Is Humanism good enough?

I’ve had some great conversations since my first article on Sentientism was published in Areo.  As a reminder, Sentientism is an ethical philosophy or worldview that applies evidence and reason and extends moral consideration to all sentient beings. Sentient beings have the ability to experience things – suffering or flourishing.  They include humans, non-human animals and potentially even artificial or alien intelligences.

One recurring theme of those conversations, often with fellow humanists, runs as follows…

“Humanism already does a good enough job. Most humanists do care about non-human animals (anecdotally ~40% seem to be vegan or vegetarian in some countries) and we can stretch the humanist concept easily to sentient AIs. Humanists UK and the IHEU already reference sentient non-human animals in their definitions. The term humanism only applies to moral objects or agents – we can and do extend our concern to non-human subjects. Humanism is already a reasonably well organised movement via the IHEU and national organisations. Humanism is a simpler term and is already widely understood. It has a rich intellectual and cultural heritage. Sentientism is a clunky term that might just confuse people and may fragment an important progressive movement.”

I have some sympathy with these lines of argument.  I see humanism as a force for good that I don’t want to distract from or fragment. That gave me pause for thought when deciding whether to put effort into my rather amateur project to develop and popularise Sentientism.

The central reason I decided to keep going was the term humanism itself. While many humanists do extend their circles of concern more widely, the term humanism implies and encourages an anthropocentric focus on one species and gives us all excuses for cognitive dissonance and akrasia (not that we need any). I’ve set out some example symptoms of this human-centricity below: 

Formal definitions of Humanism focus almost without exception on the human species. The Wikipedia entry on Humanism describes Humanism as “…a philosophical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively.” There is no mention of the moral consideration of non-human animals. I recently proposed the following addition to the page in the “Criticism” section. It was deleted almost immediately:

“Humanism faces criticism for Anthropocentrism, a focus on the central importance of the human species. Some humanist organisations include moral concern for animals or other living things in their definitions[85][86], but humanist campaigns and policies focus almost entirely on the human species[87]. The Sentientism worldview shares humanism’s naturalism, but explicitly grants meaningful moral consideration to all sentient beings, for example precluding their harming or slaughter for use in animal products[88].”

Humanist campaigns (all of which I support) are almost entirely focused on the human species and more specifically on resisting religious civil privileges and harms. I can only find one IHEU or Humanist organisation campaign that focuses on non-human animals, that re: pre-stunning slaughter. The campaign does address animal suffering as a factor but seems just as motivated by wanting to avoid privileging supernatural views. It is implied that non-religious slaughter is morally acceptable, despite the supposed humanist concern for sentient non-humans.

Two of the most influential recent humanist books (Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now by Steve Pinker) – include a focus on animal cruelty but hardly mention the rapidly increasing, industrial scale suffering caused by animal farming. That oversight, by someone who does personally grant moral consideration to non-human animals, is typical of the humanist, anthropomorphic perspective.

Most humanists needlessly consume products that require the harming and killing of sentient non-human animals – implying that, in terms of their actual choices, they do not grant them a meaningful level of moral consideration. You’ll find many leading humanists on our Not Quite Sentientist list.

Humanism only considers humans as moral agents or subjects. Other sentients can be moral subjects or agents too – as far as those concepts make any sense. Morality, at least in rudimentary forms, existed long before humans and continues in other species today.

Some humanists use their interpretation of Humanism to justify mis-treatment of other species to further human ends. This seems to be a non-religious version of the religious right to human dominion over non-human animals.

Many humanists struggle to understand that non-human artificial or alien intelligences may eventually warrant moral consideration.

So, in my view, humanism needs this upgrade. Anthropocentrism limits us and our morality.

At the very least, I’d like to maintain a constructive pressure on the humanism movement. The early steps by some humanist organisations to extend moral consideration beyond our species and to act in line with that consideration are encouraging. More need to be taken – and quickly.

I’d love to know what you think. Please comment below, via @Sentientism on Twitter or in one of our friendly community groups.

Latest work

Headshot of Michael Levin looking towards the camera through a glass screen with red and blue measurement scales marked on it.

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Dr Michael Levin is a developmental and synthetic biologist at Tufts University. A Sentientism conversation about what's real, who matters and how to make a better future.

“Reductionism is well-named. It reduces what you can do.” – Michael Levin – Sentientism Ep:199

Dr Michael Levin is a developmental and synthetic biologist at Tufts University. A Sentientism conversation about what's real, who matters and how to make a better future.

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Emilia Leese is co-author of the book Think Like A Vegan and host of the Think Like a Vegan podcast. A Sentientism conversation.

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Keith Tucker is Founder and Executive Director of Hip Hop is Green. A conversation about the Sentientism worldview's "evidence, reason and compassion for all sentient beings".

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