What are humanist values?

On Humanist Values ( from pages 32-6)

What is critical for humanists is the sense that there are multiple values, not one, and they are grounded deeply in our humanities. They flow out of human relationships and inform personal lives; subsequently they also help shape social institutions and practices. I believe they are quite widely held. They certainly have long lineages of serious intellectual and religious thought behind them and are not simply ‘western’ but bridge in to many cultures. Above all I think many people live by them.


The humanist search for these universal values is down to earth and practical. Grounded in the everyday bodies of human beings, it has to start with the importance of care, for as the political philosopher Daniel Engster succinctly says: “Caring is at the heart of human existence”. Wherever we find the birth of a new baby, it comes with the requirement of good care: all babies need looking after. But more: as we are hopefully cared for by others, so we learn to care for others. There is a gentle reciprocity in the task of care: just as we will sometimes need care so indeed sometimes we will be required to care for others. And we do this across the life cycle to the final stages of dying. All this can directs us to a much wider sense of care including the care of the environment and ultimately the idea that a good state has a prime function of making sure of the care and ‘security’ of its peoples. Humanism directs us to an ethics of care, a practice of care, the development of a compassionate temperament and the importance of love and kindness in human lives. But it also means grasping its opposites: humanism wants to reduce violence and foster communities of kindness beyond self-interest, markets or nation states. All over the human world people are forced to live with perpetual cruelty, violence, war and hatred that will be reproduced across traumatised generations. Such negative values are inimical to care and bring the potential for the nihilation of the human species. The value of care opens the door to looking after each other: and to ‘love’. A goal of humanism then is harm and violence reduction while creating a Caring, Non-violent- even ‘loving’- Society.


Locked within this philosophy of care comes a second key embodied humanist value: empathy. Again, right from our earliest infant days, we really have to acquire the ability to see the world from the view of others – initially parents, siblings and peers, later many significant others. Many scholars have written about this role taking and empathy. At the heart of this is the value of developing dialogues with others asking about the nature of the communication, of voice, of hidden and silenced voices, and of the importance of the recognition of others. The value of empathy opens this door to dialogue, and ultimately sympathy and compassion. Humanist values here lead us to want to foster an ability to live with the wonder of human differences, to dialogue well and to help shape an Empathic, Dialogic Society.


A third value moves one step further on: care and empathy lead to treating others with dignity and rights. I find it quite shocking that throughout history, as today, it has been possible to banish huge swathes of people as worth nothing – in caste systems, in slavery, as refugees, in class and race ghettos, in wars – condemning them to become excluded, wasted, sometimes genocidal lives. Should all humans be accorded dignity or just a very select privileged few? The humanist stance is of course that all people have the right to dignity. And this introduces the key idea that people also have the rights to human life, raising the value and problems of the universality of rights, the variety of rights (individual and collective i.e. group), their differentiations (civil, religious, intimate), and the international movements that crusade for them. The value of dignity opens the door to a multiplicity of human rights and humanism wants us to foster them as part of a world global culture helping to shape a truly ‘Human’ Society – with human rights and dignity for all people.


Ultimately, the search for grounded values for all people would be incomplete without also recognising the importance of human capabilities, well-being, actualization and flourishing lives for all.The humanist stance is that every human life on this planet should have the opportunity to flourish.   How is it that our world structures have throughout history restricted the opportunities of so many people to lives that are ‘wretched’, ‘damaged’, ’dispossessed’ and lacking in any kind of ‘quality’? Why has the idea that people everywhere should be helped to live flourishing lives not been seen as a human priority throughout the centuries? What are the good traits of humanity, which need to be cherished and valued, and what social conditions will bring this about? Here we find a very long tradition of philosophical thought that highlights telos and human goals, and which asks what is meant by human well-being (sometimes linked to ‘happiness’). What is meant by the good life and the wasted life? What are human capabilities and potentials? And what indeed might be a ‘virtuous’ life? The value of human flourishing opens the door to a multiplicity of human capabilities that need developing? Humanism wants to take seriously what it would mean to have a good life for all and help shape a Flourishing Society.


And finally this in turn leads to a fifth major but interconnected value, perhaps the most widely known and discussed but also the most contested: that of justice. Care, empathy, dignity and human well being seem to me to be basic requirements for treating people humanly. But justice opens wider debates: if we aim to treat people fairly, we need to understand the importance of equalities and inequalities in shaping human lives. It could be that the greatest obscenity of human earth is its vast inequalities that are perpetuated, even exacerbated, across generations. The human world is riddled with raging poverty, competition and stark inequalities across economic, gendered and racialized groups: and these lead to mass damaged and wasted lives. There is nothing new about this although it could just be becoming worse. [vii]So the challenge for humanists is to ask how human freedoms are restricted by intersecting social divisions across class, gender, ethnicity, health, age, sexualities and nationhood[viii]; how we can bring about a society with more social justice, redistribution, equalities and freedom. And this would be for all, not just the elite few. The value of fairness opens the door to justice, equality, freedom and democratisation in relationships. Humanism seeks formal equality (likes must be treated alike) and substantive equality (given, for example, equalities of opportunity). It wants us to foster economic redistribution and interpersonal equality and respect to help shape a Just Society. And as we search for a world of cosmopolitan sexualities it needs always to be along side this search for a just world.

This short listing could never be complete. Very quickly I could add the value of global hope and amelioration: the desire to make the world a better place for all. Humanism, not succumbing to negativism and despair, wants to help shape a Progressive Society, advancing forward to a better world for all. And likewise modern humanism is born of a pragmatism that suggests that the world does not work well with grand rulers and despots, or authoritarian systems of any kind that trample on the human. And the abstract writings theories of political theorists often do not serve everyday people well. They simply do not work for the majority for the people who live ordinary everyday practical lives doing ordinary everyday practical actions. These little actions should be cherished. Humanism identifies practical grounded and practical worlds working with small scale, local, practical, contingent, and endlessly pluralistic practical actions as the locus of human life. I could go on.


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