By Richard Norman, Emeritus Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Kent. Richard is a Patron of Humanists UK and author of the book On Humanism.
In this article, Richard acknowledges that we cannot literally 'act for everyone'. Acting for others means fulfilling our responsibilities to particular others with whom we stand in particular relationships, and it means trying to promote the greater good more widely.
“Think for yourself, act for everyone.” It’s a catchy slogan, with what looks like a nice balance between thinking and doing, and between the individual and society. If we’re looking for six words to encapsulate humanism, these six do the job well, but we can understand humanism even better if we unpack some of the complexities which lie behind them.
Think for yourself? Well, in a sense we have no option. No one can make up my mind for me. Only I can decide what I believe. But of course we don’t think in a vacuum. We couldn’t think at all except in a shared culture, with a language which we inherit, and that immediately shapes a great deal of what we think.
"...it’s that uncritical conformism that humanism seeks to challenge"
It does so in positive ways. Our thinking is enriched by the traditions on which we draw. But we can also be trapped by them. All too easily we go along with the conventional thinking of our own society. We go along with accepted beliefs simply because everyone else does. In a sense it’s our decision to do so, but it’s a decision to conform uncritically rather than ask whether those beliefs are actually true – and it’s that uncritical conformism that humanism seeks to challenge. The majority of religious believers, for instance, accept those beliefs because they’re what their parents and their neighbours believe. “Think for yourself” is an exhortation to make better use of our human powers of reason and judgement.
How far is that possible? Again it’s important to recognise that we depend on the judgements and achievements of others. Humanism rightly emphasises, for instance, the immense achievements of the sciences in enlarging our understanding of the world, but most of us are not scientists, and even the scientists among us are typically experts in only a narrow field. Practising scientists work within a tradition. Newton said "if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Darwin began The Origin of Species with ‘An Historical Sketch of the Progress of Opinion on the Origin of Species’. And those of us who are not scientists rightly and inevitably rely on the authority of those who are.
What’s important, however, is that we should understand why we do so. That means trying to understand, as best we can, the nature of scientific method and enquiry – and recognising that there’s more to it than just being ‘based on evidence’. It means trying to understand how the great scientific theories and discoveries of the past have been arrived at. And then it means thinking critically about the wider implications of scientific knowledge for our understanding of the world around us, of ourselves and how we should live.
Sounds like hard work? Well, it is. “Thinking for yourself” is not supposed to be easy. It’s a challenge, but in the end a satisfying one, and one which we should try to meet.
"If it’s my daughter’s birthday, the practical decision I have to make is what to buy for her, not how to benefit the whole of humanity."
What about “act for everyone”? Taken literally, it’s impossible. Again, it’s obvious and important that we act in a context, and the context largely determines who is affected by our actions and whose interests we should consider. If it’s my daughter’s birthday, the practical decision I have to make is what to buy for her, not how to benefit the whole of humanity.
That is characteristic of the practical and ethical questions we typically face. They are questions about what we should do for particular others – whether and how to help a friend in need, how to deal with a difficult work colleague, how to support a neighbour struggling with disability, whether to oppose a proposed housing development which will provide much-needed homes for local people but will destroy the peace and quiet of the neighbourhood. These are questions about how best to act for others – but the answer is not ‘Act for everyone’.
However, it’s also important sometimes to stand back from our immediate situation and respond to the wider picture, to ask ourselves what we can do to support others in our society who can’t afford food or heating, whether to help those whose lives are being destroyed by war or famine in other parts of the world, what we can do to combat global warming and environmental destruction and protect our world for future generations. In the words of the Roman poet, ‘Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’ – I am a human being, I do not regard anything human as foreign to me. Central to humanism is the recognition of the deep-seated human capacity for empathy, the fact that we are moved by the joys and sufferings of our fellow human beings. We do not necessarily act on it, but it is the starting point for thinking about the needs of others. And that is what is captured by our six-word slogan.
Again, however, we cannot literally act for everyone. The wider the scale on which we act, the more obvious it is that there are conflicts of interest, and that in acting for some we inevitably act against the interests of others. A philosophical principle that could be appealed to at this point is ‘the equal consideration of interests’ – the idea that if our actions are going to affect others whose interests conflict, we have to weigh up and balance those conflicting interests, but give equal weight to each person, not privilege some over others. In the words of the 18th-century humanist philosopher Jeremy Bentham, “Everybody to count for one, nobody for more than one.”
Bentham understood this as leading to his ethical theory of utilitarianism: when faced with conflicts of interest, add up the benefits and losses for everyone and do what will produce the greatest happiness overall. Many humanists would follow him in that, and it has an obvious commonsense plausibility. Do the most good. I think that it’s often the right and rational answer, but I also think that there are limits. To put it simply, there are some things you shouldn’t do to people, however much others might benefit as a result. You can’t justify racism or genocide or slavery by appealing to any amount of advantage that others might get from such practices. We mark out these limits with the language of rights, and this is another essential component of humanist ethics. It’s not acceptable to promote the greater good by sacrificing those whose fundamental human rights are overridden.
Why not? Because then the talk of ‘weighing up’ competing interests ceases to apply. You can’t say to the slave: It’s bad luck for you but the suffering of you and your fellow slaves is outweighed by the great benefits which slavery produces for others. Hers is the only life she has, and if her life is sacrificed for the greater good of others, nothing can compensate for that. The loss is absolute.
So we’re returned to the importance of the individual, and it turns out that that balance between the individual and the social in our humanist slogan has to be replicated within the two halves of the slogan. Think for yourself, as an individual – but of course you do so in a social context and you depend on the thinking of others. Act for others – our ethical lives reflect our social nature – but those others are individuals, each with their own unique and irreplaceable human life. Acting for others means fulfilling our responsibilities to particular others with whom we stand in particular relationships, and it means trying to promote the greater good more widely, but it also means respecting the basic human rights of each individual human being.