Humanism and ‘common moral decencies’

By | 13 Aug 2015

Portrait of David Hume (Scottish Enlightenment philosopher 7 May 1711 - 25 Aug 1776) by artist Allan RamsayCan critical ethical intelligence discover any prima facie general principles that transcend the limits of cultural relativity and apply to all human beings, no matter what their social condition? Are there any ethical principles that we can affirm to be objectively true, independent of whether there is a God who has declared them to be binding? I submit that there are and that they are so fundamental to human intercourse that they may be characterized as the ‘common moral decencies’. Indeed, virtually all human cultures have now come to recognize their significance, for they lay down moral imperatives necessary for group cohesion and survival. Individuals who abide by them are commended and praised, and those who flout or transgress them are condemned and blamed as immoral, wicked, or evil.

To state that certain forms of conduct are decent, admirable, or proper, and that other forms are indecent and improper, even despicable, is not simply subjective caprice or an expression of cultural bias, but is, I think, a function of a level of moral development that has cross-cultural dimensions. There is still wide diversity in human conduct; there are numerous disputes about what is considered decent or indecent behavior, and there is much variation in moral judgment. Nonetheless, there is a basic core of principles that we have come to recognize as binding in human conduct. We may apply the term common to these ‘decencies’ as a qualification, for we speak only of the most fundamental principles that are widely held, leaving many other layers of moral principles open to further critical examination. I use the term moral rather than ethical because I think the recognition that there are fairly basic moral principles that ought to govern conduct between civilized individuals has become deeply ingrained in long-standing social traditions. These principles are supported by habit and custom, are enacted into law, and are even considered sacred by various religions.

Far from being derived from some transcendental source, the moral decencies are taken as divinely revealed precisely because they are considered so basic to the human community. The fact that they have been converted into the language of divinity is a further sign of how highly esteemed they are. They can, however, have an authentic cognitive and independent ground; these principles are justifiable by rational considerations and are based upon practical ethical wisdom. Indeed, they express the deepest wisdom of the human race and can be discovered by anyone who digests the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Interestingly, theists and humanists share in their commitment to the moral decencies, for people of all persuasions inherit a common wisdom, even though they may dispute the ultimate foundations of morality.

The following catalogue of moral principles should not be taken on a scale of ascending or descending priority. The order in which they are listed is simply one of convenience, for in any particular situation, one or more may assume higher priority than another. They should be interpreted as general guides for conduct rather than absolute or universal commandments, but this does not mean that their obligatory force is weakened; for a rational moral being can recognize their significance no less than can a God-intoxicated believer. It is important that we present them explicitly, since ethical philosophy should not be a meta-theoretical and abstract exercise but should have a normative relevance to conduct. It is especially important for humanism to provide a catalogue of the moral decencies, in order to counter the unfounded charge that it has no moral principles.

Moral principles concern our relationship to other human beings living in communities; they would have little meaning for a hermit living in isolation in a cave or on a desert island. Some can also be applied to other sentient species, so that it makes some sense to talk about animal rights. Although moral principles are forms of social behavior, they need to be structured within the character of the individual if they are to have any efficacy or force.

There is some overlapping of these principles, and some are subsumed under others. Nevertheless, it is important that they be separately defined and classified. The following list should not be taken as exhaustive or complete. There are no doubt other principles that might be added. But at least the following provide a basic framework for ethical conduct and choice.

I. Integrity. Truthfulness … Promise-keeping … Sincerity … Honesty …

II. Trustworthiness. Fidelity … Dependability …

III. Benevolence. Good will … Non-malfeasance as  applied to persons … Non-malfeasance as applied  to private and public property … Sexual consent … Beneficence …

IV. Fairness. Gratitude … Accountability … Justice … Tolerance … Cooperation …

Many more ethical principles have lately emerged in some societies, and some that we have discussed are still open to dispute in others. Both are products of a revisionary humanistic morality.

These include the doctrine of human rights, the right to privacy, an ecological concern for the environment, an imperative to seek to preserve other species on this planet, obligations to future generations, the need to transcend the limits of ethnicity, and a need to extend our ethical concerns to the wider world community.

Copyright © 2008 Paul Kurtz

Excerpted from Paul Kurtz (2008), Forbidden Fruit: The Ethics of Secularism and reprinted with permission