Kia ora:
Your Humanist Council members wish you all the very best for 2013 as we come to the end of 2012. At the time of putting this newsletter together fighting has again erupted between Israel and Hamas, and I thought of the concept of Omoiyari which grew out of the terrible days of the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Omoiyari means ‘in your heart think about the other person before yourself.’ Tsutomu Yamaguchi was a double survivor, surviving in shock cocoons through both Hiroshima and Nagasaki where he worked as a ship designer at the Mitsubishi weapons factories. Tsutomu became an advocate for peace and speaking at the UN at the beginning of this century he said ‘Why do we fight? Is there something I can do, even in a small way, as a single human being, to help us start to understand each other. That’s all it takes, small steps. Send simple acts of kindness outward, from person to person. Send forth kindness like a contagious disease. If we follow such principles then we must emerge from the experience of war not as Japanese or American – not as Christian or Buddhist, Hindu, Muslin or Jew – but simply as planetary citizens.’(Source Charles Pellegrino The Last Train from Hiroshima, the survivors look back 2010).

The Evolution of our Moral Emotions

Monthly Meeting: Tuesday 4 December
Open to the public – All interested people are welcome – bring a friend
This is our end of year get together, so please bring along some nibbles to share
*** Please note the change of day and venue ***
All interested people are welcome, Society members and members of the public – bring a friend..
Refreshments and nibbles provided
Come, share your views, and learn from others
Venue for meeting:
Arthur Street Entrance, Thistle Hall, 293-295 Cuba Street (upper Cuba Street, Wellington.
We meet from 7.30 pm until 9.30 pm
The venue and date have changed because the Department of Conversation staff have closed Turnbull House for earthquake strengthening and it will not be available for at least 2 years.
We have been fortunate to find Thistle Hall at such short notice. The room, however, has proved a little small so we welcome suggestions for other venues.

Humanists know we are moral, and immoral, and are confident that these qualities have nothing to do with supernatural beings. However, many Humanists might be less confident about why we are moral when it would seem that being immoral would be so much more immediately rewarding. This issue has been the subject of considerable examination in recent years. Peter Clemerson has just completed a series of lectures at the Community Education Department at Victoria University, one of which explored the evolution of our moral emotions and behaviour in some depth. He will give a presentation illustrating this research and in the process demonstrate why Humanists can feel confident in their convictions.

Radio Access: Humanist Outlook, 10.30 am, 783 kHz Wellington, on Saturday 8 December 2012, 5 January, 2 February, and 2 & 30 March.
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 to listen or to download as a pod cast after the event

Previous October Meeting:At last month’s meeting, Iain gave a very interesting talk on the history of evolutionary thinking over the last 2,500 years.

In summary, the story began in classical times when the first known scientist philosopher, Thales of Miletus (an Ionian city), proposed around 585 BCE that natural phenomena did not require supernatural explanations. Shortly afterward, his pupil Anaximander of Miletus suggested that land dwelling animals had developed from others that lived in water at some distant time in the past. Another pupil, Pythagoras of Samos followed an interest in maths that led to his belief in the reality of pure maths that existed beyond the real world, a belief that he turned into a religion. Around 460 BCE, Empedocles of Agrigentum introduced the concept of natural selection, building on earlier ideas to suggest that random intermixing of individuals produced different combinations with some individuals being more suited to survival than others, as if they had occurred on purpose.

In the malaise that followed Athens loss in the Peloponnesian war, 431 to 404 BCE, Plato built on Pythagoras’s ideas of another reality but went further suggesting that there was a perfect reality beyond the imperfect reflection of the reality that we experience. Turning against democracy and science he became a religious apologist, arguing that everything has a purpose (teleology), and developing the foundations of creationism and intelligent design. This resulted in a split in Greek thinking that has lasted until the present. Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, documented life on the island of Lesbos, creating a great “Ladder of Life” or “Chain of Being” where plants and animals were classified from the simplest to the most complex. Aristotle, following Plato’s line, argued that all organisms had been created for a purpose to fit into a place on the ladder and rejected Empedocles idea that they may have resulted by chance. The division in thinking became evident in the philosophies of the Epicureans who allowed for evolution and the Stoics who did not, and was perpetuated during Roman times.

In China, during the 4th century BCE, Zhuangzi, argued that all life forms, including humans, who are a part of nature, have an innate ability to transform to fit their surroundings.

Early Christians were influenced by the teleological arguments of the Stoics. Augustine of Hippo, circa 400 CE, however, allowed that variation might occur over time. While Christian Europe declined into illiteracy, ignorance, and religious superstition; al-Jahiz of Basra, circa 850 CE, in the Islamic world, developed comprehensive ideas on evolution. He described food chains and the struggle for existence that could result in organisms developing into new species with time. Ibn Khaldun of Tunis, 1377, argued that humans had developed from the world of monkeys in a process that is both endless and remarkable, and which applied to all forms of life.

From the 12th century, European scholars began to read the works of Plato and Aristotle again and supported the great ladder of life although Thomas Aquinas stood out by allowing for variation to occur since creation.

In France, Belon, in 1555, made a remarkable comparison of the skeletons of birds and man showing the basic similarities between the two and Descartes encouraged the use of the metaphor, the universe as a machine. Evolutionists began to argue that species could develop by natural means. The 17th century taxonomists, however, worked to classify the existing species arguing that while there were variations within a species, species were immutable.

Favouring evolution, Maupertuis (1698-1759) of France argued that variations within a species would lead to new combinations that may either be unsuited to survival or better suited. Buffon (1707-1788) followed, suggesting that the 200 or so known species of mammal might be descended from an original 38. In Scotland, Hume, in 1748 and 1777, produced comprehensive arguments against the argument from design. Diderot (1713-1784), of France, argued that species had developed through a constant process of trial and error. In Scotland, James Burnett (Monboddo) (1714-1799) of Fordoun, studied the origin and development of language and realised that evolutionary processes controlled this development. His findings led him to propose: that all people had a common ancestor, that humans had evolved just as language had, and that man was descended from anthropoid apes.

In England, Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802) who knew of Monboddo’s work, supported evolution. Lamarck (1744-1829), of France, became a taxonomist of considerable stature and argued for evolution, proposing that characteristics acquired during a lifetime might be inherited. While his ideas on inheritance are no longer supported he did much to promote evolution. Malthus (1766-1834), influenced by Adam Smith, a friend of David Hume, produced An Essay on Population published in 1824 that was well read and promoted the concept of the struggle for existence. In 1844, the Scottish publisher Robert Chambers (1802-1871) published anonymously a controversial but very widely read book called the Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation that promoted a progressive ascent of animals through evolution with current animals being branches off the main line that leads to humanity, attributing variations to mutations.

Darwin, however, had already drawn a diagram showing complex branching in his notebook in 1837. In Darwin’s diagram, branches branch, and man is not shown at the top of a tree. Darwin became aware that many of his ideas had been anticipated by others and acknowledged those he knew of in 1861.

Thanks: We thank Jee for his annual donation of stamps for this final posting of the newsletter for 2012.

2013 Dates
The first newsletter for 2013 will be sent out towards the end of February with our first monthly meeting being at the beginning of March. A social occasion will be held Saturday 9 February, at the Kingsgate Hotel from 5pm to celebrate Darwin’s Birthday. We can converse over a meal together.

Evolutionary Psychology Research
Peter Clemerson who is working towards his PhD at Massey University is looking for people to help with his research topic. Peter has a website and he invites interested persons to visit this site and work through the research exercise.
Peter very much welcomes our participation as answering questions has been one way that has enabled Evolutionary Psychology researchers to develop and test their hypothesises.

From Christchurch members Peggy Kelly and Bill Sykes, whose home was within the 2010 earthquake zone:
2012 was for us a year living in limbo-land; while all around cranes continue to knock over and gobble up great chunks of our city, we simply wait. Cathedral Square and the central precincts remain cordoned off; when we drive around the next circle out, with key buildings gone and an utterly flattened landscape it’s easy to get lost. The air is full of demolition noises and dust. Then suddenly we come upon an interesting “Gap Filler project” or a “Greening the Rubble” temporary garden and we realise that there are stirrings of life and aspiration amid all this desolation. The reason why we have been in limbo is because we are “waiting to be drilled”. Our house (like many thousands of others) is deemed to be on land prone to liquefaction. In common parlance we are “TC3”; TC means technical category and 3 means the worst kind. So before the foundations of our houses can be repaired they have to work out how far down it is to a firm base and then what sort of fix is practical. Our old cottage has kerosene cans filled with cement as its piles. The house is wooden with a tin roof so it’s quite light. In places our piles have sunk a bit as a result of the shaking. We would like to be fixed as simply as possible – a few wedges between the cans and the joists but we doubt if it will be that easy or as cheap. But we have to wait for the reports. It seems to be a way of making orderly queues and rationing resources and appearing fair. Wherever we can, we help out with gardening or identifying plants. Our big project at present is working for vegetation retention in the Red Zone along the Avon River. The Red Zone is worse than TC3; it’s where the people have to sell their properties to the government or settle with their insurer and move off their land because the land will be very difficult (and in places, impossible) to repair. We are quite a big group now called The Avon Otakaro Network (cleverly, AvON for short). We represent many interest groups – sportspeople, ecologists, hydrologists, educators, gardeners etc. Just recently we think we have begun to make some ground with the unbending authorities. You can Google us if you are interested. Next year, we may still be in limbo – or maybe not. But in the meantime we try to find small pleasures, little slices of heaven to enjoy while we wait.

image of Brian Ellis

Social Humanism – Brian Ellis – The ideals of social Humanism

The following passage has been reprinted with permission from the author, Brian Ellis, an Australian philosopher. It is the introduction to Chapter 1, The Ideals of Social Humanism from his recently published book, Social Humanism: A New Metaphysics.

The central aim of Professor Ellis’s book is to argue the case for a new moral and a political philosophy, which he calls social humanism. Central to this moral philosophy is the development of various human rights charters which he hopes will acquire universal support; while central to the political philosophy is some from of welfare state that aims to meet the needs of all. This passage gives a good introduction to Ellis’s thinking.

Humanists have an unconditional concern for the wellbeing and dignity of humankind. They are fundamentally concerned with increasing the overall quality of people’s lives, regardless of their behaviour, and to treat people with respect. They seek to do so by promoting the development of people’s natural talents and inculcating attitudes of mutual respect and tolerance. Their central idea is that every person should be treated with equal concern for their good.

There are two main sources of these humanistic attitudes. The first of these is that human beings are compassionate beings. That is, they have the compassionate virtues of love, friendship, empathy, kindness, and generosity. These are recognized and widely appreciated virtues that we are all capable of expressing. The second source is one that philosophers have been aware of for centuries. Moral philosophers from Kant onwards have spoken of human beings as ends-in-themselves. Writers and poets have spoken of the ‘brotherhood of man’, where the concern is clearly for all humanity. ‘The dignity of man’ is a relatively new concept, which belongs to the same family as these others. It is a kind of concern for others that has long existed, but that acquired new strength and significance in the thinking of moral theorists as a result of the Holocaust.

When the Holocaust was brought to the attention of the world with the release of films of these terrible events just after the Second World War, the contrasts between decency and indecency, and humanity and inhumanity, acquired a whole new depth of meaning. This was not treating men and women as human beings. It was treating them as vermin. It was not only mass murder; it was a display of the utmost contempt and disrespect for those who were murdered. It was not just a crime against them, the world thought; it was a crime against humanity.

It is no accident, therefore, that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (United Nations, 1948), which spoke of the dignity of man, was passed shortly after these dreadful events became widely known. And the term ‘humanism’, which refers to our natural concern for the wellbeing and dignity of all humanity, has likewise taken on a new significance.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent declarations, such as own Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act (Victorian Government, 2006), are strikingly different from those of the eighteenth century. The modern declarations all arise from concerns for the dignity or wellbeing of humankind, and therefore with the kinds of human activities that must be required, permitted, or outlawed. But the purpose of the eighteenth century declarations was to protect citizens from the arbitrary use of state power, and the principles enunciated were intended to outlaw government interference with the fundamental and inalienable rights of individuals.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens endorsed by the National Assembly of France at the time of the French Revolution stated that,
The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man; and these rights are Liberty, Property, Security and Resistance of Oppression. (Thomas Paine, 1791-1792/1996: 72)
These rights, as they are defined in the Declaration, are all pretty minimal, reflecting a defensive theory of the state.

Social humanists see a much larger role for the state. They believe that the government must actively participate in constructing the social contract of the society they govern. Some people in government call it ‘nation building’. They believe that the state must act positively to promote the good of humankind, not just protect their liberty, their persons, or their property. They could, for example, legislate to guarantee the positive human rights of citizens in their own societies, as many societies did after the Second World War. Also, social humanism is not indifferent to the wellbeing of animals. For our compassionate virtues have natural applications to our treatment of them. This point is worth making, since the name ‘humanism’ may suggest to some people that it is concerned solely with the wellbeing and dignity of human beings. But all things that are capable of pain, suffering, pleasure, and happiness are fitting objects for our compassionate virtues. Nor is humanism indifferent to the environment, since a good, healthy environment is necessary for both human and animal wellbeing.

I begin the discussion of social humanism by distinguishing two kinds of moral principles: individualistic principles that derive straightforwardly from the basic tenets of humanism, and social moral principles that reflect the entrenched social mores that have evolved in the societies in which they feature. The individualistic principles simply require us to act honestly and compassionately, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. They do not involve any significant trade-offs between goods and harms as all social moral principles do; and they are universally valid, because these principles could only be rejected within a society that was prepared to deny our greatest moral virtues their proper expression. Some of the social moral principles that we accept may not be universally valid. As principles, they are bound to reflect the particular religious, historical, or cultural histories of the societies in which they have become accepted and may have no claim to be accepted universally.

Social humanism is not indifferent to the wellbeing of animals. For, our compassionate virtues have natural applications to our treatment of them.

There is, however, at least one moral principle that is arguably universal, which is neither individualistic nor social in origin, viz. that of social contractual egalitarianism. This prima facie moral principle is one that any humanist must regard as universally valid, since it is just the default position of the humanistic moral stance. It is not straight¬forwardly a demand that a natural human value (such as fairness) should not be denied expression, because it is clear that the members of different cultures have very different concepts of fairness. So, its origin is not so plausibly pre-cultural, as the sub-act-utilitarian principles of greatest good and least harm are. Rather, the argument for social contractual egalitarianism seems to depend heavily on the argument for adopting the humanistic moral stance. In my view, the increasing connectedness of human beings everywhere makes any nationalistic, ethnic, or gender-specific perspective on the social organism that morality is concerned with increasingly anachronistic. Therefore, it should be abandoned. The case for accepting this principle as universally valid is therefore trans-cultural, not pre-cultural.

The chapter continues by first discussing moral principles distinguishing between two kinds, individualistic and social. He then discusses and argues in favour of a social contractual version of utilitarianism.

Brian Ellis, is Professor Emeritus of La Trobe University and Professorial Fellow, Department of Philosophy, University of Melbourne. He is a member of the Humanist Society of Victoria.
Reproduced from Australian Humanist No. 107 Spring 2012