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Review of The Case for Humanism: An Introduction, by Lewis Vaughn, Austin Dacey

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  • The Case for Humanism
  • List Price: $26.95
  • Paperback: 221 pages
  • Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. (October, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 0742513939
The Case for Humanism is co-written by two longtime members of organized humanism, whom together cover the history and premises — if not most of the consequences — of humanism; and, while doing so, present a fairly informative account of this vital living philosophy. The arguments in this text are shared by Dr. Lewis Vaughn (five chapters) — a one time director for the Council for Secular Humanism, and co-author of the brilliant text on critical thinking (with Dr. Theodore Schick), How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age, and by Dr. Austin Dacey (three chapters) — current director of the Center for Inquiry MetroNY and Editor of the philosophical journal, Philo.

Lewis, in laying out the foundations of the “case” in the opening pages of Chapter One, seems to favor a sort of atheistic bravado (mockingly listing several dubious religious or mystical news events), and comes down decisively on the side of science advocacy. These concerns constitute those which most folks who’ve heard anything about humanism already tend to think are most important. This underestimation of humanism in the public square may be due to a lack of dynamic humanist advocacy over the last half-century.

If instead Vaughn and Dacey had actually fully articulated a well-rounded case for humanism, it would have covered arguments beyond science, metaphysics, and religion. Indeed, the conspicuous lack of any references to the four defining documents of modern humanism — the Humanist Manifestos — and a highly truncated discussion of the socio-political consequences of having such a philosophy as humanism, surprised me as both Vaughn and Dacey are quite active in organized humanism. It is unfortunate that when closing the 221 page book, it’s student audience may know more about where humanism came from, and why God doesn’t exist, than about what one can actually do with their lives once embracing the humanistic life-stance.

Vaughn and Dacey begin by making a list of ideals they consider to form the crux of humanism, and then share in defining and, for the most part, defending those ideals. These ideals include affirmations that humans are physical “systems” with minds, but devoid of souls; that humanists are concerned with the here and now, and not the hereafter; that humanists are not controlled by “fate” or supernatural entities; that there is such a thing as objective truth; that there ought to be separation of church and state in democratic societies; and that science is the best method of knowing.

Any good atheist or science advocate would certainly hold these truths to be self-evident, and so they should, but this is humanism 101. Of course in such an introductory textbook, these things must be highlighted and discussed, but only in so far as to build the intended historical and philosophical case for humanism. In other words, science and our skepticism of religious claims are only where we start, not where we end up, as humanists.

Vaughn starts us out with an encapsulated history of humanistic thinking from the Pre-Socratics through the 18th and 19th century’s Enlightenment(s). Dacey then tackles that seemingly elusive question: “What is Human Nature?” He address’s what Vaughn previously listed as number one on his list of humanist ideals … “Human Beings are superior to the rest of nature in their values, powers, and place in the world” … with a certain distaste for the obvious speciesism that statement entails. Dacey seems to argue that though we are more powerful and domineering as compared to the other forms of life on Earth, we certainly are not more worthy of existence simply for those reasons. Dacey is clear that speciesism is not a part of the humanist ethos. Indeed he tackles four different types of anthropocentrism as he defines speciesism this way, “A judgment of action is speciest when it applies different ethical standards to members of another species simply because they are members of a different species, and despite there being no morally relevant difference between them.”

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