A humanist ethics framework for promoting human rights

By James Wilson On  · in Human Rights and WelfareHumanist Strategy Add Comment

The current Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into the reintroduction of a human rights framework has given Humanists an opportunity to ask some key questions about what human rights are, what they could be and how could we as Humanists promote and advocate for them. Humanists Victoria have made a submission (no. 156) to the Inquiry and has also commenced a project to develop and promote a humanist ethics-based program of advocacy for human rights.

Those key questions are:

  • How are human rights understood and valued in the contemporary Australian context,
  • How can humanist ethical principles underpin them, and
  • Is there a consensus in Australia as to the principles by which we treat each other?

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is premised on all humans, as humans, having these rights whatever the community or societal context. But clearly some human rights, for example the right to adequate housing (article 25) and newer conceived rights such as that of inclusion regardless of gender identification, are still perceived as problematic in Australia. Human rights seem not yet the subject of a community consensus.

Humanist ethics can contribute to this debate because in essence the ethical principle underlying humanism is that we should treat others as we would wish to be treated, that is with empathy and justice.

But the treatment in Australia of First Nations people, people with mental health issues, those from structurally disadvantaged backgrounds and those who identify as trans or non-binary, raises doubts about how deeply these ethical principles penetrate the thinking of ordinary Australians, whether or not they are termed human rights.

Humanists Victoria is implementing a program to deepen and broaden the potential for a consensus on human rights, and the humanist ethics that we argue underlie them. This program has a multi-disciplinary approach including education reform, law reform and policy formation, all of which should be based on the ethics of empathy and justice.

If human rights, when conceived as universal and abstracted from context, have not as yet produced this consensus for empathy and justice, then Humanists can contribute to highlighting the need for consensus building by promoting an underlying ethics on which that consensus can be built.

The current Humanists Victoria’s humanist ethics program of education and advocacy, representing in effect the underlying logic of, and justification for, human rights debate, moves this debate beyond just law reform.

We certainly need law reform, but if real change it to occur where it counts, in the community’s understanding, we also need to build consensus based on the humanist values of empathy, justice and freedom.

If you want to join the HV campaign building this consensus through an education and law reform campaign that promotes human rights, please contact us for the details on how you can be involved. We need volunteers to extend our reach into the community. All welcome, particularly those in the regions. 

James Wilson