Is “Right” and “Wrong” Simply a Matter of “Human Flourishing”?
by J Warner Wallace
When it comes to moral truth, where do we get our notions of right and wrong? Can we generate binding, obligatory concepts without grounding them in the nature of a Holy God? As an atheist, I thought so for many years. Like Sam Harris (author of The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values), I argued that we can establish the moral value of any particular action by simply evaluating its impact on human well-being (something Harris typically refers to as “human flourishing”). Harris, a committed and vocal atheist, accepts the existence of objective moral truths but likens the establishment of such truths to a game of chess. In any particular game, each player must decide how to move based on the resulting effect. If you are trying to win the game, some moves are “good” and some moves are “bad”; some will lead you to victory and some will lead you to defeat. “Good” and “bad” then, are evaluated based on whether or not they accomplish the goal of
winning the game. Harris redefines “good” (in the context of human beings) as whatever supports or encourages the well-being of conscious creatures; if an action increases human well-being (human “flourishing”) it is “good”, if it decreases well-being, it is “bad”.
What, however, do we mean when we talk about “flourishing”? It’s one thing to evaluate a behavior in terms of its impact on survival, and if we are honest with one another, this is really what drives Natural Selection. But Harris recognizes survival, as a singular goal, can lead to all kinds of morally condemnable misbehavior. History is replete with examples of actions that secured the survival of one group at the immoral expense of another. Harris suggests the goal is something more; the goal is “flourishing”. Human well-being involves more than simply living, it involves living a particular way. Human flourishing comprises a particular quality of life; one in which we honor the rights of others and seek a certain kind of character in order to become a particular kind of human group that has maximized its potential. See the problem here?
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