Ask a Humanist: Is there objective truth or morality?

Yes – I believe there is such a thing as an objective truth. No – I don’t believe in the existence of an objective morality.

Things are truth if they accord with fact and/or reality. Meaning, things are objectively true if they can be proven to be true using the tools of science.

Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it.”  Amen for that. So yes, as a Humanist I recognize that there are objective truths that can be known and it is helpful for us to know what is true.

The reason it is helpful for us to know what is true and what isn’t is because – what is true impacts our moral judgements.

The 2nd part of this question is – is there an objective morality. To me, as a Humanist, the answer is no. Ultimately – in the grand scheme of things and on the scale of the universe – NONE of our actions really matter. We are all going to end up dead and eventually have our atoms destroyed and reborn in a stellar explosion. 

As Rick in Casablanca points out, “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you'll understand that.”

Some people view this – rejection of objective morality as license to do anything you want. It isn’t. It’s just an acknowledgement of the absurd reality we find ourselves in. On the one hand – morality matters greatly to us in the here and now because of the impact our actions have on us in the here and now. And … they don’t matter at all in the grand scheme of things.

Blaise Pascal once wrote, “A man does not show his greatness by being at one extremity, but rather by touching both at once.”  This is especially true of morality.

We can both understand that our actions don’t ultimately matter and understand that they matter greatly right now.  Understanding that both are true is to be enlightened. It helps you to think and act morally while not being uptight about morality.

Why, given the ultimately futility of all moral activity, does it matter to be moral. The answer is because it impacts your life and the life of others right now.  All lives end at some point. The challenge is – how to live life well and fully. The answer, according to every major religion and philosopher is to live a life of compassion geared towards helping others. Why? Why not.  You are only alive for a short people of time. Why not act in a way that makes your life better and the lives of others better? It sure beats the alternative.

To learn more – get my book – The Humanist Approach to Happiness – or take my life skills course – Living Made Simpler. 

Economic theory applied to the problem of harassment

I was recently in New Delhi for a Happy Workplace Conclave #HyWe2018 – organized by my new friend Mukund Trivedy.  One of the speakers, Adam Cox, a strategist who sits on several executive boards, said that corporate culture is set by the last person promoted. He’s right and that has a direct impact on why harassment is still a problem despite everyone for years knowing that it’s a problem.
So how do we fix it?  By applying science. While I focus on teaching how to use behavioral science to fix the problem, economic theories can also help. 

Here is an article that does just that – it claims that the next Harvey Weinstein can be stopped using the theories of Nobel Prize Winning Economist Richard Thaler.

 The article is worth reading, but it comes down to how we encourage behavior we want and discourage behavior we don’t want. Which brings us back to my specialty – behavioral science.  Basically – you reward the behavior you want. Provide nudges and reminders of the behavior you want. Reminders about the expected behaviors you want etc etc etc.

The article rightly points out that since 75% of women report being harassed, instead of thinking it doesn’t happen and designing your processes for one off complaints. Expect it to happen and build stopping it from happening and reporting it when it does – into your processes.
But even that won’t be enough.  From the article.

“Ultimately, no reporting mechanism works unless the organization takes action when incidents are reported. One of the dispiriting lessons of Fox News—where O’Reilly and Ailes allegedly harassed women for years—is that the patterns of abuse were widely known by employees who had no faith the company would act. Organizations send messages about the behavior they value by who they choose to promote, and who they let go, says Amy Wrzesniewski, an organizational-behavior professor at the Yale School of Management.”

Which brings me back to Adam Cox – the culture is set by the last person promoted.
If there is a behavior happening in the workplace – it’s there because it’s being rewarded. If you don’t like the behavior – you need to understand that – it’s being rewarded somehow and if you want to fix it – you need to change your rewards and incentives so that you reward the behavior you want – like reporting. And create disincentives to the behavior you don’t want - like harassment. 

Don’t assume your incentives are working the way you want them to.  Perverse incentives come from well-intention-ed people.  If you aren’t getting the results you want – there is a problem with your incentives. Period.

To learn more – take my comprehensive program – Workplace Bullying for HR professionals (or for lawyers).

How do humanists explain evil?

This may seem odd, but I’m not sure that Humanists have a concept of evil. Instead, we view behavior as self-motivated and either adaptive or maladaptive. That doesn’t mean we are moral relativists, it’s more that we view bad behavior through a more compassionate or understanding lens. Let me explain.

I don’t think of people as being evil. But I do judge behavior as good or bad.  I don’t think people wake up and think – today I’m going to do evil, though they may indeed act in a way that harms others.

So let’s start with morality. Good vs bad is a moral judgement. As a Humanist, I judge something as good if it helps people and bad if it hurts people. If it hurts a LOT of people, it’s REALLY bad.  The impact can be so bad that it is easy to view the behavior or action as evil.

But does that mean the person who took that action is evil?  That’s harder for me to accept. Most people don’t chose to do bad. They do bad things because they are trying to do good things. That isn’t an excuse obviously, but it is a way to understand human behavior.

I also think it isn’t helpful to view people as “evil.”  Labeling people as evil is a way to dehumanize them. This may help us in the moment emotionally distance ourselves from behavior we find abhorrent, but I think dehumanizing people does way more harm than good.

When we understand people’s choices as being rational to whatever ideas they hold, we then admit that we could be them.  That’s scary for a lot of people. But for me, recognizing that I too could have gone down that path – there but for fortune – helps me to recommit to not going down that path, whatever that path was/is.

The point is – as a Humanist, I don’t have a conception of evil even though I can look at certain actions as being evil.  How do people do things that are horrendously bad? Because they convinced themselves it was the right thing to do.  Even Hitler thought he was doing something good.
The onus is on us as individuals to make sure we don’t fall prey to bad thinking which results in bad actions which cause harm.  It is our responsibility to make sure we actually do good things and don’t accidently do bad things while thinking we are doing good.

Is this easy to do? No. But it’s our responsibility and we have no one else to blame. And that’s – a good thing.

To learn more - get a free copy of my book: Jen Hancock's Handy Humanism Handbook

Great Leaders May Need Translators

Scientific American published an article on the science of why people dislike really smart leaders. It turns out - they may need translators.

Here is a link to the article:

It turns out that people with IQs higher than 120 are often rated as ineffective leaders by their teams. The problem is high IQ people - are REALLY valuable because they are often really good at problem solving and organizing and juggling lots of things simultaneously. Their brains are simply - really agile.

As with all leadership, if people don't like or don't understand the leader, then they won't follow and there will be problems.   Part of the problem may be that staff and teams may not understand what the solution is that the leader is proposing because - they can't follow the thinking of the leader - because they think so differently than people with IQs in the normal range.

Another problem may be that someone with a high IQ is so busy thinking, they aren't really concerned with the social aspects of leading. But it's the social aspects that help people trust the leader.

So what is the solution?  It may be that high IQ leaders need a translator. Someone who can explain the thinking of the high IQ person in a way that normal people understand so that they can follow it and understand why it will work.

Another reason for the translator is to help fill in the gaps in the social skills. My niece was recently hired to work at a hospital where she is - essentially - the social skills translator for her boss. Her boss can focus on the stuff she's good at. And my niece's job is to get to know people on staff, and support them so  that the staff feel valued and like they matter.

Great thinkers may not be great at the social aspects of a leadership job - but we still need their problem solving abilities to be recognized. Understanding our limitations as leaders can help us hire support people to manage the interpersonal relationships critical to creating successful teams.

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