What if? A long-form, humanistic think-piece for Elul

A Humanist Response to “The End” and Elul

Having worked to this point, you’re entitled to wonder where it is I’m headed with all this. (Actually, you were entitled to wonder that a page or so ago; but I’m answering you now.)

I think humanism has an answer to the problem Scheffler proposes. But it’s important that we respond appropriately and recognize that Scheffler’s hypotheticals deprive us of certain responses when we talk about value.

In particular, we are deprived of one of our typical responses to inquiries about what gives purpose to ethical conduct when we cannot expect a reward in a next life: we cannot say that we live on through our progeny, good works, and the memories of those who know us. We, more than traditional theists who believe in an afterlife through some form of resurrection (Scheffler himself does not accept that notion, by the way), lose a possible answer to Scheffler’s scenarios because our “secular afterlife” will never occur.

I think our basic response as humanists must be that the value of each life–the importance of joy, self-actualization, and recognition of each person’s needs and place in nature–remains present in the face of extinction. We would, in such scenarios, retain our connections to one another and our place in the broader world. We would, simply put, still be so long as humans existed.

We would also still have many of the same needs–both in immediate physical terms, and even in the “higher” needs of interest and self-actualization–as we would if we “knew” (that is, continued to assume as Scheffler notes we do) that humanity would endure far beyond our own lifespans. Indeed, this is exactly what I think what Frankl was pointing to in Man’s Search for Meaning: even in extreme situations, humans retain the need to make meaning and to find value. We are uniquely equipped to do exactly that, which, on reflection, is truly fascinating.

Is this, then, an answer to Scheffler that we can say credibly in the face of burning children?

I think so. It is, as Yitz Greenberg notes, a self-critical humanism that takes into regard the unique value, place, and needs of each individual. A self-critical humanism–not a nihilist “humanism” of the sort Greenberg worries about–seeks self-actualization to the end, and sees the place of humans as part of nature, but not as its peak.

How does all this affect our approach to Elul?

A Humanistic Jewish approach to Elul can take seriously the notion of “no tomorrow” to allow a reassessment of personal priorities within the cycle of the Jewish year. We look not simply to the broad social value of our activities–though that is one consideration–but also to the personal value we find in those things. With one life, and no guaranteed tomorrow, are we doing what we value?

I have no answer to the question except for myself. I leave it to you, dear reader (if you’re still there), to work this out for yourself.