Friday, August 31, 2012

Scrutinizing humanism

With the recent discussion of "atheism+" (short version: the atheist movement plus skepticism, feminism, and social justice), one point of contention was that this sounds a lot like humanism.*  Now, there's nothing wrong with having two labels which mean nearly the same thing.  But as a purely academic matter**, we'd all like to know if they are in fact similar and to what degree. Greta Christina has a summary of why they aren't the same thing.

*In this context "humanism" refers specifically to secular humanism and excludes religious humanism.  I'm just following the way that secular humanists most often describe themselves.
**tongue in cheek

There are two common objections to identifying humanism with atheism+. First, humanists are too much on the diplomatic side when many people in atheism+ wish to be more confrontational.  Second, humanists seem concerned with the project of finding secular ways to fulfill the needs usually fulfilled by religion.  Personally, I think both of these objections are based on mischaracterizations of humanist values.  I think people's impressions are distorted by the Harvard Humanist Chaplaincy, which gets a lot of press but isn't that big.  It would be better to refer to the Council for Secular Humanism (CSH) or the American Humanist Association (AHA), who do not seem to express such values.

I'm partial to a third objection: As Greta said:
I would like to point out that humanism is hardly immune to the problems we’ve been talking about here — the problems that Atheism Plus is working to address.

Many humanist groups have a huge diversity problem.
Just because humanists claim to address social justice issues doesn't mean they do it well.  Most anti-feminists fancy themselves to be in favor of gender equality, but at the same time fight against it.  In their view, we've nearly achieved gender equality already, and feminists are just trying to tip the scales against men.  I am not saying that humanists are anti-feminist, I'm saying that when a group purports to be in favor of social justice, we can't take their word for it.  We have to scrutinize them.  This applies to humanists, and it applies to atheism+ too!

To give away my biases, I actively dislike humanism.  It's not so much that I disagree with the principles, it's that I think they are too vague and I disagree with the attitude that leads to such vague principles.  From the CSH:
Secular humanists believe human values should express a commitment to improve human welfare in this world. (Of course, human welfare is understood in the context of our interdependence upon the environment and other living things.) Ethical principles should be evaluated by their consequences for people, not by how well they conform to preconceived ideas of right and wrong.
...
Indeed, say secular humanists, the basic components of effective morality are universally recognized. Paul Kurtz has written of the “common moral decencies”—qualities including integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence, and fairness.
Improving human welfare?  Consequentialist metaethics?  Benevolence?  It's a frustrating mixture of high-minded philosophy and undefined feel-good values.  Note that there's no mention of feminism, ethnic minorities, or any social justice causes at all.  They're in favor of improving human welfare, but how do I know whether they think that includes feminism?

Some of these concerns are put to rest by Ron Lindsay (the head of CFI, CSH's parent organization).  He explicitly mentions several specific causes fought by CFI.
CFI has long been active in supporting LGBT equality, in supporting reproductive rights, in supporting equality for women, in opposing suppression of women and minorities, not just in the US but in other countries, in supporting public schools, in advocating for patient’s rights, including the right to assistance in dying, in fighting restrictions on the teaching of evolution, in opposing religious interference with health care policy, in promoting the use of science in shaping public policy, in safeguarding our rights to free speech, and in protecting the rights of the nonreligious.
Ron Lindsay says these issues are constrained to those where religion or pseudoscience have a big impact, and constrained to what they can do with limited resources.  Good for CFI.  Maybe I am wrong about the humanist community.

If we want to explore a little more common humanist attitudes towards social justice, we can check out humanist publications (which can express views unconstrained by organizational resources).

I propose an experiment.  I will search the CSH website and The Humanist (a magazine put out by AHA) for the word "ethnicity" (or similar), and sample the results at random.  For comparison, I'll try searching the AtheismPlus forum as well, though it may be too young to find anything.  I'm looking for a particular attitude that I think separates a good social justice advocate from someone who just wants to be a social justice advocate.  Namely, I am looking for colorblind ideology, the insistence that you don't see race.  Colorblindness is a way to ignore racial disparities while excusing yourself from any responsibility to fix them.

If the humanist websites mostly express colorblindness, I consider that a strike against them.  If they don't express colorblindness, or explicitly reject it, I would be impressed.

Here I pause.  Does my procedure sound any good?  What's your prediction of the results?

16 comments:

Deralterchemiker said...

“Skepticism, feminism, and social justice; diversity; gender equality; improve(d) human welfare
common moral decencies—qualities including integrity, trustworthiness, benevolence, and fairness; social justice; opposing suppression of women and minorities, not just in the US but in other countries, in supporting public schools, in advocating for patient’s rights, including the right to assistance in dying, in fighting restrictions on the teaching of evolution, in opposing religious interference with health care policy, in promoting the use of science in shaping public policy, in safeguarding our rights to free speech, and in protecting the rights of the nonreligious.” OK, I’ll buy those things.
But you are missing one thing that is extremely important! And it is very obvious, because it is in the first amendment to our Constitution! It is the principle that gives atheists the same rights as anyone else: freedom of religion! If you think about all the problems around the world today, the root cause of most of them is the lack of freedom of religion, and the lack of tolerance for people with different religious beliefs. Freedom of religion is an extremely contentious issue all around the world today, including here in the USA. Grant everyone freedom of religion and most of the world’s problems today will disappear. It was one of the most important safeguards that our founding fathers introduced to protect our democracy, and it was unique to our Constitution. I think you should add freedom of religion to your list.

miller said...

I didn't make a list :P

sz said...

You wrote: "It's a frustrating mixture of high-minded philosophy and undefined feel-good values."

Yeah, but isn't the primary (historical) contribution of humanism to showcase just that? Many religious people equate being ethical to being a good follower of the faith, and have a hard time imagining a basis for morality without it coming from above. Humanism provides a secular ethics. How effectively this compels them to fight for specific social causes is secondary. And even though it may not change any humanist's individual morality, it did improve the perception of atheists by theists, I suppose, as well as contribute to the establishment of 'universal human rights'.

Atheism+ on the other hand provides no ethical basis, even though everything it does is morally motivated. It fights mostly against incorrect, scientifically baseless differentiation of people.

I have my doubts about your experiment. Movements have a reciprocal relation between clarity of purpose and inclusiveness. So you need to think more on what it is you want to measure and how you normalize the results. But fairly comparing old and stiff humanism with young and innocent A+ will be tough.

miller said...

I don't wish to argue against the positive contributions of humanism. There are some things I don't like about humanism, that's all.

"Atheism+ on the other hand provides no ethical basis, even though everything it does is morally motivated."
Do you mean to say that atheism+ does not advocate any particular philosophy of ethics? I do not think this is a weakness.

"I have my doubts about your experiment. Movements have a reciprocal relation between clarity of purpose and inclusiveness. So you need to think more on what it is you want to measure and how you normalize the results. But fairly comparing old and stiff humanism with young and innocent A+ will be tough."
I'm interested in what you think is the problem, but you're being unclear. In any case, I will try to present the results as fairly and accurately as possible, so that you can draw your own conclusions and compare them to mine.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

Do you mean to say that atheism+ does not advocate any particular philosophy of ethics? I do not think this is a weakness.

I think this is a weakness.

Furthermore, I would also argue that the ethical basis of humanism is not objectionably fuzzy. The well-being of human beings seems like an adequate basis for a general theory of ethics. It's hardly complete, but at least it tells us where to look to evaluate specific ethical questions.

We might compare well-being to materialism or physicalism. Saying "everything is physical" doesn't tell us much about physics, but it does tell us where physicists look to evaluate specific physical questions. It also distinguishes physics from dualism and some forms of supernaturalism.

I'm pretty disinterested in movements and intentional groups. I don't find them objectionable, but I personally just don't join groups.

miller said...

Larry, I see what you mean. But in practice I think many meta-ethical philosophies converge on the same behaviors and actions. Or, if they diverge, then it tends to be that the divergence remains even when people agree on the underlying meta-ethics. But I suppose that our meta-ethics guides how we argue out our disagreements.

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

But in practice I think many meta-ethical philosophies converge on the same behaviors and actions. Or, if they diverge, then it tends to be that the divergence remains even when people agree on the underlying meta-ethics.

I would disagree, both practically and philosophically. I think some alternative meta-ethics might pretend to be humanistic, because I think most people are, at heart, humanists, but they want to establish ethical principles that do not maximize human well-being, even broadly conceived.

For example, Libertarians kind of diffidently assert that a Libertarian political philosophy (and politics is a branch of ethics since at least Aristotle), but they are really arguing for a principle of liberty which is good regardless of its effect on aggregate well-being. Even if some policy were to make people materially better off in the aggregate, it would still be wrong if it infringed on liberties.

More importantly, advocates of a non-humanistic religious meta-ethic consider obeying God or getting into heaven to be of a higher ethical value than mere terrestrial well-being.

Since a lot of political/ethical advocates argue dishonestly, it's of value, I think, to make an explicit commitment to humanism central.

sz said...

Do you mean to say that atheism+ does not advocate any particular philosophy of ethics? I do not think this is a weakness.

It's not even about advocating it, but inherently having one. Atheism+ trusts implicitely on individual human morality. It's not a weakness, but it's very post-modern. So atheism+ is more pragmatic and less icky.

I don't want to disregard contributions made by humanists to society, but in the greater picture I simply can't have respect for humanism. It either expresses a trivial self-interest, "We humans are for humanity, yay!", or it's an excuse for people to be sanctimonious twats.

For your experiment, you need to take the total number of articles and participants, and the disparity of focus on issues into account. A single issue movement will score well by one metric, and bad by most others. While a broad movement will not score stellar on any measure, but reasonable on many. Compare gay rights activists with the catholic church for example.

miller said...

The procedure I described cannot even address the question of how much focus various groups place on race. Rather, it addresses the question of when the group discusses race, do they address it correctly or not?

sz said...

But surely the average quality of the occurances of such discussions will depend on the interest/affinity/expertise of its participants with the issue? And the less focus a group has on an issue, the smaller the fraction of the group that participates each instance, with more variety in composition and correctness. So I don't think it will be interesting to extrapolate whatever you find to a qualification of humanism.

But I do think it's interesting and worthwile to address incorrectness in such discussions, in contrast to the explicit good intentions of all participants. Humanism is a good candidate for illustration.

miller said...

Well, sure, how frequently they talk about race will have an effect on what they say when they do talk about race. So what?

I mean, if I did an experiment to determine how many humanists believe in ghosts, and you said, "But maybe they just believe in ghosts because they don't talk about it much, so they aren't educated on the subject," that doesn't change anything! Giving a reason why they might believe in ghosts cannot eliminate the fact that they believe in ghosts.

Dave said...

Humanism has been many things - more recently it has got caught up in the whole a 'religion for non-believers'-thing overly, but there is scope to re-shape it..

Being confrontational? You need to choose those battles carefully, and lots of issues will mean that you end up with religious allies.. Really..

I take my atheism as implying certain positions, but don't exclude from them people starting elsewhere.. Happy to stand with Christian Liberation Theology people on lots of topics, even though I'd root my politics in my atheism..

sz said...

If skeptics would believe in ghosts, it'd be a big deal. If mankind believes in ghosts, it's no bloody surprise. If atheists believe in ghosts (and many do), then what?

sz said...

What I was trying to get at is that beyond stating some nonuniform fact, it will be quite hard to make an interesting qualification about the group.

Unless you don't mind generalization of course, but you had racism in mind, so...

miller said...

As a matter of fact I don't have a problem with generalization. Like most people, I complain about other people's generalizations all the time, and then use them myself when no one is paying attention. :)

sz said...

On these movement issues you are a magician, and you pull fluffy bunnies out of a hat! So I'm not sure paying attention will be enough. :D