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Thursday, July 30, 2009

Does Humanism exclude non-humans?

(CC) Chi King,
Some people hear the name 'Humanism' and wonder about animal rights. In this article we'll explore the meaning of the word 'Humanism' and what most Humanists think about animals...

In a previous article, an reader named Elisabeth brought this issue up with the following comment:

"...I am also concerned with the "arrogance" of humanism that focuses on human beings rather than all life on the planet. Because of this, I cannot count myself as a humanist. In order to restore balance and true peace on this planet, we need to consider ourselves as a part of *all* that is "the earth": animals, environment, earth, air, water, etc. We are not more special than anything else on the planet simply because we have bigger brains..."

Many thanks to Elisabeth for bringing up this important topic. As awareness and concern for the ethical treatment of other animals has increased, it has become more at the forefront of our thinking than it was when the term 'humanism' was first invented. This has resulted in a common misconception among those who come to hear about Humanism for the first time. When they hear the word 'human' in the term, they conceptualize this emphasis as: human - as opposed to - animals. However, this is a misunderstanding.

When the term 'humanist' first arose in the Renaissance, we were coming out of the Medieval period. During these 'dark ages', the focus of all academic concern and moral concern was on God. Everything was about how to serve God, what God wants of us, and so on. But in renaissance humanism the emphasis was shifted toward mankind. It was here that study of those things humans do became more central - the humanities (grammar, the arts, history, etc). The first humanists were theists, but wanted to focus on understanding ourselves and our world. This shift of focus brought our gaze from heaven, down to earth, and was an important step in abandoning dogma for the rebirth of learning: the enlightenment. So here, rather than being about our disposition toward animals, in the term 'humanist' the emphasis was: human - as opposed to - God. That was the comparison being made and the reason for the naming of the term as such. If we forget that, we might look at the term from the point of view of species and miss the point.

Today, modern Humanists (capital 'H') are naturalists in the sense that they have a naturalistic view of the universe. Therefore, the emphasis is still "Human as opposed to God" rather than "as opposed to animals". Humanists actually comprise a large bulk of the progressive movement when it comes to both animal rights and environmentalism. This is because of the unique perspective Humanism encourages.

Humanism is very supportive of a scientific perspective, including Evolution. Rather than the Christian notion that man has been given 'dominion' over the other animals, Evolution has shown us how closely related we are to other life on this planet; it has opened our eyes to the highly intelligent nature of some animals; and increased our awareness of an animal's ability to suffer. Humanists also do not believe in souls, so they do not hold that human beings have some special entity within them which animals lack. The scientific outlook that Humanists support has also increased our awareness of the effects we have on the habitat and well being of other species, and increased our knowledge of just how interconnected are our fates. As the Humanist Manifesto III states, "Humans are an integral part of nature..."

Surely, Humanists will differ on the interpretation of Humanist ideals when it comes to specifics on other species. In "Whence Animal Rights?" prominent Humanist biologist Massimo Pigliucci writes a somewhat uncommitted but evenhanded and thoughtful article, for the Council for Secular Humanism, about the important issues to explore in the ethics of animal treatment. Meanwhile Humanist David Koepsell writes for the Council in "Praise Dog!" giving us a loving overview of the lessons we can learn from animals as he's learned from his beloved dog, buttercup.

But variable as all individuals are, the shared Humanist ideals of being compassionate, humane, and being an integral part of the natural world are why so many prominent Humanists can be found in support of animal rights, and were even foundational to the movement. For example:

Peter Singer is a Humanist philosopher best known for his book, Animal Liberation, regarded as a major work in the animal liberation movement. [See his presentation in which he states that it is the animal's ability to suffer that is at issue].

Harry Rowsell was a Humanist veterinarian and animal welfare advocate who established the Canadian Council on Animal Care and was awarded for his outstanding achievements in the treatment of animals.

Howard Williams was an early humanist humanitarian and vegetarian. He published The Ethics of Diet no later than 1883.

Henry Stephens Salt was a Humanist writer and vegetarian. He was known as an influential humanitarian and supporter of the ethical treatment of animals.

Gandhi himself said that both Salt and Williams were influential in his commitment to vegetarianism. The British Humanist Association has a persistent campaign calling for consistent and humane law on the slaughter of animals. Each of these people have a wide variety of specific views, with which I have varying degrees of agreement. But these examples are only a tiny fraction of the important contributions and leadership roles Humanists have made in the animal rights movement. Their participation in ecological and environmental efforts is equally matched.

The Humanist Manifesto also says, "Life's fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals". Of course, The Humane Society (which I myself, and I'm sure many other Humanists, support) is well known for its advocacy of animal well being, but it would be a mistake to hear the word 'humane' and think that it's root in the word 'human' suggests speciesism. Similarly, the word 'Humanism' means that we need to look to ourselves rather than gods for the answers to ethical questions. In personal life, although we are part of a community, we can't control what others do - but we can work on the person in the mirror. In a similar line of thought, although we are part of an ecosystem, we humans need to look within and work on ourselves ethically because we are the ones responsible for our behavior as a species. Among these ethical questions is how we are going to cultivate our compassion toward ourselves and our fellow creatures, or, how humane are we going to be - and nothing could be more human than working on that.

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