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 Virtuous Humanists 
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Joined: February 19th, 2012, 4:35 pm
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I recognise that there are nuances of meaning in our use of the concept of virtue, and have done some thinking about what Aristotle has to say on the subject. My own moral philosophy is really no further in depth of study than First Ordinary, but I know that utilitarianism and Kantianism also have some bearing on the concept of virtue. My question is this: Is humanism a life stance permeated with the precepts of virtue? I want to leave the notion as bald as this in order to invite comment. Your starter for...

Actually I guess that there might be some mileage in this virtue stuff for exploring modern moral controversy, not least when the Catholic Church and other religious use Aristotelianism to bolster their stand on abortion, suicide, and genetic interventions.


February 24th, 2012, 12:40 pm
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Not sure that this here humanist is virtuous, too many immoral appetites (in the eyes of some) I fear - but he tries to me ethical and feels a bit guilty when he isn't!

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February 24th, 2012, 3:18 pm
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:smile: Like you Dave B I think and worry at times about immorality and my feeling guilt about certain transgressions by thought and deed in everyday life. I consider the moral template or criterion for 'virtuous' conduct, whatever that might be, and it nags at me, nips away from moment to moment hour to hour. I tell myself that I'm a humanist and that 'humanist behaviour' if it could ever form the basis for a code of personal conduct, precludes a range of 'wrong' conduct,but then that feels a religious reaction, as if I am somehow seeking absolution.

Virtue seems to offer a default because it measures or attempts to contain, notions of excellence of character, it governs mental preconditions for action, and seems to suggest rules for moral conduct. Being non-religious most of my life I ask myself if humanism has filled a gap...one of the need for a scale of conduct which links what it is to be virtuous to a secular paradigm.

So, do I try to be a virtuous humanist as opposed to a virtuous believer? Is it in the nature of secular humanist to be more 'worthy' than say a 'Godly' Christian by virtue of her atheism? What are the Virtues anyway and do they really matter?


February 25th, 2012, 8:42 am
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So, do I try to be a virtuous humanist as opposed to a virtuous believer?
But are you not a "believer" in the precepts of humanism in order to be considered a humanist?

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February 25th, 2012, 10:35 am
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phalarope wrote:
Like you Dave B I think and worry at times about immorality and my feeling guilt about certain transgressions by thought and deed in everyday life. I consider the moral template or criterion for 'virtuous' conduct, whatever that might be, and it nags at me, nips away from moment to moment hour to hour. I tell myself that I'm a humanist and that 'humanist behaviour' if it could ever form the basis for a code of personal conduct, precludes a range of 'wrong' conduct,but then that feels a religious reaction, as if I am somehow seeking absolution.

Virtue seems to offer a default because it measures or attempts to contain, notions of excellence of character, it governs mental preconditions for action, and seems to suggest rules for moral conduct. Being non-religious most of my life I ask myself if humanism has filled a gap...one of the need for a scale of conduct which links what it is to be virtuous to a secular paradigm.

So, do I try to be a virtuous humanist as opposed to a virtuous believer? Is it in the nature of secular humanist to be more 'worthy' than say a 'Godly' Christian by virtue of her atheism? What are the Virtues anyway and do they really matter?

my reaction is that virtue as such is not very humanistic. I feel that humanist values are basically consequentialist: we are concerned with the effects of actions and events on people, and probably on animals too, and we only value virtue (however defined) insofar as virtuous conduct, like honesty, self-restraint and consideration for others, has beneficial effects on society and individuals. The religious believer IMO tends to think the other way: sure, bad things that just happen are indeed bad, but the main aim of everyone is to attain salvation and even sainthood as an end in itself, and the (normally) good effects of such saintly behaviour are of secondary importance.


February 25th, 2012, 10:55 am
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The religious believer IMO tends to think the other way: sure, bad things that just happen are indeed bad, but the main aim of everyone is to attain salvation and even sainthood as an end in itself, and the (normally) good effects of such saintly behaviour are of secondary importance
Good point,animist, though some there is a "spectrum" amongst relionists perhaps, those who seek salvation via aestheticism and those who do so via "good works" where both are, basically, for the ultimate benefit of the religionist as an individual.

But, am I so very different I now have to ask myself. My own "good deeds" are not altruistic since I get a good feeling from carrying them out. If I were to seek within myself for my true motive what would I find I wonder. Is it paradoxical to say that what we call "altruism" can also be selfish? Is a purely altruistic motive possible?

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February 25th, 2012, 11:11 am
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animist wrote:
my reaction is that virtue as such is not very humanistic. I feel that humanist values are basically consequentialist: we are concerned with the effects of actions and events on people, and probably on animals too, and we only value virtue (however defined) insofar as virtuous conduct, like honesty, self-restraint and consideration for others, has beneficial effects on society and individuals.
But that's quite significant, isn't it? If we cultivate virtue for its own sake, then aren't we more likely to make ethically satisfactory decisions when we need to? Rather than relying on our reasoning to come up with the morally right response to situations as they arise, if we have striven to become virtuous, practised being virtuous, emphasised the importance of virtue in our society, in our raising of children, then aren't morally right responses more likely to be automatic?

Hmmm. Very interesting question, anyway, phalarope. Will have to think about this.

Ema


February 25th, 2012, 11:13 am
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Dave B wrote:
hose who do so via "good works" where both are, basically, for the ultimate benefit of the religionist as an individual.

But, am I so very different I now have to ask myself. My own "good deeds" are not altruistic since I get a good feeling from carrying them out. If I were to seek within myself for my true motive what would I find I wonder. Is it paradoxical to say that what we call "altruism" can also be selfish? Is a purely altruistic motive possible?
I don't think that altruism is selfish in any meaningful way, but what you say has often been levelled at utilitarian altruism. The paradox of pleasure is that you don't find it by looking for it but by doing things that in fact you find pleasurable. You don't act altruistically in order to further your own pleasure but because in some way you just know that you should do a particular thing to benefit someone else, and the fact that you may reflect on your own pleasant feeling of achievement is no denigration of your good conduct. To say that altruism is as selfish as callousness is wrong, and it depends on a sort of tautological view of behaviour which is meaningless.


February 25th, 2012, 11:22 am
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Emma Woolgatherer wrote:
animist wrote:
my reaction is that virtue as such is not very humanistic. I feel that humanist values are basically consequentialist: we are concerned with the effects of actions and events on people, and probably on animals too, and we only value virtue (however defined) insofar as virtuous conduct, like honesty, self-restraint and consideration for others, has beneficial effects on society and individuals.
But that's quite significant, isn't it? If we cultivate virtue for its own sake, then aren't we more likely to make ethically satisfactory decisions when we need to? Rather than relying on our reasoning to come up with the morally right response to situations as they arise, if we have striven to become virtuous, practised being virtuous, emphasised the importance of virtue in our society, in our raising of children, then aren't morally right responses more likely to be automatic?

Hmmm. Very interesting question, anyway, phalarope. Will have to think about this.

Ema

you may well be right, and now we would be down to having to decide what actually is virtuous. The further difference between humanists and believers is that the latter tend to regard self-denial as some virtue, especially when that concerns sex; the humanist I suppose does not worry about this much, especially as, in regard to sex, lots of this does not deny anything to anyone else (in fact the reverse!) whereas, I suppose, by starving yourself to some extent you might be able to give away food etc to another person. Maybe virtue, as you are using the idea - in a sensible non-self-mortifying way - is a bit like rule-utilitarianism? Ditto about thinking about this


February 25th, 2012, 11:29 am
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I think humanist self-denial is possible, but it may be based more on pragmatism than anything owned by the religious person.

Simplistic humanist case, "I have this tenner going spare - I can splash it on a bottle of wine or donate it to the NSPCC. In the first case it gives me a couple of hours of pleasure, then a dodgy stomach and a head ache most of the night. In the second it may buy something that benefits a kid for a couple of days (or even longer if it is a toy.)" My choice is short term pleasure followed by discomfort or the mental image of a kid smiling. Which one wins I wonder?

Maybe I will buy a couple of books and then donate those to the NSPCC shop hoping it does that return journey more than once . . . That way more than one person gets pleasure and the charity gets some cash.

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February 25th, 2012, 12:34 pm
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Dave B wrote:
I think humanist self-denial is possible, but it may be based more on pragmatism than anything owned by the religious person.

Simplistic humanist case, "I have this tenner going spare - I can splash it on a bottle of wine or donate it to the NSPCC. In the first case it gives me a couple of hours of pleasure, then a dodgy stomach and a head ache most of the night. In the second it may buy something that benefits a kid for a couple of days (or even longer if it is a toy.)" My choice is short term pleasure followed by discomfort or the mental image of a kid smiling. Which one wins I wonder?

Maybe I will buy a couple of books and then donate those to the NSPCC shop hoping it does that return journey more than once . . . That way more than one person gets pleasure and the charity gets some cash.
yes, I think that the economic concept of diminishing marginal utility (the fact that generally the pleasure one get from a possession or anything else, or from goodies in general, diminishes the more of them that one gets) is crucial to the idea of altruism, and FTM, of basic economic and social equality. As you say, someone else is likely to benefit more than you from the odd tenner. This, combined with the fact that we are all going to die and can't take our goodies with us, makes me wonder why millionaires are so keen to hold onto their wealth or get their full bonuses - but we have better not get back to that :D


February 25th, 2012, 12:55 pm
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My gut feeling is to go for Emma's hint about cultivating virtue for its own sake and thereby making right ethical decisions. Is a person 'good' if she possesses the rationality to pursue good deeds because she is a good character who searches after happiness by right works? This idea of character possessing reason and which leads to right actions is surely about those qualities which are inherent in a rational person. Morally correct responses by and large are categorised as such by the sort of typology that Aristotle placed as his governing template for the virtues. As I understand it from my limited study of the matter, modern virtue-based philosophy seems to be a turn away from what is utilitarian or rule-based and back to the character of a person and her propensity to think virtuously.

Secular humanists, as differentiated from religious humanists, we categorise as naturalists and science-minded individuals with a focus on the larger picture of evolutionary and biological forces impacting on the individual as part of this overarching reality. Collectivism and community probably plays a greater moral role that the effect of character on the individual. Utilitarianism and deontological values are coming from another direction than virtue-based constructions of what moral being is about. If this could be the case then are we who proclaim ourselves as humanists missing the point about the sort of particularism that virtue-based arguments carry?

When I sat 'virtuous, of course I am reminded of Sir Toby Belch's retort to Malvolio: "Dost thou think that because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?" I hope that I do not come over as mean-spirited.


February 25th, 2012, 2:19 pm
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Phalarope, please define what you mean by "religious humanists."

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February 25th, 2012, 3:44 pm
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:) Glad to David. You probably know that humanism goes back to Erasmus and to other Reformation philosophers of the era such as Thomas More, who construed their placing of man (in More's case even his daughter Elizabeth, who he brought up as an independent thinker and accomplished person in her own right despite the customs of the time) at the forefront of religious importance, compared to the priesthood and centrality of the Roman Church. This new stress on the person at the centre of the Faith rather than the Institution, was radical, and marked a distinct democratisation of approach and direction of Protestantism. In particular the printing of the Bible in the vernacular was the vehicle for the limited break from Rome and its exclusive dependence on a closed system of priest craft and of the monastic orders. There were much earlier manifestations of humanism in the Renaissance, especially in the civic humanism of the Italian states, but not as religiously radical as with the later versions.

The Post-Reformation of the Church, especially through the new religious order of the Jesuits, went along with forms of humanistic thinking in order to save the Church even further damage. It is only with the Scottish Enlightenment that the rise of secular humanism, free-thinking and non-religious coincides with radical identification with materialist and scientific thinking and what was to become modern secular humanism parallel with the survival of humanism within even the Catholic Church today. Some years ago when I attended a conference on the NHS and identified myself as a humanist atheist, a Catholic priest sitting next to me interjected to say:"But I'm a humanist too!"

So that is why I make the distinction between the 'humanisms' Dave. Rather more than that, I could ask: "Can one be a humanist unless you posses the virtues?'


February 25th, 2012, 4:18 pm
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Ah, yes. I will admit to having done little reading on this subject but now remember being told of More's ideas regarding the relationship between a person's religiosity and church doctrine. I had never thought of it as a form of humanism though - as you explain, phalarope, it I see how the description is apt.

I noticed something in the BBC History mag reappraising some famous historical people and, IIRC, More was one of those. Must look it up again.

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February 25th, 2012, 4:40 pm
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Yes Dave, I stumbled about in the earlier history of humanism for a while. I thought about an analogy with the split today between those parties within the Western Church who are anti and pro women bishops and gay bishops, etc. Maybe More and others were caught up in a similar division over people and doctrine and church structures back then.

On the issue of virtuous humanists I would simply ask contributors to this thread and to the forum in general how they would respond to the question: Are you a GOOD humanist?

Light the touch paper and stand well back...


February 26th, 2012, 8:52 am
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Are you a GOOD humanist?
All I can say is that I aspire to be so!

My experience of life has left me with "habitual prejudices" that do get in the way of my humanist aspirations - but I do my best to catch them before they get in the way of life in any significant way. However, it is inevitable that they raise their ugly heads at times, on cannot be on a 100% alert every minute of the day and still live a useful and fulfilling life!

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February 26th, 2012, 10:48 am
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phalarope wrote:
Are you a GOOD humanist?
Stealing the words from the title of Nigel Planer's book, perhaps the question should be "Are you a good enough humanist?"

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February 26th, 2012, 1:15 pm
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Virtual Humanists; those who meet on a forum. :laughter:


February 26th, 2012, 2:20 pm
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I'm finding this discussion very useful in my attempt to learn something of the Humanist perspective.
The historical information is particularly interesting, since I feel that our awe at the magnificence of the cosmos is so often subverted by the Church, and used to control us.

For me, the desire to do good is just that. Another desire.
A moment's reflection reveals that I am in no position to do "Good" as the outcome of any action is highly uncertain, and my ability to recognise "Good" is, in any case, subject to doubt.
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him to fish, and he'll sit in a boat drinking beer all day.

Forget the end product then, my attempts at progress primarily involve helping myself. To become more compassionate, to try and see other viewpoints, to be as honest as I can get away with, to listen to my conscience rather than override it with "unfortunate necessities." Somehow, I think the more I sort myself out, the less trouble I'll cause. Sorting the world out looks to me like a brick by brick affair, each of us doing our own housework to start with.

"Doing" good is an egotistical view of my participation in the vast stream of life, which ignores much of what is going on.
Someone who acts in a good way will respond appropriately to the needs of the moment without claiming any status as a result.
They will give without fear of loss, help without judging, by virtue of what they are, not what they believe.

Does any of this relate to humanism?

Finca.


February 26th, 2012, 3:50 pm
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