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Is human flourishing good enough?

This post is an updated of an original posted 3 October 2009 at www.thinkingmatters.org.nz about the secular humanism and their failed attempt to ground objective moral values and duties.

The moral argument for God’s existence goes like this,

  1. If God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist.
  2. Objective moral values and duties do exist
  3. Therefore, God exists.

Most philosophers working in this field of ethics agree with the second premise of this argument. I have outlined the reasons for this majority opinion here. In order to avoid the conclusion that God exists some dedicated secular thinkers have sought to deny the first premise by suggesting something like the following. “Good and bad are not determined by God, but are determined by what adds or subtracts to human flourishing.”

What they are seeking is a standard beyond or outside of anyone’s personal feelings or any group’s opinions to measure whether their opinions are moral. If successful they would then have a moral foundation, or a reason that establishes their moral values and duties as objective, or outside the realm of the mind.

Let me explain this with an analogy. Imagine an Eskimo and Sub-Saharan African meet in London. The Eskimo remarks to the other as he sheds his coat, “Gee, it’s warm for this time of year, isn’t it?” The African disagrees. “No, rafiki. It is extremely chilli,” he says as he rubs the gooseflesh on his arms. If the discussion is left there, what you have is akin to moral relativism. They are basing their moral opinions of what’s true simply on their feelings. Both finding subjective measure insufficient, they decide to base the truth of whether it’s cold or not for this time of year on a standard outside their own body’s reaction to the weather and cultural background. They decide a thermometer should be the standard when compared against a chart showing the average temperature in that month for the last ten years. Now they have a foundation to ground their opinions as objectively true or not, and the answer will now be the same for both of them. This situation is akin to moral objectivism. They required something outside themselves to determine whose opinion was true or not. The way the thermometer read was the foundation on which they built what their idea of what coldness in London for that time of year was.

In like manner, secular humanists assert that their foundation for the objectivity of moral values and duties is “human flourishing.” I will argue below that such a foundation is inadequate.

1. Moral truths carry normativeness, that is, they provide a standard that prescribes what “ought” and “ought not” to happen. Human flourishing is merely descriptive of what “is” and “is not.” As something that only describes nature, there is no prescription of what ought or ought not to be that arises out of simply that, and therefore whatever follows does not fit the description of what we know morality is like. This is enough to dismiss “human flourishing” as the adequate foundation for morality. But we needn’t stop there.

2. The ultimately unsuccessful reduction of a moral property to a natural property. In order that we might weigh what is right and wrong we have to define how to measure human flourishing. Consider the following example.

Say we concluded that “human flourishing” is measured by an increase in the population of the upper-class (which is a combined family income of over $149,000). Accordingly, any action, like taxing the wealthy because they choose not to have children, or forcibly distributing the many children of a low-income families to high-income homes to be raised as servant-children would become the so-called “good.” It is evident that neither of these recommend themselves as what we intuitively understand to be good. One is discrimination because of a life-style choice, and another is enforced servitude and misery. One can always find immoral and repugnant things to do that become “good” when moral properties are reduced to natural properties like this.

3. Speci-ism. It is unjustifiably bias to select the flourishing of your own species to be what determines right and wrong. This speci-ism is very tempting, but if there is no God, it must be resisted, for what is it that makes the human race special? When a God of infinite worth values you, your privileged place is understandable. But there’s no reason in the absence of God to favour humanity like this above any other animal. Evolution doesn’t bestow worth. As Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary zoologist and atheistic author says,“There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference . . . We are machines for propagating DNA . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being”?

There needs to be a reason why the human animal is endowed with this special privilege: that their well-being above all other species determines what is right and wrong. I once saw a nature show with a elephant bull in heat chasing an infant female elephant in a effort to copulate. The giant member dangling between his legs was nearly half her length, and she was running away scared, but this was not attempted rape. It wasn’t wrong. It was nature doing what nature does. So why is it suddenly rape when a man forcibly copulates with a woman? What makes that wrong if evolution is all there is and man is merely another animal? If there’s nothing sacred in this world then there’s nothing really wrong about it, for that occurs all the time in natural world. Without God, there doesn’t seem to be the resources available hold up the worth, the inherent value of being human and the privilege we think we have over flies and termites, snapper and salmon, hyenas and wildebeests, etc.

The kernel of truth here is that much of morality is for the purpose of preserving the dignity and welfare of human life. But human flourishing cannot be a reasonable foundation without God to support it.

4. No authority. Who determines what “human flourishing” means? Is it the capitalist or the Marxist? Is it the anti-vaxer or the pro-vaxer? Is it the Muslim or the Christian? Is it the pro-lifer or pro-choicer? Who decides what is right and what gives them the right?

There have been socio-political movements in the past who have equated good morals with that which promotes human flourishing. One of these was the Nazis in Germany in 1930’s and 40’s. They believed that the extermination and destruction of all Jews, homosexuals, people with black skin, the intellectually handy-capped, the infirm, and everyone else who worked against their goals was beneficial for humanity as a whole. From their point of view the pain and suffering they wrought on the world was acceptable compared to the utopia they thought they were ushering in. They were only acting to bring about their version of human flourishing. This is not to impugn the ethical theory with guilt by association. It is to point out that there are radically different descriptions of what human flourishing looks like.

Thankfully the Nazi’s lost the war, and they are now almost universally condemned as evil and wrong. What qualitatively (not just quantitatively) is there that sets our ideas apart and makes us think that the goals and methods of the Nazi’s actually weren’t bringing about human flourishing? When we say they were wrong and believe we said something true, this strongly suggests that there is something else other than human flourishing that adjudicates that judgment. For you cannot found a foundational value judgment with another value judgment.

This problem of a lack of authority can be likened to an appeal to a District Court when a neighbouring District Court has already judged your case in the opposite way. What you really need is to appeal to the High Court, but the secularist has denied himself one.

By failing to provide that underlying foundation and simply asserting it is “human flourishing” that determines what is good, the secular ethicist falls back into either personal or cultural relativism – the very conclusion he at first wanted to avoid when he affirmed the existence of objective moral values and duties. Neither has he provided an adequate foundation for objective moral values and duties, doubly helping to show the cogency of the moral argument for God’s existence.

In summary, human flourishing is not an adequate ground for the objective moral values and duties we all clearly perceive. First, moral truths are prescriptive norms and human flourishing does not prescribe what ought and ought not to be, it only describes what is and is not. Second, reducing a moral property to a natural property is always unsuccessful. Third, it succumbs to the temptation of speci-ism, an unjustified bias for ones own species. Fourth, our moral indignation towards others with different ideas of what human flourishing is provides a powerful reason to think that there is something other than human flourishing that is the paradigm of goodness. For these reasons, human flourishing is not an adequate foundation to build an ethical theory on.

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