About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Response to Rowlands: on being a humanist, part deux

Dear Mark,

thanks for the thoughtful response, I truly hope this indirect exchange will stimulate positive thinking in the humanist and supra-humanist (is that what you would consider your philosophy to be?) communities. And best luck with your wolf book, I have one coming out too, but not before the end of 2009, so too early for a plug.

You accused me of moving the goal posts because I picked the Merriam Webster definition of humanism, but I simply chose the one I found most acceptable among the ones that you put on the line for discussion, so I think it was fair game. You may be right that the Webster take on humanism is a bit bland, but what do you expect from a dictionary definition? If you’d like to seriously get into what humanism is then you need to go for books written by humanists on the topic. I can recommend the classic The Philosophy of Humanism by Corliss Lamont, or Paul Kurtz’s What Is Secular Humanism?, among many others.

As for religion and the supernatural, good ‘ol Durkheim can say what he wants, in my view religion implies supernaturalism by definition as well as a matter of cultural history, and it is rather disingenuous to pretend otherwise. However, I of course accept your clarification that you did not mean to imply that humanism is a religion. You only alleged that humanism works like a religion because it is based on faith. The problem is that this begins to look like a distinction without a difference (especially if you reject my contention that religion implies supernatural beliefs). At any rate, there is nothing more irritating to a humanist than being accused of taking things on faith. Remember the Webster definition: “a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual's dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason.” Reason, as opposed to faith, being the key word here.

Regarding my analogy with the concept of family, as a counter to your original example of a philosophy in favor of “white people,” surely you realize that analogies have limits. My point was simply to show that a philosophy in defense of “white people” leads to pernicious outcomes, but this does not imply that any other subjective preference, such as the one for family, is equally pernicious. Still, there is a limit to the analogy, and the whole of humankind simply is not in the same ballpark as one’s family. I think humanists would agree that one’s family is important, but that the welfare of humanity as a whole is much more important. They would still not agree that either of these are in the same ballpark as the welfare of “white people.”

The key to our disagreement, however, comes into your followup on my family counterexample: “If this was the prevailing ideology around which a person’s life was organized – unbalanced by any countervailing factors – wouldn’t you regard them as somewhat family obsessed?” Of course, but where on earth did you get the idea that humanism is obsessed with humans and accounts for no countervailing factors? Even a superficial perusal of humanistic literature will clearly show that humanists consider the welfare of the planet as a whole, as well as of individual species living on it, as part of their positive philosophy, as a quintessential component of human flourishing as well as a matter of rational ethics.

I will not defend here my choice of remaining an omnivore. Yes, I contribute to environmental damage, but as you pointed out, so do you and anyone else living in a Western society, albeit in other ways (at least living in New York I don’t own a car!). And besides, the real damage to the environment is not done by omnivory, but by a population size out of control and a reckless use of specific technologies -- after all, humanity was happily omnivorous for hundreds of thousands of years without thereby generating global warming.

But now it is my turn to ask you to be honest: you keep arguing that putting a priority on human interests is wrongheaded, but -- when push comes to shove as you say -- are you really prepared to sacrifice a human life, perhaps your daughter, or wife, if you have children or are married, to save a wolf’s? If so, why, exactly, would that be the ethical thing to do? My position is that human beings deserve priority (which is not the same as absolute and unquestionable advantage) for two reasons: one, they are our closest kin (parochial, yes, but I can’t help empathize with a human more than with a wolf); two, because they are sentient and self-conscious. No, I don’t think the latter is an arbitrary value: “rights,” for instance, are a human construct that can only be understood and applied by humans. Surely that gives us a bit of a special consideration compared to wolves, no matter how good the latter are at pack hunting. If you don’t buy this and are not a humanist, what are you, and why?


  1. To call that response thoughtful I think is far too generous. But then again, I already had my dog in the race for humanism.

    Rowland seems to willfully be ignorant that most humanists do argue that our ethical concerns should extend to the environment and animals. Isn't Peter Singer a humanist? (Or do I just presume he is because he writes for Free Inquiry?)

    I always thought the point of differentiating humanism from religious ideologies is to acknowledge human responsibility for our future and the planet. That there is no God to step in and save his creation.

    To a certain extent, yes humanism does put priority on the welfare of human beings, and it would be completely irrational for that not to include the health of the earth's ecosystems.

    Few humanists would argue against efforts to protect habitats to slow and stop mass extinctions that are occurring now.

    Of course, what he is really arguing for is some kind of moral equivalency between humans and animals.

    So how and where would we draw the line? Would this mean protecting the habitats of malaria carrying mosquitos? Should taking lethal measures against rats to protect grain supplies then be off limits as well?

    I guess the question that needs to be put to Rowlands is what PRACTICAL alternative to humanism does he suggest? Does he honestly think there is any possiblity for success in a ideology that argues that human welfare be considered of equivalent concern to that of animals?

    Seems to me that the greatest hope for reducing damage to the natural world is to argue for it in the contexts of humanities' welfare.

  2. "My position is that human beings deserve priority..."

    I'm agree. Another reason could be that without doubt our ancestors had been struggling for the continuity of our specie. No I'm not a selfish man. I think there is another emergent properties when one realize this activity (to struggle). One realize that is impossible that the humanity will be able to survive without using reason, rejecting supernatural beliefs and preserving the environment.

  3. I would more than happily sacrifice a Sarah Palin or a Todd Palin or a gun toting, tobacco chewin, hummer driving, Jesus idolizing, willfully ignorant, small business owning, money grubbing, "pro"-life, right wingnut conservative freak show to save a wolf, bear, moose, or caribou, any day. Sorry, to me there are some cases where the animal is more important than the person.

    Some animal groups are I believe sentient and self aware to a certain degree, including dolphins, whales, primates, parrots, and elephants. There is some experimental evidence that indicates self awareness among elephants for example.

    As a biologist and a humanist I believe in a reverence, respect, empathy, love, and curiosity toward life and that we should as individuals and as societies organize our lives to minimize the suffering of living things and damage to ecosystems as much as possible. In fact I think it should be a measure of our success as a civilization.

  4. And the thing about trading the life of a kid for an animal, that doesn't even rate as a question. Who thinks up that kind of retarded stuff anyway?

    I work at this place for "at risk" children. The reasons kids are there could be a matter of economics, physical problems, protective custody, etc. And tho these are not my children, I love them very much and I think about them and miss their beautiful little faces when I'm not at work. And if some unfortunate "endangered species" happened to trot in there one day and tried to snatch or harm a little one, I'd just have to go to jail. Any other response just is not acceptable.

    No matter how poor or physically disadvantaged, children are not even to be compared in worth to animals.

    People who think up such obnoxious situational ethics nonsense ought to "sacrifice" their own selfish butts for something meaningful & REAL FOR ONCE.

  5. "My position is that human beings deserve priority (which is not the same as absolute and unquestionable advantage.."

    That's right.

    I thought at first that you were at least partially interested in also questioning the worth of children vs animals. My mistake. That was the other wing nut.

  6. caliana

    "And if some unfortunate 'endangered species' happened to trot in there one day and tried to snatch or harm a little one, I'd just have to go to jail. Any other response just is not acceptable."


    "People who think up such obnoxious situational ethics nonsense..."

    The hypocrisy is beautiful.

  7. joseph,
    do you know what situational ethics are?

    AND do you honestly believe that one can place MORE value on an endangered species than a child?

    If it WAS A MATTER OF THE LAST EAGLE left on earth and the life your little baby girl or boy WHAT ARE YOU GONNA DO?

    But maybe you don't want children.
    Okay, so then lets put it this way. You're hanging off the cliff...(you and the last eagle on the earth)...one of you or the other is going to have to die. Who is it going to be, you or her?

    That what situational ethics "doctrine" works like.

    Arbitrary value allocation.

  8. Massmimo,

    The usual objection I hear to my call for reason over faith, is that believing in reason itself is a leap of faith -- that is, I have faith that reason is the best way to work out our ethics, etc.

    Now, humans in general usually like to believe in what they believe based on good reasons. Fideism, for instance, is a load of you-know-what: faith itself is based on the belief that a God actually exists.

    And while we can at least show there is no evidence to support the existence of any of the Gods religion puts on the table, we can sit down and put reason to the test -- and, in my experiences and studies, it has been shown to come up with the best of answers to questions of ethics, etc.

  9. Michael,

    yeah, the "but reason is just another faith" argument is as stupid and annoying as the "science is a religion" or "atheism is a religion" mantras.

    I don't know why it is that so many people find it compelling. First off, it is nonsense, as you point out. Second, since saying that "reason is faith" is meant to be derogatory, how can then these same people turn around and say that faith is the most valuable thing we have?

    Oh, right, I was looking for logic, another "faith"...

  10. Logic, being more of an invention of the Greeks, Faith, Hebraic in origin, do not always extremely work well together. But to some people that's okay. The two working together is a matter of how one applies each consideration appropriately and at the right time. There are those, like myself, who understand that logic just doesn't cover everything that one could possibly confront in life. And that we're not just mere machines or computers, ya know.

    And Atheists certainly do use a form of "faith". Faith at least at a fundamental level that Atheism will work. Keep in mind as well that most of what an Atheist is working towards, he or she cannot see or touch either. IE. most of the process of Atheism is also pretty much in ones head.

    But, of course, people do eventually expect material results. As do people of faith with a "F".

  11. What do you mean that we have faith atheism will "work" -- or will show "material results"? I'm not sure what sort of material results working atheism can produce, as it is merely the denial of gods and religion. Are you speaking of ethics based in humanism?

    Thing is, none of us can see or predict the future, but we can base decisions on all of the knowledge we have at the moment. Whether or not it will work sometimes, or most times, cannot entirely be controlled by us, but that doesn't make our decision any less ethical, or steeped in reason and/or truth.

    I suppose it depends on how you'd like to twist the definition of faith. To me, an atheist does not have faith by denying a claim that is based on insufficient evidence. As it stands, to believe that sort of claim is to take it on faith. There are good reasons to be an atheist.


  12. Thanks for performing this thankless task.

    You spent some time a few weeks ago offering (deserved) criticism of zombie arguments in the philosophy of mind, but Rowlands seems to be plumbing new depths. His procedure: Consult several dictionaries to get a sense of a rich intellectual tradition. Generate a comparative claim that none of the definitions support. Make a wildly implausible argument from conversational implicature (a fairly fuzzy-headed procedure on the best of occasions), supported only by analogies to historically suspect classifications. Then petulantly accuse others of making a nonsensical leap of faith. Oh, and be sure to mention that time with the wolf.

    Rowlands has made a habit of writing flashy, but severely irresponsible posts. Is anybody in charge of quality control over at "Secular Philosophy?"

  13. I enjoyed this essay and it is an important topic. I agree down the line and yet even more could be said.

    As a father I acknowledge the unavoidable and indisputable fact that I CARE about my children, wife, family, friends, and fellow humans more than I care about mosquitoes. I care more about cats, dogs, monkeys, apes, dolphins, elephants, pigs, etc. than about snakes, bacteria, spiders, and other more annoying (to me) critters.

    The fact is that this is perfectly natural, which in and of itself does not make it right or wrong, but it still cannot be denied that there is a relationship to what we care about and the moral code we ARE ABLE TO FOLLOW.

    A moral code that equates the life of my child with the life of an ant, as some extreme animal rights advocates (e.g.: PETA founders) propose is impossible to abide by. A successful moral code that includes concern compassion and concern towards non-humans must take into account what we are naturally inclined to care about.

    At this point in human evolution, most persons are not able to happily become vegetarians, for example. What could be on the table, especially if all food scarcity problems could be solved, would be the humane processing of all animal sources of food. That is something that could realistically be achieved, particularly if human population is also controlled.

    A moral code designed for the perfectly compassionate being is doomed to failure and fails to take into account our personal quest for happiness. We have evolved to want what we want and in evolution, change is slow and almost imperceptible. To change humanity for omnivore to vegetarian suddenly may not be physically possible.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.