The Affirmative Ethics
of Humanism

The author stresses the joy of life and working for the
good of the community, using reason and
scientific method for the solution of ethical problems.

Corliss Lamont

In explaining the philosophy of naturalistic Humanism, Humanists have stressed its rejection of the supernatural myths of the traditional religions such as the ideas of personal immortality and a personal God, from whom one can receive help in response to prayer. This God not only is supposed to have created the universe, but in his guise of Divine Providence is guiding individual human beings and guaranteeing the whole of humanity a successful culmination of its career. The exposure of these myths through the use of scientific method and strict philosophic analysis is for Humanism important and essential. But over-emphasis on this part of the Humanist credo has led to the notion that this philosophy is primarily for intellectuals and one that does not appeal to the average person.

     My response to all this is that greater stress on Humanism's affirmative ethics of creativity and joy is a more effective way of presenting the Humanist philosophy to the public. Humanism welcomes all life-enhancing and healthy pleasures, from the rollicking enjoyments of youth to the contemplative delights of mellowed age, from the simple gratifications of sports and the out-doors, to the more complex appreciation of art and literature, drama and cinema, friendship and social communion. Humanists believe in the beauty of love and the love of beauty. All the many-sided possibilities for good in human living the Humanist would weave into a sustained pattern of happiness under the guidance of reason. Exuberance is the watchword of the Humanist ethic.

     The greatest difference between the Humanist ethic and that of Christianity and the traditional religions is that it is entirely based on happiness in this one and only life and not concerned with a realm of supernatural immortality and the glory of God. Humanism denies the philosophical and psychological dualism of soul and body and contends that a human being is a oneness of mind, personality, and physical organism. Christian insistence on the resurrection of the body and personal immortality has often cut the nerve of effective action here and now, and has led to the neglect of present human welfare and happiness.

     Thus, Monsignor William T. Greene, a Catholic prelate in the United States, stated in reference to the Korean War of 1950-1953, that "death in battle was part of God's plan for populating the kingdom of heaven." And a captain in the US Army wrote me, in criticism of my book, The Illusion of Immortality, that it could ruin the morale of our soldiers by taking away their belief in an afterlife. "We in the Army," he said, "regard death as no more important than a nosebleed." Such apologies for international war are, in my opinion, downright immoral.

     Humanism asserts that it is folly to forego this-earthly pleasures in order to keep the soul pure so it will surely be accepted into a heaven that in any case is non-existent. The Humanist rejects entirely the puritanical aspects of Christianity and affirms the ethical right of enjoying to the utmost the goods of this existence. He or she disclaims the existence of Christian "original sin" with its inception in the act of procreation, and decries the over-emphasis on sex that the Christian Church has officially disseminated for almost 2000 years. Ethical principles apply to every field of human endeavor. In the Humanist ethic, business, politics, and international relations are just as important as sex.

     Humanists make no apologies for carrying out the hedonistic counsel of "Eat, drink, and be merry." But for the Humanist such hedonism takes place only in times of vacation and recreation, be it during the summer, during weekends, during the evening, or during a honeymoon of marital bliss. The pure, unalloyed enjoyment of such periods is neither inconsistent with nor opposed to hard work in an important job or dedicated effort on behalf of a great cause or causes. In fact, plenty of pleasure and recreation is likely to make one a better worker and citizen in general.

     Humanist ethics takes a liberal view on sex relations, while insisting that high standards of conduct be maintained. It contends that the institution of marriage, despite its obvious faults, plays an indispensable role in the good life and the happy life. But every state should legally allow either party in a marriage to obtain a speedy, no-fault divorce on the grounds of incompatibility alone. We must take the lock out of wedlock. The double standard in sex relations must also be eliminated, with women having complete equality with men in every relevant way. American Humanists naturally back strongly the Equal Rights Amendment.

     In intimate sex relations, lovers are at their best when they combine a keen sense of beauty with a healthy eroticism and sexuality. This quality of eroto-aesthetic sensitivity is fundamental. Of equal significance is the deep-going awareness of tenderness and intimacy in sexual communion, the warm, wonderful sense of physical and spiritual oneness with the beloved, the feeling of exultation and exaltation at the same time. When love is experienced in these ways, it becomes a powerful antidote to the loneliness that at times besets the human creature.

     The greatest danger in matrimony, I think, is lack of variety. Most marriage partners need more diversity in sex interplay than they can give each other and should therefore have ample contacts with friends of the opposite sex outside the family circle. The high rate of divorce in the United states and other countries may be primarily due to husband and wife getting bored with each other. A relative of mine, after her husband had retired from business at the age of sixty-six and was at home most of the time, remarked to me in some alarm that in her marriage vows she had promised to take him for better or for worse, but not for lunch every day!

     D. H. Lawrence gives his poetic version of why variety is needed in sex relations:

Since you are confined in the orbit of me
do you not loathe the confinement?
Is not even the beauty and peace of an orbit
an intolerable prison to you,
as it is to everybody?

     Another fundamental difference between Humanist and Christian ethics is that Humanism relies on reason and modern scientific method to show the way and does not have faith in prayer, divine revelation, or a supernatural God for the solution of ethical or other problems. Nor do we Humanists accept the word of astrology, to which thirty million Americans give credence, or other esoteric cults. We do not always have time to utilize the experiment and verification that scientific method requires; in that case we fall back on ordinary intelligence to do the job. Also the Humanist does not rule out intuition. Drinking our second or third Martini at a New Year's cocktail party, we may suddenly intuit a wonderful new idea. It may be true, but we must not admit it into our realm of truth until, completely sober, we have checked on it by intelligence or scientific method.

     A significant point here is that while we always try to follow general ethical principles, most ethical decisions arise in differing situations and must be considered on an individualistic basis. In each case we must evaluate the consequences of a definite decision and also survey the relevant alternatives. Let us look at the ethics of driving an automobile. On one of the big highways or turnpikes it is relatively safe to drive as fast as fifty-five or sixty miles an hour. But when we enter a town the situation drastically changes and auto ethics demands that we slow down to twenty-five or even a lesser speed.

     One of the chief issues in ethics that philosophers have been arguing about since the age of the ancient Greeks is that of self-interest in relation to altruism. It has frequently been phrased as the false dichotomy of self-interest versus altruism. The Humanist ethic demonstrates that there need be no hostility between the two. The theory that everyone invariably acts from self-interest is psychologically unsound. John Dewey exposed the simple fallacy involved by stating that it consists "in transforming the (truistic) fact of acting as a self into the fiction of always acting for self.

     Clearly self-interest is essential, if only to eat enough food and maintain good health. Especially is self-interest valid during youth, in acquiring an education so that the individual can earn a living and be of genuine use to society. All decent parents do their best for their children, while at the same time exercising self-interest in jobs that provide necessary income. And loving children will reciprocate when their father and mother are beset by old age.

     Under the capitalist system, with the profit motive predominant in business and economic affairs, self-interest obviously plays a fundamental role. Even so, in the day-to-day life of the average individual and family, self-interest and altruism can be harmoniously integrated in striving for Humanist goals. The highest Humanist ethical aim is the community good, with the community being one's family, one's city, one's college, one's state, one's nation, or all humanity, which is the ultimate community. The community good is to be achieved not merely through individual regeneration, as in Christianity, but also through social cooperation and the reconstruction of basic institutions.

     The supreme ethical end for Humanists is the worldwide community good, that is, the welfare, progress, and happiness of the entire human race, irrespective of nation, race, sex, or economic status. This of course implies the complete abolition of nationalist and racial prejudice. The Humanist has a compassionate concern for all fellow human beings. The word love we reserve for friends and family. But we can feel compassion even for criminals and tyrants.

     It follows, from the Humanist's concern for humankind as a whole, that international peace is a prime ethical objective. In working for peace the Humanist again combines self-interest with altruism. The Humanist wants to preserve his or her own life as well as the lives of fellow humans. It behooves the Humanist to make every possible effort for the successful functioning of the United Nations and for the permanent establishment of international peace.

     The ethics of Humanism is frankly eclectic and incorporates whatever seems relevant from other philosophies or religions, even while rejecting their metaphysics or theologies. At least four of the Old Testament Ten commandments can be accepted in the Humanist ethics: "Thou shalt not steal," "Thou shalt not kill," "Honor thy father and thy mother," "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor." There is also much ethical wisdom in the New Testament and the teachings of Jesus. Humanists welcome the words of Jesus when he says: "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly," and "The truth shall make you free." We can complete this quotation from Jesus by stating, "Falsehood shall make you slaves."

     There can be nothing more important in any ethical system than affirming the pursuit of the truth. In the United States especially since the 1960s, lying by both public officials and many private business people established a new record. And downright graft and corruption in city and state governments has mounted to new levels. Politicians and presidents continually violate both Humanist and Christian ethics.

     Still another ethical imperative for Humanism is support of political democracy and civil liberties. Since Humanists rely primarily on reason and scientific method for the solution of all problems, they necessarily uphold freedom of expression in all fields of human endeavor. Resort to threats or violence is ruled out as a method of settling disputes. Only free speech can ensure that the vast array of ideas gestating in the community mind can be presented publicly without fear of suppression or punishment. One hundred percent actualization of the American Bill of Rights would provide such a guarantee, but, as we know, this is far from the situation that has prevailed in the United States during the twentieth century.

     I myself have actively participated in the struggle to maintain the Bill of Rights since 1932, first on the board of directors of the American Civil Liberties Union and then as chairperson of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee. As a radical, a civil libertarian, a peace-worker, and an advocate of American-soviet cooperation and disarmament agreements, I have been hounded all this time by both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency. The FBI, which had a file on me of more than 2000 pages, reached the climax of its protecting America from subversion when in 1961 it quizzed teacher and author John Kenneth Galbraith to clear him for his appointment as Ambassador to India by President Kennedy. "Why," the FBI man sternly asked Galbraith, "were you living fourteen years ago in the same apartment house on Riverside Drive as Corliss Lamont?" This suspicious cohabitation occurred when both Galbraith and I were teaching at Columbia University and happened to reside in a Columbia-owned apartment house. This incident is a major reason why my private name for the FBI is "Federal Bureau of Idiots."

     The CIA also kept a big file on me. And when Leonard Boudin, my brilliant constitutional lawyer, obtained most of the papers in it, he discovered that the CIA had illegally and unconstitutionally opened and thermofaxed fifty-five pieces of mail sent to me from the Soviet Union or sent by me to that country. My correspondent there was an economist who had taught at several American universities. In our letters we discussed economics, politics, and international relations. The CIA was extremely disappointed that we were not plotting to overthrow the United States Government.

     I sued the CIA for $100,000 for their unconstitutional action and invasion of my privacy. Although the judge in the case awarded me only $2000, it constituted an important victory for civil liberties. Other plaintiffs suing the CIA on the same basis as mine received only $1000. My larger award was owing to the fact that the judge was particularly incensed over the CIA's reading two love letters that I had written my wife. Clearly, I should have written more love letters!

     Finally, a viable Humanist ethics proceeds on the conviction that the human individual has true freedom of choice at the moment of making a decision, whether important or unimportant. A human being is conditioned by many factors, including the genes of ancestors, personalities of the parents, education, state of health, the nature of the work, and the law of gravity. Causal sequences follow from all such factors. Yet at the moment of choosing between two or more alternatives a spark of real freedom, genuine initiative, exists. The final choice, however, is always limited. For instance, you must always obey the dictates of gravity. You cannot jump out of a tenth-floor window and expect to fly like a bird. Or in the simple act of ordering a meal in a restaurant, your selections must be within the limits of the offered menu.

     The free-will problem is usually stated as "freedom versus determinism." But actually the solution of it must recognize that in this complex world it is a question of freedom and determinism. Determinism, the strict law of cause and effect, is not omnipotent; both chance and human freedom can intervene. Your automobile operates throughout in a deterministic way, but it is you and not the auto that decides where it is to go. In a highly mechanized society like that of the United States we rely on deterministic devices much of the time, whether in driving a car, cooking a meal in gas or electric ovens, or in turning on an electric light. But the person in charge, and not the machines, maintains control through exercising freedom of choice.

     I emphasize the matter of free choice because if determinism rules us entirely, we are mere automatons, and ethics of any sort has no relevance. If what we decide and do, what is good or bad, are determined by unending cause-effect sequences, stretching far back into the past, we would thereby lose all moral responsibility. Praise for good actions and blame for bad become meaningless.


There is much more that can be said about Humanist ethics and additional points that could be elucidated. But I have presented what I think are the eleven main points that I now summarize:

     First, Humanist ethics is concerned wholly with actions, ideals, and values on this earth in our one and only life. The utopia that is heaven must be built in this world or not at all.

     Second, Humanist ethics is an affirmative one of joy and happiness, repudiating the Christian idea of original sin in human beings and any sense of puritanism. It adopts the old saying "While we're here, let's live in clover; for when we're dead, we're dead all over." Humanism rejects the Christian over-emphasis on sex morality and applies ethical principles to every aspect of human endeavor.

     Third, Humanist ethics holds a liberal view on sex relations, but insists on high standards of conduct and believes in the institution of marriage, with easy divorce and some latitude of sexual variety for husband and wife.

     Fourth, Humanist ethics relies on reason and scientific method in working out ethical decisions and has no use for prayer or divine guidance by some supernatural being.

     Fifth, while Humanism believes in general ethical principles, most ethical decisions must be considered on an individualistic basis that evaluates the probable consequences and possible alternatives.

     Sixth, in the age-long dialogue on self-interest versus altruism, Humanist ethics sees a false dichotomy and claims that a man or woman can harmoniously combine relative self-interest and relative altruism in working for the community good.

     Seventh, the community good is one's family, one's city, one's college, one's state, one's nation, or all humanity; with the happiness and progress of the entire human race as the ultimate community good and the supreme ethical aim of Humanism.

     Eighth, it follows from ordinary self-interest and the Humanist's concern for fellow humans that international peace is a principal ethical objective. This is more true today than ever before in view of the terrible nuclear weapons that have been developed and which threaten, if used in a war, the existence of all humankind.

     Ninth, the ethics of Humanism is eclectic and incorporates whatever seems relevant from other philosophies or religions. For instance, many of the Christian precepts in the Old and New Testaments have an important place in the Humanist ethic.

     Tenth, supporting democracy and civil liberties is an ethical imperative for Humanism, with complete freedom of expression in every field of human endeavor.

     Eleventh, the Humanist ethic functions on the basis that human beings have true freedom of choice at the moment of making an ethical decision. Universal determinism that includes humankind would make any sort of ethics impossible and irrelevant.

     My final word is that my outline of Humanist ethics is to be considered tentative and open to criticism and improvement. My eleven points are guiding principles, not absolutes. Humanist


Corliss Lamont, recipient of the 1977 Humanist of the Year Award, taught at Columbia University for more than fifteen years. He is the author of  The Philosophy of Humanism, The Illusion of Immortality, Freedom of Choice Affirmed, and A Humanist Wedding Service. He died in 1995.

The magazine article depicted above, which appears here in slightly edited form, was originally published in the March/April 1980 issue of The Humanist (ISSN 0018-7399), Volume 40, Number 2, and is Copyright © 1980 by the American Humanist Association, 1777 T Street NW, Washington, DC 20009-7125 USA. Used with permission.

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