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The Code for Global Ethics: Ten Humanist Principles

The Code for Global Ethics: Ten Humanist Principles

by Rodrigue Tremblay, Paul Kurtz

Humanists have long contended that morality is a strictly human concern and should be independent of religious creeds and dogma. This principle was clearly articulated in the two Humanist Manifestos issued in the mid-twentieth century and in Humanist Manifesto 2000, which appeared at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Now this code for global


Humanists have long contended that morality is a strictly human concern and should be independent of religious creeds and dogma. This principle was clearly articulated in the two Humanist Manifestos issued in the mid-twentieth century and in Humanist Manifesto 2000, which appeared at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Now this code for global ethics further elaborates ten humanist principles designed for a world community that is growing ever closer together.

In the face of the obvious challenges to international stability—from nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, economic turmoil, and reactionary and sometimes violent religious movements—a code based on the "natural dignity and inherent worth of all human beings" is needed more than ever. In separate chapters the author delves into the issues surrounding these ten humanist principles: preserving individual dignity and equality, respecting life and property, tolerance, sharing, preventing domination of others, eliminating superstition, conserving the natural environment, resolving differences cooperatively without resort to violence or war, political and economic democracy, and providing for universal education.

This forward-looking, optimistic, and eminently reasonable discussion of humanist ideals makes an important contribution to laying the foundations for a just and peaceable global community.

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Ten Humanist Principles
By Rodrigue Tremblay

Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2010 Rodrigue Tremblay
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-172-1

Chapter One

Dignity and Equality

First Humanist Principle: Proclaim the Natural Dignity and Inherent Equality Of All Human Beings.

Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations- ... freedom of religion; freedom of the press; freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus; and trial by juries impartially selected-these principles form the bright constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through an age of revolution and reformation. -Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), third US president However little it may often appear to be true, the social world is governed in the long run by certain moral principles on which the people at large believe. The only moral principle which has ever made the growth of an advanced civilization possible was the principle of individual freedom, which means that the individual is guided in his decisions by rules of just conduct and not by specific commands. -Friedrich A. Hayek (1899-1992) I think that on balance the moral influence of religion has been awful. With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil-that takes religion. -Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate, physics

The first humanist rule deals with basic human dignity. It is the most important; all the other rules are derived from this first one. Respect for human dignity is the fundamental principle that should govern relations between individuals and among nations. Every human being, irrespective of culture, nationality, birth, property, race, sex, or creed, has a natural right to personal dignity, including the right to be free of ill treatment, brutality, and cruelty. As French statesman Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) once advanced, we should strive to "elevate to human dignity all members of humankind."

In practice, this means we should treat every human being with dignity, as we as individuals would like to be treated with dignity by others. This also means that we should never treat human beings as tools, objects, or instruments, but always as autonomous entities endowed with inalienable and inherent rights. This need to treat all human beings with dignity is analogous to the famous "golden rule" of universal morality. According to the fundamental reciprocity principle, each one of us should attempt to treat others as we would have others treat us. The corollary is also true: we should not treat others as we would not like to be treated by them.

Humanist Morality

Morality is about what is and is not acceptable in social and individual behavior. One's morality is heavily influenced by one's perception of future uncertainty and the desire to remove as much of this uncertainty as possible. Morality is a social necessity. In a world of anarchy and moral decay, no individual's life, family, and property are secure. Social disintegration and economic regression follow. In these circumstances, what is socially wrong is what hurts the common good. What is socially right is what enhances the common good. For practical, ethical decision making, what is individually wrong is what diminishes the common good, and what is individually right is what enhances the common good. Because we are social animals, human morality is about how we treat others. Pretending to be moral while treating others badly is sheer hypocrisy.

Most religions have a core moral code that teaches kindness toward other human beings, along with the promise of eternal life. The problem comes from the fact that religions rarely extend this goodness to people who oppose their faith-based certainties. Moreover, they usually have two or three sets of contradictory moral principles to choose from, depending upon their immediate interests and circumstances.

How can we aspire to a nonsuperstitious and nonmystical guide to moral living? The answer lies in a global, rational, and modern humanism that emphasizes the intrinsic value of human life and establishes human morality outside of a religious framework. Such a morality rejects the supernatural, mystical, and transcendental claims made by traditional religions in favor of rational and scientific explanations of the laws of the Universe and of the meaning of life. Humanist morality establishes a set of ethical rules of conduct that are designed to promote the greatest individual good and the greatest social good for the advancement and progress of humanity as a whole, with no reference at all to supernatural entities.

How to give purpose to one's life, how to treat others, and how to live in a civilized society are questions that assume a moral content, which implies that a few essential principles of what is right and what is wrong are needed to guide personal and social behavior.

There are of course some universal principles that belong to common sense. For example, it is wrong to kill other persons or to steal from them. But what does equality between people mean in practice? What is the meaning of solidarity among humans? What does it mean to have personal freedom? Can public morality-that is the morality of persons in power-be different from ordinary morality? Does the moral code change for a person who attains social or political power?

The Humanist Principle of Equality Between Men and Women

In many cultures, women do not have the same individual, social, and economic rights as men. Only in democracies where secular humanist morality is followed do we find real equality of rights between men and women. In certain churches and in theocracies, in general, women are treated as inferior. Why?

To begin with, one has to remember that all religions are human inventions. As such, they are institutions that reflect the traditions and superstitions found in their cultures. It isn't surprising that their rules tend to treat men better than women. Since moral principles tend to reflect the power structure of the society, if only men have access to power, the prevailing morality will assign a higher status to men than to women.

Historically, the idea that women are inferior to men may have originated in the premium placed on physical strength, which was required for hunting and waging war. Men, being more immediately essential for the group's survival, held a privileged position.

But there is also an ideological reason, analogous to defamation, prevalent in many cultures, which placed the blame for humanity's problems on the shoulders of women. Even before monotheist religions invented the concept of original sin as the source of all humanity's trials, the Greeks imagined the myth of Pandora's box to denigrate women. The gods created Pandora in order to punish men for having stolen fire from them (with the help of Prometheus). Pandora's curiosity led her to open the box containing all the diseases, sorrows, vices, and crimes that could befall humanity. According to the myth, it was because of Pandora, the first woman, that evil entered the world.

Various religions have adopted similar myths, for example the legend of original sin, which explains why so many religions, even in this day and age, show contempt for women and are obsessed with sex. The most vivid example is the order that followers can read in the Bible about burning women accused of witchcraft, a practice taken seriously during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Protestant countries.

Religions have often considered women less "pure" than men. For many years, the Roman Catholic Church denied mothers entry to a church for a month after a birth if the child was a boy, but for two months if the baby was a girl. The men running the church considered human birth, the most natural of all events, to be something impure and shameful. Some even went so far as to declare the birth of a female child to be a form of birth defect, the model being a male child.

The same detachment from women, the same fear of women, lay behind the requirement of celibacy for the entire clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. For many years, it was thought that only an unwedded way of life could lead to sanctity. The early Church had married priests (and even some bishops), as does the Orthodox Church of today. When the Second Lateran Council, during the European Middle Ages, definitively proclaimed the Church's clerical celibacy requirement, it was in fact a break from centuries of Christian tradition. Practical considerations led the Catholic hierarchy to change the clergy's civil status. It was in part a reaction to Catharism-a new heretical religion growing fast in the Southwest of France-which prided itself on having unmarried priests. It was also a way to avoid the break-up of the Church's huge properties, especially land, through multiple inheritances among the priests' children. Of course, in another case of discrimination against women, the Roman Catholic Church has never accepted that they be ordained and join its clergy.

The long tradition of misogyny is still alive in the Roman Catholic Church. It comes down from the teaching of Paul of Tarsus, who wrote letters in the first century confirming the traditional subordinated role reserved for women. In ancient civilizations, it was common practice to consider that women were owned, bought and sold as pieces of property, by fathers and husbands alike. Therefore, the apostle Paul invented nothing new when he wrote in the first century, "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent" (1 Timothy 2:11-12). It was a basic tenet of both Hebrew and Roman law that women had no civic rights. Fathers or husbands had, de jure, the power of life or death over them.

No other organized religion, however, treats women, in practice, with less respect and consideration than Islam. Indeed, this religion often imposes on girls and women a series of detailed constraints which at times obliges them to hide their face in public, sometimes forbids them from practicing sports and, in the end, frequently forces them to relinquish any hope of living a normal life in society because they are prevented from exercising a profession. In the most fanatical Islamic countries, the official religion mandates to women a status that is tantamount to slavery. For instance, in Afghanistan, when the country was under Taliban control, girls were formally forbidden to go to school. And to underline the total and symbolic submission of women to men, Islamist religious extremists force women to bury themselves under a tchadri, sometimes called a burqa or jalbab, an opaque veil that covers them from head to foot, with only a small opening at the level of the eyes.

Certain Muslim countries have retained the old, barbaric tradition of stoning to death girls and women accused of sexual transgressions, or who have simply shown themselves in public without wearing the approved costume. It is thus true, even in these modern times, that certain men use religion to control and maintain women in a discriminatory system of perpetual submission and dependence. The violence perpetrated against women and sanctioned by certain organized religions remains a great human scandal in the twenty-first century.

Historically, the attitude of organized religions toward women has closely paralleled their position regarding slavery. In both instances, slaves and women were admonished to submit to their masters. It was only after the advent of the Renaissance, and especially after the Enlightenment, when the secular principles of basic human equality and of democracy became widely accepted, at least in the West, that women were granted equal civic rights and that owners were forced to free their slaves.

Religions and Slavery

The revealed books of religions, whether in the Bible, the Torah (the word Torah means "law"), or the Qur'an (Koran), have all condoned slavery. The Bible permitted owners to beat their slaves severely, even to the point of killing them. However, as long as the slave lingered longer than twenty-four hours before dying of the abuse, the owner was not regarded as having committed a crime, because, after all, the slave was his property. One of the biblical passages that was the favorite of theologians who wished to justify slavery on biblical grounds was Genesis 9:25-27. It purports that it is alright to make generations of slaves: "Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers ... Blessed be the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. May God extend the territory of Japheth; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem and may Canaan be his slave." The Jewish Torah is even more explicit: "You may, however, take as your booty the women, the children, the livestock, and everything in the town-all its spoils-and enjoy the use of the spoil of your enemy which the Lord your God gives you." (20:14-15)

In the New Testament, there is no outright condemnation of slavery. Jesus himself is not reported to have said anything negative about the practice prevalent in his times nor to have hinted that masters should free their slaves. His principal proselytizer, Paul of Tarsus, never wrote an Epistle saying that slavery was profoundly immoral. This moral ambivalence may have contributed to the American Civil War (1861-65). Indeed, the president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, had this to say about the legitimacy of his fight: "[Slavery] was established by decree of Almighty God ... it is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation ... it has existed in all ages, has been found among the people of the highest civilization, and in nations of the highest proficiency in the arts."

For its part, the Roman Catholic Church accommodated itself to the institution of slavery for a very long time. While it is true that the church spoke out against slavery at various times throughout history, it reserved its condemnation for new colonies and regarding certain peoples. It was only in 1839 that Pope Gregory XVI finally condemned the slave trade as a social evil, but he did not push for the emancipation of those slaves already held in bondage. As late as 1866, the Vatican still considered that "slavery itself, considered as such in its essential nature, is not at all contrary to the natural and divine law." It was only in 1888, and again in 1890, that Pope Leo XIII came out unambiguously against slavery, declaring the enslavement of native peoples and blacks to be an evil practice. Nearly a century later, in 1962-65, the Second Vatican Council definitively closed the books on the question, declaring slavery a grave offense against human dignity. This was, however, nearly twenty centuries after the founding of the Christian religion.

Such is also the case with Islam. Islam has retained the principle of slavery and sanctioned the practice in the Qur'an. Even the prophet Muhammad took slaves. He owned many slaves, both males and females, after he moved from Mecca to Medina. Islam retains slavery for two reasons: because slavery is part of jihad and it is believed that infidel prisoners of war may be enslaved after a war; and because the sexual propagation of slaves naturally generates more slaves for their owner, who can then sell them. It is an historical fact that one of the reasons Muslims invaded black Africa was the search for slaves. Many Qur'anic verses condone and attest to Islam's approval of slavery. For instance, it is only in 1962 that some Islamic countries such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen finally abolished slavery.

The first humanist moral rule precludes and rejects any idea of having human beings considered as objects that can be owned, abused, or exploited. Slavery and slavery-like systems are anathema to humanism.


Excerpted from The Code for GLOBAL ETHICS by Rodrigue Tremblay Copyright © 2010 by Rodrigue Tremblay. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

David Koepsell
Dr. Tremblay offers not just armchair philosophizing, but solid, historical argument and proposals for integrating humanist philosophy into both our everyday lives, and our social institutions. Policy makers, and laypersons alike should heed Tremblay's account of humanist principles, for in them lies a path to greater peace, tolerance, and societal progress. (David Koepsell, JD, PhD, former executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, and assistant professor of ethics at the Delft University of Technology)

Meet the Author

Rodrigue Tremblay (Montreal, Quebec, Canada) is a prominent Canadian-born economist with a PhD from Stanford University. He is a former Woodrow Wilson fellow and a Ford International Fellow. He is now professor emeritus at the University of Montreal, after having occupied the positions of full professor of economics at the University of Montreal, president of the North American Economics and Finance Association, president of the Canadian Economics Society, and advisor to numerous organizations. From 1976 to 1979, he was minister of Industry and Commerce in the Quebec government. He is presently vice-president of the International Association of French-speaking Economists. Professor Tremblay has written thirty books dealing with economics and finance, some also tackling moral and political issues.

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