Some have argued that human nature is self-interested. A person only helps another to make themselves feel better. However, this is putting the cart before the horse. Humans may get pleasure from helping others, but that is because they first desire the wellbeing of the other person. The pleasure comes from fulfilling that desire. If it was the other way round, that would mean someone who has no concern for the wellbeing of others would still gain pleasure from helping them and therefore act accordingly.
‘The underlying assumption is that only purely selfish behaviour is natural to man; so that if it ever happens, as it not infrequently does, that people behave unselfishly, they must be inspired by a higher power. This assumption is false and the conclusion that is drawn from it is invalid... if experience shows that people act unselfishly as well as selfishly, we can only conclude that both types of behaviour are natural. If the capacity for evil is part of human nature, so is the capacity for good.’
AJ Ayer, philosopher (1910 – 1989)
Religions often highlight the differences between acting in our self-interest and in acting morally. They claim we need divine moral laws to guide against our instincts. Humanism collapses that distinction. Humanists believe that children still need to be taught about morality but in a way that they can be made to see that there is not a sharp divide between acting with concern for the wellbeing of others and living a flourishing life for themselves.
For humanists, morality does not come from a divine source (humanity was not dragged into a civilized state) but it instead evolved alongside us. Religions and philosophies share so many values because they are human values. For humanists, these values evolved naturally as a result of our sentiments and sociability and were adopted by religions. If human civilisation evolved all over again, many humanists believe it unlikely that the same religions would develop, but very likely that our basic moral principles would be the same.
For humanists then, religion is not the foundation of our morals, but rather morality precedes religion. Religion cannot inform morality, and humanists highlight the fact that religion is increasingly interpreted according to our moral standards. Many religious people today simply disregard any morally dubious lessons from scripture. Problematic passages about punishment, discrimination, sacrifice, and genocide are often ignored. Rather than letting scripture govern their lives, many religious believers go with their gut feeling, the generally accepted morality of their time, or like humanists, use their ability to reason and learn from experience to help them decide which moral rules are worthwhile. They will then select from scripture according to their moral needs. Morality then tames religion and such an ethics is humanist in all but name.
The European Convention on Human Rights declares: ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.’ However, it also states that, ‘Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and necessary in democratic society in interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health, or morals, or for protection of rights and freedom of others.’ This makes it clear that even our laws place consideration of morality above religion and many religious malpractices from the past are now ruled out by legal institutions. Only when religious practices are not considered to be a serious infringement of our moral values are they acceptable under the law. For example the ritual slaughter of animals is allowed. However, should our ethical framework develop in the future to place more importance on animal welfare (as many believe it should), then morality is again likely to trump religion.