By Natural Philosopher Mike Prestwood

Humanism

By Mike Prestwood

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Humanism is one of my core philosophical terms listed in the article My Philosophical Definitions. This article expands on that definition.

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How do you make an ethical decision? It appears to me that some people have no process at all and seem to randomly make decisions based on what they think others on their team want to do, or based on some agenda. Others, I’ve noticed, make better decisions, at least from my viewpoint. I consider myself a Humanist, at least partially.

This article explores the philosophical tradition of Humanism and how it intersects with other similar philosophical traditions, from Chinese Confucianism to African Ubuntu. It is helpful for those who wish to live a better life by examining it. Socrates, the ancient Greek philosopher, is credited with saying,

“The unexamined life is not worth living”

He said this during his trial for impiety and corrupting youth in Athens in 399 BCE.

Humanism argues for equal rights and self development and it has much in common with other philosophies. It is an ethical stance that values people’s worth and dignity, both individually and collectively. It posits that all humans possess inherent worth and that treating individuals and communities with respect and compassion is essential. Humanism rejects dogmatism, superstition, and authoritarianism, instead emphasizing the importance of rational inquiry and scientific knowledge. It strives for human happiness and flourishing, promoting equality, justice, and freedom for all.

We are all cousins

Humans have a tendency to value family over others – their kids over their spouse, their spouse over their parents, their parents over their in-laws, and so on. This tendency isn’t absolute, and many variables can alter the pecking order. Personally, I know for sure that I would put some friends over some cousins.

The mentality of putting family first also extends to well-wishing. I want my family and friends to prosper, as well as those I am familiar with, even distant cousins. When I discovered that Anderson Cooper is my 9th cousin, I felt proud. Such sentiments should be extended to all life on Earth, as we are all cousins. 

We are all descended from the same ancestor. The last universal common ancestor (LUCA) is estimated to have lived approximately 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. It is the organism from which all current life on Earth descended. LUCA is our greatest grandparent. Although no LUCA fossils have been found yet, geneticists can study LUCA by analyzing the genetic information of its descendants. LUCA’s genetic legacy pervades all life on our planet, and studying LUCA serves as a reminder of our intimate connection to the living world around us. As Carl Sagan once said,

“We are all connected to each other biologically, to the Earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically.” –Carl Sagan

The question of how much we should care about our distant relatives is a big one. I ponder this question as it applies to everyone’s everyday life. For example, I am eating my cousin, the celery, right now, and he is delicious. In fact, I regularly consume my other cousins, cows, chickens, and pigs. These are my personal choices. On the other hand, my girlfriend Melissa is a vegetarian, adhering to her ethical stance of not eating anything with a face. She has drawn a clear line for herself. However, when we go out for Mexican food, she does not inquire about the use of lard in the refried beans. The reason is that she finds them irresistible and has allowed herself this exception. To reconcile this with her ethical views, she employs the philosophical position of ignorance being bliss, and that too is a conscious decision on her part. No right nor wrong in these examples, just choices.

Related Terms

Let’s now explore the interconnectedness between Humanism and various philosophical traditions, including care ethics, Chinese Confucianism, Communitarianism, and the Buddhist concepts of Dualism and non-dualism, as well as the ancient philosophy Stoicism, and the African philosophy of Ubuntu. By examining the similarities and differences between these ethical systems and Humanism, we can gain a deeper understanding of the various ways in which humans have sought to understand their place in the world and the pecking order of their lot in life as it relates to others.

Care ethics

Care ethics is a moral theory that emphasizes the significance of interpersonal relationships. It asserts that moral decisions should not be based solely on abstract principles. Moral decisions should be made on the particularities of relationships and the individuals involved. Care ethics emphasizes the role of empathy and compassion, as well as the importance of the unique needs and perspectives of others.

“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.” – Dalai Lama XIV

In a world that often values independence and self-sufficiency, care ethics reminds us of the importance of caring for others and the vital role that relationships play in our lives. It encourages us to prioritize the needs of others, particularly those who are vulnerable or marginalized, and to recognize the value of emotional labor in building strong and supportive communities.

Care ethics emphasizes relationships and compassion, while humanism values individual potential and personal growth. They both emphasize the importance of compassion and empathy towards others. However, care ethics is more focused on the importance of interpersonal relationships and caring for others, while humanism emphasizes individual dignity and the potential for human beings to achieve fulfillment through reason, creativity, and personal growth.

Confucianism

Confucianism is an ancient Chinese ethical system that has had a profound influence on Chinese society. Confucius was a philosopher and politician who lived during the 5th century BCE. His teachings promote the importance of cultivating virtues such as compassion, honesty, and respect for others.

“Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart.” – Confucius

Confucianism stresses the importance of personal and social responsibility, advocating for individuals to strive for self-improvement and social harmony. It holds that individuals should always act with propriety and practice the virtues of benevolence, righteousness, wisdom, and faithfulness. Confucianism also emphasizes the importance of filial piety, or the respect and care for one’s parents and ancestors. As someone interested in genealogy, I empathize with this aspect of Confucianism, as “honoring one’s ancestors” is a significant part of my personal value system.

Overall, Confucianism places a strong emphasis on the value of relationships and human connections. It argues that one’s personal development is intertwined with their relationships with others, and that individuals must strive to cultivate virtues in order to lead a fulfilling life.

Confucianism and Humanism share some similarities, such as the emphasis on the importance of cultivating virtues like compassion and respect for others. However, Confucianism places a greater emphasis on hierarchical social relationships and the importance of fulfilling one’s social roles, whereas Humanism emphasizes individual autonomy and freedom. Additionally, Confucianism is more focused on the cultivation of virtues in the context of family and community, while Humanism emphasizes the importance of individual moral development.

Communitarianism

Communitarianism is an ethical theory that emphasizes the importance of community and collective action in promoting the well-being of individuals. This theory argues that individuals have social responsibilities that go beyond their individual interests, and that they should work together to create a sense of shared purpose and common good.

“It takes a village.” –Hillary Clinton

Communitarianism emphasizes the role of community in shaping the values, beliefs, and behavior of individuals, and it argues that social institutions and norms play a vital role in promoting the well-being of the community as a whole.

“The good society is one that is both good for people and good for communities.” –Amitai Etzioni

Communitarianism is often contrasted with individualism. Individualism emphasizes the autonomy and independence of the individual. Communitarians argue that individualism can lead to social isolation and neglect of the needs of the community. Communitarianism stresses the importance of social connectedness and the interdependence of individuals in promoting the common good.

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” –John F. Kennedy

This ethical theory is often invoked in discussions of social policy and community development, as it provides a framework for thinking about how individuals can work together to create strong and resilient communities.

These concepts are similar to Humanism’s emphasis on the importance of social responsibility. However, Communitarianism emphasizes duties to the community, while Humanism emphasizes individual autonomy and self-realization. Humanism values personal growth, reason, creativity, and individual dignity. Communitarianism emphasizes the importance of fulfilling duties to the community.  These differing perspectives reflect different approaches to moral and ethical frameworks, with Humanism focusing on individual happiness and fulfillment and Communitarianism prioritizing the greater good of society.

Dualism

Dualism in Buddhism refers to the idea that reality can be perceived in terms of binary opposites, such as good and evil, self and other, or form and emptiness. It emphasizes the importance of the yin and yang of things. By recognizing the interconnectedness of all things, we can move beyond the limitations of dualistic thinking and cultivate a more holistic understanding of the world and our place in it.

“I think, therefore I am.” –Descartes

This quote is often seen as an expression of Cartesian dualism, which holds that the mind and body are separate entities. Descartes believed that the mind or soul was immaterial and distinct from the physical body, which he saw as a machine-like object. This separation between mind and body is an example of dualism, and Descartes’ famous quote is often seen as a starting point for discussions about the mind-body problem and the nature of consciousness.

Dualism perceives reality in terms of binary opposites, such as good and evil or self and other. In contrast, Humanism focuses on the potential and goodness of human beings. While dualism emphasizes the separation of self and other, Humanism emphasizes the interconnectedness and interdependence of individuals.

Non-dualism

Now let’s contrast dualism with non-dualism. Non-dualism, also known as Advaita in Hinduism and Buddhism, is a philosophy that emphasizes the unity and interconnectedness of all things. It holds that there is no fundamental separation between self and other or between subject and object. Non-dualism posits that the ultimate reality is beyond duality and that the perception of duality is an illusion. This means that all things are interconnected and that the self is not a separate entity, but rather part of a larger whole.

“The universe is a unity, an organic whole, an inseparable web, woven from a cosmic order and energy that permeates all life and connects all things.” – David Bohm

In non-dualism, the goal of spiritual practice is to realize the non-dual nature of reality and to transcend the illusion of separateness. This realization is said to bring about a state of pure awareness and bliss, known as enlightenment.

Non-dualism and Humanism both emphasize the interconnectedness of all beings, but non-dualism goes further by rejecting the concept of a separate self altogether. Humanism, on the other hand, places a greater emphasis on the value and agency of individual humans, while non-dualism seeks to dissolve the ego and emphasize the unity of all phenomena.

Stoicism

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy that emphasizes the importance of rationality and self-control in achieving personal fulfillment and living a good life. It encourages individuals to focus on the things that are within their control and to accept those that are not. Stoicism also emphasizes the importance of living in accordance with nature and treating others with kindness and respect.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” –Epictetus

On the other hand, humanism emphasizes the importance of individual dignity and the potential for human beings to achieve fulfillment through reason, creativity, and personal growth. It emphasizes the importance of human values and the pursuit of knowledge and understanding as a means of improving the human condition.

While both Stoicism and humanism place a high value on reason and rationality, Stoicism tends to focus more on self-control and acceptance of one’s circumstances, while humanism emphasizes personal growth and the pursuit of knowledge as a means of improving oneself and society.

Ubuntu

Ubuntu is an African philosophy that places a strong emphasis on the interconnectedness of all people. At its core, Ubuntu is about recognizing that our individual well-being is deeply intertwined with the well-being of others, and that our actions and decisions have an impact not just on ourselves, but on the broader community around us.

“A person is a person through other persons; you can’t be human in isolation; you are human only in relationships.” – Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

One of the key principles of Ubuntu is the idea that we are all in this together. This means that we have a shared responsibility to care for one another and to work together to create a better world for everyone. In a Ubuntu world, there would be no billionaires. Ubuntu encourages us to treat others with compassion and respect, recognizing that every person has inherent worth and dignity.

Ultimately, Ubuntu is a powerful reminder of the importance of community and the interconnectedness of all people. It challenges us to see ourselves not as isolated individuals, but as part of a larger human family, and to work together to create a more compassionate, just, and equitable world for everyone.

Both Ubuntu and Humanism emphasize the importance of compassion, respect for others, and the interconnectedness of people. They both view our relationships with others as central to our humanity.

Now let’s wrap this up, humanism values the inherent worth and dignity of individuals and communities, promoting equality, justice, and freedom. The other philosophies mentioned all emphasize the importance of community, compassion, and respect for others, each with their unique philosophical approaches. We are all related, descended from a common ancestor, and as Carl Sagan famously stated, we are all interconnected with the universe. The question of how much we should care about our distant relatives is a personal one, but it is important to recognize our intimate connection with all others and to the living world around us.

By Mike Prestwood
Natural Philosopher

Mike’s throwback title simply means he writes about philosophy, science and history with a focus on exploring boundaries and intersections. While his focus is on our rational ideas about empirical observations, he does enjoy dabbling in the irrational. His exploration of the empirical led him to develop his Idea of Ideas which allows him to understand what is empirical, rational, and irrational as well as to easily understand what is empirically true, rational true, and irrationally false.

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4 Minutes with Mike Prestwood: Weekly Wisdom Builder
May 26, 2024 Edition
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