I had the following discussion on Programmers.SE:

@Peter Turner, Which is a good example of how religion warps morality, leading people to imagine their concerns are moral when they are profoundly immoral. – TRiG

@TRiG, Which is a good example of making an appeal to absolute truth where you would normally appeal to relativism. The problem is, you don't listen to our arguments and you assume they're all appeals to something you don't believe in. Whereas, Catholics almost always argue for morality in a non-dogmatic rational way. – Peter Turner

@Peter, I don't think I've ever appealed to "relativism". I'm familiar with Catholic "Natural Law" argument, and I know it's nonsense. Humanism is not relativism. But perhaps discussion on these lines would be better on the philosophy site. – TRiG

This discussion made me question whether I was really correct in assuming that humanism's rejection of God necessitates a belief in moral relativism. I found the following definition of humanism, which seems to back up my thinking:

Humanism's exclusion of God necessitates moral relativism. Humanist John Dewey (1859-1952), co-author and signer of the Humanist Manifesto 1 (1933), declared, "There is no God and there is no soul. Hence, there are no needs for the props of traditional religion. With dogma and creed excluded, then immutable truth is also dead and buried. There is no room for fixed, natural law or moral absolutes." Humanists believe one should do, as one feels is right.

Is there any evidence to the contrary?

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    What is actually meant by moral relativism? Does it mean: "anything goes" or does it mean that morals are dependent on psychology, social structures, evolutionary accidents, etc... the latter is certainly true and could be called relatvism in the sense that it relates to certain historical accidents. But it's not relativism in the sense that anything goes. Jul 3, 2011 at 8:55
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    The later is certainly not true if you accept the Natural Law. And I think you should ask whether or not the "anything goes" is the same as morals being dependent on society. I, for one, believe that it is. Jul 3, 2011 at 19:57
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    What is natural law? Doesn't that depend on nature? How is it not relativist then? Even more so since it depends on an interpretation of what nature is supposed to be like. Jul 4, 2011 at 8:20
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    @Raskolnikov, even nihilism isn't devoid of metaphor. Jul 5, 2011 at 18:16
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    The problem with metaphors is how easily they can be misinterpreted. Peter, you're making the same argument here about the natural law being figuratively "inscribed on the heart" as I was trying to make in the comments to my answer. The point is that humanism is compatible with both a creator and the lack of a creator, because it makes no particular claims about where we as humans came from. It probably does deny original sin, but original sin is only a relevant "dogma" to adherents of Christianity. I don't understand how it poses a problem for non-theists. Jul 6, 2011 at 0:24

5 Answers 5


No, humanism does not, in any way, necessitate relativism. They are completely different philosophies. In fact, I'm not sure that I can even imagine a way in which humanism would imply relativism.

One thing to get straight at the outset is a definition of "humanism". There are at least two major ideologies that typically fall under the umbrella of humanism. First is secular humanism, which is probably the one you're thinking of when you talk about "humanism". Secular humanism tends to justify action in terms of human reason, ethics, and justice. And in doing so, it naturally denounces religious dogma, superstition, and other things that could be considered "pseudo-science". However, it does not prescribe a particular code or system of ethics, and many philosophers who fall into the "humanist" camp have strongly believed in universal moral standards, exactly the opposite of relativism. A few examples of such thinkers might be: Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls. Certainly, secular humanism can be seen as incompatible with a strong religious faith, on which basis you may take objection to it, but it certainly is not incompatible with objectivism (with a little O), the idea that there is a universal system of ethics accessible to all.

Another common branch of humanism is religious humanism, which actually attempts to integrate humanism with religious ideals. Religious humanism is fairly straight-forward: it places the focus on the human being, affirming the individual dignity and worth of all people, just like the name naïvely implies. Certainly this could be compatible with religious teachings. Søren Kierkegaard is a famous "Christian Existential Humanist".

Beyond these two specific disciplines, you'll also see "humanism" applied generically to any philosophy that places the primary focus on human beings, as opposed to society at large or organized religion. But again, the idea that different cultures have different ideas about morality and ethical principles, and that those ideals are equally as valid as any other culture's ideals, is not implied by this line of thinking. Neither is the relativist tenant that there is no absolute truth or validity. In fact, a humanist could argue that human intuition, reason, and moral virtue are themselves absolute truths!

But beyond that, it appears that your confusion (and the confusion of whomever wrote the article you are quoting) stems mainly from the notion that atheism (or the rejection of organized religion) implies relativism, absent or beyond its humanist affiliations. That is also quite incorrect (albeit quite a common fallacy that religious scholars succumb to).

The flaw lies in thinking that the only possible source for an objective morality is from [a] God. While that's certainly one possible source, and even a good source, it's far from the only possible source. Humanists, as I hinted above, would argue that human rationality, intuition, and logic are the sources for morality, and since all humans share these faculties, such a moral framework would be objectively shared across all humanity.

There is an entire world of philosophers who don't necessarily believe in the existence of a supreme being, yet believe in objective morality. The one who makes this position most persuasively is probably Shelly Kagan, a contemporary moral philosopher. And other philosophers have even argued (this is Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma) that objective morality cannot be based on God, even if both are granted to exist.

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    @Peter: No, you're conflating relativism with humanism. It doesn't say that intuition, reason, and moral virtue are the product of "many different people's wills". It says that they're innate to all humans. Humanism argues that there is an innate goodness in all humans, and that that goodness forms the basis of objective morality. We can determine what is right or wrong by appealing to universal human qualities like rationality. This is based in the commonality of the human condition. Humanism doesn't talk about differing moral systems of individual cultures or even individual persons. Jul 1, 2011 at 14:23
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    Of course, it bears mentioning explicitly that while there certainly are humanists who are also atheists (the quotation you cite provides John Dewey as an example), that does not logically imply that all humanists are atheists (I provided the counter-example of Søren Kierkegaard). And similarly, the fact that some humanists may also be moral relativists does not imply that all humanists are. This is the problem with broad labels like "humanism" et. al. It implies that everyone to whom those labels get applied think in homogeneous ways. Convenient, but not necessarily true. Jul 1, 2011 at 14:31
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    @Peter: Hmm, I don't recall saying anything about evolution. It really seems like you're bringing a dogmatic religious background into this. And I say that as someone who both A) hates humanism and B) believes in God. Not all humanists believe in evolution. Nor do they all reject the existence of [a] God. And the argument here is not a scientific one. If anything, it's a touchy-feely one. It's merely that there's an inherent goodness that exists in all humans. We know it because we know that humans are different, they're special. In that way, it's not that much different than Christianity. Jul 1, 2011 at 14:32
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    @Peter: No worries, you're not going to offend me. In response to your question, I'd say that our common moral framework comes from our very nature as humans. Maybe we have a soul, maybe we don't. Where this comes from has absolutely nothing to do with humanism. That's why it's compatible with both theism and atheism. Those are what consider the question of where this innate human morality actually come from. A humanist just recognizes it, and places it at the center of moral valuations. There's no real metaphysical outlook implied in humanism. Jul 1, 2011 at 14:38
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    Humanism and relativism are not related as necessary consequences of the other (that is I buy your answer), but they do tend to come together, along with other renaissance-like ideas like skepticism, tolerance, rationalism, and scientific reasoning. Why they tend to come together is another essay.
    – Mitch
    Jul 1, 2011 at 14:58

For the moment, assume that there is a God and that He approves of and commands that which is morally right. In a question first raised by Plato in the Euthyphro, one can still inquire which way the conceptual priority runs:

  • God's approving of X is what makes X be right, or
  • X is right, God recognizes that, and approves of X for that reason.

If one adopts the first alternative, then God's approvals and disapprovals are constitutive of right and wrong. On the second, there are (somehow) facts about right and wrong that are not conceptually dependent upon God's commands and approvals.

The first alternation is the Divine Command Theory of morality. It is, within the Christian tradition at least, a decidedly minority view. It has several serious problems:

  • It makes right and wrong arbitrary. On the view, God's approvals are not tracking some independent good. Thus, God literally had no reason for approving of this or that; it is just what He happened to approve of. Had God approved of the torture of infants, then infant torture would be right. (An adherent of the Divine Command Theory cannot consistently say "But God wouldn't approve of such a horrible thing!" as that invites the question as to how or why it is horrible conceptually prior to the divine approvals.)

  • It makes right and wrong hostage to God's change of mind. Were God to begin to feel differently, different things would become right and wrong. (Admittedly, on many religious accounts, God is eternal and unchanging, so this would not arise.)

  • It makes it impossible to say "God is good" in a meaningful way. If God's approvals constitute the good, unsurprisingly, God scores well on the question of goodness; it could not be other, provided that God is minimally coherent.

  • It gives the wrong sorts of reasons for actions being right and wrong. Let us assume that God does disapprove of the torture of infants. Well and good. But, presumably the reasons that the torture of infants is wrong include the pain and suffering it causes and the gross violation of human dignity that it involves. I surely would expect a genuinely good deity to disapprove of it; anyone who shares that very expectation reveals that they think of infant torture as genuinely wrong and of God's disapproval of such torture as reflective of a truth of its moral status rather than as constitutive of such a truth.

So, on any religious view (such as most denominations of Christianity and some schools of thought in Islam) that rejects the Divine Command Theory, there needs to be some alternative account of what makes the good good. The Natural Law tradition is one such attempt, though both as it still gives God an important role and because of various serious objections, it is not widely accepted outside of Roman Catholicism and is not a serious option for the Humanist.

All is not lost, however. Both Utilitarianism and Kantian ethics attempt to provide non-theistic means to ground a notion of good. Utilitarianism proceeds by observing that we do value pleasure and the absence of pain, argues that these are the ultimate ends for which we act, and then argues that the extent to which actions meant the ultimate ends for which we act and which we do value as good is the rational basis for a test of the goodness of actions. Kantian ethics attempts to ground a conception of the good action in terms of rational conduct, arguing that to act on a rule that could not consistently be wished to be a universally accepted rule is to act incoherently and thus wrongly. Both Kantianism and Utilitarianism can be developed in ways consistent with a religious faith and in ways consistent with atheism. There are of course other candidate accounts of morality, too.

So, there is no necessary path from "There is no God" to "Everything is permitted." Yes, the questions as to what is right and wrong absent God are hard. But they are exactly as hard as the real question as to why the right is right that the religious person faces unless they adopt the unsatisfactory Divine Command Theory of morality.

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    This is a good answer, but I think you're answering a different question.. Jul 1, 2011 at 19:13
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    @Brendan: While I was aiming to motivate the claim that the issue of relativism is orthogonal to that of theism by pointing out that the theist either has to embrace an unsatisfactory theory or face just the same problems as the atheistic non-relativist, I don't entirely disagree with your remark :-)
    – vanden
    Jul 1, 2011 at 21:36
  • So is Humanism like Natural Law, except God doesn't right the laws, they're just pretty much there? Jul 1, 2011 at 21:42
  • @Peter Turner: Not necessarily. A utilitarian humanist would say that determining what is right stems from evaluating how beneficial the results of an action are. So for him, morals come not from God but from this postulate. Aug 9, 2011 at 19:44

Both the terms you use, 'humanism' and 'moral relativism', have several meanings but a manageable discussion is still possible - and useful.

You interpret 'humanism' as a view that excludes the existence of God or, if God exists, excludes any role for God in moral discourse.

'Moral relativism' I take to be a view about the meaning or more usually the truth-status of moral claims, the idea being that such claims derive whatever meaning they have, or whatever warrant they have, from specific socio-cultural practices or institutions.

This implies that moral claims have no warrant, no truth, by virtue of correspondence with, or any other relation to, moral properties existing in an independent moral reality - a reality independent of any stance we may take towards it.

It is logically perfectly possible for a humanist to hold the meta-ethical view (moral realism) that there are moral properties existing in an independent moral reality - a reality independent of any stance we may take towards it. This reality can, so far as logic goes, exist not only independently of ourselves but of God as well. Perhaps such properties are intrinsic to a universe - a reality - uncreated by God. There is no contradiction between this suppposition and humanism.

It follows that since humanism is consistent with moral realism, it does not necessitate - logically imply - moral relativism in the sense defined.


There are different flavours of humanism; for example Tagorean humanism, is more aligned with a religious sensibility, in the sense of say, Emersonian Transcendentalism or the Perennialism of Nasr.

The Secular humanist tradition - a European development - was argued to lead to moral relativism; and a riposte to this thesis was composed by Sartre in his Letter on Humanism.

The question here is why such a development lead to such a thesis? Classically, both in philosophy though Plato, and in Christian Theology; and as affirmed by Wittgenstein:

A value that is a real value ... cannot be in the world

That is some impersonal authority for morality is shown to be required; and the authority for this, for Plato lies in the Good, and for the theologist, in God, by revelation.

With the turn towards the human subject as the true subject, that is the only real subject; one has to affirm the human subject as an actual authority for moral law; an early modern attempt to do this is by Kant, who by his categorical imperative, turns each and every human subject into a possible legislator of moral law.


I do believe so. To me the main problem with SECULAR Humanism, which I think is what the OP is referring to, is that it holds to the intrinsic worth of human lives and yet under a naturalistic world view there simply is no basis for it. In the end they hold to a morality and then deny the very source that makes such a morality possible.

If we are to hold true to the teachings of naturalism, then it would be better to deny questions of morality all together. Or, in other words, if God dies then questions of morality die with God.

Should that happen, we would all just be animals, slaves to our evolutionary programming, fighting for survival, all to return to the primordial ooze from whence we came. As animals we are not burdened with questions of what is good or bad. We only know of what is.

PS. The OP should make the distinction between humanism which could be held by a religious person and secular humanism which is incompatible with religion. It is a rather important distinction.

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    I think morality can be derived merely from having priorities. The secular humanist does have priorities: that which makes them a humanist, rather than some other variety of atheist. Just because one believes in naturalism as a way of investigating the "is", does not mean that one can dispense with all questions of "ought" which dictate how best to go about operating in the world however one finds it. (Indeed, one might say that choosing naturalism as a philosophy can only come about as a moral choice, because naturalism cannot motivate why you should choose naturalism as an epistemology.) Nov 7, 2013 at 15:42
  • Is disagreeing with me really cause for a down vote?
    – Neil Meyer
    Nov 7, 2013 at 17:13
  • If you would provide support for your claim that adopting naturalism should entail a rejection of all means of founding a morality, e.g. in the literature, I'll retract it. Nov 7, 2013 at 17:35

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