Is Humanism good enough?

I’ve had some great conversations since my article on sentientism was published in Areo.  As a reminder, sentientism is an ethical philosophy that applies evidence and reason and extends moral consideration to all sentient beings.  Sentient beings have the ability to experience things – suffering or flourishing.  They include humans, non-human animals and potentially artificial or alien intelligences.

One recurring theme of those conversations runs as follows…

“Humanism already does a good enough job. Most humanists do care about non-human animals (~40% are vegan or vegetarian) and we can stretch the humanist concept easily to sentient AIs. Humanists UK already references sentient non-human animals in its definition. The term humanism only applies to the objects – we can and do extend our concern to non-human subjects. Humanism is already a reasonably well organised movement via the IHEU and national organisations. Humanism is a simpler term and is already widely understood. Sentientism will just confuse people and may fragment an important progressive movement.”

I have a great deal of sympathy with this line of argument.  I see humanism as a critically important force for good that I don’t want to distract from or fragment. That gave me serious pause for thought when deciding whether to put effort into my rather amateur project to popularise sentientism.

The central reason I decided to go ahead was the term humanism itself. While many humanists do extend their circles of concern more widely, the term humanism implies and encourages a focus on one species and gives us all excuses for cognitive dissonance (not that we need any). A few specific symptoms stand out for me: 

• I can only find one IHEU or Humanist organisation campaign that focuses on non-human animals, that re: pre-stunning slaughter.  The campaign does address animal suffering as a factor but seems just as motivated by wanting to avoid privileging supernatural views

• Two of my favourite books ever written (Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now by Steve Pinker) – included a focus on animal cruelty but didn’t emphasise the rapidly increasing, industrial scale suffering caused by animal farming

• While many humanists are vegan or vegetarian, most are not – implying that they cannot even have a base level of moral consideration for sentient animals

• Some humanists use their interpretation of the philosophy to justify mis-treatment of other species to further human ends

• Many humanists struggle to understand that non-human artificial or alien intelligences may eventually warrant moral consideration.

At the very least, I’d like to keep the debate going and maintain a constructive pressure on the humanism movement.  Let me know if you agree.

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