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
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?