By | 21 Jul 2016

Portrait of David Hume (Scottish Enlightenment philosopher 7 May 1711 - 25 Aug 1776) by artist Allan Ramsay

Humanism is free from dogma and has no creed people commit to, but there are two principles that many consider helpful when discussing Humanist ethics. These are the principle of equal power or egalitarianism, and the principle of maximum well-being.

The principle of equal power

If I have superior power over other people, I can, if I am bloody-minded, force them to do what I want. I can ignore their wishes and their rights. Admittedly they will resent what I do, feeling that my behaviour is unjustified, but if my strength is greater, there is little they can do about it.

On the other hand, if I have equal power with others, I cannot just ride rough-shod over their interests. When our interests conflict, I can either fight with them or else find some compromise acceptable to us both.

The principle of equal power supplies us with a method for deciding whether some arrangement is just or not. If it’s the one that people in a position of equal power would accept, then it is just. As an IHEU manifesto says,

Human justice is the progressive realisation of equality. Justice does not exclude force but the sole desirable use of force is to suppress the resort to force.

In many ways, it is similar to what is often called the Golden Rule, ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’. Both Confucius and Lao-Tse, the sages of ancient China, gave the same advice. Bernard Shaw, however, pointed out that this version needed to be handled carefully when he said,

Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you, for their tastes may not be the same.

The principle of equal power overcomes this problem, for if our power is equal we cannot force our tastes on each other, we can only compromise to allow each to indulge in his or her own tastes, provided they do not harm the interests of others. The ancient philosopher Epictetus, a member of the Stoic school which Humanists regard as one of the forerunners of Humanism, put it this way,

What you would avoid suffering yourself seek not to impose on others.

The principle of maximum well-being

The principle of equal power is the principle that tells us the rights that both we and other people have. It provides the framework within which we can live together harmoniously as members of the same community. It does not however, actually tell us how to live our lives.

The principle of maximum well-being offers us a possible pathway. It advises us to choose ways that gives us maximum satisfaction, i.e., maximum well-being for ourselves and others. At the same time we should aim to minimise dissatisfaction, by avoiding frustration, unhappiness and pain for both ourselves and others.

A minimum requirement for well-being is that our primary needs such as food, shelter, clean water, useful work and involvement in our community are met. In addition we will seek opportunities to engage in more diverse activities that further enhance our well-being, such as education, physical activity, music, dance, the creative arts.

Hopefully, many of us will also find satisfaction in helping others, in giving other people pleasure, in seeing other people fulfill their talents and achieve their goals. And, in the position of equal power, we would agree to raise children who find their personal fulfillment in such altruistic goals.

Many will find satisfaction in their work, or sport, or in creative activities or in rearing children or caring for the needs of others or in politics, business or management or in challenges to their strength and courage, such as exploration and mountain climbing. The principle of equal power would require us to respect these goals, provided they did not harm others nor cause people to neglect their obligations to others.

What then is a good ethical life for a Humanist? I think it is about personal autonomy used responsibly, seeking knowledge, engaging in pleasures that do no harm to others and deriving satisfaction from the arts, physical activity, music, personal relationships and belonging to a community. These are best achieved by recognising the equality principle and actions that maximise well-being.

Photo of Rosslyn Ives

Copyright © 2016 Rosslyn Ives