Humanists are often asked how we could make moral decisions without divinely delivered moral absolutes. Really, the more important question is not whether a moral conclusion is absolute but whether a moral conclusion is arbitrary or thoughtfully based on good reasons.
Let’s take the recent visit of the Pope for example. The Pope spoke about the need to address climate change, social justice, peace, cooperation, and human rights related to freedom of thought and immigration. As people who value the process of science, Humanists recognize the need to deal with climate change. The social sciences have demonstrated the benefits of societies where there is a just distribution of resources. People are social by nature and benefit from peace and cooperation. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was established to counter the harm to people’s quality of life coming from the failures to support human rights. To support human rights means supporting principles that we could fairly want applied to both ourselves and others. In short, some of the Pope’s suggestions could be supported with good reasons and were long ago supported by Humanists in documents like the Humanist Manifesto II and III.
And yet, the Pope supports the arbitrary division of people into two genders and the limitation of people’s lives based on that division. Arbitrary policies related to gender have led to women being unable to take leadership roles, same sex couples not having their marriages recognized, and transgendered people being degraded. While many virtues can be supported by authority, traditions, and habitual ways of thinking, there are times that harm comes from the failure to take a more thoughtful approach. It is also doubtful that a thoughtful person would want to be treated as many have by patriarchal systems.
A thoughtful approach to moral issues avoids unnecessary harm to self, others, and the world. A thoughtful approach involves principles that someone would apply both to self and others. People with good reasons for moral conclusions don’t ask questions like “where do you get your morals?” They see we’re all bound by the facts, options, consequences, and feelings of people affected by issues. A better question might be this: how could people reach wholesome moral conclusions without giving things some thought?
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