The Ethics of Humanism: Without Religion. (Editorial)

By Kurtz, Paul | Free Inquiry, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Ethics of Humanism: Without Religion. (Editorial)

Kurtz, Paul, Free Inquiry

The question is constantly asked: What is the ethics of humanism? Can a society or person be moral without religion? Yes, indeed, affirm secular humanists. Morality is deeply rooted in the "common moral decencies" (these relate to moral behavior in society) and the "ethical excellences" (as they apply to a person's own life).


The common moral decencies are widely shared. They are essential to the survival of any human community. Meaningful coexistence cannot occur if they are consistently flouted. Handed down through countless generations, they are recognized throughout the world by friends and relatives, colleagues and coworkers, the native-born and immigrant, as basic rules of social intercourse. They are the foundation of moral education and are taught in the family and the schools. They express the elementary virtues of courtesy, politeness, and empathy so essential for living together; indeed, they are the very basis of civilized life itself. The common moral decencies are transcultural in their range and have their roots in generic human needs. They no doubt grow out of the long evolutionary struggle for survival and may even have some sociobiological basis, though they may be lacking in some individuals or societies since their emergence depends upon certain preconditions of moral and social development. Here is a list of s ome of the decencies:

First are the moral decencies that involve personal integrity, that is, telling the truth, not lying or being deceitful; being sincere, candid, frank, and free of hypocrisy; keeping one's promises, honoring pledges, living up to agreements; and being honest, avoiding fraud or skullduggery.

Second is trustworthiness. We manifest loyalty to our relatives, friends, and coworkers, and we should be dependable, someone they can count on, reliable, and responsible.

Third are the decencies of benevolence, which involve manifesting goodwill and noble intentions toward other human beings and having a positive concern for them. It means the lack of malice (nonmalfeasance), avoiding doing harm to other persons or their property: We should not kill or rob; inflict physical violence or injury; or be cruel, abusive, or vengeful. In the sexual domain it means that we should not force our sexual passions on others and should seek mutual consent between adults. It means that we have an obligation to be beneficent; that is, kind, sympathetic, compassionate. We should lend a helping hand to those in distress and try to decrease their pain and suffering and contribute positively to their welfare.

Fourth is the principle of fairness. We should show gratitude and appreciation for those who are deserving of it. A civilized community will hold people accountable for their deeds, insisting that those who wrong others do not go completely unpunished and perhaps must make reparations to the aggrieved. This also involves the principle of justice and equality in society. Tolerance is also a basic moral decency: We should allow other individuals the right to their beliefs, values, and styles of life, even though they may differ from our own. We may not agree with them, but each individual is entitled to his convictions as long as he does not harm others or prevent them from exercising their rights. We should try to cooperate with others, seeking to negotiate differences peacefully without resorting to hatred or violence.

These common moral decencies express general principles and rules. Though individuals or nations may deviate from practicing them, they nonetheless provide general parameters by which to guide our conduct. They are not absolute and may at times conflict; we may have to establish priorities between them. They need not be divinely ordained to have moral force, for they are tested in the last analysis by their consequences in practice. Morally developed human beings accept these principles and attempt to live by them because they understand that some personal moral sacrifices may be necessary to avoid conflict in living and working together. …

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