How are we to account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths? Some philosophers, like Sam Harris, believe “moral values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” Well-being (also described as human “flourishing”) is, according to Harris, the purpose of our existence as human beings. Since human biology transcends human culture, moral truths (if they are rooted in human biology), would also transcend culture. As a result, we can account for the existence of objective, transcendent moral truths without having to ground them in a transcendent moral truth-giver (like God). Harris believes these kinds of truths are simply grounded in the well-being of our entire species, and according to Harris, can be ascertained and apprehended by simply studying the science of human flourishing. Harris argues “that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want—and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible. There are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of mind.” But this attempt to ground objective, transcendent moral truths in human biological flourishing is misguided for several reasons:
This View Assumes a Moral Definition of “Well-Being”
What is Harris’ definition of “well-being” in the first place? Is it merely survival, or is it a particular kind of survival? Even philosophers who hold this view readily admit some behaviors (like subjugating slaves and stealing the resources of opposing groups) can actually aid in the survival of a people group. But these same thinkers simultaneously believe these kinds of behaviors are detrimental to the group’s well-being. This implies, however, there’s a right way to survive and a wrong way. Did you spot the logical inconsistency here? Those who believe the pursuit of human well-being is the origin of moral truth, begin with a definition of well-being already infused with moral truth. Who gets to determine the right or wrong way to survive or flourish? This approach to moral truth argues for something more than mere biological survival of the fittest. It argues for a kind of moral survival (described as “well-being”) before it has adequately explained the source for moral truth.
An Illustration from God’s Crime Scene
This View Confuses Facts with Norms
The majority of psychologists and neuroscientists, even those studying moral reasoning, understand the difference between scientific facts and moral norms. Philosopher and psychologist Jerry Fodor explains it this way: “Science is about facts, not norms; it might tell us how we are, but it couldn’t tell us what is wrong with how we are. There couldn’t be a science of the human condition (emphasis mine).” It’s one thing to describe what is (where in the brain, for example, one might find synapse activity corresponding to a moral choice), but it’s another thing to explain why a moral choice is either good or bad. As J. P. Moreland notes: “Moral properties are normative properties. They carry with them a moral ‘ought.’ If some act has the property of rightness, then one ought to do that act. But natural properties… do not carry normativeness. They just are.” Facts about how guns work, for example, cannot tell us whether or not you should use one to murder a rival. In a similar way, facts about how our brains work cannot tell us about the value or nature of our moral norms.
This View Fails To Determine Which Behaviors Are Actually Beneficial
Even if we believe moral truths are nothing more than biological facts about human flourishing, it’s not always easy to determine which behaviors are beneficial to our well-being in the first place. If the value of every action is to be determined by the consequence the action has on human well-being, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to make these assessments with certainty. How can one truly know if an act will have a positive or negative impact on human flourishing many years down the road?
This View Fails to Determine Whose Well-Being Is Most Important
Why would any of us consider the well-being of strangers prior to the well-being of our own families and communities? If history is any indicator, humans are far more inclined to care for themselves than for others, even when the activities of their own group may ultimately harm the survivability of the entire species. Who gets to define “flourishing” when cultures and individuals disagree about notions of happiness, compassion, contentedness, or physical and psychological health? When competing interests collide, whose definitions (and whose well-being) warrants our consideration? As philosopher Patricia Churchland observes, “no one has the slightest idea how to compare the mild headache of five million against the broken legs of two, or the needs of one’s own two children against the needs of a hundred unrelated brain-damaged children in Serbia.”
Even if we are only interested in the well-being of an isolated group, should we be more concerned about total well-being or average well-being of the group? Those concerned with total well-being prefer a world in which the most people possible are able to live with at least moderate well-being. Those concerned with average well-being prefer a world in which smaller groups maximize their well-being, even if others suffer, so the average for the species is elevated. If we derive moral value from an action’s impact on the well-being of the entire species, why should I, as a law enforcement officer, care at all about murdered gang members such as Jesse’s victim? Shouldn’t I be more focused on the fate of those better educated, wealthier or more intelligent contributors to our society than those who are actually preying on our society? Aren’t those in the first group more likely to contribute to the well-being of our species than those in the second? Assessing an action’s moral value on the basis of its ultimate consequence is nearly impossible to accomplish and leads to disturbing discrimination.
Sam Harris recognizes the existence of objective, moral truths and understands the futility of attempting to ground these truths in personal opinions or cultural norms. The source for transcendent morality simply must transcend individuals and people groups. But Harris’ solution (to ground such truths in the transcendent flourishing of the human species) fails. The best, most reasonable explanation for transcendent moral truth is the existence of a transcendent moral truth-giver: God.
This post is but a brief summary; for a more robust discussion of this topic (including a detailed examination of other explanations atheists and theists provide for the existence of moral truths, please refer to God’s Crime Scene, Chapter Seven – Law and Order: Is Morality More Than An Opinion?