Rationality And The Caring Humanist

Rationality and the Caring Humanist – empathy, expediency, self-interest …

Presenter: Barrie Webster

December, 2010

George Monbiot has again tweaked our Humanist whiskers with a piece http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2010/10/11/the-values-of-everything/#more-1289 on the ongoing promotion of self-interest and its association with rationality. He warns that this is a destructive approach for society to follow and points to the work of the advertising industry, and rightist governments and think tanks in associating rational thinking with self-interest.

The recent report (from a group of UK NGOs including WWF and Oxfam) by Tom Crompton, Common Cause moved Monbiot to advocate that humans take a close look at the way the focus on self-interest has molded efforts to change public policy. He notes in doing so that our system of values correlates closely with our social identity.

“Those who strongly value financial success have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, a stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers, and less concern about human rights and the environment.”

“Those with a strong sense of self-acceptance have more empathy and greater concern for human rights, social justice and the environment.”

Monbiot associates the first group with rationality and expediency and the second with empathy and positive social values. Crompton notes, quoting psychological research, that humans generally do not make decisions by rational cost-benefit analysis of data; rather, they accept information that confirms their already established identities and values. He points out that these psychological studies show that “confronting people with inconvenient facts is likely only to harden their resistance to change.”

Humanists champion rational thought as the way to approach life decisions. Rationality, in itself, is clearly of great value in the pursuit of scientific knowledge, and that knowledge is a pretty solid foundation on which to chart our way through life. How, though, do we proceed without invalidating positive emotional values such as empathy, love, and the secular-spiritual nourishment to be found in music, art, and the grandeur of nature? There’s more than rationality in “them-thar” hills. Or is there?

Questions to ponder:

1. Monbiot writes in the context of British politics. Can we extrapolate to the Canadian scene?

2. Are the values expounded by Monbiot consistent with the principles of scientific humanism?

3. How do the conclusions of Monbiot’s article reflect on the direction Humanists ought to take in making the Humanist case to their fellow Canadians?

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