Sunday, 8 October 2017

The Utilitarians

In September Robin Grinter talked on the Utilitarians

Utilitarianism is the philosophy developed by the British thinkers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. It lies at the centre of Western Humanist thinking and is a basis for knowing what it right and what is wrong. Humanism is a development of Utilitarianism that keeps it relevant to the changing and challenging human situation in which we live.

Some of the key elements of Utilitarianism are: a belief that everything must make a useful contribution towards that outcome to be of value; Utilitarianism is a rational philosophy of action, whose usefulness lies in calculating consequences in terms of human happiness or unhappiness; It is also secular because it  makes no reference to any supernatural considerations.  Utilitarianism is not a rigid and absolute morality, and it is not just a ‘natural’ philosophy that makes right and wrong the outcome of humanity’s ‘better nature’.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) is the major thinker figure in Utilitarianism. Both happiness and utility were philosophical concepts in common use in his day: indeed Francis Hutcheson coined the phrase ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number’ sixty years before Bentham. But it was Bentham who almost single-handedly wove happiness and utility together to make philosophy a force for action in the world in his ‘Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation’  (1789).

Bentham was a lawyer concerned to improve laws to create a better society. His one simple question for any action, law or custom was ‘what use is it?’, and the only criterion in answering that was to look at its consequences for the happiness and well-being of human beings. He didn’t personally influence any reforms because he died in 1832, the year when the first act of parliamentary reform was passed. But his thinking inspired the social reforms of Victorian England and the creation of our welfare state. He is the inspiration for the campaigning work of the Humanists UK.

However, not all reforms were kind. The poor law reform of 1834 stopped the wasteful handouts of basic food to the destitute, and set up workhouses so that  basic necessities were only available for useful work by “the undeserving poor”. Workhouses were pretty dreadful places in terms of human happiness.  Bentham’s own plans for prison reform were also pretty harsh: his ‘Panopticon’ would have removed all privacy by constructing prisons so that every prisoner’s actions were visible to those who governed them.

Morality for Bentham isn’t just a question of being good and virtuous individuals: actions have to have measurable, tangible benefits for society. To avoid time-consuming and complicated assessments for every action, we use ‘rules of thumb’, general guidance based on experience. This has led to arguments on the need to have general rules rather than calculations of outcomes. Bentham argued that if we suspect that these rules of thumb do more harm than good we should override them. His approach made Bentham very tolerant of private actions, for example homosexuality. 

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) a declared agnostic, was a major political philosopher and author of ‘On Liberty’ (1859) and ‘Utilitarianism’ (1861). He shared Bentham’s commitment to reforms and improvement. He condemned slavery in America and as an MP, became a strong advocate of labour unions and farm cooperatives. He supported the second Act of Parliamentary Reform passed in 1867. In ‘Considerations on Representative Government’ (1869) Mill called for further reforms of Parliament and voting His most celebrated campaign was for women’s rights.  Mill disagreed with Bentham on the nature of happiness, intellectual pleasures being more valuable than sensual pleasures.

Robin used some scenarios for discussion in small groups. 

1. Aren’t pleasure and happiness fundamentally egoistic, which rules out seeking the well-being of others?  
2. Can you predict the consequences of actions well enough to be sure you’re doing the right thing? 
3. Have we got time to calculate all the likely effects of an action? 
4. Isn’t it better to make it a priority to minimise pain and suffering than increase pleasure? 
5. Isn’t Utilitarianism too demanding, seeking the maximum happiness which logically involves all human welfare?
6. Don’t motives and intentions matter when it comes to doing what is right? 
7. Can Utilitarianism permit wrong actions and lead to injustice?
8. This reflection illustrates a final issue: should we decide each action on its own merits or live by general rules?

Each group selected their own topic and share their deliberations with the rest.
Robin ended by asking “Is Utilitarianism, and therefore Utilitarian Humanism universally valid – as you’d expect a philosophy to be?” He himself doubted this because of the diversity of societies around the world and different attitudes to Human rights in some countries. Utilitarianism may be simple, but it raises complex issues.

Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation

16th August: Derek McComiskey asked "Why Should Humanists Care About The Reformation?"  It is 500 years since one of the pivotal events of the Protestant Reformation - when Martin Luther produced his "95 Theses" in 1517. 

Firstly - the Catholic Church had held sway over the rulers and people of Europe for over a thousand year providing a single orthodoxy, a way of answering all the substantial questions that people might ask.  Once Protestantism was established it soon multiplied into many variants.  This plurality of thought immediately promotes sceptical questioning - surely they can't all be right?  Maybe one is right and all the others wrong, or maybe they are all a bit right and a bit wrong?  Perhaps ... none of them are right?!

Secondly - it is just interesting.  It resulted in a shift in thinking as profound as the Renaissance or the Enlightenment but was a much more well-defined event occurring in a far more limited time.  Luther stood up to the two most powerful institutions in Europe (Catholic Church and Holy Roman Empire) in jeopardy of his life and survived.  His is a very exciting story.

Thirdly - it was a profoundly anti-corruption movement.  Through much of the previous millennium the Catholic Church had been more or less corrupt.  It had been more concerned with empire building and suppressing dissent than the care of the people it supposedly served.  There was warmongering, factionalism and sexual hypocrisy at the highest level.  There had been many would-be reformers who ended up in flames or whose followers were terribly persecuted - Arnold of Brescia, Peter Waldo and Jan Hus amongst others.  The spark that really kindled Luther's anger was the sale of "indulgences" in his local area.  His parishioners were persuaded to part with their money to buy remission from sins for themselves or their relatives in purgatory.  Half the money was going to pay for the rebuilding (in grand Renaissance style) of St Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Fourth - the theological message of the reformers was more individual and democratic than the Catholic alternative.  In Catholicism priests are special and can really effect change in a person's "state of grace" by performing the rites correctly.  Luther argued strongly that this was wrong.  There was a "priesthood of all believers" - we each stand before God and are saved "by faith alone"; ordained priests are no different to anyone else.

Fifth - The reformer's Bibles in the vernacular languages, along with mass printing, was a real spur to literacy.  Catholic teaching was that only the Pope could interpret the Bible correctly so ordinary people were not encouraged to read it lest they develop wrong ideas.  Luther (and later Calvin) wanted everyone to read for themselves. However, he wasn't very happy when they came up with different ideas to him!  The newly invented printing press was invaluable to the reformation.

During the Q&A we touched on The Protestant Work Ethic, the possibility of an Islamic Reformation, what is the difference between Church of England and Anglican, why the Church of Scotland isn't Anglican and Luther's response to the Farmer's Revolt amongst other things.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous

At Stockport's July Meeting Stefan Cooper gave us a very interesting talk partly based on his own experiences.  Most of us have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous and maybe Narcotics Anonymous but I wonder how many of us have realised that there are more than 200 different Anonymous Groups.

The Anonymous philosophy is based on the 12 step principle  and was originally a model of seeking spiritual enlightenment. Groups are available not just for various addictions but also for bad habits such as overeating, for behavioural problems and involuntary problems such as diabetes.

Anonymous is Big Business. 90% of treatment centres in the US are 12 step based. There are no figures for the UK but it is a multimillion pound business using benefits, council tax etc. Some very well paid people are making a lot of money selling 12 steps to vulnerable people.

Many perceive AA groups to be a benign group of people and AA portrays itself as a self-help or mutual aid organisation. There is no mention of God on the web site but the message of the 12-steps is that you have to give yourself to God.  And 12-steps is the only way if you go to meetings.

Stefan met and worked with 1000s of addicts, some of the most vulnerable people in society. Detoxing only takes a couple of weeks but underneath is a lifetime of chaos. Sex abuse and crime also play a part in the equation.

If you open your door as a meeting and offer a solution this becomes the definitive solution. People can end up worse than they started. If the 12-steps don’t work for you it is your fault. This can create real fear in vulnerable people. Fear can work in rehab but not when you return to the real world. Therefore people become dependent on anonymous.

The anonymous movement developed from the Oxford Group, founded by the American Christian Missionary Frank Buchman, which later became known as Moral Rearmament.

One of the founders of AA, Bill Wilson, went through a number of courses of the Belladonna cure which was being used to treat alcoholism in the 1930s. He had a revelation whilst under treatment and believed that becoming a Christian would stop his drinking. He converted and never drank again but he was a chain smoker who died of emphysema. The 12-steps came to him whilst he was tripping in a hospital bed but people were told they were divinely inspired. The basic text for AA known as the Big Book mentions God 200 times in 167 pages.

Non-believers are pushed to believe in God and if they have a problem with this they are given a tract against agnosticism.

Anyone can set up an Anonymous meeting. All you need is a ring of chairs and a kettle. This is potentially dangerous as there is nothing to stop sexual predators forming groups under the guise of helping people, who are at their most vulnerable.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

International Humanist and Ethical Union

To celebrate World Humanist Day Guy Otten talked to the
Stockport Group about International Humanism.  Greater Manchester Humanists have, in the past year, joined both The International and Ethical Union (IHEU) and the European Humanist Federation (EHF). In this Brexit era, it is good to think about the international dimension of humanism.

IHEU is a bit of a mouthful, but they are consulting with their members about a rebrand! It’s a democratic organisation with the Board nominated and elected by the Member Organisations. Our own Andrew Copson is its president. It was founded in Amsterdam in 1952 and for a time was headquartered in the Netherlands. It currently shares offices with Humanists UK in Moreland St. Its mission is for . . .  everyone to live a life of dignity in a world where universal human rights are respected and protected, and where states uphold secularism.

Its Policy Agenda includes promoting the human right to freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief; opposing apostasy laws and state-endorsed doctrine; promoting the human right to freedom of expression; protecting the social conditions for critical open debate and opposing blasphemy and ‘defamation of religion’ laws; promoting the humanist worldview and humanist values; promoting the scientific approach and opposing the harm done by beliefs superstition, witchcraft, and magic; promoting freedom for all and the elimination of discrimination on grounds of ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, caste and all other irrelevant grounds; promoting democracy, secularism, and peace; promoting separation of state and religion; and promoting equality before the law for those of all religions and beliefs.

The IHEU aims to have successful and sustainable member organisations in every part of the world through funding, training, intellectual resources and other support; Member organisations which are networked together as a co-ordinated global movement; International and regional government policies shaped by their policy agenda; and sufficient reputation, financial and human resources, and administrative effectiveness to achieve their goals

IHEU is an international non-governmental organisation (NGO) with representation on various United Nations committees. It has Special Consultative Status with the United Nations in New York, Vienna and Geneva where they take part at the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child. It has General Consultative Status at UNICEF (New York) and the Council of Europe (Strasbourg), and maintain operational relations with UNESCO (Paris). IHEU has observer status at the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

At the UN in New York, the IHEU representation follows the work of the General Assembly and some of the committees, as well as taking active part in the NGO Committee on Freedom of Religion and Belief.

At the UN in Geneva, the IHEU delegation is following closely the work of the UN Human Rights Council, and taking active part in the activities of the council and the other Non-Governmental Organisations there.

The Freedom of thought Report is the biggest thing IHEU does. It covers every country in the world, and is looking at issues as diverse as family law and religious identity, blasphemy and apostasy laws, as well as constitutional issues. It all assume a human rights based approach.

Campaign against Blasphemy Laws is another important part of their work. They aim to save lives by relocating verified at-risk individuals; to promote public knowledge of the threat to the non-religious; and to lobby for reform, justice and protection of those under threat.

Saudi Arabia has a place on UN Women’s Rights Commission which “brings our valuable international institutions into disrepute” – IHEU. Only one state in the world bans women from driving: Saudi Arabia. Saudi law encodes numerous forms of oppression against women, including segregation between unrelated men and women, strict rules on covering hair and body in public, and a ban on women traveling without a “guardian”. Ultra-conservative Salafi Islam is used as justification for this undeniable oppression.

By contrast, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women is a panel whose role is “promoting women’s rights, documenting the reality of women’s lives throughout the world, and shaping global standards on gender equality and the empowerment of women”.

To support the Future of the Global Movement there is a youth movement IHEYO, and a campaign to develop Humanist Groups in developing parts of the world.

The Amsterdam Declaration was agreed at the WHO in 1952 and updated in 2002. It was adopted by the IHEU General Assembly and has become the official defining statement of World Humanism. It can be found at  

World Humanist Day is celebrated every year on June 21. It is an opportunity for humanists and humanist organisations to publicise the positive values of Humanism and to share the global concerns of the Humanist movement, and we’ve been celebrating the day since the 1980s. There are many ways of celebrating the event. We chose to use our monthly meeting to find out more about this important organisation, the IHEU.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Science and The Left

At our May meeting, Paul Fitzgerald (a.k.a political cartoonist Polyp talked to us about how political ideology can influence science acceptance. We are aware that the political right can deny science - particularly evolution and climate change. However Paul is increasingly worried that his "tribe", the green/liberal left, have their own problems in this area. He gave us a number of examples:
  1. Nuclear power. There might be cogent arguments to be made against using nuclear power, but currently hysteria and exaggeration seem to dominate the discussion. Famously a Fukushima radiation map was widely circulated, without a key to the colour coding and with added apocalyptic imagery. Greenpeace issued a statement to try to calm the hysteria and dispel misinformation.
  2. Genetically modified organisms. Paul admitted that he was initially opposed to GMO's and even took part in some direct action. But there is now more evidence of safety. Much of the ideologically driven anti-GMO rhetoric relies on very bad, discredited science.
  3. Corbyn's election chances. Given the opinion-poll statistics it is almost certain that the Conservatives will win the election. However, when Paul pointed this out on social media it generated a great deal of opposition which he took to be data-denying. This produced prolonged discussion during the Q&A.
  4. The naturalistic fallacy. "Things that are Natural are good", "Chemicals are bad".
  5. The myth of the noble savage - a romanticised view of the past. This might stem from valid criticism of Western industrial societies, our colonial legacy and our unsustainable lifestyle. But it can go too far in assuming (against the evidence) that tribal societies are naturally co-operative, peace-loving, democratic and live sustainably.
  6. Reluctance to criticise victim groups. Seen most clearly in the use of the term "Islamophobia" against anyone who raises criticisms of Islam. Ayaan Hirsi Ali calls this the "racism of low expectations".
  7. Anti-Semitism. Paul has observed a casual anti-Semitism from some of the (otherwise) liberal left.
  8. Denial of difference. It seems to be controversial in some green/left circles to acknowledge that people have different abilities. The "blank-slate" view of humanity is common, putting all the responsibility on how people are raised. This denies innate (genetic) differences - dealt with well by Stephen Pinker's book, The Blank Slate.
How can this tendency to deny or ignore science be countered? Paul introduced the ideas of two philosophers of science; firstly Karl Popper (The Open Society and Its Enemies) argued that "falsification" is the basis of science. Any truly scientific idea can be falsified by observation and experiment, leading to a gradual improvement in knowledge.

Thomas Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions) on the other hand argued that the scientific community could be reluctant to change and would defend the current consensus ("paradigm") until forced to accept a new one - a "paradigm-shift". Post-modernists took this to mean that scientific theories are merely social constructs. Paul sees this thinking, leading to cultural relativism, as having infected the left. He suggests that Popper's idea can be the cure: when we state our ideas we also say what would make us change our mind. Unfortunately Margaret Thatcher liked Karl Popper so there is little chance of him being accepted by the left!

It is a cultural norm to think that having strongly and consistently held beliefs is a virtue. Paul suggested that this is ridiculous, and we all need to be more open to evidence.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017


John Webster from Oxford Humanists spoke to us about the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was one of the First Fab four: Leigh Hunt, Byron, Keats and Shelley, all described as Freethinkers and Humanists.

In 1812 Shelley, aged 19, produced a pamphlet The Necessity of Atheism which booksellers were ordered to burn. This also resulted in him being expelled from University College, Oxford.

In 1816 Shelley wrote in a hotel register in Chamonix, Switzerland “I am an atheist, a lover of humanity and a democrat”. Under the column ‘Destination’ he wrote “L’Enfer” (hell).

John proceeded to illustrate his talk with examples of Shelley’s poetry including the Masque of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo massacre, and Ode to the West Wind.  Shelley translated from Latin, Greek, French, German, and Italian. In Pisa he wrote A Defence of Poetry and Other Essays. Also in Pisa Byron and Shelley planned to set up a journal.  Other poems considered were Immortal Deity, The Funeral, and Adonai: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats. Hellas (The world’s great age…) was his last great poem.

Shelley looked forward to air travel and electricity. He also had a progressive view of the world of women compared with, say, Jane Austen. His heroine was Mary Wollstonecraft. He influenced nineteenth century thinkers such as Charles Bradlaugh, and he approved of the working class self-education movement.

John ended his presentation by playing his DVD Shelley’s Golden Years in Italy narrated by Benjamin Zephaniah, which is available on Amazon.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Being A Humanist Celebrant

In March Marge Rose spoke to the Stockport group about her experiences of Being a Funeral Celebrant.

Marg considers herself to be a Celebrant first and a Humanists second. She was brought up in the Church of Scotland and lost her faith at the age of about 14 or 15 when the bible classes she attended were saying that a bad thought was as bad as a bad deed. In her 20s she went to Quaker meetings and got married there. In 1980 her husband had a near death experience and was helped to understand it by American Indians. She then became an agnostic pagan.

When her father died she thought she could have done at least as good a job as the Church of Scotland minister and she decided to become a Humanist celebrant. She went to Greater Manchester Humanists and took the introductory course. She then applied to train as a celebrant but was turned down in the first instance as there were too many applicants. She eventually got training and has now conducted 100 funerals.

Anyone can conduct a funeral and there is a book called Funerals without God which is excellent for those conducting a DIY funeral - Funerals Without God: A Practical Guide to Non-Religious Funeral Ceremonies by Jane Wynne Wilson. 

Humanist funerals are always about the person who has died. 90% of Humanists are cremated and about 10% are buried.

Most ceremonies follow a similar pattern. After some introductory music the celebrant welcomes everybody and explains the Humanist Funeral. Tributes are paid to the person either by the celebrant or members of the family or friends. Readings, poems, songs etc may also be included, time permitting. A quiet period for contemplation is included and this may be used for silent prayers by religious people. At the end there are usually notices telling people where to go, what charities are being supported etc.

The BHA training and support is excellent and once a celebrant is trained there are private on-line support forums.

On the first day of training, the trainers talk about the ceremonies and there are exercises to test the trainees skills. The trainees then go off to observe both Humanist and Religious funerals. A month later there is a two day more in-depth course including role play, writing scripts etc. Written scripts are submitted to the tutors. A month later there is note comparing, further training on record keeping, and a visit to the back of a crematorium. The trainee also gives a script as if for real and gets feedback.

After all that the trainee gets to do ceremonies alone and is visited by a monitor. If successful he/she then becomes a BHA accredited celebrant.

Few celebrants actually make a living from this work and there are ongoing expenses, such as membership of the BHA and Celebrant annual fees. There is continued professional development in the form of workshops on various topics, keeping up with Humanism, and an annual Celebrant Conference.