How humanists decide what’s right or wrong

This talk was delivered in London in 2011 |

Put you hands up if you have ever done the right thing for the wrong reasons.

Keep you had up if you did this because of a religion or religious teaching.

OK, so, perhaps the wrong audience for this sort of thing, but I think my point still holds. On the weekend I passive-aggressively cleaned the bathroom in the attempt to make my housemate feel bad that he hadn’t done it like he’d promised, and my reasons for behaving this way have nothing to do with any religious upbringing. I based my judgment on what is right and wrong by past experience, my cultural background, knowledge, my sense of responsibility and understanding of the common good.


The image I’m sharing you now [above] is the edit page on the toilet paper orientation article on Wikipedia. It is one of the more frequently updated articles and people all have their own opinions. In fact, this topic can be quite contentious. The reason why I wanted to show this is to highlight that not everyone has the same beliefs or comes from the same background.  What this means is that sometimes what it right for an individual might not be right for the wider community. And it is only through reason and critical thinking that a consensus can be reached.

Humanism is the belief that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs.  It’s about having faith in human nature to do the right thing, even if no one is watching.

Humanists make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values; make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves; and take responsibility for our actions and work with others for the common good.

A lot of religion is about having a personal relationship with God, and this can very exclusive, and very excluding.

So, what is a humanist?

“A humanist is someone who does the right thing even though she knows that no one is watching.”

— Dick McMahan, New York humanist, 2004

Human nature

For humanists, the right thing to do is to try to live a full and happy life and help others to do the same.  This is what humanists see the key value in life. Humanists argue that the only guide we have to show us how to do this is our own human nature. We have the ability to reason and to empathise with others.

Using reason is one of the way that humanists decide what is right and wrong:

  • Asking yourself what will be the effects of your action will be
  • Weighing up all the available evidence
  • Trying to work out what will result in the most happiness and the least pain and suffering.

Humanist also use empathy in deciding what is right and wrong…

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – I don’t know if any of you are Philip K Dick fans, but when I think about empathy I do think about the collective consciousness based on the suffering of Wilber Mercer.

  • Treating other people as you would like to be treated yourself
  • Treating other people as valuable in their own right and not using them as a means to an end
  • Doing what you would be happy to see everyone do

What this comes down to is that we don’t need a belief if a god or gods or superstition to know what is right and wrong.

One of my favourite scientists, Richard Feynman, said:

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial.

His approach to science is inquisitive. He treated it as an investigation. He’d say try and find out the answer. Start out thinking “everything is possibly wrong”, the scientific view. When you doubt, and ask, it means that it is a little harder to believe.

Understanding about right and wrong isn’t a question of morality…

Absolute morality that a religious person might hold would include stoning people for adultery, death for apostasy.

But for me I want a morality that is thought out, reasoned, argued and discussed

And if you actually look at the moralities that are accepted among modern people, you know, we don’t believe in slavery anymore, and we believe in equally rights for women, we no longer persecute people for their sexuality. These are all things are fairly recent. They have very little basis in religion. And all these things that have developed over historical time through a consensus of reasoning, of sober discussion, argument and pressure, legal theory, political and moral philosophy.

What we’ve done is grown out of the absolute morality established by religion because of secular moral philosophy and rational discussion.


Different philosophy =/= inherently bad

By using reason and critical thinking we can decide what is right and wrong for wider society

And we all should follow the golden rule and treat people the way we would like to be treated.

The best in us will still exists even if we break down the systems that so many of us fight so hard to preserve. – Joss Whedon 

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