A reading of the 3rd article in the humanist manifesto informs us: “We affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction. Ethics stems from human need and interest.”
In other words, for the secular humanist it is man that is the only standard by which behaviour is to be assessed. Human beings are thus the sole arbiter on matters of justice & law and right & wrong. In other words, as the Encyclopaedia Americana puts it: “Since there is no God, man is the creator of his own values” (1).
This logic, to John Hick, follows: “There is no God; therefore no absolute values and no absolute laws” (2) while the atheist writer Joseph Lewis, in a similar vein, comments:
“There is in reality no absolute standard by which we judge… In the final analysis our guide in moral affairs should be that which gives to the individual the greatest possible happiness.’ (3)
Anthony Freeman, who is a “Christian Humanist” (which is anything but Christian. In other words, he does not believe in a supernatural God, heaven, an afterlife, or the authority of the Bible) comes to the same conclusion as other secular humanists:
“Not only the absolute existing-out-there God has gone. So have the absolute existing out-there values such as peace, joy, goodness, beauty, love, etc. … The only difference from the old idea that they were created by God is that we now acknowledge them to be ours: we made them and therefore we must look after them, cherish them and commit ourselves to them, because no one else is going to” (4).
These voices thus affirm the manifesto’s claim that moral values are rooted in human experience, interest and need. In other words, no objective standard exists in which we can ground moral obligations. But, I believe, that this runs into several noticeable problems.
Firstly, for example, if we rule out a transcendent moral standard (i.e. a standard that could only exist if a transcendent being exists, i.e. God) morality becomes subjective. If so, then no-can really say that any act (rape, murder, genocide or whatever else) is objectively morally wrong. Why? Simply because it is the opinion of one human being against that of another. Thus morality is relative. Discerning what is morally right and wrong is nothing but a matter of personal taste. If, for the psychopath, doing good is culling all the elderly people in a given population to sustain the rest, one could not call this evil in the objective sense. It is only one’s personal taste that culling elderly people is morally wrong. Essentially we can pick and choose what morals sound good to us.
The manifesto also lacks consistency at least in the way that it is not possible to live it out consistently. For example, people’s views are always shifting as we’ve seen when it comes to homosexuality, drugs, racism, divorce etc. The manifesto also says that ethics and values are based on “human experience… need and interest.” But how can the secular humanist ever dream of a stable society, or personal happiness (a major goal for the humanist), or even believe that such is possible if the very foundations for ethics & morality constantly shift? But what is even meant by “human experience”? Or human “need and interest”? These are subjective preferences in many ways. And if so then who is the mediator over whose values are correct and whose aren’t? I don’t see how anyone can argue for a universal adoption of one’s own subjective ethics.
The only resolution, as far as I see, is that of a transcendent law, but on secular humanism that doesn’t exist. For the secular humanist, the naturalist, the atheist, this thorn remains.
1. Encyclopaedia Americana, vol. 1, p. 604.
2. Hick, J. 1964. The Existence of God. p. 186.
3. Lewis, J. 1926. The Bible Unmasked. p.15.
4. Freeman, A. 1993. God in Us. p.69-70.