Skip to content

Ethical Humanism


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): HerbSilverman.Com

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2021/02/09

Scott Douglas Jacobsen: The Amsterdam Declaration (1952) was another huge stepping stone in the development of Humanism within the earlier discourse of modern secular freethought. Before asking those main questions, I had a side question important to this educational series, actually two. You seem like a great person to ask these questions because of the longevity of leadership in the movement and the efforts at collaboration and unification of efforts through the Secular Coalition for America. First, how much does the development of empirical philosophies create a basis for modern formulations of Humanism, instead of a straightforward focus on eudaimonia, the humanities, moral education, and the like? I understand Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK and the President of Humanists International, has spoken on the spotted nature of Humanism in the historical record akin to the manner in which Professor Noam Chomsky speaks of Anarchism as a philosophical trend in the history of human thought and action. As in, no one owns them, as they, Humanism or Anarchism, amount to facets of human nature (to one degree or another) and, therefore, express themselves without regard to the culture or the geography, merely transforming superficially while manifesting the same fundaments. 

Dr. Herb Silverman:  As I understand the question, you are asking if I more favor empiricism or eudaimonia when it comes to Humanism. To answer, I’ll first define the terms as I understand them. 

Empiricism is a theory that knowledge comes only or primarily from sensory experience. Empiricism is a fundamental part of the scientific method, which requires that all hypotheses and theories must be tested against observations of the natural world, rather than resting on intuition or revelation. 

Eudaimonia describes virtuous activity in accordance with reason, which gives us happiness and pleasure. To illustrate, if you’re a doctor, you should excel at healing people; if you’re a philosopher, you should excel at gaining knowledge and wisdom. Of course, each person plays many roles in life, and by excelling in all of them one achieves eudaimonia.

As to whether I favor empiricism or eudaimonia, I can say confidently—that depends. If I want to look at scientific questions, empiricism is the way to go. But I don’t think everything should be viewed through a scientific lens. Aesthetics, without science, makes sense to me. Different people can find different pleasures using only reason. For instance, not everyone might think like I do that my wife, Sharon, is the most wonderful person in the world. 

Of course there are times that empiricism and eudaimonia work in combination. To illustrate, empiricism is used to help find a vaccine for Covid-19. Then an individual can make a rational choice to take the vaccine to safeguard his or her health, and this expresses eudaimonia.

Jacobsen: Second, I have worked to bring together some of the voices in Canadian Humanism in one voice with some group discussions, so to speak, e.g., “Humanism in Canada: Personal, Professional, and Institutional Histories (Part One)”[1]. The series incorporated the leadership voices of most of the secular organizations in Canada, i.e., at the time: Cameron Dunkin as the Acting CEO of Dying With Dignity Canada, Dr. Gus Lyn-Piluso as the President of Center for Inquiry-Canada, Doug Thomas as the President of Secular Connexion Séculière, Greg Oliver as the President of Canadian Secular Alliance, Michel Virard as the President of Association humaniste du Québec, Dr. Lloyd Hawkeye Robertson as the Vice-President of Humanist Canada, and Seanna Watson as the Vice-President of Center for Inquiry-Canada. As far as I am informed on the issue, that’s a first. I have been interviewing a large contingent of the ex-Muslim community within Canadian society. In the midst of them, in March of 2019, something occurred to me. So, I decided to write down the idea succinctly for an article for News Intervention. I made a proposal in “An Immodest Proposal: International Coalition of Ex-Muslims (ICEM)”[2]. I was informed by a British colleague the International Coalition of Ex-Muslims[3] was formed in early 2020, about a year after the proposal. It’s hard to track the history of these things because it can be a bubbling in communities of the same ideas and then the formulation of them into a convergent creation of an organization. Also, a single proposal can be the source of the formation of these things.  Nonetheless, they’re there, present, and active. Why was the Secular Coalition for America a necessity to bring together a larger contingent of secular voices?

Silverman: Scott, I’m so pleased that you are working to bring the voices in Canadian Humanism together. However, I doubt that you can get them to speak with just one voice, except on selected topics. Humanists speak with many voices and have a lot of opinions on countless topics. That’s one way humanists are different from some religious cults. 

I do think most humanists would agree that humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment for the greater good of humanity. Humanism also promotes democracy, civil liberties, human freedoms, separation of religion and government, and elimination of discrimination based on race, religion, sex, age, or national origin. Humanists respect the scientific method and recognize that we are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change, and that ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.                                    
You asked about the importance of bringing a large contingent of voices together within the Secular Coalition for America. In 2002, I helped form the Secular Coalition for America, whose mission is to increase the visibility of and respect for nontheistic viewpoints, and to protect and strengthen the secular character of our government. 

Our 19 national member organizations cover the full spectrum of freethought. Members don’t argue about labels. People in the Coalition call themselves atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers, whatever. They cooperate on the 95% they have in common, rather than bicker about the 5% that might set them apart. Interestingly, four of the member organizations are classified as religious (nontheistic). They are American Ethical Union (with Ethical Culture Societies), Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations, Society for Humanistic Judaism (with atheist rabbis), and UU (Unitarian Universalists) Humanists.

All the Secular Coalition member organizations have strict limits on political lobbying, so the Secular Coalition incorporated as a political advocacy group to allow unlimited lobbying on behalf of freethought Americans. The Secular Coalition also collaborates with organizations that are neither theistic nor nontheistic, like the American Civil Liberties Union, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. It cooperates on some issues with theistic organizations, like the Interfaith Alliance, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, and Catholics for Choice. Working with diverse groups provides the additional benefit of gaining more visibility and respect for our unique perspective. Improving the public perception of freethinkers is as important to many of us as pursuing a particular political agenda. 

Jacobsen: To the first Amsterdam Declaration (1952)[4], it opens starkly on “an alternative to the religions which claim to be based on revelation on the one hand, and totalitarian systems on the other.” What made these post-WWII ideological reflections important on secular fundamentalism in totalitarianism and in religious revelatory fundamentalism? Something of a third alternative to the loggerheads of the aforementioned. 

Silverman: We have to remember that this 1952 document was written during the Cold War, and represents an alternative to both religions based on revelation and totalitarian regimes like the atheistic Soviet Union. Not that there is anything wrong with atheism, but it should not be government-sponsored or imposed. The document promotes ethics and the right of the individual to the greatest possible freedom of development compatible with the rights of others. Such a third way opposes religious indoctrination and totalitarian regimes. It advocates the creative use of science with humanistic principles. 

Jacobsen: The framers of the Amsterdam Declaration (1952) did not view Humanism as a sect, but as an eventuation of long traditions of thinkers leading to the scientific revolutions of the time. They continued, “Ethical humanism unites all those who cannot any longer believe the various creeds and are willing to base their conviction on respect for man as a spiritual and moral being.”[5] How does this point connect to the previous response about science, in a 20th century understanding and development, relate to this mid-20th century stipulation?

Silverman: I think we all agree that science should play an important role in the life of an ethical humanist. Sometimes, though, there is a question about where ethics come into science. One example is the use of nuclear power, which generates about a fifth of our nation’s energy supply. Nuclear energy reduces greenhouse gas emission and produces far less waste than conventional energy. On the other hand, nuclear fuel and waste are highly radioactive, which can pose many threats to public health and the environment. I favor the use of nuclear power, though I know many humanists who don’t. I don’t think scientific research should be restricted, even though certain findings might eventually cause harm. It is up to those in the field to discuss and help us decide how we can use science for good, which is not always easy. 

Also, I don’t like some of the terminology used in 1952, for example, respect for “man,” rather than for “people.” And there is confusion when we call ourselves “spiritual.” I understand that some humanists define the word “spiritual” in ways that make them comfortable, but I leave that word to religious people believing in “spirits” who inhabit an unseen spiritual world. 

Jacobsen: The five principles mentioned democracy, creative uses of science and not destructive uses of science, Humanism as ethics, personal liberty above tied to social responsibility, and cultivating ethical and creative living.[6] These seem, at a minimum, in part or on the whole, 68 years ahead of their time and more needed than ever. Now, we may have mentioned this before with the statements on Ethical Humanism as a faith, etc. The ways in which this was removed in later formulations of the various declarations of humanists with the most recent moving as far as a rejection of supernatural. In fact, I would extend the previous opinion. These are still far ahead of their time in the reach and 
implications. The ideals of the Rennaissance permitted to a small coterie of individuals could become something to relish for a not-insignificant minority of people. So, more to the point, if you reflect on these five principles, what are some cases in the end of the Trump-Pence Administration and the transition into the Biden-Harris Administration showing the greater necessity of humanist values, simply as formulated in 1952?

Silverman: I agree with eliminating the word “faith” from the definition of ethical humanism. I must confess, though, that I once had a bumper sticker that said, “I have faith in reason.” There is no question that the Biden-Harris Administration is a giant leap forward in support of these humanist values. Democracy took a hit under President Trump when he failed to concede after he lost a fair election, and encouraged his supporters to riot. Trump also supported some undemocratic and authoritarian regimes, including Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. Trump’s actions have emboldened other countries, including Myanmar, China, Rwanda, Iran, and Turkey to violently silence campaigns, causing global democracy to backslide. 

President Biden, in his short time in office, has reversed many of Trump’s executive orders, which includes recommitting to the US Paris Climate Accord, rejoining the World Health Organization, and promoting racial equality in health care and other areas. Biden also signed orders to halt construction of Trump’s US-Mexico border wall, reverse Trump’s environmental deregulation, affirm the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival Program (DACA) that protects from deportation people brought illegally to the US as children, and create a task force to reunite migrant families separated at the border. Biden reversed Trump’s 2017 travel ban that targeted primarily Muslim countries. Biden repealed a ban on transgender people serving openly in the military and he expanded protection of LGBTQ people around the world by revamping the offices at the State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which supports LGBTQ rights. He also re-established the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and directed agencies to make decisions on the best available scientific evidence. 

These actions of the Biden-Harris administration are consistent with the 1952 principles of ethical humanism. Though President Biden is a religious Catholic, he tries to separate religion from government. I hope he includes secular voices when he does interfaith outreach. Biden’s Catholicism seems to be grounded in social justice, rather than exclusively in church doctrine, which is why he has been criticized by conservative Catholics for some of his positions, like a woman’s right to choose. 

Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Dr. Silverman, we will cover the 2002 version of the Amsterdam Declaration in the next session.

Silverman: Thank you 


In-Sight Publishing by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Based on a work at


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing 2012-Present. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-Sight Publishing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. All interviewees and authors co-copyright their material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: