Thursday, September 15, 2011


Emeritus Professor Paul Kurtz and Humanist President Dr Ian Ellis-Jones
Australis2000 Congress, Sydney, Australia, 14 November 2000

Rational humaneness is the answer.

‘Yes, but what is the question?’

OK, so it’s not funny.
In my last blog I referred to a book entitled A Humanist View which contains chapters written by a number of prominent Australian humanists of yesteryear. As I mentioned, in one of those chapters, entitled ‘Life Without Magic’, the eminent zoologist Dr Ronald Strahan showed, using reason, that there is no such thing as the ‘life force’.

Another of the chapters was written by the eminent criminologist, materialist philosopher and academic Dr Gordon Hawkins (1919-2004) [pictured left], who lectured me in criminology at the University of Sydney in the 1970s, and who was one of the very first members of the Australian Law Reform Commission.

Hawkins' chapter is entitled ‘Humanism and the Crime Problem’, and contains some very sound advice on matters pertaining to crime, penology and the like. I remember the ‘wow’ moment I experienced years ago when, some years after he had been my lecturer, I read these words penned by Hawkins:

‘[H]umanism, if I understand it rightly, involves what the great nineteenth century radical John Morley (who shocked Victorian England by spelling God with a small “g”), called “rational humaneness”. This means a rationality which is informed by consideration and compassion for the needs and distresses of human beings.’

Many thousands of law students in Sydney have heard me repeat those words over the years ... ‘rational humaneness’ ... ‘a rationality which is informed by consideration and compassion for the needs and distresses of human beings’.

Rationality on its own is inadequate. That should be obvious to all. Compassion, or humaneness, without rationality is also inadequate, for it quickly becomes weak-kneed, soggy sentimentality. The two must be combined – rational humaneness. That is what we need to handle all our problems.

We have had an ‘Age of Faith’, as well as an ‘Age of Reason’. It’s now time for an ‘Age of Compassion’, but it has to be a compassion which is informed by rationality. For example, at the risk of provoking a riot, it may be compassionate to let all the ‘boat people’ into Australia who come to our shores, but is it ‘rational’? I am not saying that it would be irrational to let them all in, but it is a matter which must be determined with ... rational humaneness.

What a transformative phrase and philosophy of life – rational humaneness!

Some 11 years ago I delivered the keynote addess at the Australis2000 Congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union [IHEU] and the Council of Australian Humanist Societies [CAHS], which was held in Sydney, Australia. Before a large audience at the University of Technology, Sydney which included the great American philosopher Paul Kurtz I spoke, with great passion, of the need for there to be a sensible, compassionate balance between the 'head' and the 'heart'. Here is a copy of my address.

Finally, here is a brief clip from the first of four programs made for a 1977 ABC-TV series entitled Beyond Reasonable Doubt. The presenter (who appears on camera) is none other than Gordon Hawkins, then Associate Professor of Criminology at Sydney University Law School. This particular program was about Ronald Ryan, a convicted armed robber, who was the last man to be hanged in Australia.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.