Skip to main content

Mailbag: The Science of Morality?

Question

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,

Bill

Answer

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.

Best,

djb

Flannagan and Copan’s Did God Really Command Genocide? Summary Chapter 14: “Other Euthyphro-Related Objections”

Did God Really Command Genocide? 

Summary  by Mark Foreman

In the previous chapter F&C examined objections to divine command theory that flow out of Plato’s Euthyphro dilemma. In that chapter they claimed that most objections can be divided into two basic categories: arbitrariness objections and emptiness objections. The last chapter was concerned with the most common arbitrariness objections. In this chapter they examine a few more arbitrariness objections before moving on to the emptiness objections.

 

Some arbitrariness objections concern God’s omnipotence. Wes Morriston argues that God’s goodness and his omnipotence are mutually incompatible. If he is omnipotent he can do anything including commanding one to do unnecessary and capricious evil such as rape. However, because he is all good, he cannot make such a command and therefore these two foundational characteristic for theists are mutually incompatible and one must be forsaken for the sake of the other (or both must go). F&C offer three responses to this objection, all of which either clarify or qualify the meaning of omnipotence. Most theists (and even some atheists) respond that this objection misunderstands the traditional understanding of omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean God can do absolutely anything, but only that God can do that which is logically possible. Hence one does not need to deny omnipotence, for one can respond either that there is no possible situation in which God chooses to issue an evil command or that it is not logically possible for an all good being to make such a command. Another alternative is simply to qualify what is meant by omnipotence by making it something weaker, such as the claim that “God has as much power as is compatible with essential goodness.”(173) The point is that one can escape Morriston’s objection by reconceptualizing his idea of omnipotence.

 

A second group of objections uses counterfactuals as a way of showing the divine command theory is problematic. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong acknowledges the theists’ point that “If God is good, he would not command us to rape,” but then goes on to claim, “Moreover, even if God in fact never would or could command us to rape, the divine command theory still implies the counterfactual that, if God did command us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape. That is absurd.” (174, emphasis theirs) He offers no reason for why it is absurd and, in fact, F&C argue that its absurdity is not that obvious, “According to the standard view of modal logic, a conditional statement with a logically impossible antecedent . . . is true. So Sinnott-Armstrong’s suggestion that the consequent is obviously false is far from obvious.” However, Sinnott-Armstrong replies to this objection by simply claiming that the proposition ‘If God commanded us to rape, then we would have a moral obligation to rape’ “seems plausible to most people regardless of technical details about counterfactuals.” (174) The main problem F&C raise if one takes that tactic is that logical consistency demands one applies the same counterfactual to any ethical theory, rendering them all arbitrary and ineffective. So, for example, regarding utilitarianism, “Even if rape never would or could maximize utility or usefulness for society, utilitarianism still implies the counterfactual if rape were to maximize utility, then it would be obligatory.” (174-175)

 

Another critic, Eric Wielenberg, suggests that “God does have the power to make any logically consistent claim but that it is only His character that prevents him from exercising this power.” (175) He asks us to imagine a situation in which God does not have that character, but is instead cruel and capricious. According to Wielenberg, if this counterfactual were the case, DCT would entail that gratuitous assault would be morally obligatory. However, the main problem is the terms as we have defined them. As the maximally greatest being, one worthy of worship, God would not be cruel and capricious. In order for Wielenberg’s argument to be successful, he must propose a world that is not possible, where a maximally great being is one full of hatred and cruelty.

 

Sam Harris attempts to critique DCT by saying that “we are being offered a psychopathic and psychotic moral attitude.” (177) He makes three claims: First, DCT entails the following conditional: If God commands you to blow up a bus full of children, then you are required to do so. Second, the truth of this conditional requires a psychopathic perspective. Third, accepting the conditional easily rationalizes the slaughter of children. F&C answer Harris by noting that, while the first claim is true, it is (1) a conditional claim that says nothing about what God actually commands, and (2) it is only morally obligated if God commands it. However, as has been stated several times, the conception of God being argued for is a morally perfect being who would not and cannot command such a thing. The hypothetical conditions are logically impossible. As far as the second claim, it only requires a psychopathic perspective if one is talking about blowing up buses per se, but it does not if the hypothetical conditions hold, i.e. that it is not unloving, unjust, and irrational. Hence F&C hold that Harris’s second claim is incoherent. As far as the third claim, F&C state, “A divine command theory insists that an action is obligatory only if God actually commands that action. It does not contend that an action is obligatory if someone claims or believes that God commands it.” (179) F&C point out that we can reject that God has made some such command for the same reasons that Harris does, because a good and just God would not do so.

 

Having successfully explained the arbitrariness objections, F&C spend the remainder of this chapter briefly examining two emptiness objections. The first of these is suggested by Peter Van Inwagen. Van Inwagen claims that God does not have any moral obligations, so nothing he does can be considered right or wrong. This of course would be true if one was to conceive of God’s moral perfection in terms of obligations and duties. However, F&C point out that many theologians and philosophers do not think of God’s goodness so much in terms of duties as character traits such as truthful, benevolent, loving, and gracious. It is certainly possible to exhibit such traits without reference to any particular duties.

 

The other emptiness objection comes again from Sam Harris, who claims that, if God is not bound by moral duties then he does not have to be good. (183) F&C respond by clarifying what is meant by “God does not have to be good.” If it means, “he is not under an obligation to be good” then of course the implication holds. However, if Harris is implying that “God does not have to be good” implies he can be evil, then the implication does not hold, for the term ‘God’ means a maximally great being, which includes moral perfection. Hence, by this conception, it is impossible for God not to be good.

 

Find the other chapter summaries here.

Image: “Bust of Socrates” by Bradley Weber. CC License. 

A Fundamental Issue with Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape

By Dave Sidnam

In the Introduction to his book The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris states, “The goal of this book is to begin a conversation about how moral truth can be understood in the context of science.” While others “imagine that no objective answers to moral questions exist,” Harris asserts that a science of morality is possible. While I appreciate Harris’s efforts to come up with an empirically measurable moral system, and agree with some of his foundational points, I believe his system is fundamentally flawed because “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.”

A root of this issue comes down to some vagueness with the term “science” in Harris’s argument. Harris’s hope is that moving morality into the realm of science will give it a status and authority similar to that of physics or medical science; however, I will show that the type of moral science Harris proposes is significantly different than either of these and, therefore, would not carry the same epistemic clout.

In addressing morality as a science, Harris is concerned that some people define “’science’ in exceedingly narrow terms.” However, in the book, Harris’s working definition—“Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in the universe,”—provides so broad a definition that practically any rational endeavor fits, including astrology. While I know Harris, in practice, draws sharper boundaries than this, in his argument he ignores the fact that there are different types of science and that some types have more epistemic weight than others. For example, the “hard” sciences are seen by many as having more authority than the “soft” sciences; this leads to an interesting question: Is Harris’s science of morality a hard science or soft one? For many people, the answer to this question will lead to a qualitative difference in how the findings of this science should be viewed.

Physics, generally, is a hard science based upon the discovery of ontologically objective facts. That is, independent of any conscious minds, the physical world exists and the laws of physics hold. Once discovered, they are the same for all people—invariably. Harris’s science of morality, on the other hand, is fundamentally different because it is based upon ontologically subjective facts: There is no person-independent reality to draw from. Harris ignores this important difference when he states, “We must have a goal to define what counts as ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when speaking about physics or morality, but this criterion visits us equally in both domains.” While he is correct that the standard must be set for each, the goal of physics is to accurately describe the objective world in which we live; however, there is no such ontologically objective starting point for Harris’s moral science. This ontologically objective base gives physics comparatively more authority, just as astronomy should carry more weight than astrology.

If Harris’s moral system is not like physics, what type of science should it be compared to? In his introduction, Harris discusses possible similarities between human moral flourishing and human health, so perhaps medical science or nutrition is a better match. Upon initial inspection, this analogy seems apt because there is definitely a person-subjective aspect here, based upon an individual’s biochemical response to events in the world. For some people, peanuts are a good source of protein and part of a healthy diet. For others, peanuts are poison.

But here, the type of subjectivity is still fundamentally different. In medicine and nutrition, people respond to different medicines or foods based upon their underlying biochemistry. These events, in principle, are directly observable from a third-person perspective and are not dependent upon a person’s first-person point-of-view. Harris alludes to this difference when describing how the “sciences of mind are predicated on our being able to correlate first-person reports of subjective experience with third-person states of the brain.”  Unlike medicine or nutrition, however, Harris’s moral science needs to measure first-person experience—how people perceive events determines the “moral” quality of those events. While medicine has a subjective component, the subjectivity is not dependent upon first-person experience.

Although this problem does not remove morality from science broadly defined, it again shows a substantial qualitative difference between Harris’s moral science and medical science/nutrition and brings into question the authority with which such a science can speak.

At its core, Harris’s moral science is fundamentally different because it attempts to measure first-person experience. To make this a science (instead of an opinion poll or marketing survey), Harris rightly wants to correlate this to the brain states which underlie the experiences, and then draw broad conclusions from this. Unfortunately, this first-person to third-person gap produces significant uncertainty. For some, living a comfortable life—filled with fine dining and travel—produces in them brain states that they interpret as well-being. For others, living a difficult life—bringing some comfort to the poor and needy in Calcutta—produces in them a different biochemical response, which they interpret as well-being. More directly, a masochist’s perception of certain C fiber stimulation is going to be perceived very differently than the same event in other people.

While Harris is correct that a science could be formed like this, I believe it is obvious that it would not have significant imperative force behind it. I think that Harris will want to argue in his science of morality that some actions—like murder—are always wrong. This type of forceful statement works well with sciences based upon objective facts, but not so well with ones based upon subjective “facts.” Unfortunately, murder brings a biochemical response that some criminals interpret as a sense of well-being, and, at the biochemical level, it may be indistinguishable from the feeling others get from helping the poor. So while Harris has put together a system of morality that can be measured empirically, foundational issues leave it with very questionable epistemic authority or imperative force, unlike other branches of science.

Image: “Brain” by D. Schaefer. CC License. 

Podcast: Jon Pruitt on Whether It’s Good to be Human

On this week’s episode, we will be discussing whether or not it is good to be human. We will mainly consider this question from an atheist and Christian perspective. We will see that in order to answer the question, one must first explain what it would mean for something to be good and second what it would mean to be human. What we suggest is that Christianity provides the best explanation of the goodness of humanity.

 

Photo: “Creation of Adam (detail)” By Michelangelo. Public Domain. 

Sam Harris on Faith

I’m always interested to see, as I read a particular author, what he or she thinks about the nature of faith. Some think it’s a good thing, others think it’s bad, if not about the worst thing of all. Not to mention that people can have widely different views of what faith is. In the show “Once Upon a Time”—which I rather love, by the way—faith tends to be characterized as sheer belief. Belief, for example, that the good will win. I like that belief, although it’s not always clear what it entails. But my biggest problem with such belief in the show is that it seems largely unprincipled. More like faith in faith than anything—which, sadly, was also exhibited in Shepherd Book from Firefly—another show I loved. (I think I watch too much television.) I remember realizing this most clearly when, after Book made reference to the importance of faith, Mal said waiting for God is like waiting for a “train that don’t come,” or something like that; at that point Book asked why Mal thought a reference to faith required reference to God. The suggestion seemed to be that something like faith in faith was enough; that it didn’t matter what we have faith in, just as long as we have faith. I really liked the character of Shepherd Book, but that struck me as more than a little lame. But Joss Whedon can be forgiven; he rocks. And heck, he’s an atheist. And for an atheist says pretty cool things, like these words he gave to Captain America, after seeing Thor and Loki: “There’s just one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” So yes, Joss can be forgiven.

ANYWAY, back to faith. I’ve suggested before that, largely owing to the influence of an Enlightenment-foisted definition, faith has often nowadays come to be understood along the lines of epistemic disadvantage. The idea is that faith makes up for lack of evidence. So much so, in fact, that—as I’ve heard more than one say—if we had evidence, we’d have no need for faith. This is, to my thinking, sheer faith as fideism. I have a dear friend who’s an atheist and a very smart guy who, though he’s not particularly open to faith, tells me the only faith he’d really consider is fideism. He’s drawn to the likes of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard quite a bit, and, especially in the latter, sees a picture of faith as essentially fideistic—a wild leap in the dark, something that goes contrary to the evidence, a counterintuitive staking of an ultimate claim on what may or may not be the right choice, something radical and outrageous and countercultural and even absurd. Yet somehow winsomely so. My atheist friend sometimes makes me laugh because, of all the variants of faith on offer, this is the one that he, a trained philosopher, might gravitate to.

For the record, I do think there’s something radical and countercultural about biblical faith rightly understood, but I don’t think this translates into fideism. God may challenge our assumptions and cultural convictions about what’s right and wrong, but ultimately, the only way we can love God with all of our minds is if God makes sense. It might take some work and hard thinking, and of course God ever in certain respects remains beyond our ken, but it’s either possible for us to reconcile God with our clearest apprehensions of the dictates of logic and morality or, if it’s not, God makes little to no sense and faith is thus irrational. When Donald Miller says, in Blue Like Jazz, that he wants a God who doesn’t make sense, I get a tad nervous. If he means God might challenge our convictions and help us realize that what we thought had been true in fact is false, that’s fine; surely we should retain a correctable and teachable worldview and theology; but the phrase “doesn’t make sense” could mean a whole lot more, none of which is the slightest bit appealing to me and all of which smacks of anti-intellectualism. I think biblical faith is clearly not fideistic. It’s rooted in evidence. The “not seeing” part of faith usually has more to do with our inability to see how God’s going to work things out than having no evidence to believe trust in God’s faithfulness is warranted. The more evidence we have, in fact, the stronger our faith can and should be, in my estimation, contrary to the fideistic perspective.

Recently I read the atheist Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape, and his view of faith—and of religious people generally—is a delight to read. His fiery rhetoric veritably drips with animus—so much so, I have to confess, it makes for incredibly fun reading. The dude is passionate. I don’t mean to mock his convictions; I really don’t. I found myself liking him more and more as I read his book, however much I disagreed with parts of it. And it seems to me, anyway, that he sincerely cares about people and would like to see the world become a better place. He’s understandably grieved at how some folks, in the name of their religion and faith, do hideous things, and though I think he’s radically mistaken thinking of all religious conviction as of a piece and equally dangerous and deleterious, the fact that he thinks religion is so big a detriment to human well-being renders it eminently understandable he argues so vociferously against it, particularly its harshest manifestations.

For now I’d like to point out his depiction of the nature of faith, as I think it’s informative, and it adds something to the discussion: The condition of faith itself, he writes, is “conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc.” So here Harris identifies what he considers to be five salient features of faith:

1. Convictions without sufficient reason;

2. Hope mistaken for knowledge;

3. Bad ideas protected from good ones;

4, Good ideas obscured by bad ones; and

5. Wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation.

I think there’s little doubt as to why, if that’s his view of faith, he rejects it. I’d reject it, too!

But again, I don’t see biblical faith, rightly understood, as anything like this. Biblical faith is trust in the faithfulness of God to do what he’s promised to do. And such trust is predicated on, in my estimation, excellent reasons to think God is trustworthy—a long, established track record of showing himself to be faithful. Not in the sense of giving us everything we want, but in showing his love, fulfilling his promises, and offering his salvation. Whether biblical faith is lacking in evidence is a matter for dialogue and discussion, not dogmatism. It seems to me, in my own study of these questions, philosophical arguments for God’s existence and historical arguments for the truth of Christianity are strong—even if the evidence is not such as to compel the assent of every rational person. There’s both light and darkness, as folks like Paul Moser, C. Stephen Evans, and Pascal before them, have argued is likely to be the case if God wants to do more than enlighten the mind, like woo the heart. The bald assertion that biblical faith lacks evidence grows tiresome. I suggest that atheists find someone who can debate William Lane Craig without getting their clock cleaned before repeating that vacuous mantra ad nauseum. And whether biblical faith involves empty hope, bad ideas, or wishful thinking entirely depends on whether the claims on which such faith is based are true or not. Again, merely repeating such charges as if doing so accomplishes anything is a paradigmatic instance of question-begging assertion without argument. So, once more, this sort of uncharitable and knee-jerk characterization of the nature of faith, however fun it is to read, leaves me unimpressed, and does little to advance substantive discussion.

Trees, Values, and Sam Harris

By David Baggett

People are fond of dismissing the relevance of philosophy by asking in a mocking tone, “So does a tree that falls in the forest make a sound?” The question is often asked in a derisive effort to show how uninteresting are the questions that occupy the attention of philosophers. However fun it might even be to think about, for some, surely nothing much rides on such a thing—this seems to be the implicit point anyway.

The original context of the question, of course, was Berkeley’s discussion of whether something like a noise takes place if nobody is there to hear it. There’s something a bit fishy about the idea there could be a noise absolutely nobody hears, but then again, there’s perhaps something even fishier about saying no noise could happen if nobody hears it. Most of us are inclined to think the noise would happen whether perceived or not. Berkeley’s solution was to say no unheard sounds ever happen because God’s alwaDys there to hear it, even if nobody else. This was his effort to spell out the dependence of the created order on the divine in a particularly strong sense.

Whatever you think about that particular conundrum, though, consider this question: Does value exist if nobody benefits from it? Suppose someone were to argue, as the famous atheist Sam Harris does in The Moral Landscape, that the only value we can meaningfully make sense of is the value of human flourishing, or the well-being of conscious creatures, something in that vicinity. On such a view, friendships, for example, are valuable exactly and only because they enhance well-being. And friendships of course do enhance our well-being, at least good friendships, at least most of the time. But is this the locus of their value? Harris would suggest it’s downright incoherent to argue its value could reside in anything else.

So what we have here is a Berkeleyan point, minus the God part, regarding value. Something’s value resides in its ability to enhance the well-being of conscious creatures, he wants to say. A falling tree in the forest only makes a sound if someone hears it. See the parallel? My question is: If we think it’s in some sense silly to insist on the latter, why isn’t it mistaken to insist on the former? In other words, why isn’t it perfectly coherent and indeed plausible to suggest that something like friendship has intrinsic value? Value, that is, apart from its consequences? That friendship produces wonderful consequences is undeniable, but does this fact alone commit us to having to say that the value of friendship resides exclusively in its benefits? Wouldn’t this be akin to saying that the only thing to say about a noise is how it’s perceived?

How about this picture instead of Harris’s? Friendship involves fellowship between two people, both of whom are valuable in and of themselves, and the fellowship between them is something of great intrinsic value and worth. It is something that is good, in some more-than-consequentialist sense. Experiencing something intrinsically good like that produces all manner of wonderful results, surely, but those results come about because the fellowship itself is a good thing. It’s not that the fellowship is a good thing merely because it produces those consequences. Friendship produces those consequences because it is beautiful and lovely in and of itself. Good things happen when we experience goodness.

If we live in a world in which the experience of great intrinsic goods inevitably produces healthy results—enhancements of our well-being or flourishing, let’s say—it’s going to be an ever-present and never entirely avoidable temptation to reduce the value of the good in question to its positive results—treating harshly any other sorts of suggestions. But the result, I think, is an emaciated caricature of reality. I think we do live in such a world, a world in which objective moral and even aesthetic values obtain, a world in which the love between a mother and her child or between friends yields the sweetest of fruit. But the enjoyment of that fruit is only possible because of a yet deeper reality: the value, dignity, and worth of the people in question, and the beauty and goodness of their loving relationships, motivated by something more than the good results those relationships produce.

I suppose, at bottom, Harris and I just have a very deep disagreement about the nature of reality. As an atheist, the good results that he notices things like friendships produce are about all he can point to as the locus of their goodness. I’m rather inclined to see those good results as a roadmap to a more ultimate source of value.