Richard Norman On Humanism

15 Mar

This is the kind of book that gives humanism a good name! Delightfully easy to read, and appropriately sensible about the limitations of postmodernism, Norman and I agree around 99% of the time. For example, with my emphases:

…The primary problem for moral motivation, I suggest, is not the problem of selfishness but the problem of partial altruism. What all too often drives people to do terrible things is a limited devotion to particular individuals or a particular group. The gangster is driven by a cade of vendetta to carry out killings for the sake of the honour of his own gang. Besotted lovers will kill for the sake of those they love. The most ruthless and thuggish thieves and murderers will kill anyone who threatens their kids. On a larger scale, fanatics will commit appalling acts of war and terrorism, killing thousands for the sake of their political cause or their religion or their nation. Suicide bombers may be terrifying, but the problem is not their selfishness, and if they were more selfish we might have less reason to be terrified.

As it stands, that is no great comfort. It does not give us reason to be sanguine about the prospect of people behaving well. It does however help us to get clearer about the nature of the problem. The examples of ruthlessness and fanatical behaviour to which I have referred are themselves confirmation of the claim I made earlier in this chapter — that human beings are social beings, who need to identify themselves with others. And it is these characteristics, I have argued, that give us at least the potential to be moral beings.

This gives us some hope. The fact of human nature which is the problem for moral motivation is also, at least potentially, the solution. Most human beings are capable of imaginative identification with others, of sensitivity to the joys and sufferings of others, and of being moved by that awareness. That is, potentially, a capacity to be moved by the joys and sufferings of anyone, but most human beings live within a narrow circle. The only antidote, therefore, is that of a wider experience. It is when we encounter the ‘other’, and recognise that he or she, whom we had excluded as less than fully human, as an alien outsider whom we had stereotyped as ‘the enemy’ or ‘the infidel’ or ‘the savage’, is a human being like oneself, that moral insight dawns…

And yes, he ably defends the concept of “human nature” elsewhere in the book without surrendering to either crude absolutism or cultural imperialism.

One more snippet, on relativism, properly understood:

…Because of the confusing ambiguity of the term I would prefer not to call this ‘relativism’. (The term ‘situationalism’ has sometimes been used as a better way of referring to such a position.) However, if that is what is meant by it here, then relativism is something we should embrace. Life is complex, and to ignore the complexity is not an admirable adherence to moral absolutes, it is morally irresponsible.

Along the way Norman is also a considerable literary critic, particularly in reference to Primo Levi, Virginia Woolf, and Graham Swift (Waterland, which I now want to read).

This is a very fine book indeed. See Rob Wheeler reviews On Humanism.

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Posted by on March 15, 2006 in book reviews, British, faith and philosophy, interfaith, Top read


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