Humanism Is Associated and Distinct From Humanitarianism

  • Date / 1 July 2024
  • By / Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Credit: Alavari Jeevathol.

Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of “In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal” (ISSN 2369–6885). He is a Freelance, Independent Journalist in good standing with the Canadian Association of Journalists. Email: [email protected].

Dr. Leo Igwe, Gary McLelland, and Victoria Gugenheim sit on a long list of people I greatly love. I wanted to write about something coming up in some of the humanist communities. One of those was the separation of Humanism and humanitarianism, related and distinct. I needed some quotes. When I asked, those three answered.

Many humanist organizations look to acquire funding from providers of grants, especially from national and local contexts in which finances are not readily available. They would make applications. They provide ideas and timelines, looking for legitimate backing. All good, fair, and aboveboard, the framing of the organization becomes the issue.

Fundamentally, they orient themselves as engaged in humanitarianism. If you want funding from humanist organizations, then the work should be for Humanism as a life rather than humanitarianism primarily.

How do these two relate? You can borrow different discipline terminology. Humanism is the moral dimension in an individual being’s world line. As we’re all thespians at this stage of life, we have choices before us. Each has ethical dimensions.

Global Humanism is a group predominantly composed of democratic, ethical, non-theist peaceniks. A natural bowl upon which humanitarian waters can rest and ripple. Humanism is like the pattern of motion. Humanitarianism is the actual water with the ripples or the air with the wind.

Humanism, the values, act as a theoretical framework. An invisible constellation of interrelated principles of action in the world relevant to human beings. As discussed earlier, in some sense, ethics remains inevitable once conscious embodied deliberative action enters the universe.

After begging and pleading a whole one time, humanist artist and body painter Victoria Gugenheim gave a nice coda on that definition. “Humanism is the theory; Humanitarianism should be the practice.”

So here we are, all conscious and such, what gives? Humanism can be more. Humanitarianism can be more.

As Gary McLelland, Chief Executive of Humanists International, said to me, “Humanism is the celebration of our shared human experience, embracing reason, compassion, and the pursuit of knowledge. It’s about recognizing our inherent dignity and worth. Humanitarianism, on the other hand, is the active expression of that Humanism, translating empathy into action to alleviate suffering and promote justice.”

I like that. The idea of using human experience as a metric, compassion as a driver, and reason and the pursuit of knowledge as an expansive sense of exploration of the world. You need evidence of the world. You need sensory experience. You need compassion for other creatures encountered. You need the capacity to reason about it. Those might be European flavours of Humanism translated into humanitarianism, though.

Dr. Leo Igwe is a longtime colleague and a prominent African humanist. What about an African flavour to Humanism?

Igwe, Founder of the humanist movement in Nigeria and Advocacy for Alleged Witches, said, “Humanism is an outlook that accords primary importance to humanity as opposed to divinity or the supernatural while humanitarianism stands for caring for the human being. By this definition to be a humanist one must be an atheist or an agnostic, one must be non theistic. But to be a humanitarian, one can be theistic or nontheistic. Too often, people confuse Humanism with humanitarianism. Some humanitarians mischaracterize themselves as humanists.  This is understandable because both Humanism and humanitarianism resonate with focus and care for the human. Many people turn to humanists or claim to be humanists when when they face difficulties, need asylum or suffer persecutions. Yes humanists care for humanity but Humanism is not humanitarianism. It is important not to conflate Humanism and humanitarianism.”

That is more precise and makes a primary, integral distinction between the necessary non-theistic ingredient to Humanism and the theistically ambiguous, ambivalent, or agnostic input for humanitarianism. In a certain sense, to do humanitarian work is humanist, that’s true.

At the same time, you cannot decouple the individual from the acts. If individuals believe in a god or in doing moral acts they are doing so for the purposes of a god or a higher power, then they are not humanists.

To do a moral act within the framework of Humanism narrows the formulation of humanitarianism to the non-theist. In a way, non-theist humanitarianism doesn’t hope for a Heaven or fear a Hell. It acts in a frame of here-and-now and the non-fantastical. It is a superior ethical frame because it frames within the physical, the natural, and the informational.

The physical reality of the world around us consists of entirely natural laws and the relative reliability of information processing of cognitive beings such as ourselves. I love that. Humanism can provide a frame for humanitarianism but is not humanitarianism; however, when Humanism is needed for humanitarian acts, it provides a superior, more mature foundation for ethical acts without reliance on a supernatural being, whether in the Global North or the Global South.

Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

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