Humanist Perspectives The evolution of morality

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Humanist Perspectives

The evolution of morality

Of course, it can be harder to do what is right than to know what is right. The fact that we have a natural concept of the good and bad does not mean we are naturally good. Nor can we always be guided by our instincts. We now live in a very different world from the world our ancestors evolved to survive in and inappropriate biases, prejudices, and fears linger on. However, humanists believe our ability to reason allows us to rise above our instincts and we are able to recognise when they lead us astray.

Even if we all agreed that our moral values are both natural and universal, they would still leave considerable flexibility in their interpretation, and many moral questions are far from easy to solve. Everyone agrees that murder is wrong, but we might disagree about what counts as murder. Abortion? Voluntary euthanasia? Killing in war? Killing animals? Everyone agrees that children should be protected and nurtured, but there is considerable disagreement about how exactly this should be done and the best family arrangements in which to achieve it. Modern science and medicine have added to the complexity of moral dilemmas. Moral principles we might choose to guide us, such as maximising happiness and respecting human rights, can often be in conflict. Many problems have no single, unique solution. Even when humanists agree on their general moral values, they will sometimes disagree with each other (and often with themselves) on how to achieve them, or which to prioritise in a particular situation. Humanists value individual freedom, because choice and freedom contribute to human happiness, but they are aware that individual freedom can often lead to disagreement.
However, just because we face dilemmas does not mean humanists think we should abandon the quest, it just means there is more thinking to be done. We will make mistakes, but we can learn from them. Morality is something we learn and experience through living, and experience can help us to learn which tools and principles are the most appropriate to the particular situation. Freedom of belief and the right to disagree, providing your arguments are based on reason, are essential to the humanist project. Disagreement can be positive: it enables dialogue and debate. It encourages us to recognise, empathise with, and take into consideration opposing arguments.
Humanists are, therefore, allowed to change their minds. New evidence and arguments will often demand this. For humanists, morality is not fixed but an ongoing journey throughout our lives and across human history. We need to continually review and develop our moral codes in the light of changing technology and human understanding. Humanists do not believe that we can rely on the rules found in ancient texts and commanded by those who claim to represent divine authorities. Instead, the freedom to argue about morality, and for human beings to reach their own conclusions, helps to ensure progress – progress towards a way of living that provides the best for all human beings. Morality is a human construct, and one of which we can be immensely proud.
Finally, some have argued that Humanism is too utopian: it is unrealistic and sets too high a standard for itself and places too much expectation upon human beings. However, humanists would point to developments in democracy, social justice, human rights, and the rule of law as evidence that we can improve human welfare. Much of the moral progress made over last few centuries (for example, the abolition of slavery, the extension of votes to all men and women, and the decriminalisation of homosexuality) is because individuals (religious and non-religious) had the courage to apply their own intellects, and to question the moral wisdoms of the day. Humanists acknowledge that the world is still full of injustice. However, by empathising with the suffering of others they believe we can work towards making the world a better place.

British Humanist Association ©2016

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