The American Humanist Association (AHA) Facebook page (13 September 13) has posted a comment by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who believes that US citizens need to be better informed. Sandra Day O’Connor said ‘The more I read and the more I listen, the more apparent it is that our society suffers from an alarming degree of public ignorance. We have to ensure that our citizens are well informed and prepared to face tough challenges.’ The AHA comment to this statement is ‘That sounds like Humanism to us.’ I like this endorsement. Being informed or not is perhaps the baseline that determines many of our attitudes. Being uninformed contributes to the various prejudices that percolate society, while good information can help to change attitudes.
It was exciting last week when NASA announced scientists had determined that Voyager 1 sent into space in 1977, left our solar system and entered interstellar space on 25 August 2012. It is now 11,625 million miles from Earth, and still journeying.
I like this poem by NZ poet Marcel Currin:
What Stars sound like
Her laughter sparks over hardened rooftops.
Don’t be fooled by her softness:
Delicacies of starlight
that twinkling powers the universe
Dance on hers.
With nuclear fury.
Monthly Meeting: Monday 23 September
Open to the public – All interested people are welcome – bring a friend
Atheist Alliance of America Convention
August – September 2013
Pamela Mace attended this recent convention in Boston, Massachusetts, 30 August to the 2 September, and will tell us of her experience and share ideas and discussion that came from the convention. There will be plenty of time for discussion.
If time permits, we will also have an introduction to the Ethics of Star Trek.
All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend..
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.30 pm
Tararua Tramping Club, 4 Moncrieff Street, Wellington.
*** Please note the day and venue ***
Moncrieff Street is off Elizabeth Street, which is off Kent Terrace, Wellington – a short distance from Courtney Place on trolley bus routes 1 & 3.
2013 meetings are on the 4th Monday of the month at the Tararua Tramping Club rooms, 4 Moncrieff Street.
Remaining meetings are: Monday 23 September, 28 October, and 25 November
AGM – Saturday October 12 2013
1:00 pm Old Government House Buildings Room GB34
Room GB34 is on the ground floor of the Victoria University Law School, 55 Lambton Quay, Wellington.
Please contact us if you would like to join the committee. We would be pleased to welcome you.
After the AGM at 2:30 pm in Room GB34
Cathy Iorns BA LLB(Hons) Well, LLM Yale, Senior Law Lecturer at Victoria
Climate Reality 2013
Cathy recently attended a training seminar in the USA for The Climate Project (TCP) founded by Nobel laureate Al Gore in June 2006.
The TCP is a non-profit organization dedicated to calling attention to what it believes are global problems associated with climate change.
It is a grassroots environmental organization whose mission is to raise awareness to the issue of climate change by means of providing seminars, training and educational presentations worldwide.
In March 2010 TCP merged with The Alliance for Climate Protection.
Humanist Outlook, 10.30 am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 12 October, 9 November, and 7 December.
Humanist Outlook is broadcast at 10:30 am on Access Radio, Wellington, 783 kHz, every fourth Saturday.
If you are outside the Wellington area, go to http://www.accessradio.org.nz to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event.
Last Months Meeting
Matt Hirshberg, a former political science professor who spent fourteen years on the faculty at the University of Canterbury, chaired a discussion on World Hunger, Why Don’t we Help More? Matt’s research on the psychology of altruism includes, “Robin Hood Revisited: Theft, Charity and the Ethics of Inequality,” in the Journal of Poverty (2000.) Matt has a BA in government and economics, an MS in journalism, and an MA and PhD in political science.
Matt chaired an interesting meeting. He asked: why in our world of bounty, when the amount of food available per person is increasing, do people die from poverty and starvation while we live comfortable lives of relative luxury. Each one of us, he suggested, could do more to help the truly destitute overseas. Yet we don’t! Why? Is inactivity immoral? Peter Singer thinks so. We discussed philosophical arguments on world hunger and moral obligation, social-psychological explanations for non-altruistic behaviour, and looked at various forms of effective action. Matt discussed Singers views and some of the psychological reasons why we don’t always live up to the ethical aspirations of moral philosophers. Finally we watched a video of Singer speaking on, “The why and how of effective altruism” before concluding the discussion.
We are sorry to hear that Robert (Rob) Allen, aged 92, a long standing Whanganui Humanist Society member, died on 21 August 2013. Our condolences to his family. We thank Robert for his generous support of the Humanist Society of New Zealand.
What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane 2012) by Michael Sandel. Summarised from New Humanist September/October 2013:
The Moral Limits of Markets (Allen Lane 2012) by Michael Sandel. Summarised from New Humanist Sept/Oct 2013 – Michael Sandel is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government at Harvard. He has held this position for more than twenty years where he teaches the world renowned course on Justice. His first book was Democracy’s Discontent: America in search of a Public Philosophy (1998) where he discussed the role of ethics in a liberal society.
In this recent book Michael Sandel critiques the marketisation of society. His argument is that over the last three decades market values have come to govern our lives. To change this we need to rethink the role markets play in our society. We have drifted from a market economy to a market society. A market economy is a valuable and effective tool for organising productive activity, but a market society is a place where everything is up for sale and market values reach into every sphere of life. This shift has taken place without any significant public debate. Sandel wants to encourage this discussion: where do markets swerve the public good and where do they not belong? When market faith took hold public discussion was eroded. Politics in most democracies became increasingly managerial. The appeal of market faith is that it spares us the need to deliberate, reason, and argue about how to value goods.
It is a mistake to think that markets are a neutral way of sorting things out. Sandel thinks that we misread the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. An assumption was made that capitalism had prevailed and that now means that the market is the primary instrument for achieving the public good. There were developments in economic theory which encouraged this direction. Economics had been about inflation, employment, banks, how to avoid depressions and so forth.
But in the 1970’s economics became a kind of imperial discipline and claimed to explain the whole of life. Gary Becker, the Nobel-prize –winning economist was among those who argued that economics could be applied to explain all of human behaviour. Michael examines how the ideology of the market has transformed Western society by using the example of the British tradition of ‘queuing’. Queuing can be expressed as ‘first come first served’. This has been replaced by the ethic ‘you get what you pay for’. ‘Waiting our turn’ has been jettisoned. Two arguments are used to justify this shift. One is about respecting individual freedom. It is the idea that market relations are free because they are voluntary. Therefore the more areas of life that markets govern, the more areas that will be free.
The other argument is utilitarian, which is about efficiency. Where markets govern, goods are allocated more efficiently because incentives are aligned and they increase economic growth. Sandel disagrees with the freedom argument, as market freedom refers to our freedom as consumers but not as citizens, and not as full human beings. Though we want to have efficiency in our society, the utilitarian argument goes too far when it is extended to other aspects of social and civic life. Sandel disagrees with economists who think human beings should rely mostly on self interest with little thought for altruism, solidarity, or civic virtue. These economists think that positive virtues are fixed in quantity, the more you use the less you have. Sandel suggests that the Greek philosopher Aristotle is closer to the truth. There is not a finite supply of virtues, as if they are commodities.
Aristotle says we learn to become brave by acting courageously, we learn to care by engaging in acts of kindness. Virtues are cultivated by practice. Sandel emphasises the importance of public and civic experiences and that these are threatened by marketisation. Spectators at sports venues are increasingly separated into the privileged in their boxes and the common folk in the stands below. There are fewer opportunities where people from different backgrounds can mingle. Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that we share enough of a common life, that we see ourselves as engaged participants in our society. Marketisation puts great pressure on the commonality that democracy requires.!
Earthquake Kathmandu 31 August 2013:
After the recent shaking that central New Zealand has experienced, Eleanor Middleton experienced an earthquake in Kathmandu. Eleanor is a volunteer working with the Society for Humanism in Nepal (SOCH Nepal) and a volunteer secondary teacher at the Society’s school in Kathmandu. http://sochnepal.org/ Shortly after the earthquake she wrote:
About an hour ago I was woken by an earthquake: Magnitude 4.9, Depth 33 km, Location 3 km NNW of Chongdui, China, which is 82 km NE of Kathmandu.
It wasn’t particularly big, but I have to admit I’ve been left feeling slightly shaken and wide awake. I’m no stranger to earthquakes growing up in New Zealand, having “Stop! Drop! Hold!” routines drilled into my brain since an early age. I didn’t think that much of the earthquake straight away, as it didn’t feel that big to me.
It woke me, and I thought I’d go to the bathroom. After leaving my room I met with the family members I’m living with. They are a big family and they explained to me that they were going out onto the street in case there was a second earthquake and I should join them. I hadn’t really thought about a possibility of a second earthquake and had planned to go back to sleep.
I did go downstairs. It turned out that the whole neighbourhood had come out of their houses and met in the street in case there was a second earthquake and I should join them. Apparently Nepali people consider outside to be safer during an earthquake. I couldn’t dispute the fact that it would be dangerous to stay inside. The poorly constructed houses are bound to collapse in a decent shake. This might be true in the village; however, I don’t really feel that the streets of Kathmandu are a safer option. I began searching for a safe place to find shelter. The street was no good because of the mess of overhead wires. Not to mention the debris and shattered glass that would start falling from surrounding buildings. In some parts of Kathmandu the streets are extremely narrow and lined by high brick walls, and these certainly would not be safe places to run to during an earthquake. Even in the wide street where I’m staying I didn’t think the street was a safe option. Honestly I still have not worked out where exactly is safe. I’ve only managed to frighten myself by realising that every place I can think of is not safe. The house will collapse potentially squashing you, unless you can get under a sturdy table. However, as all cooking is done on gas, the gas cylinder might explode and start a fire in the rubble before you can be rescued. So, in this case it’s better to go outside, but outside doesn’t seem any more inviting as I explained above. I’m going to think about this one over the next few days.
So we waited outside for some time. I hovered near the external door during my internal conflict over if staying inside or outside was safer in Kathmandu. There was lots of laughter and people seemed to be enjoying this midnight street gathering. After about half an hour, a truck of armed police men showed up. I was completely baffled by this, and so asked my friend if this was the normal response to a moderate quake. He laughed and told me no, one of the policeman’s wife lives in a nearby house. However, I was later told that they had actually turned up because a patient in a hospital two doors from our house had become so alarmed by the earthquake that he had thrown himself out of a window. As we waited on the street rumbling noises would cause everyone to suddenly run out into the centre of the street away from the buildings. I remained weary of the overhead power lines.
New Zealand might get bigger earthquakes than this, but I’d much rather be in New Zealand for a decent shake than in Kathmandu. Kathmandu is an earthquake death trap. New Zealand has building regulations. We don’t commonly store gas cylinders in our houses, and keep overhead wiring to a minimum. If Kathmandu experienced a quake similar to that of the February 2011 Christchurch quake, I really can’t imagine what would happen. 80% of the city would probably be destroyed and thousands of people would be killed.” http://eleanorandtheelephants.blogspot.co.nz/
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Paul Sims What is Humanism for?
HUMANISM TOOK OVER the House of Lords for a couple of hours in July, as peers gathered to take part in a debate on “Atheists and Humanists: Contribution to Society”, organised by Lord Harrison, a member of the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.
To me, it seemed like an oddly sectional move. With religious groups regularly receiving praise from government, you could argue it’s really a simple call for equal recognition, but I can’t help feeling such a debate adds to a wider problem. If we’re celebrating the particular contribution of humanists to society, perhaps we should ask what that says about our view of society. In their rush to appeal to various religious groups, successive governments have shown a tendency to characterise society as comprising separate “communities” defined by their beliefs – do humanists really want to endorse that view by calling for recognition of their own tribe?
But maybe I’m thinking about this too hard. The debate went ahead in good spirits, and the peers who contributed found plenty to celebrate. Lord Harrison set the tone by pointing out that non-believers represent a “silent majority” in British society, and noting the many vital issues on which organised humanist groups have campaigned, including same-sex marriage, reproductive health, free speech, assisted dying and the role of religion in schools.
Do we really want to endorse the view that society is a series of tribes defined by faith (or lack of it)?
Harrison’s sentiments were echoed by a succession of speakers, some of them humanist, some of them not, who all stood to applaud the contributions of non-believers to British society. With even the Bishop of Birmingham and Lord Harries, the former Bishop of Oxford, heaping praise on humanists, the event was something of a love-in, but amid the admiration the debate did throw up at least one difficult issue for humanism.
Referring to his lengthy experience in organised non-belief, having been a founder of Cambridge Humanists in the 1950s, Lord Layard argued that, for all its achievements, humanism perhaps suffers from an identity crisis. “Humanism has done very well on the negative side,” explained Layard, “in rebutting unreasonable beliefs and unreasonable laws, but much less well on the positive side in providing a thriving and flourishing secular morality, which is what many of us had hoped it would do.”
The solution, said Layard, is for humanism to develop “a very simple ethical creed which can generate people’s energy, loyalty and commitment”. He suggested it might be based on the stance of an organisation he is involved with, Action for Happiness, which is itself based upon the Golden Rule. “It says,” Laynard told the House, “first, that everyone matters equally and, secondly, what matters about them is their quality of life as they experience it – in other words, their happiness. If you put the two together, you arrive at an obligation on each of us to try to produce as much happiness and as little misery as we can in the world.”
This commitment to positive ethics was repeated by several other speakers in the debate and, while it sounds very admirable, I can’t help wondering if it’s ultimately a little empty, or at least a little platitudinous. After all, you’d struggle to find many people expressing a commitment to producing as much unhappiness and as much misery in the world as possible – the real challenge is to ask what constitutes happiness, and this is where I see a problem when thinking about humanism’s broader aims.
For example, during the Lords debate, Lord Harries suggested that a potential area for agreement between religious people and humanists could lie in “moving our society away from the rampant individualism that now dominates our life”, citing the economist Michael Sandel and his work on the moral limits of markets (see our interview with Sandel on page 28). While plenty of humanists would no doubt agree with this, the problem is that the question of individualism and markets is a deeply political one and organised humanism has generally avoided broader political questions. The prevailing view is that humanism cuts across ideological lines, hence the fact that there are humanist groups within all three main political parties.
This works fine when campaigning on the obvious humanist issues, in particular those concerning the role of religion in society, but it becomes problematic when you consider how humanism might inform the debate about broader social and political issues. Take the NHS, for instance – we would surely all agree that good health care has a crucial role to play in increasing well-being, but a humanist could just as easily argue that privatisation offers the best hope for doing so as that it is vital we stand up to government cuts. The same would go for any number of big issues, from education and welfare to the environment and foreign policy. Humanists may share a commitment to being “good without God”, but one person’s good life without God could be another’s very bad life without God.
Should this matter? It depends on whether you think organised humanism should be aspiring to become a powerful movement for social change. A commitment to ethical living is very admirable, but if there’s no agreement on what ethical living (and ethical politics) should constitute, then can organised humanism ever become anything more than an interest group for people who don’t believe in God?
From New Humanist SEPTEMBER OCTOBER 2013
Paul Sims is News Editor for Few Humanist