Humanism Course III
Ethics and Aesthetics

Ethics and Aesthetics

Humanism is in essence both a personal and communal search for how to live a meaningful, purposeful life within a naturalistic understanding of reality. Humanists think that reason and community are the surest ways to determine individual and communal values. What “reason” is and what “community” means are not always well articulated, however, and finding a fuller articulation of these terms is what this course is about.

Each of us uses symbols in our attempts to perceive, construct, and understand our maps of reality. This is true in the arts, the sciences, and in philosophies. Some symbols we choose; and some symbols choose us. (Or, more accurately, some symbols are forced upon us.) We live lives saturated in symbols, from national flags to images for the cosmos and divinity. To find lives of meaning and purpose, humanists and freethinkers must examine this matrix of symbols.

It an attempt to achieve this goal, philosophers have long combined speculation on ethics and aesthetics under the heading of a field of study called axiology (axia is Greek, meaning “value” or “worth” and logos, the study of).

Some actions are “good;” some are “bad.” Some sense perceptions are “good;” some are “bad.” Some works of art are “good;” some are “bad.” Our awareness of how we make these determinations matters. Exploring this process constitutes an examined life worth living. Any concept, object, or action that can be judged “good” or “bad” falls into the category of axiology.

To oversimplify, theories of ethics have generally divided between deontology ( and consequentialism ( These two extremes rest on the question of whether ethical behavior is set in stone or if ethical behavior can be discovered only in individual, actual situations.

Recently philosophers have nuanced these traditional categories, developing virtue ethics ( and care ethics (, viewpoints highly important to humanists.

Humanism and freethought have tended to be iconoclastic, but in an age of fragmentation, might humanists and freethinkers be the people best positioned to piece together multicultural and multifaith relationships across religious and philosophical divides? The health of a worldview is demonstrated in the ability of its practitioners to be self-aware and self-critical.

As a people aware of our use of symbols and our choices concerning meaning and purpose in a naturalistic reality, we are uniquely positioned to fashion lives in which we use symbols as tools of meaning-making without falling prey to the pitfalls of assumption.

Students will consider these questions in the context of ethics, aesthetics, leadership, and rituals.