A Return to Humanism


A question often confronted by those in search of a moral stance on issues of life and society is, what or where exactly is, or should be, this moral stance located. This undoubtedly is a slippery question considering one man’s perception of moral is not always the same as another’s, especially against the backdrop of diverse religious upbringings and outlooks different people grow up in. The difficulty hence is not just in satisfying those who pose this question, often provocatively and sometimes even tauntingly, but also to convince oneself as to what exactly should be a moral stance. Perhaps a beginning could be made by distinguishing between what is legally correct from what is moral. What is legally correct can, but does not necessarily have to, coincide with what is moral, although ideally the two should overlap totally. What is moral then must broadly be the conscience which guides the legislative process of making certain action legal or illegal. But this distinction does not still answer the question what is moral. So what then is a moral stance? There probably cannot be a conclusive answer to this question, but we would, as a thumb rule, begin by turning to humanism (which unlike religion is a better common denominator of human values), a doctrine which believes in the promotion of human welfare. We would also refer back to a belief in life as the basis of answers to all ontological problems. Life is good, hence anything which promotes life is good and everything which negates life is bad. No rational discourse would be possible or meaningful if we do not predicate them with this fundamental axiom that life must go on, because life is good.

We are also often at a loss at the cynicism involve in those who resort to the relativist position in making the judgement as to what is a moral stance saying this will change depending on the perspective the observer takes, and that no perspective is of less moral standing than another. Such a position only betrays a pathetic irresponsibility and a moral anarchy. Very often this would lead to drawing a moral equivalence between the victim and perpetrator. The rapist who say he was provoked into the crime by his victim who dressed in Western attire (incidentally a not too unfamiliar defence) would have the same moral worth as the perspective of the victim who suffered the crime. This example should make it much easier for us to define what we mean by a moral stance. It is about exercising one’s judgement, not necessarily informed by religious teachings, to decide what is humane and what is not. In fact, we are of the opinion any religious teaching which does not believe in this humanism, is prone to be reduced to dogmatism. This humanistic position should also make it clearer as to who is victim and who is perpetrator in any given situation.

The broad guidelines of a moral stance hence would hinge around defining what is cruel and insensitive to sufferings of other humans. To try and elucidate further with a little rhetoric, should there at all be any justified dilemma in deciding what is the moral stance when confronted with torture victims, regardless who were the perpetrators? Should any inability to condemn genocide or slave trade be considered morally tenable? Thankfully, we have today guidelines of moral standards available in the shape of many international laws and norms, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations. There are also the Geneva Conventions seeking to limit the savagery of wars and also to ensure a minimum standard of humanity in the treatment of prisoners of war. Let us then reassess the issues confronting us under this new scanner of humanism and decide what the stance we should adopt as moral. While the relativist position is good in the assessment process, let it not be the criterion under which we make the decision as to what is moral. It is only expected of a good judge (which every moral being is called upon to be), to have the patience to listen with understanding to everybody, and see what everybody sees from their respective positions. But all these perspectives must be weighed against a moral scale of humanism and not just legalities before a final verdict is made. To take another example as a concluding illustration of this fine distinction between the moral and legal, under laws such as the AFSPA, a soldier can kill or torture (use force to the extent of causing death) and commit no legal offence. But should this legal position also guarantee a moral legitimacy as well?


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