Humanism and Pragmatism

Pragmatism informs Humanism. It is the foundation on which our morals rest.

There is a great article in the Humanist Magazine – which if you don’t subscribe to it, you should. The editor Jennifer Bardi does an excellent job of curating each issue. Anyway – in Humanism 101 Michael Werner, the author, discusses Humanism and pragmatism. In it he says, “The pragmatist offers a staircase toward the light, asking what works toward human and global welfare. Pragmatism offers knowledge that is always provisional, fallible, and probabilistic, but that works.”

I am asked all the time, if you don’t believe in god, how can you have a foundation for ethics. Doesn’t the lack of god imply moral relativism? The answer is no. Not for a Humanist. We still have a moral conscious because we choose to have one.  Our moral compass does not rest on science or on culture exclusively. It has no absolute basis. It is born of our social experience and tested by our experiences and the experiences of others.

The more we learn about others and their experiences, the more we can refine our moral code of what is good and what isn’t. To quote Werner, ”the interplay of science and culture points us toward the best ideals,”  

We have morals because we chose to have morals. Because having a morality is pragmatic and helps us live our lives more effectively. This may not be an entirely rational thing to do. But it is an imminently pragmatic thing to do.


  1. Jennifer,

    One of my favorite entries in Michael Bérubé's archived blog is "Credo" ( ), which has a beautiful structure and explanation.

    In grad school, Bérubé also took classes from Richard Rorty, one of the more productive pragmatist philosophers in the late 20th century. I'm still trying to wrap my mind around some of the issues with knowledge and certainty, except Bérubé made the best argument (in a different entry, which I can't track down right now) on how we can make universalistic arguments about human rights while being anti-foundationalist. Essentially it comes down to this: "Yes, this principle I hold to now may be overturned next year or next decade or century, but for now I have enough reason to declare that everyone has this right."

    1. Wonderful Sherman - I love it when philosophers can simplify! The first time I read Ramendra Nath - in his book Some Reflections on Ethics - does a great job of just wiping away so many of the false dichotomies in philosophy that are so either or - either we have a foundation or we can't have ethics. He just basically declares them a false dichotomy and explains why the middle ground is what makes sense. I'd link to it - but the book is no longer available for free online. You have to buy it. It's a wonderful read though.

    2. Anyway - when I read it I was thinking - wow - this is what philosophy books should be like!

    3. PS - Love the Berube essay! Spot on. I've never understood why the divinity of Jesus matters. Seems to me his story is more powerful if he is human. But that's just me being a Humanist I suppose.


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