Click a question below to get an answer
Some people believe that what is right and wrong never varies and that it can be expressed in constant and unchanging commandments.
Religious people sometimes look to their ‘sacred texts’ – writings
from long ago – or to religious authorities for guidance on moral questions.
But most of us more usually trust our ‘conscience’, the metaphorical
part of our minds that warns us to think about the consequences of what
we do, to treat other people as we would like to be treated, to avoid
harming others or the planet, and which makes us feel uneasy when we
don't. This is an aspect of our character as human beings and as individuals.
That does not mean, of course, that whatever any ‘inner voice’ may urge is therefore always right. We can make mistakes about morality – as we can about the nature of the cosmos and which horse will win the race tomorrow. But our moral intuitions are an important part of our morality.
There are some actions – murder and torture are prime examples – that we can generally accept as wrong. We do not usually have to weigh up the pros and cons every time we are faced with a murder. In everyday cases, there are moral aspects that lead us to have to think for ourselves. Humanists consider carefully the particular situation and the effects of choices on the happiness or suffering of others (including other animals) and the wider community. They aim to weigh up the evidence, the probable consequences of the action, and the rights and wishes of those involved, trying to find the kindest course of action or the option that will do the least harm and not compromise their personal principles or integrity.
Some moral dilemmas are simply conflicts between important values. ‘I should be kind to X, but if I am, I am unfair to Y, so I need to make a choice.’ Some moral dilemmas are complicated. Some are new, caused by advances in science and medicine, and changes in the way we live. Codes of conduct formulated centuries ago are not all helpful – they may, for example, be based on the need to ensure food is uncontaminated, when in a hot climate and lacking refrigeration. And many religious rules, in fact, are devoted to concern for respecting god(s) rather than how to live. Humanists believe that we should review moral codes in the light of developments in society and human knowledge.