May 2003

Ethics: Back to the Basics

Richard Layton’s Discussion Group Report

Is there any more important subject than ethics? In an article in The Humanist, March-April 2003, Gregory D. Foster says, “Nearly all of us acknowledge the importance of ethics. Most of us hope for and expect ethical behavior and treatment from particular segments of society…But regrettably few of us really understand ethics as well as we think we do or as well as we should.”

He suggests that there are a whole host of issues that can be treated as ethical issues. Abortion, globalization, capital punishment, defense spending, gun control, and genetic engineering are just a few.

What is ethics all about? Foster says it is about right and wrong, good and evil, virtue and vice, benefit and harm, propriety and impropriety. But it is also about principle–fixed, universal rules of right conduct that are contingent on neither time nor culture, nor circumstance;

“If habit is not a result of resolute and firm principles ever more and more purified, then, like any other mechanism of technically practical reason, it is neither armed for all eventualities nor adequately secured against change that may be brought about by new allurements.”–Immanuel Kant.

And ethics is about character–the traits, qualities, and established reputation that define who one is and what one stands for in the eyes of others. It is about example–an established pattern of conduct worthy of emulation–and conscience–the voice of the soul,” “the pulse of reason,” “that inner tribunal,” “the muzzle of the will,” “the compass of the unknown,” “a thousand witnesses.”

“The moral sense follows, firstly, from the enduring and ever-present nature of the social instincts; secondly, from man’s appreciation of the approbation and disapprobation of his fellows; and thirdly, from the high activity of his mental faculties, with past impressions extremely vivid; and in these latter respects he differs from the lower animals…Hence after some temporary desire or passion has mastered his social instincts, he reflects and compares the now weakened impression of such past impulses with the ever-present social instincts; and he then feels that sense of dissatisfaction which all unsatisfied instincts leave behind them, he therefore resolves to act differently for the future–and this is conscience.”–Charles Darwin.

“Ethics involves critical analysis of human acts to determine their rightness or wrongness in terms of two major criteria: truth and justice.”–Clarence Walton. Walton observes that ethics has virtually everything to do with the quality–even more than the content of our thinking. How we think may not guarantee a right or best answer but it dramatically improves the prospects of finding one in sound, defensible fashion.

“To think well is to think critically,” suggests Foster. Critical thinking–the conscious use of reason–stands clearly apart from other ways of grasping truth or confronting choice: impulse, habit, faith, and intuition. Impulse is nothing more than unreflective spontaneity. “Given the magnifying and accelerating effects of the media,” says Foster, “impulsiveness is much more likely than deliberation in characterizing the response of today’s policy practitioners to the manifold crises that define contemporary political affairs.” Habit is programmed repetition, the routinization of thought by which we remove presumably mundane matters to our subconscious so they can be dealt with more efficiently or conveniently without the attendant need to constantly revisit first principles. It is what we do when we standardize, generalize, or stereotype. Faith, in the words of Walter Kaufman, “means intense, usually confident belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” “For the true believer, though,” says Foster, “it isn’t just the certainty of proof that is unnecessary; evidence itself is superfluous, especially evidence that contradicts an established belief system, worldview, or doctrine. This is what cognitive dissonance is all about–the prevalent human tendency to ignore events or data that run counter to one’s preconceptions or predispositions,” “Action and faith enslave thought, both of them in order not to be troubled or inconvenienced by reflection, criticism and doubt.”–Henri Frederic Amiel. Intuition is a way of speculative “knowing” based more on experience than on reason, more on our overall sensory apparatus than on the workings of the mind. In it superficial impression of what appears to be often gives birth to deep-seated pseudoknowledge of what is. George Santayana says we must discount this subjective or ideal element in thought if we are anxious to possess true knowledge.

What distinguishes the above forms of unreason from critical thinking is the systematic, investigative nature of the latter. “If you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure,” said Henri Heine, “then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then enquire.” Thinking critically, states Foster, is a disciplined pattern or mode of thought or inquiry that requires, first, questioning rather than accepting at face value; second, seeking and weighing all evidence on all sides of an issue, not just evidence that affirms one’s beliefs; and third, employing rigorous logic to reach defensible conclusions. The object of critical thinking is to achieve a measure of objectivity to counteract or diminish the subjective bias that experience and socialization bestow on us all. Why is this necessary? Because when we are dealing with ethical matters, the well-being of someone or something beyond ourselves is always at stake. “If we live according to the guidance of reason , we shall desire for others the good which we seek for ourselves.” –Spinoza.

What should be the bases for analyzing human acts, for determining their rightness or wrongness? There are many bases that are sometimes used, but Foster suggests we should have two major criteria in mind–truth and justice. “Truth is the summit of being; justice is the application of it [truth] to affairs.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ethics requires that we seek the truth in order to have a proper basis for achieving justice. Justice served is ethics realized, argues Foster.

Truth is what is–conditions, occurrences, and statements whose existence and nature are there to be confirmed or verified by observation or reason. To possess truth is to have knowledge, the expected outcome of critical reasoning. If we possessed the truth, we would know what is ethical. But there’s the rub. Truth is inherently elusive, and our ability to grasp it is tenuous at best, even illusory. “A man with a watch knows what time it is; a man with two watches isn’t so sure.”–Old Saying.

Together truth and justice constitute a basis for trust, offers Foster. “Trust is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe and the water we drink. When it is damaged, the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed societies falter and collapse. –Sissela Bok. “Trust is a social glue,” says Foster. “If I am sure I can count on you to tell me the truth, to seek the truth where I am concerned, to treat me fairly, to care whether I get what I deserve and deserve what I get, then our relationship is more likely than not to be characterized by trust… Where such trust exists, …the prevalence of ethical conflict and the burden of ethical choice are materially diminished. Restoring trust thus is the great task of ethics, and understanding ethics accordingly is the great task of humanity today.”

Humanism and Its Aspirations

The American Humanist Association announced the release of the much anticipated “Humanist Manifesto III” on April 21, 2003. This new document has been several years in the writing and has received input from humanists worldwide. The title of this 1-page proclamation is “Humanism and Its Aspirations” and it may be viewed on the AHA Website. There is also a utility that will allow you to sign the new declaration electronically.

For historical reference:

Help Stop Barbaric Stoning

(Washington, DC–April 24, 2003) A great deal has been made of religious fundamentalism in the past months, Christian and Islamic, at home and abroad. Now it has reared its ugly head once again and an innocent woman desperately needs your help to avoid a tortuous death. As humanists we are called upon by our conscience to fight the archaic applications of fundamentalism.

The Nigerian Supreme Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to apply the death penalty to adultery convictions. However, in Nigeria, regional laws that contradict federal law are frequently introduced and enacted because the Nigerian constitution protects individual states from federal intrusion. So an Islamic court in Katsina State did exactly that and convicted Amina Lawal, 30, of adultery because she admitted to having a child while divorced. She was sentenced to death by stoning and is waiting for the June 3rd appeal date.

If the sentence is not overturned, Amina’s fate will involve being first buried to her waist, then the executioners will hurl stones at her until she finally dies. Four other people are currently sentenced to die in the same manner.

The judge in this case ruled that the sentence could not be carried out before Amina finished breastfeeding her newborn baby. So there is still a real chance to save her! It is imperative that we aid the efforts of others around the world who are working to save Amina Lawal and four other Nigerians from such inhuman punishment. The Spanish branch of Amnesty International’s petition to end this horrible punishment has already received over four million signatures! A similar campaign has already saved the life of a similarly imperiled Nigerian woman named Safiya Hussaini.

How you can help:

Demand that President Olusegun Obasanjo overturn Amina and other’s stoning sentences! Please sign Amnesty International of Spain’s Letter to the Nigerian president. On the space marked “nombre,” put your first name. Put your last name in the space marked “apellidos.” Type your state of residence under “Provincia.” And in “país,” select “Estados Unidos” (United States). Then click “Seguir.” After you’ve signed, send the petition to as many people as possible. You may additionally contact President Olusegun Obasanjo Amina’s appeal is set for June 3, so please act now!

Tom Snyder’s Prayer

Our Mother, who art in heaven (if, indeed there is a heaven and if there is a God that takes a woman’s form) hallowed be thy name, we ask for thy blessing for and guidance of those that will participate in this meeting and for those mortals that govern the state of Utah;

We fervently ask that you guide the leaders of this city, Salt Lake County and the State of Utah so that they may see the wisdom of separating church and state and so that they will never again perform demeaning religious ceremonies as part of official government functions;

We pray that you prevent self-righteous politicians from mis-using the name of God in conducting government meetings; and, that you lead them away from the hypocritical and blasphemous deception of the public, attempting to make the people believe that bureaucrats’ decisions and actions have thy stamp of approval if prayers are offered at the beginning of government meetings;

We ask that you grant Utah’s leaders and politicians enough courage and discernment to understand that religion is a private matter between every individual and his or her deity; we beseech thee to educate government leaders that religious beliefs should not be broadcast and revealed for the purpose of impressing others; we pray that you strike down those that mis-use your name and those that cheapen the institution of prayer by using it for their own selfish political gains;

We ask that the people of the State of Utah will some day learn the wisdom of the separation of church and state; we ask that you will teach the people of Utah that government should not participate in religion; we pray that you smite those government officials that would attempt to censor or control prayers made by anyone to you or to any other of our Gods;

We ask that you deliver us from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people of the State of Utah by the actions of mis-guided, weak and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness; All of this we ask in thy name and in the name of thy son (if in fact you had a son that visited earth) for the eternal betterment of all of us who populate the Great State of Utah.


On April 11, 2003, the Utah State Supreme Court ruled that Murray City, Utah violated the free speech rights of Tom Snyder when it refused to allow him to offer this “prayer” before a meeting of the City Council. Murray City officials had declined, informing Mr. Snyder that “the text of (this) proposed prayer was unacceptable…” This appeared to contradict the earlier claim that the city had no “established formal policies” on prayer content. With the help of First Amendment attorney Brian Barnard, Snyder has won his case, charging that his rights to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment had been violated, along with his rights to freedom of speech and free exercise of religion.

Bush: The New Face of the Religious Right
A Report Issued by the American Humanist Association

(Washington, D.C., April 22, 2003) A report entitled Bush: The New Face of the Religious Right was released today by the American Humanist Association. This new report details how the Bush Administration is the new executive branch of the Religious Right. It also explores the question, “Is President Bush so beholden to religious fundamentalism that he is illegally making appointments based on faith?”

When President Bush says, “I welcome faith to help solve the nation’s deepest problems,” it’s clear from his context and actions that he may not just welcome such help but that he is actually relying on it. As this report details, Bush is not just a public official who happens to hold a strong faith, he’s one who’s willing to allow his faith and Religious Right interpretations of faith to guide national policy.

Bush is the most overtly religious president to use his office as a bully pulpit, and his pervasive religiosity is raising serious concerns. If Bush is choosing his appointees based on their faiths, he is in direct violation of Article VI of the United States Constitution as it states, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Despite being spread across many different offices, several Bush appointments (some clearly unqualified) are nevertheless comparable in one conspicuous way. A survey of his friends, advisers, and appointments reveals a disconcerting similarity–an unusual proportion of men and women of deep religious faith who often harbor extreme views on a host of the Religious Right’s favorite subjects: abortion, gay rights, the dangers of secularism, and others.

AHA executive director Tony Hileman said, “The contents of this report should concern all supporters of our Constitution, even the most religious, but we are releasing this today because Humanists are being excluded from full participation in democracy.”

This new report can be read in full at the AHA site or print copies can be ordered from the AHA national offices

Time for a Change: New Editor Sought

About two and a half years ago I became the editor and publisher of The Utah Humanist.

A lot has happened since: a controversial presidential election; a worsening religious dispute on Main Street in Salt Lake City; the most horrific terrorist attack ever against our country; the Winter Olympics in our state’s fair capital; two short wars and a long-festering division in our nation.

We are all a little older and, I hope, a little wiser.

All things must pass, the large and the small.

It has come time for me to seek an associate editor who can become the editor of The Utah Humanist. In recent months it has become more difficult for me to fulfill my duties in giving you what I hope has been thoughtful information. The other demands of life-personal, professional, and otherwise-must be met, and so I plan on relinquishing this post as your editor in the coming months.

There are among you many passionate and eloquent voices for peace and rationality. It is time that you are heard. I invite you to meet with me and with the board of Humanists of Utah to discuss the next chapter in the evolution of our journal. Please email me for more information.

This is a very important time in the life history of our community and our nation. You are needed.

–Richard Garrard