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Why I Am a Humanist

3. The Good Life

What is a good knife? What is a good life?

I now want to say a little about the humanist conception of the good life. What is a worthwhile life and how ought we live it? The three humanist principles I've just described, I think, give us a way to think about what it is to lead a good life. First, let me distinguish the humanist view of a good life from other ways of looking at the question.

You could think that asking the question, 'What is a good life?', is like asking, 'What is a good knife?' How do we answer, 'What is a good knife?' Well, by first asking, 'What is the function of a knife?' It's to cut. A good knife, then, is a knife that cuts well. That is, it has an easy to grip handle, has a sharp blade, and so on. The salient point here is that what makes for a good knife is determined by the purpose of a knife. And a knife's purpose is not given by the knife itself. The purpose of a knife is external to the knife itself.

Now, you may think that humans are like that. You may think that a good human life is determined by the function—the purpose—of a human. And like knives, the purpose of a human is dictated to humans from outside.

Book cover: Exploring Happiness: From Aristotle to Brain Science by Sissela Bok

In contrast to this way of thinking, a humanist thinks that human beings determine their own purpose; that humans have no function that is dictated from above or beyond. This thinking is in line with the humanist principle of autonomy and dignity that I shared with you. Each of us has plans and projects that we wish to pursue. Some embark on a lifetime of service to the poor and dispossessed. Some want to build the best model railways ever. Some devote their lives to finding a cure for autism or to discovering what's inside a black hole or to bringing pleasure to others through music. Global studies by Ortiz-Ospina et al [Happiness and Life Satisfaction, Our World in Data, 2017] on happiness and well-being show that the happiest, most contented people are those who can determine their own life trajectory without it having dictated to them. So, for a humanist, this is part of what it is to lead a good life.

The second principle I mentioned, compassion and equality, complements the value of a life that is lived pursuing one's own plans and interests. To live a 'good' life—that is, a life that has moral value and not simply one that satisfies its owner—is to live a life of compassion and justice. For a humanist, though, living a good life does not require you to live like a saint, sacrificing your happiness and well-being entirely for the benefit of others. That would be to deprive yourself of your own dignity and value. To live a good life, however, does mean alleviating the sufferings of others where you can and fighting for justice—the equal treatment of others—where you see people being treated unfairly. Again, research by Ortiz-Ospina et al [Happiness and Life Satisfaction, Our World in Data, 2017] and Helliwell et al [World Happiness Report 2019, 2019] shows that for people whose lives are deeply embedded within their families and communities, they live more fulfilling and satisfying lives. Living in service to others not only enriches their lives, but also your own.

The first humanist principle, reason and evidence, also plays an important role in living the good life. This may sound counterintuitive. What has reasoning correctly got to do with living a moral life? Let me give you an example. In 2017, BBC [The Dying Officer Treated for Cancer with Baking Soda, Yeo et al] reported on what happened to Naima, a cancer patient. Naima foregoes cancer treatment for an expensive quack cure. She dies prematurely, robbing her of another few years of productive life and robbing her parents of their daughter. Her untimely death was good for no one; not for her, not for her family and not for all of her friends who cared about her. [See also Alternative Medicine Kills Cancer Patients, Study Finds, Real Clear Science, Pomeroy, 2017]

Here is another example of how ignoring reason and evidence detracts from living a good life. I run Humanists Victoria's Ex-Religious Support Network (ESN). In my work, I hear all too often stories from people who left a very strict and controlling religious sect. To their deep regret and sadness, they feel that much of their life had been wasted. Within the sect, they were not allowed to have birthday parties, to dance and sing, search the internet and to go to university. The imposition of these irrational religious constraints, they felt, stole from them their childhood and early adult years.

Book cover: The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer

Perhaps the most alarming example on a global scale of how turning a blind eye to reason and evidence can rob us of a good life is our current climate catastrophe. If the world's governments continue to ignore the scientific evidence, with the inevitable result that our climate passes the global warming tipping point, billions of people will suffer. Billions will be impacted by increased storms, bush fires and floods, food and water shortages, rising sea levels and wars over scarce resources.

To finish up on a more positive note, I want to emphasize that for a humanist, there is not one way and one way only of living a good life. We each have our own talents and drives to make this world a better place and in a way that is uniquely ours. Humanism is a truly pluralist world view that cherishes diversity, both in thought and action. Humanists are striving for a more tolerant world in which all of us can reach our potential while respecting the rights and freedoms of our fellow world citizens.

So, today I shared with you what attracted me to the humanist outlook; principally, its respect for reason and science and its deep engagement with the world. I outlined what I see as the three key principles of humanism—reason and evidence, compassion and equality, and autonomy and dignity. I ended with the humanist conception of what it is to lead a good life. At its heart, it's a life in which we continually search for the truth and strive to enrich the lives of others. Thank you.

Copyright © 2020

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