Foundations of Humanism

by Robert D. Finch


What’s in a Name

Our classic reference is “The Philosophy of Humanism” by Corliss Lamont (1949). But there are several other good sources and I should like to mention: in particular a new book, “Living without God” by Ronald Aronson (2008) which examines the situation of everyone who has rejected Theism.  Many people would prefer a pragmatic approach to life informed by all the arts and sciences.  They base their thinking on ethics, psychology, management and the biological and medical sciences.  These modernists include free-thinkers (who do not follow any religious or party line), atheists (have no gods), agnostics (do not know about gods) secularists (have no religion) and humanists (with ethics based on human values).  It really does not matter what these groups are called, they all need to answer Kant’s three famous questions (slightly paraphrased): What do we believe to be true?  How should we behave?  What do we hope the future holds? My contention here is that most modernists are closer to a common position than they might imagine.



Let us begin with Kant’s second question: How should we behave?  Some of our moral behavior dates back to times far in our evolutionary past. There are certain modes of conduct which clearly have survival value: for example, pairing between male and female, empathy and caring for others.  Such behaviors are passed on to succeeding generations and some of them become part of our moral heritage.  Darwin himself suggested this evolutionary origin of morality. We do not have a complete understanding of the biological mechanisms whereby instinctive behavior is inherited but E.O. Wilson has suggested that the explanation lies in the realm of epigenetic phenomena.  There is clearly a need for these innate tendencies to be brought out by instruction and emulation of our parents at an early age.  So we see that both nature and nurture have a place in our moral development.  This level of morality is the same the world over, among people of all religions and persuasions, humanists included.  Paul Kurtz, one of the leading humanist ethicists, has introduced the term “the common moral decencies” to describe this foundation of our behavioral experience.  Here are the principles which are found in ethical codes the most frequently:

  • Tell the truth
  • Be loyal
  • Be compassionate
  • Be fair (or just)

The first of these involves personal integrity, being honest and sincere and keeping our promises. The second encompasses trustworthiness, dependability and responsibility.  The third covers the need to be kind, sympathetic, and benevolent to others.  We should follow the “Golden Rule” of doing to others as we would have them do to us.  We should avoid harming others, stealing their property, or being vengeful or malicious.  The fourth principle involves the concept of equality, and accountability for our actions, and being tolerant of others over matters of opinion.


Values & Virtues

Dewey (1932) in his famous book on ethics points out that moral theory involves both acts of evaluation and acts of reasoning.  Each of the concepts we have just mentioned is the result of such a process and may therefore be associated with a “value”, as when we say the humanist values kindness or truthfulness.  Aronson (2008) suggests that our values should include Gratitude and other writers have stressed commitment. Dewey also refers to such values as standards, expressing the idea that they are then used to measure or evaluate conduct.  Alternatively each concept may be expressed as a rule or principle of conduct, as in injunctions to be kind or to tell the truth.  Some writers on ethics have made the focus of their studies the character of the people who embrace certain values, which are then said to be virtues.  This approach goes back to Aristotle, but there are modern expositions along the same lines.  Comte-Sponville’s “Small Treatise on the Great Virtues”, covers eighteen virtues: love, politeness, fidelity, prudence, temperance, justice, generosity, compassion, mercy, courage, gratitude, humility, simplicity, tolerance, purity, gentleness, good faith and humor.


Humanist Principles

In addition to the common moral decencies, and the values and virtues listed above, there are some further concepts that we humans have learned in our search for the truth and the best ways to live.  In some ways these ideas are extensions of ancient ethical principles, but they have come to have special significance in the history of science and civilization.  The following are some of the specifically humanist principles that we have come to recognize:

  • Rationality: We should base our conduct on the best knowledge available, and evaluate it with sensitivity and logic.
  • Creativity:  We should value human creativity and imagination in the arts, literature and technology.
  • Pragmatism: We should uphold the methods and systems that have proven to be successful in the past, while working for their improvement.
  • Commitment: We should value the family and society and need to belong to organizations that foster our worldview.
  • Futures:  We believe that Humanism should offer visions of the long-term future which will inspire the individual and guide the policies of society.

Aristotle called man the rational animal and it is our rationality more than anything else which is responsible for our successes in mathematics, science, technology, law and medicine.  Systems Theory lies within the realm of rationality and is crucial to engineering, computer science, management science, business, democracy and politics.  Karl Popper said that the use of reason is our first requirement for ethical conduct.  Secondly we stress the value of creativity.  This is the basis not only of the fine arts and literature but is also the key to innovation in business, technology and science.  Creativity has a large emotional content and our capability to recognize and respond to our own emotions is vital.  Pragmatism is almost synonymous with using an evolutionary approach in constructing systems.



Now we can return to Kant’s first question.  One of the functions of our inquiry is to provide us with a cosmology, i.e. a theory of the universe and the place of humanity in it.  The humanist accepts the theories of the origin of the universe propounded by physics: the big bang followed by condensation of elementary particles and then atoms and molecules.  We believe that there is one reality, the world of nature.  The story is told in books such as “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan (1980) of how primordial dust accumulated into clouds from which stars and galaxies were formed. Thanks to Darwin and Mendel we now have a convincing explanation of the evolution of life and the mechanism of the process. This is an exciting time because we may get answers to the questions of the existence of extraterrestrial life and intelligence in the near future.  Old ideas of the so called mind-body duality are being replaced by a naturalistic explanation of mental phenomena in terms of the functioning of the brain.

What are the implications of the Humanist philosophy in the life of the individual?  The doctrine that the mind or soul has an existence separate from flesh and blood is part of many ancient cosmologies.  One of the important corollaries of the humanist belief expressed by Lamont that the “mind is indivisibly conjoined with the functioning of the brain” is that the mind ceases to exist when the body dies.  Lamont argues that there is no possibility that the human consciousness can survive the shock and disintegration of death, with its memory and awareness of self-identity intact.  Humans are mortal and we need to find meaning and satisfaction in this life.


Habits and Systems

One approach to psychology was started by Pavlov who decided that the simplest unit of human behavior is the reflex.  Our whole nervous system may be considered to be comprised of multitudes of interconnected reflexes.  In his famous experiments with dogs Pavlov showed that the animals could be trained to perform certain tasks by a process which he called conditioning.  Other psychologists, notably Piaget and Skinner, followed up on Pavlov’s lead discovering that the learning process in humans could be accelerated by what is termed reinforcement.  These workers were among the forerunners of the cognitive science movement which seeks to explain human behavior in terms of brain physiology.

We readily recognize physical tools and artifacts as instruments but, as Dewey pointed out, we should also include mental constructions such as language, mathematics and scientific theories as technological instruments.  We should recognize that the life of every individual is to some extent an engineered construction.  Every one of us has a repertoire of systems which we use to conduct our lives.  We have ways of doing things, habits, rules of thumb, plans, programs, recipes, some sort of modus operandi.   The analogy between engineering and ethics is very useful.  In both cases the rules or models should be evaluated based on how well they perform in practice.  We would expect that different prescriptions would be applicable in different circumstances, thus justifying so-called situational ethics.  The cycle of experience in ethics is similar to the design cycle in engineering.



Finally we get to Kant’s third question: what do we hope for the future?  In the holistic or existential approach to psychology we look at our lives overall.  Perhaps because humanists realize that this life is finite we are able to appreciate it as a whole.  Fromm’s “Man for Himself” contains a humanist theory in which he argues that psychology needs to return to the classical tradition of humanistic ethics in which the individual makes self-esteem (as opposed to selfishness) and the affirmation of his truly human self into a supreme value. As Shakespeare says: This above all, to thine own self be true. We should try to evaluate the way in which we are living in terms of the values we believe to be the most significant and ask ourselves what goals we wish to accomplish in the future and in our life span.  Some psychologists see life as comprising a series of developmental phases, from infancy to dotage, like Shakespeare’s seven ages of man.  Other authors, such as Maslow, see life as a progressive fulfillment of needs from basic necessities and security through to self actualization and the achievement of peak experiences.  Humanists, just like everyone else, like to mark the transitions between the various stages of life with appropriate ceremonies: baby naming, coming of age, marriage, and memorials at death.  We realize that every person is unique and every life should be a work of art.



Some people view Humanism as a religion, or as an alternative to religion.  Others think of it as a more secular system, perhaps as the academic discipline which unites all knowledge.  Neither Humanism nor the Humanist Lifestance is simple.  Every individual humanist has a lot to learn, and it is difficult to imagine how this will be done without belonging to some form of organization.  Socrates’ aphorism: Good people in a Good Society, is still an apt summary of Humanism and its objectives.  Humanism is not static, it evolves and changes with time, and is therefore best developed through an organization. We expect Humanism will adapt more readily than has been the case with traditional and especially fundamentalist religion. The evolution of Humanism is moreover, self-conscious and self-directed.

One of our role as Humanists is in the integration of knowledge.  The teaching of Humanism is only a part of our mission: Humanism also has a “research” component.  I believe it is also our obligation to explore what a future humanistic world might be like.  Humanists have always been in the vanguard of social change and this responsibility to think about future scenarios is more important than ever. We need to attend meetings and conferences, to publish our ideas to get scholarly feedback.  Sometimes we need to take stands on unpopular issues with friends, neighbors and fellow workers.  We need Humanism to put meaning and destiny in our lives, as individuals, and as societies; to improve the world and to overcome obstacles to progress.  But if we are ever to put humanist principles into practise, then it seems to me that the life of the individual is a good place to start.  In the language of Immanuel Kant, our search is for humanity both in ourselves and in society.




Aronson, Ronald (2008), “Living without God”, Counterpoint.

Dewey, John, (1932) “Ethics”, reprinted in John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925-1953,  Ed. Jo Ann Boydston, Southern Illinois University Press.

Lamont, Corliss (1949), “The Philosophy of Humanism”, Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.
There have been eight editions of this book each showing various improvements.