Being a Humanist

Philip Kotler
5 min readJul 30


The philosophical core of my being is humanism. The movement called Humanism best describes my attitudes and beliefs.

Humanism affirms the freedom and dignity of each human being. Humanism affirms everyone’s ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater common good. Humanism believes in human wellbeing (health and happiness), human autonomy, and human progress.

Humanism is a philosophy that moves away from religious and supernatural beliefs and is grounded in secularism. Humanism relies on science and reason rather than revelation to understand the world. Humanists are strong advocates for human rights, free speech, progressive policies and democracy. Religion is not a precondition for morality. Humans can shape their own values, and live a moral, good and meaningful life.

Humanism has some roots in ancient Greek philosophy. Protagoras proposed that “man is the measure of all things.” Socrates and Aristotle were humanists in their reliance on reason. Finally in the Renaissance period (14th-17th century), mankind transitioned from the Middle Ages to advances in art (Michaelangeo, Leonardo da Vinci), science (Galileo, Copernicus), technology (metal movable type for printing, banking and accounting) and philosophy (rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy). This was followed by the Enlightenment or Age of Reason (the 17th and 18th century, specifically 1715–1789). New ideas flourished such as the pursuit of happiness, sovereignty of reason, the evidence of the senses as the primary sources of knowledge and ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government, and separation of church and state. During this period, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed the moral philosophy of utilitarianism that centered its attention to human happiness and eliminating human and animal pain.

Ethical societies were formed, paving the way for the contemporary humanist movement. The British Humanist Association (BHA) was formed. Humanist organizations flourished in Netherlands, Norway, and other European countries. The American Humanist Association (AHA) was established in 1941. Humanism attracted prominent public figures such as Isaac Asimov, John Dewey, Erich Fromm, Paul Kurtz, and Carl Sagan. Humanist organizations from all continents formed the Humanists International to promote the humanist agenda, via United Nation, UNESCO and UNICEF.

Humanists carry a set of human and nature values. They are against the imposition of one’s culture or religion on another culture. They respect the laws of nature and avoid explanations involving myths or traditions. They are against violence. They seek to eliminate hunger and improve health, housing and education. They favor improving the social conditions of humanity and improving the dignity of all humans.

Humanist traits are found in many countries. Confucius (551–479 BCE) placed a high value on human life and he discounted mysticism and superstition. Confucius emphasized respectfulness, reasonableness, kindness, and enthusiasm for learning. A person could achieve nobleness through education. Confucius advised people “what you would not want for yourself, do not do to others” which is an early form of the Golden Rule.

Every philosophical movement is likely to draw critics. Religious people of a fundamentalist mindset might discriminate against non-believers. They may complain that humanists are agnostic or atheistic and place science over religion. They may complain that humanists emphasize the unity of brain and body in contrast to the belief that the mind is more important than the body. They may complain about humanists who promote gender equality and same sex marriages.

As a humanist, I am often asked questions. Here are some questions and my answers.

1. Can one be moral without accepting a religion? My answer is yes. Humanists accept the wisdom of the Ten Commandments even though they are unaffiliated with any religion. Humanist societies have published manifestos of human values. Dostoevsky’s charge that “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted,” is not accepted by humanists. Evil does exist and humanists would not want everything to be permitted.

2. Is there such a thing as Christian humanism? Humanists accept that Jesus preached a philosophy of love which is essential humanism. They see Jesus as an extraordinary human being, prophet and preacher.

3. Are socialism and communism compatible with humanistic thinking? The original impulse of Karl Marx and his followers was to create an economic and political system to improve the lives of people. Remember that most people were poor and at the mercy of the owners of land and capital who benefitted from keeping people poor and child labor and long hours of work. Marx wanted the poor to rise up and assert their human rights. Socialism was more of a cooperative vision of people working together to advance their conditions. Communism, however, became an authoritarian movement completely contrary to all tenets of humanism.

4. Does humanism lead to moral relativism? If people have the right to autonomy, they have the right to decide and disagree on moral issues.

5. Does humanists have a definite answer to the question of the meaning of life? No. Humanists believe that individuals need to create their own meaning of what life is about.

6. Does humanism provide a definition of the Good Life? Humanism lets each person aim for a good life without hurting others.

7. Do humanists welcome all members, independent of race, religion, or sexual orientation? Yes. Humanists favor a pluralistic society.

8. Is there a difference between a libertarian and a humanist? Yes. A libertarian believes in full liberty for the individual. Libertarians generally favor small government, low taxes, and individualism. By contrast, a humanist believes in concerted social action to uplift lives and society so that more people have the means to lead a full life with health and happiness.

9. Are humanists of a liberal leaning? Yes. Humanism is at odds with conservativism that favors long-standing traditions and that tolerates xenophobia, bigotry, and ultra-nationalism.

10. Is empathy an important ingredient of humanism? Yes. Humanists have different opinions and persuasions. However, they carry empathy, a capacity to understand and respect persons with different views.

11. What are some other facets of humanism? Humanists celebrate self-actualization and creativity. They provide a constant voice supporting secularism, human and civil rights, personal autonomy, religious toleration, multiculturalism, cosmopolitism and progressive policies.

Source: Philip Kotler, My Life as a Humanist, available from Amazon books.



Philip Kotler

Philip Kotler is the S.C. Johnson and Son Distinguished Professor of International Marketing, Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University (emeritus)