A humanist perspective on morality

Today Humanists UK releases the last video in its mini series, That’s humanism! The final video explores ‘What makes something right or wrong?’, providing the opportunity to think a little more about the humanist view of morality. 

Humanists don’t believe in any supernatural source of commands or rules for being good. Morality is not something that comes from outside of us, as the gift of an external force. Instead, humanists hold that we need to think for ourselves about what sort of person we want to be, and what are the consequences of our actions. Though every moral choice is different, there is a golden rule – treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Weigh up consequences using reason, experience, empathy, and respect for others.

‘Is there one motto which we should follow our whole life? Surely it is the rule of reciprocity: Don’t do to others what you would not like yourself.’ – Confucius

Luckily most of us do this most of the time without really thinking about it. Humans have developed over tens of thousands of years the skills of cooperation, affection, and all the basic behaviours needed to live in groups and thrive. As Dr Oliver Scott Curry demonstrated in our 2021 Darwin Day Lecture, morality is deeply rooted in human nature, part of our evolutionary heritage.

Of course, social instincts are not the end of the story. And the admission of individual responsibility does not mean that a humanist has no resources outside their own individual self to work with. We’re lucky that over the last few thousand years, a lot of people have thought extremely hard about these questions – and their wisdom comes down to us. 

One of the best ways to develop empathy and with that a deeper sense of how your actions affect others, is to read stories. Whether historical or fictional, stories enable us to experience different lives and consider what we would do in the position of others.

‘A picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment… Art is the nearest thing to life; it is a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow men beyond the grounds of our personal lot.’ – George Eliot

Ultimately the humanist view of morality is incredibly empowering. It means asserting that human beings have it within us to work out what is the right and wrong thing to do – using reason, empathy, compassion, and respect for the dignity of every person.  Ideas of freedom, justice, equality, and fairness, are values that we can be proud of as human inventions as we strive to live up to them.

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