Opening Words from Sun. December 10: “The Burden and the Blessing of Ethical Humanism” by George Salamon

How do we know what is ethical? What behavior is or is not morally permissible? Ethical humanists discuss and debate these and similar questions rationally and passionately. It distinguishes their “ism” from most others because they are satisfied to come away from pondering these topics with fragments and slivers of answers, even with conflicting ones. The discomfort of their uncertainty shapes their humane approach to figuring out how they should live a good life, treat others and help shape a decent society.

This approach was born with the Renaissance “Bible,” a book published in 1496 titled “Oration on the Dignity of Man.” In it the author changes man’s role in the world from following any orthodoxy or authority to standing “at the center of the world” so that “from there he can see what’s in it.” And determine from what he (or she) sees what he can know, how he should live and what he can expect. Ethical humanism followed the example of Socrates, and by doing what he did—asking these questions over and over—developed doubt about the answers received. Doubt that answers, provided through the vision and reasoning of one human or one doctrine, should be accepted and guide our philosophy of life. Such doubt leads to never-ending questioning, with one question uncoiling into the next one.

While some philosophers’ answers are accepted as absolute guides, such as the one that people should never be used just as means to other people’s ends, the morality of human endeavors in public and private life are questioned and the conflicting values that infuse these endeavors analyzed and weighed. By doing this, Ethical Humanists do not slide smoothly into the comfort blanket of an ideology or belief-system. They choose to live with the psychological discomfort of their doubt-induced uncertainty and the consciousness of what is moral and what is immoral or evil based on what they see and what they can know.

And that prevents them from accepting ideologies or beliefs that are inhuman and evil but propels them to judge and oppose them. Because they know that “where people believe absurdities, they commit atrocities.”

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.