Humanianity: From authoritarian ethics to rational ethics based upon the HUEP

Van Fleet, Bill | October 26, 2017 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF


We hear more and more frequently that our species is affecting our planet (nonliving and living things, including ourselves) in ways that are highly dangerous to our species, and life in general. These negative effects are the outcomes of things that we do, individually and as groups. The list of these dangerous activities and their effects does not have to be repeated here. What needs to be discussed is what we can do about what is happening.

If our primary, basic, important wish is that our species not only survive, but also behave in ways that make for as good a life as possible for everyone, then we must figure out what it is that we should do to accomplish that and agree to do it. The current situation is that even though we increasingly are figuring out what we are able to do that will increase the odds of fulfilling that wish (with of course much, much more to figure out), we have a major problem in agreeing to what we should do and therefore in working together optimally to do it.

The best term for that set of beliefs as to what we should (and should not) do is “ethical beliefs.” And if that set of ethical beliefs has any coherence to it, we could call it an “ethical philosophy.”

Perhaps all of us have, to some extent, a basic ethical philosophy, or set of basic beliefs that guides us to make many of our specific decisions. What we have as a species, however, is no generally agreed upon basic ethical philosophy. Instead, we have highly conflicting basic ethical philosophies that vary among individuals and among our many groups (from families to nations). And those philosophies (individual and group), if put into words, suffer from much ambiguity due to our “poetic” (e.g., metaphoric) language, that can easily be made to have more than one meaning.

All of this results in our species being extremely fragmented, disorganized, and conflictual. Consequently, we see a marked inability to arrive at enough agreement to rapidly make decisions, many of which are extremely important for us to make as soon as possible. If we look at decision-making that we call “political,” we can easily note how slowly and unreliably we arrive at needed political decisions. Not only that, history demonstrates multiple times over how differences of opinion about what we should and should not do can lead to aggression, even to the extent of war and genocide.

Our species needs not only to continue working on figuring out what we can do to save and benefit ourselves, but also to continue working on our ways of arriving at our ethical beliefs, such as to become a much more ethically unified species. (We of course will never arrive at complete agreement about everything, but always working toward that goal will carry us further than being complacent about our currently enormous disagreement.)

It has always been true that our primary sociocultural activity designed for the purpose of working on our ethics has been that set of activities that we have labeled “religion.” But our religions have so far been quite ineffective in the production of a unified basic ethical philosophy for our species.

The ethics that comes to us naturally through evolution is “authoritarian ethics,” based upon obedience to the most powerful. Thus, historically we have tended to legitimize our ethics by claiming that what we should do is what God wants us to do. However, there has never been agreement (nor is there likely to be in the foreseeable future) about whether there is a God or not, or if there is, what that God is like, or what that God would like us to do, if anything. Because there has never been any such authority agreed upon by everyone, we have had multiple religions that have kept us divided and sometimes even in conflict. This has even given religion somewhat of a bad name, with the growing belief that our religions have been more of a problem than a solution. Some have regarded religion as something to be “stamped out” (or allowed to die out), with no alternative sociocultural activity that is specifically designed for working on our ethics and that is also generally available and even sometimes expected.

The more appropriate alternative, I think, is the improvement of religion. Indeed, our species is gradually maturing, and so can and are its religions. This improvement in religion would be, I propose, the development of “rational-ethical religion” (as opposed to our naturally occurring “authoritarian-ethical religion”).

Rational ethics is ethics in which the legitimization of beliefs is based upon logical consistency within the set of beliefs and based upon beliefs considered most likely to be accurate, especially when utilizing the rules of evidence.  (The epitome of the “rules of evidence” is the set of scientific methods, that have demonstrated success by virtue of our enormously increased ability to predict outcomes and therefore to do amazing things.)

In addition to becoming more rational-ethical, our religions will need to help us work on cooperation and organization based upon the social contract for the benefit of all (as opposed to obedience to the most powerful). I believe that this is actually occurring, but such change is very, very early in its development.  A term I have devised for that movement within our religions, and within our species in general, is “Humanianity.” It is not only the transition from authoritarian ethics to rational ethics, but also the increasing adoption of an “ultimate ethical principle,” namely, the Humanian Ultimate Ethical Principle (HUEP).  I will now explain the appearance and function of this ultimate ethical principle.

In rational ethics, the legitimization of a specific ethical belief would be the demonstration that it follows logically from a higher level, or broader, ethical belief (rule of conduct or principle) and one or more accurate existential beliefs (about existence and how it works). (“I should not cause needless suffering. Stealing causes needless suffering. Therefore, I should not steal.”)

In a complete rational system, then, with each ethical principle being legitimized by demonstration of consistency with a still higher level, or broader, ethical principle, it is apparent that there would be “at the top” an ultimate ethical principle that could not be further so legitimized, and therefore would be in that sense “arbitrary.”  It would be based upon something other than that it follows from an even higher level, or broader, ethical principle.  So, what could that ultimate ethical principle be?

The wording that I would propose for the optimal ultimate ethical principle for our species would be the Humanian Ultimate Ethical Principle (HUEP), namely, that:

“We should do that which will promote not only the survival of our species, but also as much joy, contentment, and appreciation as possible and as little pain, suffering, disability, and early death as possible, for everyone, now and in the future.”

I see this ultimate principle as beginning to emerge, but as being very early in that process.  We humans still remain primarily authoritarian-ethical, and prone to divide up into our groups that are somewhat obedient to their powerful leaders, human or theistic.

But in order to live according to this HUEP, we have to figure out the most basic and effective ways of working together on arriving at our more specific ethical beliefs. We are faced with the current situation that we have widespread difference of opinion, making ultimate decision-making extremely difficult and often based upon the relative power of various individuals and groups, thus resorting back to authoritarian ethics. Given this situation, what is the most important ethical principle –consistent with the HUEP– having to do with the decision-making process and involving a dramatically different methodology than what we have always tended to use?

I believe that it involves a commitment (and a commitment to advocate for that commitment) to continuing, non-hostile discussion of any issues having bearing upon our quality of life, no matter how long it takes, with the goal of ultimate agreement through increasing, agreed-upon understanding of the reasons for any disagreement and satisfactory resolution of the problems that are the cause of those reasons.

Note that this approach is drastically different from that which is almost always followed in the case of significant disagreement, namely, ending of discussion as being “nonproductive,” usually preceded by the development of anger and often by the development of hostile behavior, and followed by psychological, social, or physical distancing, along with a significant tendency toward conflict that is on a continuum that even can progress to murder, war, and genocide.  This resistance to continuing increasingly in-depth discussion in response to difference of opinion (belief) is profound, and is, I think, quite possibly the biggest challenge our species faces.  It prevents the very thing that is most needed if we are to work together cooperatively as a species, in behalf of our species.

This whole concept is elaborated upon in the website for Humanianity (humanianity.com), where there are tools provided to work on achieving this transition as rapidly as possible.  For an analysis of the above described resistance, which I believe is our biggest challenge, this page of the website is most relevant: Humanianity, Our Challenge.


The MAHB Blog is a venture of the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere. Questions should be directed to joan@mahbonline.org

MAHB Blog: https://mahb.stanford.edu/blog/humanianity/

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The views and opinions expressed through the MAHB Website are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect an official position of the MAHB. The MAHB aims to share a range of perspectives and welcomes the discussions that they prompt.
  • john weyland

    hi bill, assuming we co-operate, please read my post in the forum “co-operative and informed public”, it’s on page 3 of the list of fora.

    • Bill Van Fleet

      I have been unable to find it. Also, some of my responses to you have disappeared, even though you have replied to them. Can you find out what is happening. I will appreciate that as I have appreciated your responses to me.

      • Hello John and Bill, thank you both for your patience with the DISQS commenting system. I believe all comments should be visible below. I am also including here a link to John’s post to the forum (which should now appear at the top of the forum list): Co-operative and Informed Public

  • John Weyland

    as a core, “from authoritarian to rational ethics” is right on!

    but a top-down approach is antithetical. the web is littered with answers, most of them now “web-wrecks”, abandoned years ago. MAHB ran an essay contest, “the best way to …”, but, we didn’t get one agreed way, something to treasure, to polish, to evolve.

    • Bill Van Fleet

      I realize that there have been many, many efforts that have failed. That does not mean to me that our finally living a far better way on this planet than we have ever known so far is an impossibility. But if we are to accomplish that, there will have to be enough of us overcoming such pessimism and working toward that goal. That is my effort. And what can you do? One thing that would seem pretty insignificant at first would be registering in the Humanian Belief Manual and constructing your own Belief Manual, which then everyone else going to the site can see. There is a whole lot to that Belief Manual, and I hope that you will at least check it out and offer your comments. The more people who participate, the more people will join in. If we do get to that far better way of life, I want to be one of those who made it possible by trying, even if the odds are low. It is the continuing effort to work toward agreement that is important, not simply rapid agreement.
      https://humanianity.com/humanianity/humbeliefs.php

      • John Weyland

        you skipped my agreement, and my open utopian bent.
        you told me that my objection to using authoritarian practices to reach ideal human behaviour is pesimistic.
        it has always been my job to ‘save the world’.
        i rarely use the word belief. i objectify knowledge and understanding, and make rules to control my behaviour.
        you stress the importance of agreement, without having shown me any. if you had, you’d have pointed me to the core of agreement reached so far.

        let’s assume you did, to “Humanianity, Our Challenge”.
        i have been improving my morality for 55 years. i still meet ‘ideal’ people, and fully realize that ‘normal’ is bad. i agree with Aristotle that our institutions do not do human well-being, and i’ve observed exacctly how.

        “OUR MISTAKES (Our probably worst set of tendencies.)”

        i will never agree with such nonsense.
        firstly, this ‘blaming the victim’ is the most popular weapon of authoritarians. our behaviour is either caught or taught. winning by brute force is learned as infants. we are prevented from complaining and making our own decisions.
        you and i can have exactly the same genes and, by being raised in a violent or beneficial environment, become opposites, extremely bad and extremely good. it is the social organization that produces the behaviour!

        • Bill Van Fleet

          John Weyland,

          Thank you for your response. It has been helpful. One of the problems in trying to promote our working together as a unified species is our great tendency toward disagreement based upon communication breakdown, based in turn upon the ambiguities of our language and our imperfections in using it. That has happened in our case, I believe. I think that we actually agree on many things, even though it may not look that way to ourselves or others. For instance you helped me see an ambiguity on the CHALLENGE page that can consequently be thought to convey an entirely different meaning that what I intended, such that I am trying to improve what is written there.

          But I will try to respond to each of your points, which will be in [brackets].

          [you skipped my agreement, and my open utopian bent.

          you told me that my objection to using authoritarian practices to reach ideal human behaviour is pesimistic.

          it has always been my job to ‘save the world’.]

          I was referring to what I have observed in general. When I have talked about the possibility of finally coming to a far better way of living on this planet than we have ever known so far, the frequent response is that that is just impossible, because we just are not that way and have never been, as witness all our failures so far. Our failures so far are given as evidence that ultimate success is therefore impossible. And this pessimistic response to what I am proposing leads to complete lack of motivation to explore what I am trying to convey. So in this case, you were talking about the failures in moving from authoritarian ethics to rational ethics (even though you indicated some agreement with regard to the value of doing so), and thus the necessity to retain authoritarian ethics. At least that’s what you seemed to me to be saying. So it seemed to me that your response was indeed what I have come to expect, though it turns out that maybe I misinterpreted what you were saying. And indeed I do not know what you meant when you said, “…but a top-down approach is antithetical…” I hope you will clarify what you meant. (In no way is the Humanian Belief Manual a “top-down approach,” unless by that terminology you are referring to a change beginning with a small number of people and involving more and more people joining in, something I would consider the only possible way.)

          [i rarely use the word belief. i objectify knowledge and understanding, and make rules to control my behaviour.]

          This response, I believe, is based upon our using two quite different meanings of the word “belief.” You seem to regard “belief” as something different than what it means in my previous sentence, or in sentences such as “I believe what you are saying” or “I believe it is raining outside,” or “I believe what you are saying,” or “I believe the earth is not flat,” etc. I am observing, I believe, a general tendency to feel negatively about the word, probably based upon equating “belief” with things like religious beliefs, or something along the lines of “If you believe things, then you are a sheep.” I am using the word with its more general, routine meaning. And “knowledge” and “understanding” mean to me something like the possession of beliefs that are accurate.

          [you stress the importance of agreement, without having shown me any. if you had, you’d have pointed me to the core of agreement reached so far.]

          Here it looks to me like you are thinking that I am referring to some sort of belief system that has a core, or set of assumptions. There is widespread agreement and there is widespread disagreement. If we humans could agree on nothing, we would die, at least most of us would. We have to agree on at least some degree of similarity of meaning of our words. We have to agree upon where things are, how things work, what will be best or at least better, what we should do (at least about certain things), etc. But indeed as far as having a core of agreement that is worldwide, no, of course we don’t. On the other hand, it is very important that we work toward agreement on at least certain things, and that is the effort of entities like MAHB. You might understand what I am referring to better by reading starting at the 10th paragraph in https://www.humanianity.com//homorationalis/hr308.html

          [let’s assume you did, to “Humanianity, Our Challenge”.

          i have been improving my morality for 55 years. i still meet ‘ideal’ people, and fully realize that ‘normal’ is bad. i agree with Aristotle that our institutions do not do human well-being, and i’ve observed exacctly how.]

          Okay, so we probably agree. I am not sure what your point is. It does seem to me that you are saying that we, and our institutions, are bad, as opposed to good, and that such a dichotomy is useful. I would say that there are good things and bad things about us, as individuals and groups, and that it is in our best interest to keep on working on becoming better, as you state you do, and that therefore we do probably agree.

          [“OUR MISTAKES (Our probably worst set of tendencies.)”

          i will never agree with such nonsense.

          firstly, this ‘blaming the victim’ is the most popular weapon of authoritarians. our behaviour is either caught or taught. winning by brute force is learned as infants. we are prevented from complaining and making our own decisions.

          you and i can have exactly the same genes and, by being raised in a violent or beneficial environment, become opposites, extremely bad and extremely good. it is the social organization that produces the behaviour!]

          And here is where I believe that the title you quote above has led you to think that its meaning is entirely different than that intended. My strong impression is that you are thinking that the title should be read as saying, “We make mistakes, and that is the worst thing about us.” That is certainly not what it is meant to convey, which is something more like, “The problem to be described here is a set of tendencies to do certain things that lead to mistakes that often cause some of our worst suffering.” I wanted to use short phrases in the title, partly for aesthetics, but obviously made a mistake. I am rethinking that phrasing. It looks to me like it turned you off from reading that page, because if you had read it, I think you would not have reacted that way to the title, since you would have interpreted it the way it was meant to be interpreted. I thank you for this helpful feedback.

      • John Weyland

        hi bill,
        thank you for engaging. please forgive my emotionality, i fear that i see your missing agreement, but can’t see my own disagreement, and i realize that that could be but one example of what i miss.
        i think that we agree on enough to co-operate, and i think that if we can design an approach that brings about a process of ‘we agree’, it could be generally useful. i think that all should go through roughly the same approach to entrench ownership and commitment, conscientiousness and persistence. it would need to be simple and empowering.
        we are unlikely to succeed otherwise, given the size and complexity of our understanding. crawl before we walk, before we run.
        yours sincerely

        • Bill Van Fleet

          John Weyland,

          Thank you again for your response. I will respond to what you have written, in [brackets]

          [thank you for engaging. please forgive my emotionality,]

          No need. I too am passionate about what I believe.

          [i fear that i see your missing agreement, but can’t see my own disagreement, and i realize that that could be but one example of what i miss.]

          If I am understanding, I too can miss things, and that is why feedback and continued discussion is so important. It leads to deepening understanding, I believe.

          [i think that we agree on enough to co-operate, and i think that if we can design an approach that brings about a process of ‘we agree’, it could be generally useful.]

          Yes, and I would like to explore your ideas, and share mine, regarding that approach.

          [i think that all should go through roughly the same approach to entrench ownership and commitment, conscientiousness and persistence. it would need to be simple and empowering.]

          I agree (except that I’m a little worried about entrenchment). That is what I have been working on, and would like your further ideas. (Mine are on the Humanianity website.)

          [we are unlikely to succeed otherwise, given the size and complexity of our understanding. crawl before we walk, before we run.]

          Yes, I refer to that as our third exponential change, the first having been language and the second science/technology. The third is that of us finally developing a basic ethical philosophy for our species, and I see us as still crawling, but making significant progress toward walking.

  • Dana Visalli

    I concur with Jason; religions are at best a fantasy and at worst a nightmare. I also agree with the general drift of the article; that adherence to external authority is a genetic program which has outlived its usefulness.

    Etienne De La Boetie realized this when he wrote, ‘The Politics of Obedience: A Discourse on Voluntary Servitude’……back in 1552. “The mystery of civil obedience: why do people, in all times and places, obey the commands of government….?”

    A powerful current book on the subject of authority and ethics is ‘The Most Dangerous Super-stition’ by Larkin Rose: “The belief in authority, which includes all belief in “government,” is irrational and self-contradictory; it is contrary to civilization and morality, and constitutes the most dangerous, destructive superstition that has ever existed. Rather than being a force for order and justice, the belief in “authority” is the archenemy of humanity.”

    • Bill Van Fleet

      Remember that there is a difference between “authority” and “authoritarian.” One meaning of “authority” has to do with the degree of knowledge a person or group has. This gets confused with “authority” meaning in charge or in power. Authoritarian ethics is built into our basic animal nature, and is the cause of much pain, suffering, disability, and early death (PSDED). But we need to find much better ways to have those who are knowledgeable in certain fields (are authorities) have more effect on our decision-making processes.
      https://humanianity.com/humanianity/humhome.php?_menu=2#d15

  • Jason G. Brent

    Religion has one and only one purpose—control the minds of Man and exterminate those whose minds cannot be controlled. It is that simple. jbrent6179@aol.com Jason G. Brent

    • Bill Van Fleet

      If you have checked out the Humanianity website, you will see that I have a markedly different view of Religion, which I consider to be of major importance to our species. I am atheistic (but not antagonistic to theism per se), and do not regard theism to be an essential part of Religion (not all Religion is theistic). I wonder if you would check out the website’s discussion of Religion and give your opinions about what it says there:
      https://humanianity.com/humanianity/humhome.php?_menu=2#d13