Kurt Vonnegut Reveals “Why My Dog Is Not a Humanist” in His Humanist of the Year Award Speech (1992)

Note: Von­negut starts talk­ing at around the 3:40 mark.

This is human­ism, as explained by bio­chemist, sci­ence fic­tion author and for­mer pres­i­dent of the Amer­i­can Human­ist Asso­ci­a­tion Isaac Asi­mov:

Human­ists believe that human beings pro­duced the pro­gres­sive advance of human soci­ety and also the ills that plague it. They believe that if the ills are to be alle­vi­at­ed, it is human­i­ty that will have to do the job. They dis­be­lieve in the influ­ence of the super­nat­ur­al on either the good or the bad of soci­ety, on either its ills or the alle­vi­a­tion of those ills.

There’s a wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed Kurt Von­negut quote that puts things even more suc­cinct­ly:

I am a human­ist, which means, in part, that I have tried to behave decent­ly with­out any expec­ta­tion of rewards or pun­ish­ment after I’m dead.

It’s a def­i­n­i­tion Von­negut, Asimov’s hon­orary suc­ces­sor as AHA pres­i­dent, a scientist’s son, and, famous­ly, a sur­vivor of the fire­bomb­ing of Dres­den, embod­ied, though sure­ly not the only one he coined.

In his 1992 accep­tance speech for the association’s Human­ist of the Year award, above, he recalls how a stu­dent pressed him for a def­i­n­i­tion. He chose to fob the kid off on bet­ter paid col­leagues at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Iowa, but pri­vate­ly came up with anoth­er take:

…a human­ist, per­haps, was some­body who was crazy about human beings, who, like Will Rogers, had nev­er met one he did­n’t like. That cer­tain­ly did not describe me. It did describe my dog, though.

As the title of Vonnegut’s speech implies (“Why My Dog is Not a Human­ist”), Sandy, his undis­crim­i­nat­ing Hun­gar­i­an sheep­dog, ulti­mate­ly fell short of sat­is­fy­ing the cri­te­ria that would have labelled him a human­ist. He lacked the capac­i­ty for ratio­nal thought of the high­est order, and more­over, he regard­ed all humans — not just Von­negut — as gods.

Ergo, your dog is prob­a­bly not a human­ist either.

Char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly, Von­negut ranged far and wide in his con­sid­er­a­tion of the mat­ter, touch­ing on a num­ber of top­ics that remain ger­mane, some 20 years after his remarks were made: race, exces­sive force, the treat­ment of prisoners…and Bill Cos­by.

For intro­duc­tion to human­ism, please see:  Stephen Fry Explains Human­ism in 4 Ani­mat­ed Videos: Hap­pi­ness, Truth and the Mean­ing of Life & Death

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Kurt Von­negut Explains “How to Write With Style”

Kurt Von­negut: Where Do I Get My Ideas From? My Dis­gust with Civ­i­liza­tion

Kurt Von­negut Dia­grams the Shape of All Sto­ries in a Master’s The­sis Reject­ed by U. Chica­go

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, home­school­er, Hoosier and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday

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