“Does Humanism Have an Ethic of Responsibility?”:
Comments by Kai Nielsen & Mihailo Marković,
& Responses by Paul Kurtz

Comment by Kai Nielsen on Kurtz Article

Paul Kurtz well conveys the sense of reasonableness that is embedded in humanistic accounts of ethics and the tragic dilemmas that often are part of the moral life. He also wisely would have us be wary of both absolutism in ethics and relativism and seeks to define a form of objectivism that undermines both absolutism and relativism. My problems about his account turn on Section Four of his essay. I think too much is made of the conflict between egoism and altruism, between self-interest and concern for others. The moral point of view, as Kurt Baier, among others, has powerfully argued in his The Moral Point of View, requires impartiality, not altruism. In moral reflection each is to count for one and none to count for more than one. The moral point of view does not require a denial of the self but willingness on the part of the moral agent to be impartial. He counts his own interests but he need not give them either more or less weight than the interests of anyone else. (This is not negated by the practical, if you will, [27/28] tactical, point that often, since most people know best what their own interests are, we are all better off, if we, in standard circumstances, take care to protect our own interests. There are egoists—that is, amoralists—who do only that or give their interests pride of place over the interests of others, but a moral agent who tends prudently to his own interests does not do that). A recognition of this does not make the moral point of view something which is not universally binding, as Kurtz claims. For the moral agent, for someone committed through and through to doing what he, morally speaking, regards as the right thing to do, there can be no alternative but to accept the moral point of view as universally binding. Indeed, to say this, is to say something which very much appears to be true by definition. The problem about the universal bindingness of the moral point of view emerges around the question, "Why should I be moral?". An amoralist will not find the moral point of view binding at all. He will only use moral conceptions manipulatively to achieve his own ends. But that is not, again by definition, a possible option for a humanist. (That is true, even if we construe humanism, as Kurtz does, in a very broad sense, covering many tendencies of thought).

I also think that Kurtz is unclear about his backing for his general ethical principles. He denies that they are intuitive. But it is hard to know what to make of his claim that they are "naturalistic and empirical phenomena." Indeed it is at least plausible to believe that they have arisen because of common human needs and necessities, but their origin does not decide the question of what their present status is. Religious notions also arise out of needs, as Feuerbach and Freud show, but this does not make religious statements empirical statements. "Have regard for others," unlike "People tend to have regard for others," does not appear to be an empirical claim which is true or false in the same way the second quoted remark is. "People must have concern for others" seems to be no more an empirical statement of fact than "Have regard for others." How we would establish its truth is unclear. How, more generally, we would establish the truth or warrantability of fundamental or general ethical principles is left quite mysterious by Kurtz. It is this problem, among others, that I tried to deepen and confront in my own essay.

Finally, Kurtz is unfair to Marxists, at least Marxists who have views like those of Marx or Engels. They do not wish to "usher in a utopian system of ideal values." Indeed their critique of utopian socialism makes it quite plain why they think that is a mistake. Furthermore, Marx, Engels, and Lenin, as one can see from their criticisms of the Anarchists, were definitely against terrorism. With mass support terrorism is unnecessary, indeed just a senseless cruelty. Without that mass support it is worse than pointless, for it will only alienate what may be potential supporters of socialism. [28/29]

Reply by Paul Kurtz to Nielsen

Kai Nielsen opens his essay be recognizing with me the tragic dilemmas that are often part of the moral life and the difficulties that may arise in adjudicating conflicts in obligations between an individual's interests and those of others.

Nielsen raises three objections, particularly to the last section of my paper. First, he thinks that I make too much of the conflict between egoism and altruism. The moral point of view, he says, involves impartiality, not altruism, and is universally binding. Would the problem be so easily resolved, for there is at times a conflict between egoism (or self-interest) on the one hand, and impartiality on the other. Also, many moral philosophers have held that an individual's primary obligation is to his own self-interest or that of his immediate relatives, friends, or countrymen, and not to the generalized other. Libertarians have argued that this indeed is our basic duty and that if each would tend to his own garden before tending to others, we would all be better off; this they maintain is the conclusion that an ethically impartial spectator would reach. Thus, there is some dispute precisely about what an impartial moral observer would find as his first responsibility: universal beneficence vs. concern for his own well-being or those within his immediate sphere of interest. Merely to say that the moral point of view is universally binding is a truism—true by definition—for what may be in dispute is what the moral point of view is.

Professor Nielsen also glosses over the fact that many or most individuals find it difficult or impossible to be completely impartial about matters that concern their vital interests, although they may gladly be impartial about that which concerns others. That is why whatever one's views of impartiality (or altruism) are, we still need to develop a system of moral education to cultivate such a concern, for it is not apparent or axiomatic that individuals will recognize the priority of impartiality.

Nielsen objects to my view that ethical principles are "naturalistic and empirical phenomena." By this I simply meant that they did not have some mysterious ontological status, nor could they be discovered intuitively. To say that they are "empirical" means that they are characteristics of human behavior or institutions that have developed over a long period of time. It does not mean that I deny their prescriptive or normative role, nor believe that they are descriptive assertions. He correctly points out that if ethical principles are empirical, so are religious beliefs and practices: they too are human, not "sacred," phenomena, growing out of human needs and interest. Both ethics and religion are empirical in origin and function. However, the question of how to evaluate ethical principles is another matter and here I would suggest several criteria: (1) the relevance of facts, (2) the analysis of means, (3) the consequences of various courses of action. [29/30] To these, I would consider the relation of any principles under analysis to (4) human needs, (5) existing values, and (6) other prima facie general principles. Ethical principles are practical, they are judged by what they accomplish in the observable world. Some of the criteria by which we judge them are accordingly empirical and pragmatic; but the principles themselves are prescriptive not descriptive in function.

Lastly, Nielsen maintains that I am unfair to Marxists, who, he claims, do not wish to create a utopian system of ideal values and are against terrorism. It is true that Marx was a critic of utopian socialists for being unable to achieve socialism by simply enunciating visionary views of the world. He thought that the only way to bring about socialism was by the use of practical action. In this sense he was a realist rather than a utopianist. But surely Marx—and many of his followers—have been motivated by utopian ideals, for they deplore the fact that justice does not exist in feudal and capitalist societies and they present an ideal picture of a classless society where it would. This is a utopian vision, however unclear Marx was about the exact contours of the society that would ensue after the destruction of capitalism.

To deny that Marxists have defended terrorism as a method of achieving communism and maintaining it against counterrevolution is puzzling. Surely, Lenin used it, as did Trotsky, Stalin, and many other disciples of Marxism. Granted that terrorism may be senseless and counterproductive, democratic socialists have long argued that democratic methods of persuasion must be the chief road to socialism. But Leninists have vigorously opposed this strategy. Indeed, a profound moral tragedy of our time is precisely that Marxist revolutions have been betrayed, that many Marxist revolutionaries who are out of power are willing to use terroristic means to achieve it, and, once in power, to suppress opposition to maintain themselves. It illustrates a chief problem for my paper, namely that a Marxist theory of ideal ends is insufficient without also recognizing the need for a theory of general ethical principles. A basic defect of Marxist theory, in my judgment, is that it has not developed an adequate theory of ethics, largely because of the centrality of the sociological interpretations of history. Ethical standards allegedly reflect the conditions of production and the class structure.

In any case, I do not believe that humanism should be tied to a specific ideology—Marxist, liberal, conservative, or others—but that ethical concerns transcend the limits of politics. This does not deny that we have political convictions and that many ethical issues have social and political solutions. But ethics, like other human interests—art, religion, or science—cannot be reduced to a single ideological-political stance. To attempt to do this would not only impoverish humanism, but make it narrow in focus and banal in meaning. [30/31]

Comment by Mihailo Marković on Kurtz

While the paper of Professor Kurtz is focused on the possibility of building a humanist ethics of responsibility, he also deals with two other issues: (1) the meaning of humanism and humanist morality, (2) the need of moral education. I share his critique of irrationalism, obscurantism, and any form of totalitarian repression. Most of what he says on moral education does not seem controversial to me. Also some of his ethical principles certainly express a minimal basic core of any ethics.

My main difficulties with his paper are first, to reconcile several apparently incompatible things that he says about humanist morality, and, second, to understand what he really means by ethical principles and how he expects to justify them.

In his attempt to characterize humanism and humanist morality, Kurtz has at least two very different positions.

The view that prevails and which probably is the one with which he identifies himself is what he describes as "constructive skepticism." What characterizes this skeptical, minimalistic position is a strong commitment to scientific rationality, secularity, and individual freedom and a rather weak commitment to some kind of "caring" for others (while one pursues his egoistic goals) and to "helping to relieve distress" ("where we are able to do so"). From this point of view the author struggles against religious irrationalism and totalitarianism, but also against Marxist humanism. He seems to be aware that this emphasis on freedom of isolated, unequal individuals may have conservative political and economic implications. But he is ready to defend it philosophically by emphasizing that hate, self-interest, jealousy, and competition are as deeply ingrained in human nature as love, generosity, sympathy, and cooperation, and that, therefore, one should not blame social institutions and laws for so much misery in the human condition. Such a weak anthropological ground turns out to generate a remarkable tolerance toward those who oppress and exploit others. Professor Kurtz actually agrees that "humanists can be as deceitful and nasty, full of pride and moved by the lust for fame and power" as anyone else. It looks almost as if everyone is a humanist who chooses to label himself or herself that way—in the same way as everyone becomes a Christian by joining a church. The concept of humanism becomes quite uninformative and redundant if it does not cover anything more but secular individualism. On that ground one cannot build a very attractive ethics but at least this can be developed as a consistent (traditional liberalist) position.

However, Professor Kurtz in his paper tries to incorporate a number of more attractive moral ideas and these may be shown to be incompatible [31/32] with the ethics of contemporary business and of bourgeois society in general. He says, for example, that humanist ethics "emphasizes independence and self-reliance, the development of one's potentialities, the cultivation of critical intelligence and creative self-actualization. For such autonomous persons an exuberant and full life overflowing with meanings is readily available. This does not deny that our fullest happiness involves other persons and presupposes some harmonious relationships with them."

This is now an essentially different ethical position. Freedom in the sense of "development of one's potentialities" is a very different thing from freedom in the sense of "economizing what one wishes" (which according to Professor Kurtz is a "vital virtue for humanist ethics"). One's potentiality to communicate meaningfully, to reason and act creatively is an objective, universally human, latent structure of dispositions which is present in an individual even after a very unbearable and crippling socialization process. On the other hand, the subjective wishes of a person who was crushed by the misery of the whole social environment may be so limited that "becoming what one wishes—the leader of a gang for example—could turn out to be precisely the opposite of self-realization. Here the author who moves most of the time on traditional liberalist ground of negative freedom (as absence of external impediments to do or become what one actually desires) suddenly assumes the standpoint of positive freedom, of self-realization of an autonomous person. And this is not merely a matter of terminology since he suddenly here speaks of "cultivation of critical intelligence" (rather than mere accumulation of positive specialized knowledge), of "creative self-actualization" (rather than any growth), of an "exuberant and full life overflowing with meanings" (rather than accumulation of wealth and power).

This kind of inconsistency, while logically unacceptable, need not be condemned if one consciously moves from a poorer, more limited position toward a richer more general one. Only one must also accept the implications and make necessary corrections elsewhere. Namely his kind of humanist ethics that is based on the idea of positive freedom (in the sense of self‑realization) is not only extremely critical toward totalitarian, Stalinist society (and all Professor Kurtz’s critical arrows go only in that direction) but also toward capitalist society (the oppressive dehumanizing features have hardly been mentioned in this paper.) The vast majority of human beings in both prevalent forms of contemporary society are utterly dependent, they waste their potential, develop a receptive rather than critical intelligence, produce but not create, and live anything but "exuberant, meaningful lives."

These profound and exciting humanist ethical ideals which express the noblest strivings of our historical epoch, once formulated by Kurtz, [32/33] disappear from the list of his ethical principles. In that list we find elementary duties which constitute the very minimum of any morality (such as "keeping promises," "paying debts," "not cheating and injuring others") or very abstract categorical frameworks which wait to be filled by content ("justice") or vague obligations (such as "attempting to distribute goods as widely as possible"). (How resolutely should one attempt? What doeswidely” mean here?)

It is not clear what is the theoretical status of those principles. At first they are construed as flexible, violable, approximate guides for conduct, as conditional obligations, the fulfillment of which is contingent upon an examination of the given situation. Furthermore, they are regarded as mere "empirical phenomena," "they have developed in social relationships over long periods of time as expression of human needs and necessities, and come to be recognized as imperative in human relationships." From here Professor Kurtz makes a jump and asserts that these are not merely duties but principles, "because we can generalize various kinds of action and recognize that these are general prescriptions, rules, and policies that we ought to observe." It remains quite unclear where this ought comes from. It is one thing to describe a variety of actual historical patterns of conduct and moral habits. It is a completely different thing to make a choice among them and to say that we ought to observe some of them. Why some and not others? If we adopt certain norms merely because they are observable over long periods of time as social facts then either we are ignorant of other incompatible but equally empirically observable moral habits, or we have to adopt a completely relativist approach. In the latter case we can no longer oppose to patriarchal or feudal morality which is equally a matter of empirical fact. On the other hand if their ought does not follow from is, why does it in our ethics? A naturalist, humanist ethics can only be founded on a philosophical theory of human being. Else it lacks any foundation, stops being a (normative) ethical theory and turns into a positive (sociological) description of various existing forms of morality.

Reply by Paul Kurtz to Marković

Mihailo Markovic asks whether the position that I am defending is anything more than a form of "secular individualism." He claims to find this incompatible with other views that I express in my paper, especially my emphasis on creative actualization and moral development. It is clear that humanism has been identified with the classical liberal position. I share [33/34] this libertarian viewpoint. It does not necessarily imply, however, a rampant egoism immune to moral development. This surely was not the case for John Stuart Mill, who was a libertarian humanist and who emphasized the need to develop the higher pleasures: moral, aesthetic and intellectual. Nor was it the case with John Dewey who sought to cultivate growth and democratic values in education. For the liberal humanist freedom in both senses, negative (freedom from) and positive (freedom to), are essential and not incompatible.

Accordingly, I would affirm the need of humanist ethics to develop an appreciation for the moral virtues of caring, helping others, having a regard for justice, nonmalfeasance, beneficence and other basic moral principles. (Incidentally, this is not a distinctively humanist position. Surely Christianity has emphasized the altruistic virtues.) I would also include in my catalogue of moral principles many others, such as fairness, equality, fraternity, etc. Professor Marković is entirely correct that I prize individual freedom—of creatively developed persons—in the last analysis as a central, but not the only, value. Marxists have all too often been willing to sacrifice individual freedom at the altar of Social Reconstruction. The kind of Marxist-humanism which Marković represents has not done this (thus far it has not met with much success); and it has attempted to keep alive an appreciation for human rights and freedom. In my view it is unfortunate that twentieth century humanism had been identified with certain repressive varieties of Marxism. Leninism, Stalinism and Maoism consider themselves to be "humanistic" in so far as they have a "humanitarian" concern for justice and progress, but they have abandoned freedom in the process. In retrospect, I consider Marxist communism to be the opium of the intellectuals and the poison of the masses, for it has led to hatred and intolerance. On balance, it is more destructive of humanist values than most of the systems that it seeks to replace. Humanists have surely not defended the status quo. They have been critics of the inequities of capitalist societies. They have sought to reform societies, to remove obstacles to individual growth, such as poverty and discrimination, to enhance individual development by helping to satisfy basic economic needs and providing for educational and cultural opportunity, and other ameliorative programs. It seems to me to be apparent, based upon the historical evidence thus far, that voluntary pluralistic societies that encourage individual initiative and innovation are more likely to achieve both freedom and a better life for the common man than are controlled totalitarian societies.

Intellectuals in general and humanists in particular have not recognized the moral contributions that democratic capitalism can make to human freedom and well-being. On the contrary, if you eradicate all economic freedom, and centralize control in a state bureaucracy or in a one [34/35] party system, you end up by losing most other freedoms—political, intellectual and cultural. What is the point of dreaming about the theoretical democratic possibilities of an ideal Marxist-humanism when empirical reality vividly demonstrates the opposite.

I reiterate that I do not believe that humanism—as a secular ethic of freedom—should be tied to a specific ideology or even a specific economic, political or social system. If it was humane for humanists to have defended socialism at one period of history as a way to guarantee and enhance freedom, to do so now is questionable, especially in view of what has happened to human rights and freedoms in so-called Marxist societies. Accordingly, one can surely be a humanist today and defend humanistic capitalism. Perhaps other social systems will emerge in the future more appropriate to world conditions, and humanists along with others will need to revise their ideological commitments. The terms "conservative," "liberal," or "bourgeois" meanwhile have lost all identifiable meanings. In one sense, a democratic humanism is still the most radical of ethical postures in so far as it wishes to expand the dimensions of human freedom. Its chief enemies today are authoritarianism and totalitarianism, whether communistic or capitalistic, secularist or ecclesiastical.

Marković's last point concerns obligation. I can find no ultimate basis for ought. I can find no roots for moral principles in God or History, only in human needs, interests and ideals. Obligations can only be tested in the last analysis by their consequences in human experience. In this sense I remain a situationist and pluralist in ethics, though modified 'by my commitment to a set of prima facie ethical principles. I view such ethical principles as the common heritage of the human race, based upon funded experience. That is why I believe that it is vital that they be psychologically grounded in human motivation—in feeling as well as thought—by programs of moral education. While obligations are relative to human situations, they need not be subjective, but are amenable to reflective criticism and can be revised in the light of a process of inquiry. In this sense, the position that I hold is a form of objective relativism.


SOURCE: Humanist Ethics: Dialogue on Basics, edited by Morris B. Storer (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1980), pp. 27-35.

Note: These interchanges follow Kurtz’s article (pp. 11-25), and an interchange between Storer and Kurtz (pp. 25-27). Kurtz's article itself is reprinted in his In Defense of Secular Humanism (Amherst / Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1983), Chapter 11, pp. 91-101. Questia subscribers can access the latter book online.


Historical Praxis as the Ground of Morality
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Human Nature and Present Day Possibilities of Social Development
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Tolerance and Revolution: A Marxist-non-Marxist Humanist Dialogue, edited by Paul Kurtz and Svetozar Stojanović

“Marx and Critical Scientific Thought” by Mihailo Marković

"The Concept of Critique in Social Science" by Mihailo Marković

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part One (Extracts) by Mihailo Marković

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part Two: Linguistic Meaning (Extract) by Mihailo Marković

Dialectical Theory of Meaning: Part Three:
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Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Paul Kurtz and Marxist Humanism @ Reason & Society


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