Can Humanists Offer the Good Life?


Though we consider the religious forms and ideas of our fathers no longer adequate, the quest for the good life is still the central task for mankind. Humanist Manifesto I, 1933 [1]

Happiness and the creative realization of human needs and desires, individually and in shared enjoyment, are continuous themes of humanism. We strive for the good life, here and now. Humanist Manifesto II, 1973 [2]

Remy, the star of Ratatouille, is in love with food. His rat family is in love with food, too, but in a very different sense. Remy loves food for its smell, texture, taste and color. He loves food as an end in itself. He loves food as a medium of art. He loves food for the experiences it creates in others. For his brother rats, food is nothing more than a means to an end. Food satisfies their basic needs. Food relieves the pain of an empty stomach. Clearly, Remy stands out from the pack. He is inspired by the great Chef Gusteau who is spreading a bold and surprising message: “Anyone can cook.” If ‘anyone’ includes rats, Remy reasons, then there is nothing to stop him becoming a cook as well, and so the adventure begins.

At one level, as a movie aimed at children, the moral of Ratatouille is reasonably straightforward: we should pursue our chosen vocation no matter what others may think. Presumably, youngsters will get the point if they simply replace the word ‘cook’ in Gusteau’s maxim with ‘fly,’ ‘sell,’ ‘preach’ or whatever they want to do with their lives.

Ratatouille, however, is not serving up the usual platitudes on self-esteem and self-realization we have come to expect from Hollywood or mainstream media outlets. Remy is an exceptional rat. He is not a ne’er-do-well seeking to confound the critics. He has a keen sense of smell, even to the point of detecting poison. His is a unique talent, and one that drives his passion for cookery. At first, Remy’s father presses him into service as a full-time poison detector, but he wants so much more and is capable of so much more.

We might think that Remy’s special gift undermines Gusteau’s maxim, but it is still true (for the purposes of this movie) that cooks can come from any background and in all shapes and sizes. Not everyone, however, will choose to cook, and not everyone will become a great cook. Indeed, Remy’s human helper, Linguini, plainly admits at one point that he cannot do what the talented rat can do, despite being the son and heir of the esteemed Gusteau.

At a deeper level, Ratatouille presents a values system based on virtue. The name of Aristotle is most often associated with this very old idea. Like Socrates and Plato before him, Aristotle poses a very different question about values. Rather than asking, “What should we do?,” he asks, “How should we live?” For any of Aristotle’s contemporaries the answer was pretty obvious: we should live the good life. But what is “the good life?”

Aristotle’s answer was pretty involved. Basically, the ancient philosopher thought in terms of a thing’s function, of what it was for. So a knife, to be a knife, must cut; it is for cutting. Moreover, a good knife cuts well. Such a knife, in the Greek way of thinking, is “virtuous” or “excellent” (this is how we typically translate their word aretē). How does this apply to us? What are humans uniquely for? According to Aristotle, our essential function is rational thought. When we live according to reason we are functioning well, and if we are functioning well we are happy, and if we are happy we are living the good life.[3] To put it another way: reason is the uniquely human characteristic that exists in us to make us happy.

This idea of looking at our essential nature can be applied more broadly to the use of talents and skills. Remy the rat has an extraordinary sense of smell and a gift for translating those smells into great cookery. In Remy’s case, this greatness is defined, not by the young rat’s natural abilities, but by the excellence with which the skill is exemplified in someone like Chef Gusteau. Further, on Aristotle’s way of thinking, it would literally make no sense for Remy to ignore his talents by foraging in garbage cans or sniffing food for poison. Being a cook was the distinct quality that existed in Remy to make him happy. Only by actively living in accordance with this virtue could Remy live the good life.
[tab:Humanist Ethics]

Humanist Ethics

My purpose in reaching all the way back to Aristotle, with a side trip through popular culture, is to show that this phrase, “the good life,” is serious business. It is not the sort of throwaway statement we might hear after a backyard cookout when the sun is shining and there is nothing left to do but lie in the hammock and digest a perfectly grilled rib-eye steak. When the phrase turns up in something as pretentious as a Manifesto—indeed, in two such documents over a forty-year period—we have to assume that the authors are using it the technical sense of a life well lived.

Can we be sure, however, that humanists are directing our attention to virtue ethics in particular? This is not an easy question to answer from the manifestoes alone. Besides their brevity, these documents were left deliberately vague and ambiguous on certain points that might have divided the broader humanist community. Moreover, “religious” humanists—the particular variety of humanists behind the Manifesto of 1933—had more to say about social responsibility than personal responsibility. They envisioned a world with better living conditions, usually organized along socialist lines, in which “the good life” would become a reality.[4]

At the same time, if virtue ethics is not under consideration, it is hard to imagine why they would use this particular “term of art.” Roy Wood Sellars, who drafted the first Manifesto, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan.[5] Several signatories were also professors of philosophy. It seems reasonable to suppose that “the good life” was their answer to a well-known philosophical question, “How should we live?”—a question typically associated with the study of virtue ethics.

Fortunately, we can find other hints beyond the published manifestoes. In 1918, Sellars wrote the following in support of religious humanism:

The very attitude and implications of worship must be relinquished. In their place must be put the spiritually founded virtue of loyalty to those efforts and values which elevate human beings and give a quality of nobility and significance to our human life here and now…. The religion of the future will increasingly be concerned with two things, virtues and values.[6]

Not only do we see phrasing from the future Manifesto, with its call for self-fulfillment in the “here and now,” but we also see an important role for virtue.

Another philosopher, John Dewey, had a profound influence on religious humanism and endorsed the first Manifesto.[7] Dewey rejected a hard-and-fast distinction between act-based and character-based ethics. Both questions, “What should we do?” and “How should we live?,” were worth pursuing. Life was too complicated, he thought, to emphasize one system of ethics over another, and so he proposed a role for both rules and virtues.[8]

By 1973, humanists had dropped all pretense of establishing a secular religion, but were still promoting “the good life.” And again, behind the scenes, leading advocates were still offering a two-pronged approach to ethics. Paul Kurtz, co-author of the second Manifesto, begins with an appeal to “common moral decencies” such as integrity and trustworthiness.[9] These “decencies” are, in turn, an expression of underlying virtues or “ethical excellences,” such as autonomy and intelligence.[10] All these “decencies” and “excellences,” however, are only instrumental goods, that is to say, they are good only inasmuch as they bring about some other good end. For “decencies,” the goal is the “survival of any human community”; for “excellences,” it is the “morally developed person.” Finally, with a nod to Aristotle, Kurtz names “happiness” as the only intrinsic good, that is to say, the only goal in our life that is good in and of itself, that is worth achieving for its own sake. Here is Kurtz’s summary of the position:

The intrinsic value humanists seek to achieve is eudaemonia: happiness or well-being. I prefer the word exuberance or excelsior to describe such a state of living, because I believe it is an active, not a passive, process. I believe the end or goal of life is to live fully and creatively, sharing with others the many opportunities for joyful experience.[11]

It is important to emphasize that ethics is an empirical or scientific exercise for humanists. Ethics, as Manifesto II contends, is “situational.” We must constantly monitor the current state of human society and check to see whether our rules and virtues, or “decencies” and “excellences,” need revising. In the meantime, humanists are willing to accept traditional values inasmuch as they advance their cause. These values are the “decencies” to which Kurtz refers, and “the best ethical teachings” of religion mentioned in Manifesto II. This approach raises the specter of relativism and subjectivism. Ethics ends up being relative because it varies from culture to culture and time to time, depending on our empirical findings. It is subjective because values and virtues vary from person to person, depending on any particular individual’s view of what it is to live “fully and creatively.” This seriously challenges any humanist appeal to a system of shared values. We will return to this problem in a later section.

Whatever role virtue may play, we can be reasonably sure that humanists would begin with something other than function. Dissension from Aristotle is nothing unusual. Through the ages, people have entertained different ideas of what it means to live well, and they have departed from Aristotle’s way of thinking to some extent or another. This would include a Biblical understanding of virtue, which we will also address below. In any case, the modern mind is unaccustomed to thinking in terms of a single end for which any given thing must be for.[12] We might agree that a knife is for cutting, but we might endow the knife with other values. Its virtue—if we can even think in that way about knives—might have something to do with its style or brand or history. Today, secular virtue ethics (outside of humanism) tends to focus on social roles: What is it to be a good mother, a good teacher, or a good cook?

Given their evolutionary commitments, humanists are especially wary of Aristotle’s functional thinking. Being for something implies a purpose, which is entirely at odds with the blind, mechanical universe in which they take themselves to be living. The second Manifesto is explicit on this point: “we can discover no divine purpose or providence for the human species.” Humanists are left to focus on what it is to be Homo sapiens. Philosopher and atheist, Daniel Dennett, seems to be hinting in roughly the same direction:

From what can “ought” be derived? The most compelling answer is this: ethics must be somehow based on an appreciation of human nature—on a sense of what a human being is or might be, and on what a human being might want to have or want to be.[13]

[tab:The Is/Ought Problem]

The Is/Ought Problem

It is easy to understand why Dennett and the humanists are attracted to something resembling virtue ethics. As in the case of Aristotle, there is no appeal to God, and there are no moral absolutes binding all people for all time. Further, virtue ethics might avoid a perennial problem known as the is/ought gap. This gap does not exist for Biblical ethics. If we begin with a divine, perfectly good lawgiver, we can move legitimately from command to obligation, from what a good God says to what a good person must do, from God’s will to “Your will be done” (Mt. 6:10).[14] Without God, we must make an unwarranted leap from fact to value, from the “is” of nature to the “ought” of morality.

Many ethical systems have attempted to bridge the is/ought gap. Consider the relatively straightforward case of ethical hedonism. Even if we accept the highly dubious contention that humans live for sensuous pleasures, and this desire affects every morally relevant decision, there is no reason to think that acting to maximize pleasure is always the right thing to do. The monumental failure of ethical hedonism was obvious in just about every episode of VH1’s Behind the Music. A rare exception was the relatively squeaky clean Weird Al Yankovic, who was surprised to be featured on the series. “I was going to get hooked on crack just for the show,” he joked, “but I never got around to it.”[15] For nearly every other musical act, however, the cocktail of gratuitous sex, binge drinking and drug abuse led to failure, loss, pain, and worse. None of this would have surprised Aristotle, Solomon (Ecc. 2:1-3), or Christ (Lk. 12:13-21). The drug of choice may have changed over the millennia, but human foibles have not. Solomon was right on this point as well: “there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecc. 1:9).

Reaching into nature for a fact, and trying to derive value from that fact, is an occupational hazard for secular ethics. When pushed on the issue of morality, virtue ethics may seem to offer a way around the is/ought problem without appealing to God. Can this be done successfully? Aristotle, for instance, begins with a claim about what we are for. The next step is very important. If he moves from the “is” of function to an “ought” of morality, he has stumbled into the same trap. Does Aristotle make this mistake? There are two interpretations on this point; both will be a problem for Aristotle in particular, and for any form of secular virtue ethics.

On one interpretation, Aristotle never intends to guide our actions. If he were playing the is/ought game, we might expect him to say that we are morally right when we act according to reason, and morally wrong when we act against reason. But virtue ethics is supposed to say more about the inner life of man than his public persona; it has more to do with the character of the moral agent than the rightness or wrongness of his actions. So, for example, it is better to be a genuinely courageous person than a person who performs an occasional act of bravery.

Understood in this sense, Aristotle’s argument moves from “is” to “be,” not from “is” to “ought.” But if he never gets to “ought,” he can offer no guidance on our actions. This seems, at the very least, unhelpful as an ethical theory. After all, the whole point in talking about values, both in an individual’s character and in his relationship with other people, is to figure out what we approve and condemn and what we should and should not do.

Contemporary writers have reacted to this challenge in markedly different ways.[16] Elizabeth Anscombe has recommended giving up on moral obligations altogether. Without a divine Lawgiver, she concluded, there was no point in talking about our duty to God and man. We can go can no further than a discussion of what is, and is not, virtuous. The majority, which includes William Frankena and Rosalind Hursthouse, want to begin with virtue ethics and tack on a system of obligations. So, for instance, telling a lie is wrong because it is dishonest, and dishonesty is an indication of an individual’s bad character. Therefore, we should not lie. Such an approach does not, however, avoid the is/ought trap. If right conduct (“ought”) is derived from an assessment of good character, and that assessment depends on what we think about human nature (“is”), we have still tried to cross the gap, albeit with an extra step or two along the way.

On a second interpretation, Aristotle is seen to arrive at moral rules directly, without deriving them from virtues.[17] Take the example of courage. This is one of those character traits we are supposed to develop in order to become a virtuous person. Aristotle thought that reason would guide us away from cowardice on one side (a vice of deficiency), and foolhardiness on the other (a vice of excess). Happiness was to be found in the “golden mean” between the two extremes. “Everything in moderation” was the order of the day. This is not quite the same as saying that acts of cowardice and foolhardiness are just plain wrong, but it looks as though Aristotle wants to pass some kind of moral judgment on the presence of these vices in our life. So it seems, in the end, he has to make the move from fact to value, from an observation about human nature to a moral assessment of what we actually do.
[tab:Oh to be Like Thee]

Oh to be Like Thee?

The is/ought distinction is not the only problem for a God-free virtue ethics. Subjectivism and relativism rear their ugly heads in several ways.

First, Aristotle thought a “great-souled man” would provide an example of what was truly excellent. [18] Unfortunately, such men could only be found among the aristocracy of ancient Greece. At one point, this paragon of virtue comes off sounding like Tom Bombadil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. According to Aristotle,

a slow step is thought proper to the proud [i.e., “great-souled”] man, a deep voice, and a level utterance; for the man who takes few things seriously is not likely to be hurried, nor the man who thinks nothing great to be excited, while a shrill voice and a rapid gait are the results of hurry and excitement.[19]

Sadly, this would exclude Tom’s diminutive and impatient hobbit friends from the ranks of the truly virtuous. Again, on Aristotle’s way of thinking, “beauty implies a goodsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.” Randy Newman and Aristotle would have got along famously: short people really do have no reason to live.

Frankly, few of us could buy into Aristotle’s elitism. Philosopher Roger Scruton likens his great-souled man to Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Superman”:

In each case pride, self-confidence, disdain for the trivial and the ineffectual, together with a lofty cheerfulness of outlook and a desire always to dominate and never to be beholden were regarded as essential attributes of the self-fulfilled man.[20]

It is hard to imagine anyone—at least, anyone we would call virtuous or even socially well-adjusted—actually aspiring to be this kind of person. Nietzsche’s Superman was no caped crusader, sacrificing office romance and a decent-sized changing room to save humanity.[21] Having proclaimed that “God is dead,” Nietzsche stripped any source of objective meaning from human life.[22] So why, with the loss of meaning, should we continue the daily struggle for existence? Nietzsche points his readers in the direction of an ideal man, a superhuman being, who will impose meaning on his existence through sheer force of will, even if this means destroying the “weaker” people around him.

At first glance, Nietzsche and Aristotle make an odd couple, but their vision of greatness is decidedly unappealing and possibly creepy. Again, I venture that few of us would want to emulate either the great-souled man or Superman. As ideals they betray the subjective beliefs, preferences and prejudices of their human creators. One is the product of an aloof Athenian aristocrat; the other is the product of a suicidal Prussian atheist. Why should we trust any human opinion of what, or who, counts as a truly virtuous person? [post submission edit – what does this say about humanism; once we have described a human being or even human society, what virtue or excellence emerges, and would we want to be like that?]

Second, right and wrong in humanist ethics depend on the allegedly objective but changing “facts” of science. According to the Manifesto of 1933, “modern science makes unacceptable any supernatural or cosmic guarantees of human values.” But why should we put our faith in humanism when there are no guarantees? The sense of disquiet grows as we keep on reading. The document calls for “social and mental hygiene.” This sounds disturbingly like the German idea of “racial hygiene” which led, under the Nazi regime, to mass compulsory sterilization, euthanasia, and the Holocaust.[23] The Germans of this period were inspired by the success of eugenics programs in the United States, which were inspired in turn by social Darwinism—the view that Darwinian thinking can be applied to human populations.[24] The results in North America were bad enough but could hardly compare to the horrors of Nazi-occupied Europe. In all likelihood, this is not what the humanists of this period had in mind. Social Darwinism went hand-in-hand with monopolistic trade practices and laissez-faire capitalism, neither of which were very appealing to left-leaning religious humanists. For similar reasons we can be fairly sure that this is not what Dewey had in mind when he conceived of nature and science as “the willing servants of human good.”[25]

So whose interpretation of Darwin should serve the human good? Indeed, can science really say anything much about what we should do, or how we should live? Science is often lauded for its objectivity, but it is also lauded for its tentative findings. Many of us are familiar with contradictory headlines in the field of health science. [26] Back in 1993, doctors started touting the cardiovascular benefits of vitamin E. It is now generally agreed that vitamin E supplements do nothing to prevent heart disease. “Science” has also changed its opinion on sub-Saharan Africans. Thomas Henry Huxley, often known as Darwin’s “Bulldog,” wrote the following in 1865:

It may be quite true that some negroes are better than some white men; but no rational man, cognisant of the facts, believes that the average negro is the equal, still less the superior, of the average white man.[27]

Huxley’s statement amply demonstrates the prevailing climate of scientific racism. Contemporary scientists would certainly question those “facts” today. So was racism right in 1865, but wrong in 2009? It hardly seems that the answer should depend on the findings of science.[28] Humanism commits us to moral relativism and all of its associated diseases.

A third and closely related problem centers on the nature of man. Who gets to decide what a human being is or might be? If ethics depends on our own assessments of human nature, then we will get different answers depending on who we ask. African slaves in antebellum America had become mere objects, chattels to be bought and sold. Jews in Nazi Germany failed to qualify as fully human. Women in Islam are only worth half a man.[29] The life of a pre-born child, in the eyes of the “pro-choice” movement, is worth less than the life of the mother. Each of these valuations has (or has had) a profound effect on daily life. If humanness is relative to the culture or the individual, then there is no objective view of what is good for man. Without a fixed standard of goodness, there is no way to tell whether a life is good or not.

Fourth, as mentioned earlier, the second Manifesto held out hope for survival and prosperity “in a world of shared human values.” But whose values: Aristotle’s? Darwin’s? Nietzsch’s? Hitler’s? And how are those values going to be “shared” when they are relative to individual human experience? This is a recipe for moral anarchy, not a good society in which we strive to live the good life.

And finally ethics, according to the second Manifesto, “is autonomous and situational needing no theological or ideological sanction.” But why should I strive for the good life here and now, or ever? Why should I employ my intellect to help others? Morality without God provides no basis for obligation, for why I ought to do anything.
[tab:Christian Ethics]

Christian Ethics

Acting on God’s Love

Ironically, for all the weaknesses of humanistic ethics in particular and secular virtue ethics in general, there is something to be said for a two-pronged approach that covers both acts and character. Humanists give equal weight to both approaches. Philosophers like Frankena give priority to character, and derive duties from virtues. But as we have seen, it is very difficult—indeed, in the light of the is/ought gap, impossible—to defend a God-free ethical system.

Scripture gives us a very clear starting point: we have, first and foremost, the duty to follow God’s commands. This begins with God’s instructions to Adam and Eve, reaches a great deal of sophistication in the Mosaic covenant, and continues into the New Testament age.

After his journey of self-discovery, often pursuing egoistic or hedonistic goals, Solomon arrives at the following eternal truth: “Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecc. 12:13). Biblical ethics is an ethics of duty.

In Matthew 27:34-36, Jesus is challenged by a Pharisaic legal expert to name the greatest command in the Law of Moses. Jesus sets out the following priorities:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (Mt. 22:37-40).

It might seem that love could never be commanded, but other passages in Scripture make it evident that this love emerges from a response to God’s love (1 Jn. 4:19). It is out of this love that we desire to do His will.

We might be tempted to think that these obligations end with the arrival of God’s kingdom in fulfillment of the Old Law (Mt. 5:17-18; Gal. 3:24-25). However, the apostle John reiterates the teaching of Christ: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments” (1 Jn. 5:2-3).

Biblical ethics rejects consequentialism. We do not look at the outcome of our actions, and then determine whether our conduct was (or will be) right. From God’s point of view, the end never justifies the means. This is amply demonstrated in the case of Uzzah (2 Sam. 6:6). On David’s orders, Uzzah and his brother Ahio were transporting the ark of the covenant on a cart from the house of their father, Abinadab, to Jerusalem. The oxen drawing the cart stumbled on Nachon’s threshing floor. Uzzah reached out to steady the load, and God promptly struck him dead for touching the ark (Num. 4:14-15). This punishment may seem excessive to postmodern readers who are tempted to offer a number of excuses on Uzzah’s behalf: he was acting with good intentions; he was “just” following orders; the ark was saved in the end. Sure the ark was off limits, “strictly speaking,” but the outcome justifies Uzzah’s actions. However, the ark of the covenant was the centerpiece of Israelite worship. Handling instructions were designed to uphold the object’s sacred status. Moreover, this was no mere accident. The same passage in Numbers specifies that the ark was to be carried on poles by descendants of Kohath, of the tribe of Levi. There is no indication that Uzzah and Ahio were members of this family and, in any case, they were carrying the ark on a cart. When David moves the ark at a much later date, he brings attention to the role of Levites, as if to imply that he was not going to make the same mistake again (1 Chr. 15:2).[30]

Uzzah is the example of first resort when it comes to emphasizing the rule-following aspect of Biblical faith. We should also keep in mind that Jesus died on the cross because the Law could not be kept perfectly (Gal. 3:10-12). An ethics of duty, therefore, does not justify legalism or imply a works-based religion (Eph. 2:8-9).

At the other extreme, we are apt to find people of the world and, unfortunately, members of the Lord’s body, adopting an eclectic approach to ethics. At times they practice ethical egoism (“it is all about me”), and at other times it is ethical hedonism (“if it feels good, do it”), or pragmatism (“whatever works”), or utilitarianism (“the greatest happiness for the greatest number”). And, especially in this postmodern age, we expect to find a large dose of ethical relativism (“what’s right for you might not be right for me”). None of these views is sanctioned by Scripture. Our primary ethical thrust is duty (“do the right thing, no matter what”)—specifically, it is our duty to love God and keep His commandments.

Character Built on Christ

Even within this call for duty, however, there is something deeper. In the exchange between Jesus and the lawyer, the Pharisee discerns that loving God and loving one’s neighbor are better “than all the whole burnt offerings and sacrifices” (Mk. 12:33). Jesus commends him for this insight. Even as a Pharisee and an expert in Jewish law, the man has come to understand that there was more to life—indeed, more to the good life—than the external keeping of the Law. On another occasion, Jesus chides the Pharisees for their fastidious tithing while neglecting “the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith” (Mt. 23:23). Jesus was in no way trivializing the practice of tithing, but He wanted His people to act out of love and to develop the virtues of justice, mercy and faith.

This was not a new criticism. A similar deficit of character could be found in the time of Micah. God bemoans their thousands of rams and their ten thousand rivers of oil (Mic. 6:7). These sacrifices were required by the Law. God was not bringing temple worship to a premature end, but He wanted His chosen nation to develop justice, loving kindness, and spiritual humility (6:8).

God is very clear on this issue: He has always been interested, not only in what we do, but in how we live. In other words, in building a Christian world view we need to understand that virtue is a necessary complement to divine command. It is not enough that we get through life having never murdered an innocent human being; we must be the kind of person who does not harbor hatred toward others (Mt. 5:21-22). A Christian approach to virtue ethics is evident in the preceding passages as well as in the beatitudes (Mt. 5:3-12), the fruits of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), the proper objects of our thoughts (Phil. 4:8), and the qualities of Christian faith (2 Pet. 1:5-7), to name a few.

This approach to ethics begins, not with a simple fact about human nature, but with a value-drenched notion of what it is to be a child of God:

  • “for in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28)
  • “it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20)
  • “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:5)

There is no attempt here to cross the is/ought gap. Instead, we move from who we are to who we could be.

Lastly, Christian virtue ethics has a model of greatness in the form of an objectively perfect Man, Christ Jesus. Our Lord is not good because men have said He is good; He is good because He is God (Ps. 119:68). He is not merely an ideal; He is a real Man Who experienced the emotional, moral and physical realities of human existence (Lk. 22:44; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:21). His goodness is not relative to a particular place and time; He is eternal—the One Who is, Who was, and Who is to come (Rev. 1:8). Unlike the ideal man of Aristotle and Nietzsche, this Jesus sought neither to disdain seeming trivialities (Mt. 6:28-30), nor dominate the people around Him (Phil. 2:5-8). He is the one Person, the only Person, Who deserves to be emulated.


For many people, “the good life” is probably synonymous with a life of ease. It is tempting to think that godless humanists are likewise dedicated to the pursuit of worldly pleasure. In fact, humanists put a lot of stock in the powers of human reasoning, especially their reasoning, and worldly pleasures tend to offer little in the way of mental satisfaction. The average humanist is not opposed to immediate gratification, but it is not what he takes to be the good life.

More importantly, humanists are trying to create a religion (Manifesto I) or a world view (Manifesto II) that stands in the very narrow space between flaming religious liberalism on the one side and virulent atheism on the other. The result is meant to offer lapsed believers relief from the desperate emptiness of a thoroughgoing materialism. Humanists are painfully aware of statements that paint an unsympathetic, unattractive picture of unbelief. In The Meaning of Evolution, George Gaylord Simpson concludes that human life has no meaning:

Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal….[31]

In “The Evolution of Ethics,” Wilson and Ruse conclude that ethics does not exist:

Morality, or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will…or any other part of the framework of the universe. In an important sense, ethics…is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.[32]

Humanists want to eat their cake and keep it too. They want to play on the Darwinists’ side, but they want to play nice.

Right conduct, coupled with the development of a good character (virtue ethics), is their formula for the good life. Without God as a starting point, they draw on the facts of nature to derive their ethics. As we have seen, however, this cannot be done. Nature is values-free and virtue-free—it can tell us nothing about morality. Secular ethics is doomed by the unbridgeable gap between “is” and “ought.”

For all their talk of intellectual rigor, humanists fail to follow the implications of Darwinian evolution to their bitter, logical ends. Humanism is a cop out; it is nothing but microwaved atheism. The very name suggests that there is something exceptional about human beings—a claim that someone like Simpson would never accept. Calling for right conduct and good character assumes the existence of moral values—an assumption that Wilson and Ruse would never accept. It should come as no surprise that the American Humanist Association is effectively irrelevant to the current crop of New Atheists and hyperdarwinists.

Once God is in the picture, the central task of mankind comes into view: we are to love God and keep His commandments. A good life in the here and now means aspiring to develop those character traits that are valued by God and exemplified in the Person of Christ. Becoming this virtuous person, a good Christian, is a task that must be and can only be accomplished in the here and now.

[A version of this manuscript was published as part of the Lubbock Lectureship, 2009.]


[1] Humanist Manifesto I. Appeared originally in New Humanist, May-June, 1933. [Online] Accessed on July 12, 2009, from

[2] Humanist Manifesto II. Appeared originally in The Humanist, September-October, 1973. [Online] Accessed on July 12, 2009, from

[3] Aristotle. Nicomachian Ethics, 1.8. Note: (1) “Happiness” is the usual English translation of the Greek eudaimonia, by which Aristotle did not mean short-term pleasure. Sometimes “well-being” or “flourishing” are offered as alternate renderings. (2) All quotes are from the W.D. Ross translation, unless otherwise indicated.

[4] William F. Schulz. Making the Manifesto: The Birth of Religious Humanism. Boston, MA: Skinner House Books, 2002, p. 117. See also the 14th thesis of Manifesto I.

[5] Schulz, Making the Manifesto, p. 59.

[6] Roy Wood Sellars. The Next Step in Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1918, pp. 7, 223.

[7] Steven C. Rockefeller. John Dewey. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991, pp. 445-490.

[8] Gregory Fernando Pappas. John Dewey’s Ethics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2008, pp. 129-145.

[9] Paul Kurtz. Toward a New Enlightenment. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1994, p. 17.

[10] Kurtz, Toward a New Enlightenment, p. 19.

[11] Kurtz, Toward a New Enlightenment, p. 20.

[12] Robert L. Arrington. “Ethics II (1945 to the present),” History of Philosophy. London: Routledge, 1997, 10:129.

[13] Daniel Dennett. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. London: Penguin, 1995, p. 468.

[14] All Scripture quotations are taken from the New King James Version, unless otherwise indicated.

[15] Julio Diaz, “’Weird Al’ Yankovic,” Ink19, September 1999. [Online] Accessed on July 9, 2009, from

[16] Jan Steutel and David Carr. “Virtue ethics and the virtue approach to moral education,” in David Carr and Jan Steutel, editors, Virtue Ethics and Moral Education. London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 9-10.

[17] Stanley J. Grenz. The Moral Quest: Foundations of Christian Ethics. Downers Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, p. 76.

[18] Aristotle uses the Greek term megalopsuchos, which could be rendered in a more literal sense as “great-souled” or “great-minded.” From the context of Nicomachian Ethics 4:3, W.D. Ross prefers “proud.” The negative connotations of this word for Christian and postmodern readers alike is, in my opinion, appropriate.

[19] Aristotle. Nicomachian Ethics, 4.3.

[20] Roger Scruton. A Short History of Modern Philosophy from Descartes to Wittgenstein, 2nd edition. London: Routledge, 1995, p. 187.

[21] “Superman” is a common but unfortunate translation. Nietzsch uses the German term Übermensch, which means literally “Overman.” As far as I am aware, the comic book character was not based on Nietzsche’s ideal man.

[22] Friedrich Nietzsche. Thus Spake Zarathustra. Published originally in four parts, 1883-1885.

[23] The Nazi law on sterilization was also passed in 1933. See Robert Proctor. Racial Hygiene. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988, p. 95.

[24] See Trevor Major. “Ethics and Darwinism,” Reason & Revelation, January 1999.

[25] As quoted in Rockefeller, John Dewey, p. 451. According to Rockefeller, Dewey “enthusiastically embraced Darwin” but rejected social Darwinism (p. 222).

[26] For an example of this phenomenon within the medical field, see Athina Tatsioni, et al. “Persistence of Contradicted Claims in the Literature,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 2007, 298(21):2517-2526.

[27] Thomas Henry Huxley. “Emancipation—Black and White,” in Collected Essays 3: Science and Education. New York: Appleton, 1900, pp. 66-67. Essay originally published in The Reader, 1865, 5:561-562.

[28] Kurtz defends this approach and calls it “objective relativism” (Toward a New Enlightenment, p. 28).

[29] Qur’an, sura 2:282; Sahih Bukhari, 1.6.301.

[30] Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch. Biblical Commentary on the Books of Samuel, tr. by James Martin. Edinburgh: T&T Clarke, 1866, pp. 330-334.

[31] George Gaylord Simpson. The Meaning of Evolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1967, p. 345.

[32] E.O. Wilson and Michael Ruse, “The Evolution of Ethics,” The New Scientist, October 17, 1985, 108:51,52.

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