Ethics is not simply a matter of what we do. It also compels us to think before we act. Nor can we act morally simply by appealing to what others think, because they may be wrong. As Socrates, the founder of moral philosophy, realised, moral thinking arises when we pass beyond the stage of being directed by traditional rules and begin instead to think for ourselves in critical terms. We have to think out our principles in the light of which we make our decisions. A key word is autonomy, which here means acting as independent moral agents.
Unfortunately, only a minority of people ever seem to reach this stage. A common classification of cognitive moral development is the preconventional, conventional and post‑conventional. Most people rarely proceed beyond the conventional stage, and this fact will be especially true in very traditional and conservative societies where there is likely to be a large measure of consensus on what is right and wrong and where there is little exposure to alternative viewpoints. In a society like Northern Ireland there is no shortage of authoritarian figures ‑ priests, teachers, youth leaders, politicians ‑ telling others how they should think. This conformism is particularly prevalent in religious societies, for religion has always been the greatest foe of free thought.
The main agent of change has to be education. If morality has to be learned, then the young have to be led along the path to autonomy. So far, education has failed in this task, and it will continue to fail until at the very least there is integrated schooling and moral education becomes a subject in its own right, freed from the constraints of RE.
2. Respect Truth and Reason
The world's ills are not simply the result of human wickedness; they are also due to ignorance, stupidity, and misunderstandings. Knowledge and intelligence are therefore of crucial importance in any advanced code of ethics. We may not logically be able to derive 'ought' from 'is', but our nature and our needs require that we use knowledge to enhance the good life. 'Knowledge itself is power', noted Francis Bacon, and whether it is the medical discoveries that assist us in curing disease, the technological advances that improve our material
welfare, or the psychological and sociological insights that enable us to make people happier and more fulfilled, knowledge clearly enriches human life. It is a primary means to achieving mental and physical health. Moreover, the search for truth is itself a good and the joy of discovery can be one of our greatest pleasures.
The philosopher David Hume suggested that "'tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger". But reason does play a crucial role in ethics as well as in the acquisition of knowledge. It is by our reason that we acquire the ability to sympathise with another's situation because we have to think out what it would be like to him or her in that situation. To empathise with others is to use our reason.
The role of empathy explains the importance which Humanists place on the Golden Rule of human behaviour. This principle is older than Christianity and is found, for example, in the Sutra Kritanga (circ. 550BC) and in Confucius: "Do not do to others what you would not like for yourself".
Reason in ethics also means taking into consideration all our relevant desires and not just the desire that happens to be strongest at the moment. In other words, it involves us thinking about the consequences of our actions. Thus, as Bertrand Russell put it, "a man is rational in proportion as his intelligence informs and controls his desires" (Can Men Be Rational?). It is also in this sense that Leonard Woolf spoke when he remarked: "fhe sordid and savage story of history has been written by man's irrationality, and the thin precarious crust of civilisation which has from time to time been built over the bloody mess has always been built by reason" (BBC broadcast, 1949).
3. Be Sceptical, Yet Open-Minded
Much harm in the world results from, ideas, whether religious or secular, which are held dogmatically and imposed on whole communities. Humanists are naturally critical of religious ideologies, such as Catholicism or Protestant fundamentalism. But we are also critical of most political ideologies. This does not mean that we reject them all, but it does mean that we subject them to the severest critical scrutiny. It also means that we believe facile certainties are mistaken and dangerous, however secure they make their supporters feel in their own minds. From our more sceptical perspective, we think that there are no final solutions, that societies will always have problems, that life cannot be neatly wrapped up, and that knowledge is always expanding. We believe that people have no need to feel unhappy or insecure about a state of scepticism and doubt and that the world would be a better place if more people were, in the words of Francis Bacon, 'committed to uncertainty'.
4. Respect Values
Values are of crucial importance to Humanists. We believe in the fullest realisation of the best and nobles that we are capable of as human beings. We value reason and science, human intelligence, justice and fairness, altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, freedom and responsibility. Humanists also prefer to stress the positive side of our natures: optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of bigotry and fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, and so on.
Being a Humanist means BELIEVING IN HUMANE VALUES. It means, for example, supporting the rights of women and the rights of minorities such as Blacks or Gays. The following parts of the code outline some of these humane values.
5. Respect Life
Humanists n‑tight not go as far as Albert Schweitzer who advocated a total reverence for all life, including insects and plants as well as humans and other animals. We would, however, argue that ‑ apart from special cases like self‑defence or war ‑ it is wrong to kill human beings irrespective of their race, religion, class or nationality. Even in those exceptional cases where killing may be justified, we should not kill unless there are no other alternatives or the alternatives have been full explored. It may be necessary to kill in order to avoid greater killing. But even in war the means should be just. The actual killing should not be disproportionate to the goal; serious attempts should be made to avoid civilian deaths; aggression should be directed towards its true object and not at the harmless; and the use of cruel weapons or weapons of mass destruction should be avoided.
Some, but not all, Humanists accept a hierarchy of rights to life. They argue that the more autonomous, self-aware and conscious the being, the greater its right to life. This would mean that human beings in general have more right to life than other animals but that there is also a hierarchy of rights in the animal world itself. Other Humanists are convinced of the equality of all animals. We would certainly all agree that we should avoid inflicting suffering on other species.
6. Be Open and Honest
Respect for others entails that we do not deceive, abuse exploit them. Personal relationships should be based on trust, and this can only be secure if we are open rather than secretive and honest instead of deceitful. This honesty applies to opinion. While Humanists want to create a good impression, it would be against Humanist principles for us to pretend that we agree on everything. We are essentially freethinkers, which implies that we disagree on many things and indeed welcome argument and debate. It is indeed one of our strengths. Therefore, we should not think that we must conceal our opinion in order not to offend others or in order to present a 'good' image. We hope that openness and honesty is the best policy and that others will respect more for it.
7. Be Loving and Kind
Christians do not have a monopoly of love. We al believe in its crucial importance in morality. We would however, reject its Christian basis in 'posthumous self-interest', to use Milton's phrase. To love others because a god commands it is to promote self‑centred preoccupation with our own individual virtue and salvation. Instead Humanists see love as grounded in our nature as social animals. Like all gregarious creatures, much of our behaviour is quite naturally co‑operative and altruist "The inclination to goodness is deeply imprinted in the nature of man", wrote Francis Bacon. Darwin reached a similar conclusion: "It can hardly be disputed that the social feelings are instinctive or innate in the low animals; and why should they not be so in man?" The difference, of course, is that we have the capacity extend our loving nature outward from the immediate family to the whole of humankind. And that is what we mean by moral progress. It is, as the 19th century Irish historian Lecky noted, an expanding circle: "At one time the benevolent affections embrace merely the family, soon the circle expanding includes first a class, then nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity and finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world" (The History of European Morals ). Consider also the words of Alfred Adler: "Every human being strives for significance; but people always make mistakes if they do not see that their significance must consist in their contribution to the lives of others" (What Life Should Mean To You ).
8. Help The Weak And Needy
There is much suffering and hardship in the world. Millions live on the margins of existence, dragged down by malnutrition, disease, squalor and illiteracy. Possibly 40% of the people of less developed countries, or at least a quarter of the world's population, live in absolute poverty. In relative terms, too, the gap between rich and poor nations has widened in recent years, and the level poverty in many developed countries also rose during the 1980s and early 1990s. Since Humanists strive to work together for the common good of humanity, we deplore this trend, both within countries and between them. Regarding the Third World, we would therefore support projects which minimise the dependence of poor nations on the importation of goods from developed nations, and would also commend policies which improve their terms of trade.
We also call for an increase in aid programmes and note that the UK's official aid as a percentage of GDP is lower than that of many European countries. We also favour aid distributed through multinational agencies rather than bilateral aid, which often has strings attached. Within the UK we deplore policies which increase poverty and unemployment.
9. Respect Nature
Humanism is not just a philosophy of humankind; it is also, because we are a part of the cosmos, a philosophy of nature. We are conscious of the essential unity of the natural and the human worlds and so we wish to protect and enhance the earth and preserve it for future generations. Ecological humanism seeks more humane priorities for production, in which there is achieved a balance between progress and conservation, a compromise between industrial modernisation and environmental protection. We are not advocating a return to a pre-industrial era but rather supporting a policy of sustainable development which tries to conserve instead of depleting natural resources.
10. Support Worthy Causes
Humanism is not just an armchair philosophy; it is also a springboard to action. Humanists do not just sit around and talk but are also actively involved in attempts to improve society and the long run betterment of humankind. Most Humanists belong to other organisations in various walks of life and regard them also as expressions of their Humanism.
Humanists themselves give active support to such causes as: the Peace Movement; the campaign to extend the provisions for abortion which apply in Great Britain; greater availability of advice on sexual matters for young people, such as the Brook Centre; greater equality of rights for women in Ulster; equality of rights towards minority groups, such as homosexuals; voluntary euthanasia; the campaign for integrated education; replacement of RE by moral education; and the campaign to persuade other parties, such as Labour, to organise in Northern Ireland. *
The above principles are not the 10 Commandments of Humanism. We do not believe in dictating morals to one another. Not all Humanists will agree with ALL the sentiments expressed in them. For we value, above all, free thought and tolerance. They are therefore only intended as a guide.