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Mailbag: The Science of Morality?


Hello professor, I hope you are doing well. I have been looking at some of your work and I think you could answer a question I have in regards to ethics. If you have time that is. If you don’t have the time you can just ignore my email. My question has to do with an article I have been reading recently that is titled the science of morality. In the article the author states that morally good is identical with flourishing well being and the morally bad is identical with misery. I read some reviews of the articles and other scholars state that the author was just redefining moral goodness with well being and argument was circular. But why believe that objective goodness cannot be identical with flourishing of human well being? What makes the argument invalid?

Thank you for your time,



Hi Bill,

This is a deceptively hard question! The topic of goodness is quite complicated. Usually when we say that someone is morally good, we’re talking about traits of character and various virtues the person shows. Somehow the goodness inheres in the person. We speak secondarily of various states of affairs being good, but it’s almost a misnomer to call a state of affairs morally good. This is why Kant was of the view that the only truly good thing is a good will–an attribute of a person.

We might come across an awful state of affairs, but what’s morally bad is, most likely, the person or persons (if there is such a person or are such persons) culpably responsible for bringing it about. To say a hurricane is bad is not to say it’s morally bad. It just is what it is. Calling it morally bad is anthropomorphism. Of course it’s nonmorally bad, in that it produces, potentially, a range of undesirable consequences, but you asked about moral goodness in particular. Often when goodness gets contrasted with bad, the focus is on nonmoral considerations that pertain to things like pleasure and pain; but when good gets contrasted with evil, the distinctively moral features come into view.

So flourishing is a perfect example of something that’s nonmorally good. But it doesn’t get us to the heart of moral goodness. The effort to define moral goodness by appeal to human flourishing is a rookie mistake. It’s a deflationary attempt by folks who want to domesticate the concept to reduce moral goodness to something other than itself. It’s thus an attempt to define moral goodness in terms that aren’t moral at all. But moral goodness can’t be reduced or explained away in such a manner. The effort falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy, for one thing. For another, it just leaves too much out.

Suppose you are asked a question and risk being shot to tell the right answer. The morally good thing to do, you’re convinced, is to tell the truth. But still, you tell the truth and immediately get shot. How on earth can an appeal to human flourishing be adequate to account for the moral goodness of your choice in such a situation? Rather than conducing to survival and flourishing, it ensured your immediate death.

Now, just because there’s not an analytic reduction of “moral goodness” into “human flourishing” doesn’t mean there’s no connection between them. To the contrary, I think there’s an airtight (synthetic) connection between the two, but that’s quite different from saying moral goodness just is human flourishing. Ultimately, on a Christian worldview, moral goodness comes about by way of right relation with and transformation by God entirely into the image of Christ–a righteous and holy life–and with such a life will come complete fulfillment and satisfaction. But that doesn’t mean morality and happiness are the same thing; they’re not. But a good God can and will ensure their ultimate correspondence.



John Hare’s God’s Command 4.3.2, “Moral Properties”

Summary by David Baggett

Anti-realism about moral value is a thesis not about judgment, but about the moral or evaluative properties that are picked out in such judgment. The thesis is that these properties are not metaphysically real. Hare guesses that Foot’s sympathies were with the metaphysical realist. This is certainly true of Hursthouse, whose view is closest to McDowell’s account of moral realism. R. M. Hare (RMH) was, as Blackburn puts it, a “quietist” on the issue of moral properties, holding that no real issue can be built around this kind of objectivity of moral value. He was agnostic on whether there are “real” evaluative properties, but he was not explicitly anti-realist. So the interpreter of RMH who thinks the metaphysical question about the objective reality of these properties does make sense is in the same position as the interpreter of Foot who shares that view. We have to speculate about what our authors would have said if they had thought this was a good question.

Hare suggests Foot’s sympathies would have lain with metaphysical realism, but that RMH’s sympathies would not. RMH consistently held that the truth conditions of moral statements are given by the criteria adopted by the speaker. He would have probably claimed a question about real properties picked out by moral judgments was confused. He would have probably, if pressed, denied there are such real properties, which is why he’s so consistently misunderstood.

Hare’s own view on these matters is what he calls “prescriptive realism.” He agrees with RMH about motivation but disagrees with what RMH would have probably said about moral realism. Judgment internalism is a thesis about moral or evaluative judgment, and realism is about moral or evaluative properties, and there is no reason why we should not say that there are indeed these properties. But when we make judgments about them, we not only claim that they exist, but express an attitude of emotion, desire, or will. If we do this, we will be both expressivist and realist, in the sense that they are there whether the relevant attitudes are there in the person making the judgment or not.

hare god's commandWhy should we want to be realist about the properties? Hare thinks our evaluative language suggests an ontological commitment. Any full causal explanation of the events of Hitler’s life, for example, requires reference to his moral depravity. Before embracing error theory, we would need to be shown there’s some persuasive metaphysical principle that rules out the reality of moral and evaluative properties. For a theist in particular it is going to be hard to find such a principle. The point of prescriptive realism, though, is that, even if we concede the reality of the moral and evaluative properties, we do not have to deny the insight of the expressivists about one of the central functions of moral and evaluative judgment, namely, the function of allowing us to coordinate our lives together by expressing in these judgments our commitment to live a certain way.

What’s important for present purposes is the implication of this disagreement for deductivism. Even if we allow, with the realists, that there are evaluative properties independent of our judgment about them, the case still has to be made by a deductivist that there is an implicative relation (independent of a decision of principle) between natural facts and moral goodness. Even if RMH were to agree on the realism, he could still disagree on the claim about implication.