Interpersonal Dimensions of Humanism

This is a tough world where our heroic selves emerge from our wounded selves in order to help us survive. Still, studies of what makes humans thrive shows that our intimate relationships are what really matter to us. Deep, trusting, supportive relationships, as vexing as they can be, are what buoy us through the tough times and elevate us in moments of shared exuberance. We all know this. But how often do we forget that, in relationships, supportive intelligence is more important than critical intelligence, forgiveness is more important than retribution, intimacy is more important than being right, and love is more important than knowledge?

All ethical and effective relations begin with empathy. While we have genetic impulses to fear and reject the other “tribe,” humanism’s primary ethical message asks that we widen our natural circles of caring and concern and that we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of each person. This is a prescriptive statement, not a descriptive one; equal moral worth isn’t an entity, it’s a practice that can transform both us and the world.

Ethical Culture leader and humanist Felix Adler’s primary ethical rule was, “Act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in thy self.” I love the challenge of this interpersonal ethical guidepost, as it asks us to forget about vapid intellectual theorizing and moves us toward our own personal responsibility in raising ethical consciousness.

The American poet Edwin Markham captures another view of transformational toleration in his 1913 poem, “Outwitted”:

He drew a circle that shut me out—
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But Love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in.

How can we nurture our best tendencies toward empathy and understanding? How can we speak to those we disagree with and see they are part of our common humanity? How can we acknowledge their equal moral worth and dignity? We must practice.

The 1967 Humanist of the Year Abraham Maslow saw a maturing person evolving out of his or her primary physiological and safety needs, to the social needs of belonging and love, and ultimately to self-actualization. Eventually most mature people move beyond a simple egoism to identify with others’ needs and larger values. It makes us feel good to better others’ lives and is surely better for us, which is why a mature humanism widens our circles of compassion despite our proclivities toward selfishness and tribalism.

In one of Charles Schultz’s famous Peanuts cartoons Lucy tells Linus he can never be a doctor because he doesn’t love mankind, to which Linus responds, “I love mankind … it’s people I can’t stand!!” Studies estimate that only 1 percent of the population can be described as sociopaths who lack empathy, but how can the other 99 percent become more sensitive in their interpersonal affairs? Science can inform us as to what works to develop healthy human relations, but commitment to intentionality in our relations should become part of a lived practice rather than a sterile ideal.

In our commoditized, consumerist culture, human relations become increasingly devalued. Minimizing the benefits of compassion and intimacy, we’re continually told that what’s valuable are the things we can buy—preferably on the spot.

Most humanists seek not only happiness but what the ancient Greeks called eudaemonia, roughly translated as “welfare” or “human flourishing.” We’re rightly committed to the use of reason toward gaining the good life, but to really flourish in our short time here on Earth, it’s our interpersonal connections and all the associated loves, hopes, dreams, and the vulnerabilities within these friendships that give us reference points for meaning and purpose, that help us expand outwards beyond mere egoism towards our highest and noblest aspirations. There is no identity of self without others.