The British Humanist Association Part 2 – “What makes something right or wrong?”

The second video I would like to address is ‘What makes something right or wrong?’:

Fry begins by stating:

“Some people believe that what is right or wrong never varies from situation to situation and that it can be expressed in constant and unchanging commandments. They often look to religious texts or authorities to discover what they think a God wants them to do.”

Now any student of religion will know how this is a parody of religious ethics. I am not aware of one single religion which has a complete set of ethical commands which are to be held to regardless of the situation. Take the Ten Commandments for example (which have huge importance in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). Most Jewish, Christian and Islamic scholars do not interpret “Do not kill/murder” to be a command which should apply to absolutely every situation one could ever think of. All three of these religions have traditions of ‘Just War’ theories. It is also well accepted that many of the ‘commands’ in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) are case law. [1] Many of them describe what should happen in a certain situation and only in that situation rather than attempting to set a single command to be applied in all situations.  It is true that some commands are supposed to be taken as absolute as much as possible but many others were culture specific. Others had clear assumptions about the situation they applied to. Does a Jewish child have a duty to honour their parents if their parents abuse them? It would be tough to find a Jewish or Christian scholar who interpreted that law in any kind of absolutist fashion. Another good example in the Bible is Rahab who appears to be congratulated by the writer to the Hebrews (in Hebrews 11:31) for lying in order to keep the Hebrew spies in Jericho safe.

Then there are modern examples such as the principle of doing the lesser of two evils. This is the idea many religious ethicists propose when faced with a moral dilemma where some moral sin is likely to occur no matter what course of action one takes. A good example of this would be Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s participation in a plot to murder Hitler. Another would be the approach most Christians take to permitting abortion in certain extreme circumstances (such as the mother’s life being in danger). Some religious philosophers have even taken a very utilitarian and consequentialist approach to doing ethics (take Joseph Fletcher as one famous example of such). Or take the, so called, ‘first precept’ as found in Buddhism (you shall not harm any living creature). Even though this precept sounds deontologically absolute in practice this is not the case. Even the current Dalai Lama has expressed examples of situations under which he would consider abortion to be the right course of action (even though this appears to violate the first precept). In fact, even though a lot of precepts sound absolute in Buddhism a lot of Buddhist ethics is determined more by intention and outcome than in keeping the precept literally. So, once again, we have the BHA presenting a very childish, oversimplified account of what religious ethics are in order to make their view seem like a huge contrast to their own.

What is being confused here in the video is the difference between believing in objective morality and absolutist morality. Only a moral absolutist would suggest a moral command always applies in every and all situations. Someone who holds to the objectivity of something being wrong (that is to say, it really is wrong) is not committed to saying it must apply to all situations. This is precisely why religions, even when they take strong views on killing, often have caveats for certain extreme situations.

But, once again, the BHA does not appear interested in all of this reality. It appears the nuances of religion are of no serious concern for their propaganda campaign. Once again, as a result, we get this horribly distorted picture of what religious ethics is. Once again we get this black and white categorization. A categorization so poorly formed it would fail a GCSE paper on religion. [2]

ScreenHunter_360 Mar. 20 23.21

Instead of this parody of religious ethics, this is what the BHA are offering:

“Humanists do not look to any God for rules but think carefully for themselves about what might be the best way to live. This approach means we have always to be empathetic and think about the effects of our choices on the happiness or suffering of the people, or sometimes other animals, concerned.”

Mmmmm. Spot the non sequitur? How does it follow from “one must think carefully for oneself about ethical choices” to “this means you ought to be empathetic”? The obvious answer is it doesn’t follow at all. If it is down to individuals to contemplate ethical decisions for themselves why does Stephen Fry now sound like an authority telling me how I ought to make my moral decisions? That is the method he just decried and yet he gives us two metaethical moral imperatives right from the start.

He continues:

“We have to respect the rights and wishes of those involved. Trying to find the kindest course of action or the option which will do the least harm. We have to consider carefully the particular situation we find ourselves in and not just take any rule or commandment for granted. We have to weigh up the evidence we have available to us about what the probable consequences of our actions will be.”

Yet more authority you will notice. Notice the constant use of “we have to.” Why do ‘we’ have to? A moment ago it was declared that ethical decisions were for individuals themselves to decide upon but now Fry is telling individuals where their thinking about morality must take them. He also appears to be suggesting that an atheist ought not to be deontological in their ethics. This will come as a surprise to many atheist philosophers!

“This way of thinking about what we should do is explicitly based on reason, experience and empathy, and respect for others rather than on tradition or deference to authority.”

Sorry to make the exact same point once again but this is more authority. Not everyone agrees that those four criteria are the best criteria for making moral decisions. Among atheists there are many other options proposed so why does this set get the nod over all the others? Despite the protestations to the contrary this is simply replacing one voice of authority with another.

He continues:

“Morality is not something that comes from outside of human beings, gifted to us by an external force (like a God).”

Well, in that case, why are the BHA attempting to gift me an explanation of morality?

ScreenHunter_361 Mar. 21 09.09

“When we look at our closest relatives in the animal world, we see the same basic tendencies we see in ourselves; affection, cooperation, all the behaviour needed to live in groups and thrive.” [3]

Do atheists not read David Hume anymore? Has he become unfashionable among the popular atheism of modern times? This is one of the most blatant textbook examples of an is/ought fallacy you will ever be gifted. Hume pointed out that one cannot look at how something is and, on that basis alone, state that is how it ought to be. He pointed out you cannot get a conclusion about morality from non-moral premises. Some other evidence or argument is required. [4] From then until now, ‘Hume’s Law’ (as it’s sometimes called) has been considered to be a very important aspect of moral theory so to ignore it, in the way in which the BHA does, seems to be a huge error of judgement.

You might have also noticed the selective observation of other primates going on. Of course we see affection and cooperation going on in the animal kingdom but we also see killing, rape, polygamy, polyandry, defending of territory, and the killing of infants. So why did the BHA leave these behaviourisms out? They are also an integral part of life for primates. Just watch a few programmes on how chimps live their lives! This is another reason why one should not argue that just because something ‘is’ that that’s the way it ‘ought’ to be. On that basis a person could pick out all kinds of disgusting moral choices and argue for their validity simply on the basis that they occur all the time around us.

Fry then goes on to give a basic explanation of the moral progress idea. This idea is the view that over thousands of years the moral consciousness of human beings has been improving and getting better. Of course, this is just another version of the same is/ought problem as stated before. Just because morality changes does not mean it has improved necessarily. We must ask on what basis do we think one type of morality is better than another. The other problem with this view is that human beings appear to be struggling with tendencies and moral (mis)behaviour that was around from our earliest records of human history. There is still murder, wars, slavery, lying, brutality, torture, rape, and genocide (to mention just a few). Not a few historians have noted how bloody the twentieth century was and this fact appears to cause some problems for those who would hold that things are improving. But, notice, even if one concedes that there has been some moral improvement over time this does not add any weight to the proposal, being made by the BHA, that morality ought to be consequentialist and individual. A religious person can easily agree with this point and yet be consistent with their moral views.

Notice this however. Fry then states:

“Ultimately, morality comes from us, not from any God. It is to do with people with individual goodwill and social responsibility. It is about not being completely selfish, about kindness and consideration toward others. Ideas of freedom, justice happiness, equality, fairness and all the other values we may live by are human inventions and we can be proud of that as we strive to live up to them.”

But human beings also invented slavery, injustice, unhappiness, inequality, and unfairness. The key questions of morality are about how we can argue that some moral action is wrong and another right. All the BHA appear to be doing is throwing out some general words which are important in modern western (primarily liberal?) culture and taking it as a given that everyone will applaud and cheer. But this is not to be doing any serious ethics. Quite the opposite. It’s just asserting what matters but without any justification for why.

Virtually everyone agrees with notions of ‘fairness’, ‘happiness’ and even ‘justice’ but people mean very different things by these terms. Vladimir Putin is at home using words like these but what he means by them and what a member of the BHA means by them are probably very different things. So then, on what basis, is one vision of justice right and the other wrong? Take ‘freedom’ as another example. The BHA have their own atheistic and secular notions about how true freedom should look: The BHA are campaigning to abolish state-funded faith schools in the UK (which would doubtless make it less possible for those who are not rich to choose to send their children to a religious school – thereby restricting the freedoms of some groups of parents), they wish to impose regulations on such schools in terms of who they can or cannot employ, they wish to change the content of religious studies in state schools so that people have less choices about learning about religion in favour of a watered-down ethics course etc. etc. Their notion of ‘freedom’ is very different to many other people (both theists and non-theists who are not Humanists). The BHA are completely silent on what matters most since they use words which have very different meanings to different people. [5]

Notice the tension at the core of Humanist ethics. The BHA want to tell you that morality is an individual thing and that you can make your own moral decisions for yourself and yet, on the other hand, they are also telling you (in a very authoritative fashion) what conclusions you ought to come to. If you go to the website for the British Humanist Association you will find a large number of moral views you need to sign up to to fit in with their world view. If we ignore the pretense, the BHA are not really saying you can decide morality for yourself (they are not moral subjectivists at all) what they are saying is they have already decided what is moral and what is not and they hope you will agree with them.

In summary:

The BHA have merely parodied religious accounts of morality. They have argued for independent moral reasoning but then told you you ought to come to the same conclusions they have come to. They have failed to give any kind of grounding for thinking that moral actions are objectively wrong (ignoring Hume to their peril). In doing so they have blundered their way, very clumsily, into a very difficult philosophical discussion as if they have all the answers while refusing to listen to anyone else on the matter or seriously engage with them. Not promising.


[1] For a brilliant discussion on different types of law in the Old Testament see C. J. H. Wright’s Old Testament Ethics for the People of God chapter 9.

[2] For those outside the UK, GCSEs are the exams students sit at the end of their secondary schooling at the age of 16.

[3] You’ve got to love that trite picture they use. If a picture communicates a thousand words in this case it communicates a thousand things about chimps the BHA don’t want you to know about them. Take a glimpse at the way in which they pack hunt other monkeys – especially the children being taken from their mothers and I’m sure the BHA would endorse large males eating first of course:

Of course, just watching a lengthy documentary on monkeys will give you numerous other examples of behaviour a little less in line with modern western liberalism!

[4] It’s worth noting that Hume would also have disagreed with the BHA’s placing of reason as its top criterion:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remark’d, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation,’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it … [I] am persuaded, that a small attention [to this point] wou’d subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceiv’d by reason.”

David Hume Treatise of Human Nature 3.1.1

[5] Listen to a modern day moral philosopher on this matter:

“One problem is that those who agree about this procedure [he is talking about the procedure of arriving at impartial, neutral, non-partisan visions of morality] then proceed to disagree about what precise conception of justice it is which is a result to be accounted rationally acceptable. But even before that problem arises, the question has to be asked whether, by adopting this procedure, key questions have not been begged. For it can be argued and it has been argued that this account of rationality is itself contentious in two related ways: its requirement of disinterestedness in fact covertly presupposes one particular type of account of justice, that of liberal individualism, which it is later to be used to justify, so that its apparent neutrality is no more than an appearance, while its conception of ideal rationality as consisting in the principles which a socially disembodied being would arrive at illegitimately ignores the inescapably historically and socially context-bound character which any substantive set of principles of rationality, whether theoretical or practical, is bound to have.”

Alasdair MacIntyre Whose Justice? Which Rationality? pp.3,4


About aRemonstrant'sRamblings

I graduated in philosophy of religion many years ago and have since acquired my PGCE and now teach religion, ethics and philosophy.
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18 Responses to The British Humanist Association Part 2 – “What makes something right or wrong?”

  1. labreuer says:

    This is just fantastic. Here’s what I think is going on. Truth has become secondary to the fashioning of a humanist society. Truth is a casualty to progress. Heard this before? See Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions, as well as Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit, as well as Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language Abuse of Power. Pieper goes all the way back to the Sophists, and Plato’s (and/or Socrates’) hatred of them. Funnily enough, Boghossian admires those “tough-minded” ancient philosophers; I wonder if he was referring to Socrates and his ilk, or the Sophists! I’ve written about Peter Boghossian’s definition subversion, in his definitions of ‘faith’ and ‘atheist’ in A Manual for Creating Atheists.

    Empathy clearly doesn’t mean representing your opponents charitably. You might wonder what empathy means then; I suspect I means whatever Big Brother wants it to mean. Words are the most powerful entities in existence (yes, my interest in George Berkeley is growing); control them, as Nineteen Eighty-Four demonstrates, and you can control much. Add in some historical revisionism (for example, pretending the conflict thesis is true), and you can get pretty much anyone under your thumb. Jean-Jacques Rousseau pointed out that “true followers of Jesus would not make good citizens”, which perhaps explains some of the particularly anti-Christian hatred. Christians believe that God is a higher authority than the state; this is quite threatening!

    In The Outsider Test for Faith, John Loftus argues:

    Religious diversity stands in the way of achieving a moral and political global consensus. (162)

    He is, in a sense, right. The only “moral and political global consensus” Christians will accept is one founded on Jesus Christ and the kingdom of heaven he magnificently described; this is anathema to those who wish to be the few in power, a la BF Skinner’s wet dreams of being able to manipulate society to his whims, all under the veil of making things better for the common man.

    One of the first steps is to deny that there exists an inner life over which we can be in control. Lust in one’s heart is not controllable they say; anger isn’t, either. Jesus was wrong in his Sermon on the Mount. You are who you are now, forever, except for behavior conditioning, and you don’t even have freedom of the will. All social interaction is manipulation; the only question is whether you’re so good that the other person doesn’t dislike you for doing it. Better just to follow Schopenhauer on his Buddhist-like quest to suppress his will and thus avoid all the pain and suffering which come therefrom. Revelation’s 7+1 instances of “one who conquers” is dangerous! Conquerors have strong wills; those with strong wills and the knowledge to use them are enemies of the state!

    That was fun. 🙂

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Are you Randall Rauser? That piece, turning the tactics back on Boghossian, is hilarious and so deserved. This is exactly what I suggested in 3.1 of my series. He is actually guilty of the very things he says constitute ‘pretending to know what you don’t know’ and yet, somehow he cannot see it. I don’t wish to go ad hom on him but I have asked him twice on Twitter if he really is a “Professor” of philosophy since he’s always introduced as one and he never corrects anyone for doing it and yet the Portland State University on have him down as an ‘Instructor’ in philosophy. His PhD isn’t even in philosophy but in education. With all his drive on honesty and integrity this seems all very hollow. Some good references in your post for sure. Interesting you mention Berkeley. Keith Ward has renewed my interest in idealism in recent years. Thanks.

      • labreuer says:

        I’m Luke Breuer on Disqus and in real life, labreuer here. 🙂 Boghossian’s book helps explain John Loftus’ recent meltdown is Randal’s post; this is my comment.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          Ahhh – thanks for clarifying. I thought you were RR there for a moment. I would take issue with one thing you said in your comment over at RR’s blog.

          Boghossian is not really a philosopher. I would only give that title to someone who has their PhD in philosophy and is peer-reviewed in the subject. Boghossian has neither. His PhD is in education and he’s published in that field (and even then not very much). He has wrongly been introduced on the internet numerous times as a “professor of philosophy” but he’s not (which raises some interesting questions since he never corrects anyone for introducing him incorrectly!!). His page on Portland State University lists him as an “Instructor in Philosophy”. So, technically speaking, Boghossian is not a philosopher.

          Having said that I think you are spot on in suggesting his definitions are sneaky rather than sloppy. I totally agree with that. He’s playing a very sneaky semantic game that’s for sure.

          • labreuer says:

            So, technically speaking, Boghossian is not a philosopher.

            That sounds a bit elitist—or at least seems too easy to construe as elitist. I think I’d prefer to say something like, “Boghossian does not exemplify all of the characteristics which are valued in professional philosophers.” An example characteristic would be interpreting your opponents’ arguments charitably before arguing against them. I am told that if you fail to do this, you can kiss your chances of getting published “goodbye”, unless you choose a crappy journal. Is this accurate?

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            Yes that might well be a little ‘elitist’ but if the term is going to carry a degree of kudos then it ought to have some serious academic requirements. The word becomes practically meaningless if everyone is a ‘philosopher’ just because they have given a philosophical questions five minutes of thought. Absolutely – one would need to practice the principle of charity in order to get published. This is why you won’t find Boghossian writing papers for academic journals on the subject of philosophy of religion.

          • labreuer says:

            I get the point of having “philosopher” mean something, but it seems less useful to just throw around that such and such a person is not an X—at least outside of the circle of Xs. If nothing else, it doesn’t carry as much information content as being specific. I like these specifics for Boghossian:

            1. He does not employ the principle of charity.
            2. He is not published in peer-reviewed philosophy of religion.

            These are definitely telling! What’s a bit scary is that Boghossian instructs students in philosophy. I’m beginning to see why one would want to be taught by someone who is published, if not as prolifically as the top people in the field.

          • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

            Absolutely. That’s why, in my series on his thought I have focused on his ideas rather than his credentials (or lack thereof). I think my bigger gripe is that he appears happy with telling people he’s a professor in philosophy when that does not appear to be the case at all. I also don’t know of any other academic university where a philosophy instructor would be permitted to be so evangelical in attempting to convert students to one particular theological view. That would be considered to be highly unprofessional in most universities. But I have more interest in engaging with his ideas over attacking him personally and I hope that comes through loud and clear in what I have written about him.

          • labreuer says:

            I think you come across in the way you want, but I am perhaps not the best person to ask, since I largely agree with you. (I won’t say ‘fully’, because I haven’t read all of your posts in detail. :-p)

  2. billy squibs says:


    You should go on unbelievable? with these critiques. It seems to me that people will watch the videos and buy into the positive message as read by the darling of the media, Stephen Fry. (And the latter isn’t intended as an insult.) Whatever generalisations, oversimplifications and assertions the BHA want to serve in between the nice sentiments and the celebrity of Fry will be swallowed.

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Haha. Funny. No – I don’t belong on a programme like that. I’m a nobody in the scheme of things. Just an interested observer. Well, as far as the BHA goes, their numbers in the UK are incredibly small. They don’t even constitute 1% of the UK’s population. Most British atheists are simply not interested in being Humanists so they are really nothing to worry about. They just happen to be a very noisy little group that’s all.

      As for the Boghossianite he contacted me on Twitter and demanded I give him my full name with the ultimatum that if I did not he would not continue the conversation. I told him I was not willing to tell him this and so he used that as an excuse to call me ‘dishonest’ and ran off. My expectations were not high anyway. Such people have been deluded into thinking they are ready to do serious philosophy of religion.

      Thanks for commenting.

      • billy squibs says:

        Well, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that you are a nobody. it’s the quality of the content that counts. in this I think you have written many insightful posts on topics like the BHA, Stephen Law, Peter Boghossian, street preachers and so on. I’m not alone in thinking this. For example, your recent series on the BHA has been mentioned on the Unbelievable Facebook page.

        A few other things –
        1) I take your point on the status of the BHA in the grand scale of the UK’s society.
        2) It’s a shame that the street epistemologist did a legger but what can you do? It says more about him in the end.
        3) I don’t think that labreuer is Randal Rauser. I’ve seen him leave comments on Rauser’s blog which would suggest that they are different people. I don’t imagine that RR would be leaving fake messages on his own blog.

        • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

          Well that’s very kind of you to say. Yes I didn’t think it was RR but the way he referred to the blog made it sound that way for a minute so I just wanted to be clear. Thanks for coming here and reading. Hope you had a good weekend. All the best.

  3. billy squibs says:

    Oh, btw, what ever happened with that Boghossianite you engaged with a number of posts back? This is the guy who had filmed a conversation he had with a couple of Christians and apparently employed SE tactis throughout. After a promising start to the conversation between the two of you he up and dispersed.

  4. Daniel V. says:

    Wow, I saw the video posted this morning and thought to do a write-up on all of the fallacious assertions. You nailed it (saving me time and energy, ha). They set up a false dichotomy between the most gratuitous strawman of naive divine command theory they could imagine and their own humanism. Then they tell us how their invented and “evolved” moral system is somehow “better”. I’m sorry, but if morality is something you invent for yourself, then there is no objective way to assess whether it is a better moral system than any other system. Sure, it’s a better moral system given humanism as the standard, but that is just to beg the question.

    Of course, who could disagree with such vacuous moral dicta like “be kind” and “be empathetic”? Next time I’m facing a murky and complex moral dilemma, I should just “be kind”. It’s that simple! After all, empathetic apes share their bananas (naturalistic fallacy be damned). And since many simians and hominids have evolved a sense of empathy, we ought to behave empathetically. After all, empathy is an important survival trait, which is why those endangered ape species are doing so well!

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Thanks Daniel. Yes it’s nice when that happens. There was something a few weeks ago I wanted to respond to and then I stumbled across someone who had done a much better job than I could have done so it saved me all the time and hassle of doing so. I did laugh at the monkeys sharing a banana scene. How anyone could see their video as anything other than trite is beyond me. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I have become so totally frustrated by the BHA lately- you’ve hit the nail on the head in a far more articulate way than I am able. They are indeed being hypocritical with their commands and conclusions and they come across to me as being very ignorant about Christianity in particular. An example of this is the sweeping assumption that anyone who believes in an afterlife does so purely because it makes them feel better, or that Christians do good purely to please God, without thinking about or delving into WHY God cares about us being nice to one another (ie so that both individuals and masses of humans are healthy and happy!) It is obviously condescending to asume someone’s entire faith is based on such simple basic notions! Exploration is essential to everyone before they know what they truely think (of which it sounds like they’ve largely done little of) and I am concerned that they will actually indoctrinate the minds of those who haven’t and now probably won’t explore religion or faith. I cannot understand where exactly they plan to get from their messages of non belief- why it matters so much to them to knock faith and try to prove otherwise. I realise that growing up/living in an assumed Christian culture must have been /is frustrating for some people and I respect that, but you don’t see mang Christians or Muslims etc sittjng around mocking atheist standpoints at every opportunity. their website and fbk page are full of links and stories that display the negative press concerning Christianity- they select extreme standpoints and I just get cross that they are so hellbent on proving Christians or other believers wrong by continuously comparing our belief with theirs, yet usually our belief lies hand in hand with theirs (though when I have tried to explain this, they don’t seem to understand my point
    ! Granted Christians have preached for years and to some extent have told people how to behave; now the BHA are doing just that. I don’t want to sound like an angry Christian ; but today I am!!

    • aRemonstrant'sRamblings says:

      Thanks. Yes I understand your frustration. The BHA remind me of a some tiny group of very vocal parents who spend all their time taking up the time of staff and governors trying to mold a school as they wish it to be. They represent hardly any percentage of British people at all and yet they are usually invited to speak on matters in the news or ethical matters. Andrew Copson crops up all over the place. Still, the encouraging thing is that Humanism is not growing very much despite attempts in recent years to get lots of celebrity stamps of approval. The worst aspect of their worldview is their complete and utter contempt for religious people but when I teach Humanism at my school I make it clear to students that this is their view of religious people and most of my students end up being turned off Humanism for that reason. I think that’s probably true of many others as well so maybe it’s good that they are so intolerant. At least with people like Copson and Fry heading this movement up we get to see how anti-religious they really are!

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