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Mar 17 2014

Basic instructional materials for humanists

The British Humanist Association has put together four lovely videos about humanism, narrated by Stephen Fry, that everyone should watch. Here’s one about godless morality:

There are also videos about truth, death, and happiness. All it takes is 11 minutes to learn how humanists think — maybe every child should be exposed to these ideas.

32 comments

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  1. 1
    chigau (違う)

    Very nice.

  2. 2
    Gregory Greenwood

    Direct, to the point and easy to understand. I like it

    It also provides a ready made counterpoint to those theists and faithists who try to argue that without religion people would descend into some atavistic hell of rape, murder and pillage. Frankly, religion offers plenty of scope for all three, so long as they are undertaken in a sufficiently ‘godly’ fashion, and it is only a secular, humanist system of ethics that states that such things are wrong in themsleves because of the harm they cause to other people, rather than wrong only in those circumstances where authority figures don’t give their blessing.

  3. 3
    Louis

    Love the messages, good, simple videos with a National Treasure getting the point across nicely.

    Call me a cavilling old pedant, the vast majority of the stick figures were “white” and mostly “male”. I know, I know, but a little bit of ink here and there to indicate diversity is a subtle message. It’s not really a complaint, just an observation. Once you start seeing this stuff, you can’t unsee it. I don’t think that detracts from the messages, it’s just something I saw.

    Louis

  4. 4
    UnknownEric the Apostate

    Good video, but due to Fry’s narration, I kept expecting Pocoyo to make an appearance. ;)

  5. 5
    René

    I think these outstanding videos should be localized into every language on earth, for every child and adult to watch. If I knew how to do that I certainly would for my native tongue.

  6. 6
    LykeX

    Short and sweet. The characters were cute. I especially like the hands-to-mouth shock of the cave woman at 2:18. Quite adorable.

  7. 7
    alpetterson

    So um. I’ve been dipping toes in the fetid swamp of Objectivism by reading daylightatheism’s massive deconstruction of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s interesting that this video takes things like empathy as a given – that to come up with a morality “we have to” assume them. I mean, we do have to – empathy is a part of us; it’s required to build any kind of society; we consider those who lack empathy to be sociopaths – and not getting this is one of the things Objectivism gets wrong – but it would be nice, in other videos (this one stands on its own nicely) to go into *why* empathy, consideration for others, and not being totally selfish are all important, and why we humanists almost consider them axioms.

  8. 8
    consciousness razor

    I mean, we do have to – empathy is a part of us; it’s required to build any kind of society; we consider those who lack empathy to be sociopaths – and not getting this is one of the things Objectivism gets wrong – but it would be nice, in other videos (this one stands on its own nicely) to go into *why* empathy, consideration for others, and not being totally selfish are all important, and why we humanists almost consider them axioms.

    They’re important for lots of reasons. Probably the first that would get the attention of the Randians is selfishness. You should empathize and respect and cooperate with others because it will probably benefit you to do so, which means you will probably experience more pleasure and/or less suffering (which is a good thing). You’ll at least get something out of the deal, so it’s plainly stupid to leave it out of your consideration entirely — particularly if you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you should be building it all up from first principles with the express purpose of rationalizing your own self-centered assholishness. Anyway, it’s a simple fact about people that they can empathize and cooperate and respect each other, all of which dramatically affect how they behave. You don’t need any axiom (and no axiom could possibly tell you) that this is a fact, but you may of course ignore it or deny it, at your own peril.

  9. 9
    brianpansky

    @alpetterson

    and @ other people, of course.

    i highly recommend richard carrier’s writings on morality, including his ftb writings, and his writings from before.

    about empathy. i suspect it’s technically not needed, similar to pain. but they are sensory tools. without them, we would have to carefully reason a lot more (something that objectivists are also quite bad at). imagine not having pain sensors. we could possibly keep ourselves safe, but it would require other forms of observation and a lot of care to keep ourselves from biting off our own tongues etc.

  10. 10
    caesar

    consciousness@ 8:

    You should empathize and respect and cooperate with others because it will probably benefit you to do so

    Except that’s not what people usually mean when they say that you should do something. They usually mean that you have some obligation to care about others and prevent their suffering as much as possible based on an appeal to human rights or the supposedly intrinsic value of human life. Sure there may be advantages to being altruistic, but that doesn’t mean that you should.

  11. 11
    trollofreason

    Whoa, I’ve been doing that on my own for years. I mean, with the same sort of value set, too. The only thing that’s new to me, like, mind-blowing, is that happiness can be a value. That is, happiness can be an aspiring drive, a reason to live, and not just my own happiness. That I could devote myself to ensuring that others have a chance at happiness is, to me, one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard or thought about.

    Holy crap.

  12. 12
    brianpansky

    @10

    people mostly run on heuristics.

    notice that there is something that people want in all of your examples. and getting what we want is inherently selfish.

    general rules for the treatment of humans benefit ourselves, because first it is how we want to be treated, and second the society around us will be unpleasant to us if the people are miserable and the workings of it were disfunctional. stuff like that.

  13. 13
    azhael

    The video is brilliant, when the non-human monkey caresses the other non-human monkey i laughed out loud.
    Having Stephen Fry do the narration was also a genious move. I know authority is precisely one of the problems, but i swear if you carried around a picture of him pouting, all evil would be vanquished for no mortal would dare missbehave in the pressence of that man.

  14. 14
    Al Dente

    UnknownEric the Apostate @4

    due to Fry’s narration, I kept expecting Pocoyo to make an appearance. ;)

    I was expecting Alan Davies.

  15. 15
    Shatterface

    I’m a little bit wary about ‘empathy’ as a panacea, mainly because there’s so little agreement about what it means. I think there are half a dozen different definitions in Pinker’s Better Angels of Our Natures.

    For example, as an Aspie I have difficulty recognising other people’s intentions – often regarded as a definition of empathy. ‘Empathy’ here is a kind of mental role-taking exercise.

    Psychopaths, on the other hand, often excell in reading people – which is why they’re good manipulators. They can spot potential victims a mile off. They know what you are thinking, they just don’t give a shit. In fact sadism is pretty pointless of you can’t appreciate your victim’s suffering. I don’t rate that kind of empathy very highly as a guarantee of morality.

  16. 16
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    I love the juxtaposition of caesars #10 with trollofreasons #11. I find the latter to be admirable while the former…well libertarianism is a shitty philosophy.

  17. 17
    Spoo

    @ #11 trollofreason

    That I could devote myself to ensuring that others have a chance at happiness is, to me, one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard or thought about.

    Let’s go do it! It’ll be nice.

  18. 18
    johnlee

    #15 Shatterface. Thank you for your astute observations. I have a son who is an Asperger, and have often worried about how he will treat others as he grows up. Reading up about the ‘lack of empathy’ concerned me greatly, but I can see that empathy is more of a useful tool than anything else, and can be substituted with other tools.

  19. 19
    jste

    trollofreason, #11

    That I could devote myself to ensuring that others have a chance at happiness is, to me, one of the greatest things I’ve ever heard or thought about.

    That’s actually how I try to live my life. Obviously, my own happiness is important too, but the main reason my life doesn’t fall apart in a pile of apathy, laziness and depression is that I’m working for other people’s happiness. Or other emotions similar to happiness. Satisfaction of my clients, wellbeing and stability of my wife, happiness of my family. I do a shitty job of it for now, but one day maybe I’ll get it right, and I’ll find a way to work for the happiness of far more than just the people I interact with daily.

    It always seemed to me to be the obvious way to live and goal to aim for, and people seem surprised when they realise that I genuinely DON’T want to be rich or super successful, just happy and content, and able to share that contentedness with my family and friends, and that I mean it when I say that.

  20. 20
    doublereed

    Personally, what I learned from this video is that all male monkeys need to do is give a banana to a female monkey and they FALL IN LOVE WITH YOU!

    Monkey dating is SO MUCH EASIER!

    Unless this works on humans too? I better pick up some bananas.

  21. 21
    consciousness razor

    Sure there may be advantages to being altruistic, but that doesn’t mean that you should.

    Yes it does. Maybe it’ll sink in this time: “which means you will probably experience more pleasure and/or less suffering (which is a good thing).” If it increases pleasure or decreases suffering, that is exactly what it means to be something good which you ought to do. Or, to put it in your own words, you very clearly should do things which are advantageous. If it is something more or less than that, you’re going to have to explain to me what “people usually mean” by that, as well as why they are correct about it. Even if it’s only good for you, because you’re taking this explicitly selfish perspective, it’s still the case that it’s good for you. You can and should consider other people and other factors besides this, as I think should’ve been clear in context, but it certainly isn’t wrong.

  22. 22
    atheistblog

    Caesar @10

    Except that’s not what people usually mean when they say that you should do something. They usually mean that you have some obligation to care about others and prevent their suffering as much as possible based on an appeal to human rights or the supposedly intrinsic value of human life. Sure there may be advantages to being altruistic, but that doesn’t mean that you should.

    Yah, that doesn’t mean that you should, and that means you won’t. If you don’t and if you won’t care for others, fine. Human society live with rules, and society respect some values above others, and as society progress those values should always be scrutinized, and should reject that are not good values anymore and embrace which are always good values.
    If you say you are only altruistic only because it is advantageous but that doesn’t mean that you should, well then your value of altruism sinks in the gutter. And don’t pull science on ethics, let the scientist do the science, let the science to work on finding how, what, and why, not on what should be ethics.
    Humans should care for each other, if you are one of those Libertarian, and you say but that doesn’t mean that you should , fine, your moral belongs to gutter. We don’t care for other just because someone said you should, because we do care even if it is bit uncomfortable for ourselves. And we maintain that we should care for others as high moral value.
    We decent humans care for each other as could as possible, and we decent humans keep such value as high moral. And yours is conspicuously lower one.

  23. 23
    luke

    Nice video, but the cute monkey handing its friend a banana made me roll my eyes. On a coach tour in Mauritius a few years ago I remember we stopped on the side of the road while the driver threw a banana to a small family of monkeys that had just emerged from the trees. The male rushed forward, snatched up the banana, peeled and ate the entire fleshy part, then tossed the skin at its mate without so much as a glance and trundled back into the trees. The female, which was carrying a baby, proceeded to chew miserably on the skin. I know this is just an anecdote, but it’s something that’s really stuck in my mind ever since. Monkeys can be real assholes.

  24. 24
    unclefrogy

    when I think of some trait like empathy, selfishness or altruism and I wonder how it works I almost always think how would such a trait work in a small group of related people out on some savanna or one the edge of the arctic sea
    Would selfishness be a good strategy for survival or would empathy toward the others be better. Is cooperation more important or competition.
    are strict rules for everything useful or is maintaining the capacity to improvise in changing conditions more important?

    you put all of the other ways of figuring out how to do things like dogmatic religion or the free market capitalism of libertarianism into that reality and they do not work for long if at all
    because we are just a small band of creatures on the edge of a very immense dark and dangerous sea there is no one anywhere else we know of that is going to help us.

    uncle frogy

  25. 25
    pyrion

    Empathy is not the only way to build a stable community. Look at ants… or dictatorships. It’s just the humanists way, the prefered way for obvious reasons.

  26. 26
    azhael

    Monkeys can be real assholes

    Yes, we can. Fortunately we can also be altruistic.

  27. 27
    Maureen Brian

    pyrion @ 25,

    We have sufficient extra brain capacity to totally screw things up – just to see what happens. Ants don’t.

  28. 28
    Moggie

    luke:

    Nice video, but the cute monkey handing its friend a banana made me roll my eyes.

    AFAICR, sharing of plant foods between unrelated chimps is uncommon, but sharing of meat from hunting is common. Whether that’s ever true altruism™ is another matter.

  29. 29
    Snoof

    consciousness razor @ 21

    Yes it does. Maybe it’ll sink in this time: “which means you will probably experience more pleasure and/or less suffering (which is a good thing).”

    I’ve met a few individuals who claimed to be indifferent to pleasure and suffering. I didn’t find out if they were telling the truth, but it was a claim they made. So possibly they would use a different definition for “good”.

  30. 30
    brianpansky

    @29

    this is why people like richard carrier use the word satisfaction (rather than “happiness” etc).

    another way of putting it: people have some motivation to choose between alternatives. unless they are somehow indifferent to absolutely everything (not just pleasure and suffering) then there is something they prefer in some way.

  31. 31
    consciousness razor

    brianpansky:

    Sure, I agree with that. Satisfying what you most ought to do above anything else is the right thing to do. Which exact words are used to describe this stuff can be a distraction at times. I’ll be the first admit there’s more to worry about than simply pleasure and suffering (pain/happiness, etc.), if those terms are construed too narrowly. Perhaps they simply don’t capture everything there is to say, but I think it’s acceptable as a shorthand for getting across the gist of it (applicable only in most cases, not all). If people want to add to it or qualify it somehow, or expect me to do so, then we’re at least already on the same page of approaching it as something with a definite factual answer, even if I happen to be saying something misleading. That would be a step up from the stage of the discussion we’re usually stuck in nowadays.

    Anyway, it certainly doesn’t matter in this context whether one person (or every person) does the wrong thing or is indifferent about morality. We shouldn’t assume any or all of us can’t be immoral or amoral, so definitions or assertions to that effect are simply irrelevant, even if they are facts about that person.

  32. 32
    Alexander

    @22 atheistblog:

    If you don’t and if you won’t care for others, fine.

    Humans should care for each other, if you are one of those Libertarian, and you say “but that doesn’t mean that you should”, fine, your moral belongs to gutter.

    I have always understood the Libertarian “morality” toward charity as boiling down to a very simple question: how much effort must an individual put toward their own well being? If someone without any exonorating circumstances (i.e. in perfect health and with adequate job skills) puts forth literally zero effort, is society still required to guarantee their full well being? Alternately, is there some minimum threshold that all members of society, regardless of circumstance, must put forth?

    If achieving “well being” is identical for all organisms (X quantity each of food, water, sleep, safety, health, etc.) the amount and kind of resources would be known in advance, so society could efficiently provide for all members’ needs. However, in a world where “well being” varies greatly from one individual to the next–not just in amount but in kind, such that some people value money and physical goods over all else, others friendship, yet others seek achievements and adulation–then society cannot cover these needs without significant complication… such as some means of proofing the stated desire as granting additional well being, or determining the proper ratio of “adulation” and “money” to produce.

    Since the actual world we live in carries some aspects from both examples, even in ‘basic’ need categories such as food (it is possible to subsist on a diet of rice, beans, and vitamin pills, but not satisfying) the proper efforts society should put forth (both in quality and quantity) is not immediately clear.

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