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Reclaiming the High Ground.

When the International Humanist and Ethical Union was organized in 1952, it set forth its statement of purpose in five brief paragraphs expressing three core principles concerning science, democracy, and ethics. These were, specifically, the use of science for human betterment, commitment to the democratic process in government and other human relations, and reliance on ethics as the essential ground of human dignity, rights, and responsible freedom.

Now, a half century later, we find that human knowledge about our universe and ourselves has increased immensely. Most promising of all has been the rapid growth in scientific knowledge of the interplay of genetic and cultural forces in shaping our social and moral traits. Evolutionary biology and naturalistic ethics are joining together to create a kind of unified field theory of human nature and its needs--a vision never before achievable.

An expanding body of knowledge supports the view that there is a biosocial foundation, encoded in our very genes from a long process of evolutionary selection, that sets the boundaries and substantially conditions the quality and direction of our moral feelings and behavior. Evolutionary biology is beginning to uncover and particularize what many of us humanists have always believed in principle about the natural origin and basis of our ethical traits: the inborn capacity for empathy and compassion, the need to give and receive love, the developmental patterns of socialization which support a sense of fairness and justice, and the recognition of shared obligations and common interests--all of which go into the makeup of self-aware, social beings. It is increasingly apparent that we are within striking distance of refuting forever the canard that a naturalistic philosophy, unsupported by a supernatural or transcendental source, is incapable of providing a reliable foundation for the moral and rewarding life.

Yet, while we may take hope from these prospects, we can hardly be sanguine about the commonplace misconceptions, distortions, and deliberate misrepresentations of humanist naturalism. Some of this misinformation comes from the avowed enemies of science and, particularly, from bitter-end resistance to evolutionary theory. But regrettably too much comes from well meaning friends who are simply misled by the pervasive fear of science, especially as it touches upon questions of human nature and conduct.

If you doubt the effectiveness of this drumbeat of resistance to science and reason, consider the following. While only 7 percent of adults in the United Kingdom believe in the special creation of the human species, a University of California study recently found that 45 percent of U.S. adults reject evolution and believe that the first human beings were miraculously created within the past 10,000 years. Newsweek found an overwhelming belief in miracles: 84 percent of those polled believe that miracles occur, 79 percent think that the miracles of the Bible were actual events, and 72 percent are convinced that survivors of accidents are spared by God's intervention.

In light of this, one might reasonably ask why the United States trails so far behind other advanced nations in assimilating the results of scientific and historical research. U.S. scientists are in the very forefront of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology, yet there is little acceptance of their findings here at home.

Then again, why should this matter? One may argue that humanists and other advocates of a naturalistic world view should simply have the grace to accept their minority status. And I might agree--if this were a mere difference of opinion among people of tolerance and goodwill. Thomas Jefferson contended that, in a free and open encounter, truth will prevail. But how free is this encounter if, in the contest for minds, the religious right has declared a culture war?

Some of us may believe the issue is one about fact and theory. But those who contend against science and reason view the issue differently. For them it is a moral question. If you believe as Darwin believed, you do so because you are morally perverse, as Darwin was morally perverse. The fact that Darwin was a highly principled, considerate, compassionate man--as all of his biographers abundantly testify--is pointless. Darwin was wicked because he advocated unholy truths. And ethical humanism is Darwin's moral perversity writ large!

With a welter of conflicting meanings attached to the words humanist and humanism, clarification is in order. Many use the words humanist and humanitarian interchangeably, compounding the confusion. We may hope that as conscientious humanists we are humanitarian, but millions of others are humanitarian who hold to other philosophical commitments. Still others identify humanism with a particular liberal social agenda; but while the majority of humanists may be social liberals, it is not invariably so.

The core of the humanist philosophy is naturalism--the proposition that the natural world proceeds according to its own internal dynamics, without divine or supernatural control or guidance, and that we human beings are creations of that process. It is instructive to recall that the philosophers of the early humanist movement debated as to which term more adequately described their position: humanism or naturalism. The two concepts are complementary and inseparable.

For our purposes, I define a humanist as one who holds that the source, or locus, of our values, including our moral and inspirational values, is to be found within human nature and experience. Yes, Virginia, there is a human nature--a basic moral nature--and science is confirming it. Good and bad, the beautiful and the ugly, are so not because God decreed them (unless you are addicted to poetic metaphor); rather, they are consequences of our nature, dictated by deep human needs, aversions, and aspirations. Rightness is not about a divine will; it is about human beings--our needs, our vulnerabilities and potentials, our place in human society, and our place in the universe of living things.

The detractors of humanism accuse us of being anthropocentric and supposing we are God--that in our hubris we think we can live by any rules we please or by no rules at all. This is a bizarre argument coming as it does from those who believe that the world was created especially for their dominion, that they incarnate the very likeness and lineage of God. Talk about anthropocentrism! Who are the real anthropocentrics?

The unkindest and most uninformed criticism--coming even from those who should know better--charges humanists with disregarding the nonhuman forms of life, with being indifferent to the biosphere, with being guilty of what is inelegantly call species-ism. This accusation, which defies history and does violence to the biographies of our greatest pioneers, comes down to nothing more than a bad pun, a play on the word: human-ism. Yet presumably philosophically literate people weigh down their learned journals with polemics beating to death this particular straw mouse.

If we have anything to be proud of in our humanist tradition--and we have much to be proud of--it is the profound contribution of our humanist forebears and contemporaries in advancing the understanding and protection of Earth's biosphere--of recognizing the interdependence of all living things.

As with so much else, it really begins with Darwin, who was far from being the tooth-and-claw triumphalist popularly imagined. With uncanny insight Darwin saw the complex balances--the interplay--of every environmental niche and recognized its fragility.

In the very years in which the IHEU was founded, Julian Huxley--arguably the world's leading exportent of humanism and the IHEU's founding honorary chair--was successfully establishing the Galapagos Islands' nature preserve. Protecting most of the archipelago's territory by creating the Darwin Research Station to study and help conserve the islands' unique species and habitats was only one of a number of Huxley's undertakings worldwide. He and other leading humanist scientists in the United Kingdom and elsewhere spearheaded the fledgling international program to protect wildlife and preserve biodiversity. The American Humanist Association's 1977 Humanist of the Year, philosopher Corliss Lamont, made possible the purchase and preservation of nature preserves in the Hudson River region in New York State, as well as elsewhere. In Florida, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, a philosophical humanist by her own account, toiled for more than half a century to protect the Everglades. And we are surely aware of the more recent contribution of Edward O. Wilson--the 1999 Humanist of the Year--toward the preservation of biodiversity. This is just a sampler of humanist involvement.

In addition, many of our rank-and-file members have worked over the years in other organizations toward these ends. In the mid-1960s, I served on the organizing board of Washingtonians for Clean Air, in Washington, D.C. So we humanists have not been exactly blind to these issues. And don't forget the overwhelming threat of a nuclear dusting of our planet--that was my generation's urgent, all-consuming ecological concern. It was the late Carl Sagan--the 1981 Humanist of the Year--who led the effort to warn the world about the risks of a nuclear winter in the event of even a "small" nuclear war.

Then comes the cliche that humanism ignores the place of feeling in life. Again we go back to Darwin. One of his most painstaking researches explored emotions in animals and human beings. Long before others saw, he insisted upon the evolutionary significance of emotions in the survival and evolution of the higher social animals. His 1872 book The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals stands as a landmark and triumph of sensitive observation. He laid the foundation upon which Jane Goodall, another humanist, built.

The relationship between evolution and ethics develops from that base. The relationship was pondered by Darwin's champion, Thomas Henry Huxley, was ably advanced in the evolutionary humanism of Huxley's grandson, Julian, and now expands with increasing tempo in the marvelously productive work of Edward O. Wilson and others.

Humanism's alleged blindness toward aesthetics and what are called spiritual values is hard to sustain. We can point to John Dewey, the bete noir of humanism's critics, whose Art As Experience is a milestone in the philosophy of aesthetics, especially in understanding life's inspirational summits, what Dewey called consummatory experience--a concept that foreshadows the peak experience concept of humanist psychologist Abraham Maslow. We might also recall George Santayana, that uncompromising materialist and atheist who brought deep sensitivity and insight into understanding the values of religious feeling, expression, and tradition. We can observe the sunburst of modern art that shone upon evolutionary humanism's cradle and which flamed from the same fresh vision of nature. We have effective answers to our detractors if we only know our story. We need to reclaim the riches of our philosophy, recall our history, and get it straight.

Small though our resources and numbers may be, we can do much more than we sometimes do to recover the high ground. It is vital to recognize the difference between defending our beliefs and being defensive about them--the difference between explanation and apology. Our vindications must be positive, forceful, and constructive. Every philosophy, including humanism, can benefit from informed criticism. But condescending dismissals don't meet that standard, and we should not concede defensively as if they did. We have no need to mea culpa when we have little to mea culpa about.

The critic may protest that my whole argument, as it connects ethics to science, is deeply flawed, shot through with the logical error that G. E. Moore dismissed as the naturalistic fallacy: the error--or supposed error, as the case may be--of attempting to derive an ought from an is. The point has been long disputed in both philosophy and science, and we shall not settle it just yet.

However, I venture to argue that the more adamant of Moore's disciples--those who reject science and empirical knowledge as sources of normative ethical guidance--badly overshoot the mark. In his germinal book Consilience, Wilson argues that ought is a shorthand term for the compelling force of the store of useful social experience, a compact generalization from those behaviors that have served the evolution of our socially interdependent species. Wilson thinks, therefore, that a science of ethics is not only possible but highly likely as evolutionary biology and psychology advance.

Whether Wilson entirely succeeds in reducing the ought to an is in translating good into the optimally beneficial--into the biophilic, to use his term--is an issue we may provisionally lay aside. However, the thrust of his argument for the conjunction of ethics and science is, I suggest, not only valid but of enormous significance.

Dewey believed in the possibility of a science of values and insisted that the seemingly unbridgeable gap between fact and value is bridgeable after all. Values, he reasoned, are facts of a special kind but facts nonetheless, amenable to empirical inquiry. In Science and the Moral Life, humanist Max Otto reasoned that science is not a particular subject matter but, rather, a general method of inquiry that can apply to values. Wilson agrees, for both ethical and aesthetic values, and argues that advances in biosocial knowledge have brought within reach the feasibility of a defensible science of values.

In short, the gap between is and ought is rapidly narrowing. Tell me what is required to make one a better functioning human being, a better neighbor, and a more fully actualized person in a sustainable society and I shall know the ought.

If I am sick and seek medical attention, my doctor prescribes a medicine to improve my health. We do not accuse the doctor of committing a logical fallacy in the practice of medicine. We do not shut down medical schools or charge drug research laboratories with fraud on the ground that the science of medicine commits the naturalistic fallacy--confusing the oughtness implied in a prescription with the irreducible is-ness of science. Every medical prescription implies both an is and a should in terms of wellness. So what is the fugitive ought hidden within the is?

Perhaps the sage of Pennsylvania Avenue was more perspicacious than he knew when he said it depends on what is is!

Why do we accept for medicine what we deny to normative ethics? Ethics is prescriptive and therefore not amenable to becoming a science; medicine is similarly prescriptive and therefore is amenable to becoming a science. Go figure.

But the science of medicine and the science of ethics are more than analogous. They lie on a continuum, a spectrum of functions that minister to human need and well-being. Treating one as a developing science and the other as not--even in principle--is more an artifact of history and ecclesiastic politics than of logic. The truth is that medicine has moved farther from the shaman's cave than has ethics. Wilson is correct in arguing that ethics will not break out of a 2,000-year-old cul de sac of reasoning and lofty vaporizing until it avails itself of the methodology of science.

Experimental psychology offers a parallel. After two millennia as a comparatively quiescent branch of the philosophic academy, psychology broke free to become a vital and dynamic science. Does this suggest that philosophy is useless? Certainly not. Does it indicate that philosophy per se is insufficient? Yes, it does.

Perhaps Wilson is too sanguine in believing that science will absorb ethics--in effect reducing the ought to an is without remainder. I anticipate a more mixed outcome. Nevertheless, the prospect is unprecedented. The human basis of the ethical life will become clearer and more defensible. Humanism will gain the traction of a secure foundation from which to meet assaults on our principles and values. Thus reinforced, we can defeat the reproach that without transcendental sanction we have no credible footing for morality or human dignity.

Moses may have brought the tablets of the law down from Mount Sinai but he carried up the mountain a rough draft, encoded in his genes, edited and revised in his nature and the experience of his people.

The way of significant growth for the humanist movement then, rather than chasing after numbers for numbers' sake, is paying close attention to such first principles as these, never letting our attention be deflected by whatever attack on humanism may be at the moment intellectually fashionable or spiritually in vogue.

Edward L. Ericson, a retired Ethical Culture leader, has been a member of the American Humanist Association for fifty-one years and was the recipient of the AHA's 1990 Humanist Pioneer Award.
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Author:Ericson, Edward L.
Publication:The Humanist
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2000
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