Despite not having set-in-stone commandments to follow, humanists have reflected upon certain principles and creeds that should guide a human life. We can read them, for example, in the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles, a manifesto by philosopher Paul Kurtz, which appears in every issue of Free Inquiry. There is also The Declaration of Modern Humanism by Humanists International.
Among other things, both documents highlight the importance of living an ethical life grounded in reason and compassion, of using reason and wisdom to deal with our earthly problems (such as diseases, environmental issues, and the suffering of humans and other sentient beings), of engaging with the natural world without the mediation of imagined supernatural forces, and of enjoying the one and only life we have (as far as we know) to its fullest.
I would like to add a principle that is related and complementary to the ideas that were put forward by Kurtz and Humanists International and worthy of emphasis on its own merits. It is an idea crafted by the philosopher of education Harvey Siegel in his writings about critical thinking that may sound superficially simple: be appropriately moved by reasons.
Siegel defines a critical thinker as one who is “appropriately moved by reasons,”1 and this can be understood as someone who is skilled in assessing reasons and inclined to adjust the confidence one has in his or her ideas and decisions according to the quality of reasons available at a given moment. In the words of Siegel, “to say that one is appropriately moved by reasons is to say that one believes, judges, and acts in accordance with the probative force with which one’s reasons support one’s beliefs, judgments, and actions.”2
As such, someone can be appropriately moved by reasons when one is able to competently evaluate reasons, has an inclination to do so (Siegel calls these features the “reason assessment component of critical thinking” and the “critical spirit”), and can calibrate the strength of his or her beliefs and confidence in his or her decisions accordingly.
In the scientific context, one interesting example of being appropriately moved by reasons is the admission of a mistake by astronomer Andrew Lyne, as told by philosopher Robert Pennock in his book An Instinct for Truth.3 Lyne was the coauthor of a famous paper that was published in Nature in 1991 that reported the first direct evidence of an exoplanet (a planet outside our solar system), which would have been a major discovery in planetary science. But when Lyne was revising the material that had led to the conclusion presented in the paper for a meeting at the American Astronomical Society (AAS), he realized that his team had made a mistake in the original calculations, and the proposition that they had found an exoplanet did not hold anymore.
The reasons Lyne had in hand led to the conclusion that he and his colleagues were wrong. And he was moved by them, declaring that the research team had made a mistake and that the results presented in the paper were not reliable. He did so at the conference of the AAS, where his fellow astronomers were eager to listen to details of the discovery of the exoplanet. Instead, they were given a practical lesson in scientific integrity and honesty and gave Lyne a standing ovation.
“My Two Sweethearts.” Harry Houdini (1874–1926) with his wife, Beatrice
(1876-1943), and mother, Cecilia Steiner Weiss.
Let us consider a second example, this one outside the realm of pure science. After his mother, Cecilia, passed away, illusionist Harry Houdini was desperate to get in touch with her. Houdini believed in a divinity and in the afterlife, and he thought it might be possible to contact the spirits of the dead. So, he went on in his quest to try to find someone who could be the channel between him and Cecilia.
Houdini writes about his experiences with spiritualist mediums in A Magician among the Spirits, a book that was published in 1924. In the preface of the book, he says: “I believe in a Hereafter and no greater blessing could be bestowed upon me than the opportunity, once again, to speak to my sainted Mother who awaits for me with open arms to press me to her heart in welcome, just as she did when I entered this mundane sphere.”4
Given his beliefs and the despair he felt when Cecilia died, we may presume that Houdini was inclined to believe someone would bring messages from his mother. But he knew that desiring to believe something is different from having good reasons to accept it as true. He acted accordingly.
As a seasoned magician and a great critical thinker, Houdini devised ways to scrutinize the claims of spiritual mediums. He attended seances, observed carefully what the mediums did, and then replicated their performances during which the alleged spirits had appeared. Fellow magicians helped him with the task, and they attended more seances so Houdini could count on their experience and knowledge to figure out what happened during these events.
In the end, Houdini was not convinced. All the reasons presented by spiritual mediums were not good enough to make Houdini think they were able to reach Cecilia. The phenomena that occurred during the seances could be replicated by magicians, and even aspects that at first glance seemed unexplainable (such as when a medium gave very specific personal information about a deceased person) could be better understood in mundane and far more likely ways rather than supernatural ones (e.g., a medium could have secretly accessed the safe in which the family kept documents).
Moved by properly evaluated reasons, Houdini rejected the claims of the spiritualist mediums:
I am willing to be convinced, my mind is open, but the proof must be such as to leave no vestige of doubt that what is claimed to be done is accomplished only through or by supernatural power. So far I have never on any occasion, in all the séances I have attended, seen anything which would lead me to credit a mediumistic performance with supernatural aid, nor have I ever seen anything which has convinced me that it is possible to communicate with those who have passed out of this life.5
Fox and the Shark
A third example that illustrates the concept of being appropriately moved by reasons in action comes from the efforts to protect sharks and spread the understanding of their biology and behavior by a person who almost lost his life after being attacked by a great white shark on the southern coast of Australia. Rodney Fox was a twenty-three-year-old diver who was participating in a spearfishing championship in 1963 when he was caught by a great white. The consequences of the attack are described in Fox’s interviews with the media. When we understand the severity of the bite, it is astonishing to learn that Fox did not die that day. As The Guardian reported:6
“I felt like I’d been hit by a train,” Rodney recalls. “My chest was clamped, like in a vice. I was a bone in a dog’s mouth.” At the time, the attack, by a great white shark, was the worst in which the victim had survived. Rodney suffered shattered ribs, a collapsed lung, a ruptured spleen and deep lacerations that arced from his shoulder to his waist. He had a total of 462 stitches and still has a shark tooth embedded in his wrist.
Not to mention that he also needed ninety stitches in his right hand7 to repair damage to his tendons, fingers, and thumb.8
A few years after the incident, Fox starred in Revenge of a Shark Victim and Attacked by a Killer Shark!, documentaries with real footage in which he pursues sharks to kill them, and in the early 1970s, Fox helped Steven Spielberg with Jaws, a movie that would help foster a fear of sharks all over the world. It seemed Fox would be following an obsession similar to Captain Ahab’s, the protagonist of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, in his hunt for the white sperm whale.
But Fox did not allow vengeance to master him. As he reflected upon his traumatic experience and learned more about the behavior and ecology of sharks, he understood that these animals are not “mad killers.” “It was just a shark,”9 Fox acknowledged, realizing that he was unlucky to be in the same place at the same time with an apex predator that possibly got interested by the large amount of blood in the water due to the fish Fox had just speared.
Fox knew that fear of sharks among the public was (and perhaps still is) more widespread than knowledge about them. Disposed to do his part to change the scenario, he devised a cage in which people could dive near sharks without being threatened and without causing harm to the shark. The cages permit people to have a close look at these extraordinary animals. Later, Fox established The Fox Shark Research Foundation, an institution that gathers scientists and conservationists to advance our understanding of the lives of sharks and educate the public about the important role that sharks play in marine ecosystems. Fox has appeared in documentaries, TV shows, newspapers, magazines, and other media to promote awareness of sharks and educate people about how they are affected by human activities.
Lyne, Houdini, and Fox each tackled different questions, but they had in common a set of cognitive skills for evaluating the relevant reasons behind their respective challenges. Most importantly, they were moved to act upon those reasons: Lyne admitted and corrected the mistake his team had made; Houdini published a book to share his conclusions about the lack of capacity of mediums to contact the dead; and Fox worked to better understand sharks and educate the public about them. They were all appropriately moved by reasons.
What Counts as Wisdom
This is about more than specific claims related to knowledge or ethical issues. The way we conduct our lives, for instance, should also be driven by properly evaluated reasons. As philosopher Julian Baggini reminds us, “Perhaps most of us think too much about how to achieve our life goals without thinking enough about whether those goals are the right ones.”10 Our goals, like our beliefs and decisions, may be more (or less) guided by properly evaluated reasons and more (or less) driven by an open-minded disposition to revise the reasons that underlie them whenever necessary.
This brings the idea of “being appropriately moved by reasons” close to the notion of wisdom, as it is articulated by philosophers Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro. In their words, a wise person “knows how to come to her beliefs in a rational way, and she does not hold on to those beliefs beyond the point when the evidence counts against them. She has internalized the lessons regarding justification and good reasoning.”11
“If her condition is truly to count as wisdom,” they write, “it must also be a source of guidance in what she does. The wise person thus also exercises good judgment in her deeds and projects,” and we could add that a wise person reasons properly about what her deeds and projects should be.
We should be appropriately moved by reasons in all areas of life in which reasons play a significant role. That means aligning our beliefs and actions to the best evaluation of reasons we are capable of when we are forming and reflecting upon our ideas, when we are evaluating our goals and the methods to achieve them, and when we are reflecting upon our relationships with other people, other sentient beings, and the environment. We are imperfect reasoners, and we will make mistakes. So we should demand from ourselves an awareness of our thinking and decision-making processes and a sincere effort to think and act better in accordance with properly evaluated reasons.
1. Siegel develops this definition of critical thinking in his books Educating Reason: Rationality, Critical Thinking and Education (1988) and Rationality Redeemed? Further Dialogues on an Educational Ideal (1997).
2. Rationality Redeemed?, p. 2.
3. R. T. Pennock, An Instinct for Truth: Curiosity and the Moral Character of Science. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019, 62.
4. H. Houdini, A Magician among the Spirits. Amsterdam, NL: Fredonia Books, 2002, XIII. (Originally published in 1924.)
5. H. Houdini, A Magician among the Spirits, 165.
6. James Stewart, “Diving with the Shark Attack Survivor Who Filmed Jaws.” The Guardian, June 7, 2015. Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2015/jun/07/jaws-40-years-shark-diving-australia.
7, Brett Williamson, “Great White Hope: The Rodney Fox Story.” ABC Local, April 22, 2012. Available online at https://www.abc.net.au/local/stories/2009/02/17/2493781.htm.
8. International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame. “Rodney Fox.” Available online at https://www.visitcaymanislands.com/en-us/isdhf/isdhf-bios/rodney-fox.
9. Steve Featherstone, “It Was Just a Shark, an Interview with Rodney Fox, on Being Attacked, Surviving, and Returning to the Water, Part Two.” McSweeney’s, April 27, 2002. Available online at https://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/it-was-just-a-shark-an-interview-with-rodney-fox-on-being-attacked-surviving-and-returning-to-the-water-part-two.
10. J. Baggini, How to Think Like a Philosopher: Twelve Key Principles for More Humane, Balanced, and Rational Thinking. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2023, 27.
11. S. Nadler and L. Shapiro, When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People: How Philosophy Can Save Us from Ourselves. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2021, 148.
Despite not having set-in-stone commandments to follow, humanists have reflected upon certain principles and creeds that should guide a human life. We can read them, for example, in the Affirmations of Humanism: A Statement of Principles, a manifesto by philosopher Paul Kurtz, which appears in every issue of Free Inquiry. There is also The Declaration …