principles and helpful guides to making ethical decisions. It really doesn't matter how you ground them--revealed religion, or evolutionary contextual ethics. We do tend to come to many of the same conclusions. Even when we don't, there is an underlying human principle at work. Take attitudes towards divorce, for instance.
The fact that most religious and legal systems have attempted to address the issue of divorce tells us something quite profound--two things, at least. One is that human beings tend to pair off, making long-term commitments to share lives and, often, raise children. The other is that sometimes these commitments fail to meet the real human needs of one or both members of the pair, or of the rest of the family. Different cultures have attempted to address this issue in different ways--and early in our own Ethical Humanist movement, attitudes towards divorce were fiercely debated.
Even if there are many different "solutions" to this single issue, a culture needs some basic agreement on what the rules are for making and breaking long-term adult intimate family relationships. Not having rules--forcing constant conflict and negotiation when real human behavior surfaces--would inflict far more harm in the long run than having imperfect rules. Which isn't to say we can't work to change rules which fail to preserve human dignity.
A challenge to the modern world is that, as communication and travel become easier, ethical rules--rules developed in different cultures and contexts--will come into conflict more and more. This is why the agreement out of the Parliament of the World's Religions is so important--an acknowledgement that, even though we may disagree on issues like divorce, birth control, and even where ethical codes come from, we can agree on the overarching rules of ethical conduct.
We may still disagree on whether violence, in a particular case, is warranted. But we can agree that violence is not a good thing.
We may still disagree on how urgent the earth's crisis is, and how exactly to solve it--but we can agree that there is an urgency, that we can change our behavior as individuals and as groups now, and that this will be a better world for all its life if we do behave better towards it.
And here is the core of humanist ethics: the preservation, or even more strongly the nurturance, of human dignity and worth.
Even the very important issues around environmental ethics can be seen in terms of human dignity and worth. It's not as simple as spotted owls versus human jobs. First, those jobs have been going away for other reasons, in far greater numbers--reasons of greed and corrupt power. Second, preserving the environment is essential to human life, and spotted owls are like the canaries in the mines--their extinction is not bad because it's aesthetically bad, but because whatever is bad for owls is bad for owls, humans, and other life.
This earth has survived far worse than we humans can inflict on it, and the earth and some life will survive our worst abuses. But the kinds of abuses that are all too common now, including the abuse of overpopulation, may very well make this world intolerant of human life. And as a humanist, I value human life enough to want to preserve earth's environment as a safe place for human beings --in the long run, which may conflict with human interests in the short run.
The core of humanist ethics is to nurture human dignity and worth. Every human being must be treated as a human being of intrinsic worth and dignity. The way that we, as ethical humanists, often phrase this is as follows:Act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby in yourself.
This is Felix Adler's version of an ethical principle found in some form in every human society, often called the Golden Rule. Act so as to elicit the best in others, and thereby in yourself. Every human being is unique, and deserves to have their unique best brought out. When we act in society so as to help this to happen, then we are also most likely to be our own unique best.
We can't expect every other human being to be just like us, although the basic principle of empathy is important to ethics. We can't just do what we'd like others to do for or to us, because each of us is different. Yet we are all human, and there are some commonalities that are as important as our differences.
Instead of a long list of legal rules, humanist ethics has this primary principle.
(Another religious group we spent some time with at the Parliament was the Jains. While they have a metaphysics quite different than our humanist understandings, they too have an ethical-based religion with a core principle from which rules can be derived contextually. For Jains, the basic principle is "Cause no suffering.")
This kind of humanist ethics does not require a God--nor does it require rejection of a God. Neither theism nor atheism is particularly relevant to ethical humanism--not even agnosticism is required! Note how humanistic is that Global Ethic statement I read earlier! There were a number of people from different traditions who stopped by the Humanist display to say that, to them, humanism is the common ground among the religions, adding also the modern scientific world view.
It is, by the way, not an accident that at this meeting of the world's religions, a statement sounding much like ethical humanism might develop. For part of our history is that we began in the period where the world's religions were encountering each other more as equals, less as enemies. Our founder, Felix Adler, was motivated to his vision of a universalist religious alternative in part by his study, in Switzerland when he was training to be a rabbi, of the world's religions. His vision of the "common ground" was central to the founding of Ethical Culture as something not in opposition to the world's religions, but as growing out of the best in all these human attempts to understand the world and live better in it.
Some Specific Humanist Ethics
What are some of these humanist ethics that we talk about? Do we have only a basic principle, one that is often difficult to apply in particular situations? Or can we say more?
One humanist, F.C.S. Wicks, attempted to recast the Ten Commandments (which really aren't Ten in the Hebrew Scriptures, appear twice in somewhat different form, and aren't quite as they are usually recited). He tried to give them a humanist form. Listen, and see what you think:
I. Thou shalt worship all truth, goodness, beauty, as manifest in human life and accept no person in lieu thereof
Although a bit more complicated, here is a summary of "humanist virtues," adapted from secular humanist Paul Kurtz's list in his 1988 book, Forbidden Fruit. (The forbidden fruit in the Jewish and Christian scriptures is, of course, knowledge of good and evil.)
These are all "virtues" or patterns of behavior based on attitudes of thought--and they are all learnable behaviors, all behaviors and patterns and habits that we can cultivate. How can we be good? These are some helpful ways to think about that question, some guidance for setting our own goals on improving our own contribution to a more ethical world.
But back to the question for the day: Why bother to be good?
This is a lot of effort, there are no guarantees any of it will work, and it's often not much fun. When so many other people appear to be acting contrary to these ethical principles, what motivation do we have?
I've answered that we don't need to be motivated by belief or unbelief in deity or an afterlife. Any combination of those might come up with a workable or an unworkable ethics.
I've also answered that it may be human instinct. We appear to have an inborn sense that tells us that right is better than wrong, a sense that often helps us move beyond our narrow, immediate self-interest.
As choice-conscious beings, we have no choice but to make ethical choices. The fact that we are conscious gives us knowledge, but also gives us responsibility.
It is interesting to compare the development of children's moral behavior, and show the parallels to adult behavior. A small child goes through stages putting self over others, then others over self, and finally develops an inner compass that does not require that dad or mom be watching. We learn that we ought to bother to be good. We learn to do without the "why." But this doesn't necessarily help when we're confronted with a situation where learned behavior doesn't exactly apply.
Some would also say that being good is simply self-interest. I find this a difficult position, because the self-interests of different persons will often conflict, and our own inner and outer interests also often conflict. We still must decide which self-interest.
Similarly, simply looking at social goods--like the greatest good for the greatest number--doesn't totally answer the question. It is too easy to for the more powerful to define their individual, short-term good as identical to the good of the many. "If it's good for General Motors, it's good for the country." And if you're one of those whose good is sacrificed for the many, especially when you have little choice, "good" doesn't look so "good."
The concept of the common good helps here--the affirmation that, with this being the only world, without positing an afterlife to achieve justice, the good which is best for individuals is also the best for society, and vice versa. That social good which doesn't bring out the best in individuals isn't really a "common good." And that individual good which sacrifices others to it, is also not a "common good."
We need faith for that kind of "Why bother." We need to learn, and remind ourselves constantly, that we can put off short-term goods in order to achieve long-term goods. We have to learn to derive satisfaction even from the uncertain faith that what we do in this lifetime will have a positive effect many generations later. We may never have certain evidence of that--but the evidence of the reverse may help us ground our faith in confidence.
We can certainly see that the dangerous things we do, and that we see others do, will have negative consequences. The lesson of people like Hitler or Stalin or Pol Pot or Idi Amin isn't just that some people are capable of great evil. The real lesson is this: that one person can have a tremendous effect on the present and future generations. Our impact is not totally under our control--but we can make it more positive or more negative, as we choose to act or fail to act.
The American Indian custom of looking seven generations back and seven generations forward is a way of thinking long-term, of seeing ourselves not merely as individuals but as individuals in an interconnected chain of equally worthy individuals. We have been among the seven cared for by our ancestors, and we will be among the seven generations remembered by our descendants.
We never know for certain that our "bothering" to be good will be worthwhile. We do know that it is often a bother, that often the easy way, the pleasant way, is not the way of good. The cultivation of ethics is something not only for children, but for adults--and cultivation of ethics is what Ethical Culture means. We can get better at ethical living--and we can get worse.
It may be that all our "bothering" to be good has little effect. What we do know is that choosing not to bother will also have an effect. If we live as if our lives do not matter, then the world will not be any better for our having lived. If we live as if our lives do matter, then the world very well may be better. No guarantees, just a good chance.
And that's worth it, given the alternatives. Why bother to be good? Because only by trying will we know if it's worth it.
I suggest that my readers consider answering the question for themselves. Why do you bother? What is it that motivates you to do good, to cultivate an ethical life, to bless the world?
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