Human Well-being

My last post discussed how in an atheistic framework morality is simply a conjured up idea of one’s preferences and is not anything real or concrete.  I would like to explore that a tad further since I know that many are aware of the renowned atheist Sam Harris.  Harris, unlike most of his atheist colleagues, believes that morality to at least some degree can be scientifically framed.  How does he support such a claim?  In a nutshell, by stating that good morality is that which increases human well-being.  So in order to frame morality, we simply need to test actions and their ability to increase human well-being.  I cannot possibly go into a full critique of all of Harris’s claims here, so I will just refer you to the many atheist scientists and philosophers who show the very poor reasoning of Harris.

However, I will state here that I partially agree with Harris.  I agree that scientific testing on what we commonly know as good morals, e.g., kindness, empathy, sympathy, etc., will in general produce positive results in humans.  I believe this because I have observed this to be true in my life and the lives of others.  I also believe this to be true because God, who commanded good morals to be followed, knows us very well since He created us and He knows that following good morals would benefit humanity, and God definitely wants humans to live a life of well-being.  So in a Christian framework, I would agree that in general, good morality will increase human well-being.

However, there is one massive flaw in Harris’s logic that I will point out.  He uses an incorrect definition of morality.  While I believe that good morality will in general increase human well-being, Harris defines good morality as that which increases human well-being.  However, morality is not defined by whether or not human well-being is increased.  Classically, morality is the discussion between right and wrong.  As most good philosophers will tell you, just because something increases well-being, it does not mean that thing is necessarily morally good.  So what Harris is trying to do here is redefine morality.  This is colloquial bait and switch.  Whenever he talks about morality, he is talking about something different than what most people understand morality to be.  Harris is actually talking about the philosophical position known as Utilitarianism.  So Harris’s search for framing a moral landscape is really only a search for a utilitarian landscape.  (As a side note, going down the utilitarian road is very dangerous as it can lead to a number of unsettling conclusions, like having the elderly euthanized.)

Another problem I have when listening to Harris is that he has several a priori assumptions that he does not bother validating (at least not in his lectures).  The only inscrutable a priori assumption of Harris that I will address here is that we should value human well-being.  From an atheistic perspective, why should we value human well-being?  Or let me say it differently: why should I value the well-being of someone who does not value my well-being and even wants to ruin my well-being?  From an atheistic perspective, you will find yourself answering that using utilitarian speech.  But using utilitarian language, I can justify the killing of someone who does not value my well-being.  So utilitarianism does not justify the claim that we should value human well-being.

Utilitarianism may give reasons to value human well-being in certain cases, but not in all cases.  But even in the cases where utilitarianism gives reasons to value human well-being, it does not provide reasons for why one should value the findings of utilitarianism.  What if I just do not care if what is best for the world is that I care about the value of others’ well-being?  What if I only want to live for my well-being?  How can you tell me that it is intrinsically wrong for me to value my well-being over anybody else’s?  With that question we move from the realm of utilitarianism to the realm of morality because I asked what is intrinsically wrong.  Utilitarianism deals with extrinsic questions.  There is no cosmological justification for valuing the well-being of another.  No atom values the well-being of another atom; so why should I, a collection of atoms, value the collection of atoms to my left?  Why is it wrong to cause suffering to the collection of atoms to my left?  Can atoms even suffer?  Or is suffering just a title we put on a certain chemical reaction?  (Should we keep going on with these questions?)

Alluding to my previous post, there are times when I really do not want to value another person’s well-being.  There are times when I only value my own well-being.  Sometimes the best thing that would help my well-being would be if the person annoying me was wiped off the face of the planet.  Honestly.  And yes, if I were to be honest, I would feel good about that.  But then I remember that God has every right to wipe me off the face of the planet and yet He does not because He is patient with me and He even provided a way for me to be forgiven.  Because I remember that, I try to be patient with those who annoy me and I offer forgiveness.  So the justification for valuing the well-being of others is very easily found in Christianity.

(I want to quickly answer an objection that I know would come after reading the last paragraph.  The objection would be, “But God has wiped people off the face of the earth, so why should I not?”  The answer to that is that God is a very just judge.  God knows every truth and possibility.  We humans are not always just judges, and we can definitely not be as thorough as God is in judgment because He not only knows the past and future, but he even knows the possible past and future.  So God has commanded that final judgment be left to Him while we humbly live out our lives (Romans 12:14-21).  God has indeed given some level of judgment over to mankind through the institution of government (Romans 13:1-4), but personal revenge is forbidden due to the extremely flawed nature of personal revenge.)

Some may claim that my appeal to God is an a priori assumption on my part that God exists.  While there are many evidences for the existence of God, it is not an a priori assumption inside a Christian framework.  Inside a Christian framework, God is a fact.  However, inside an atheistic framework, it is not a fact that human well-being should be desired.  That is why it is an a priori assumption to start with human well-being as an established fact.  For this post, I am not concerned with validating God outside a Christian perspective (maybe that will come later).  However, I am concerned with validating the assumption that human well-being should be desired inside an atheistic framework.  Inside an atheistic framework, there is no universal, or cosmological, or intrinsic justification for valuing the well-being of others.

There are some things I really like about Harris’s studies.  As a Christian I want to point to his studies and say, “Look, if you live out the precepts of Christianity, then you will scientifically be more likely to live joyfully.”  I also appreciate his honesty in that he cannot scientifically cage (what he calls) morality into one example, but admits that there may be many different yet equally valid forms of (what he calls) morality.  (Although he also mocks anybody who believes in a God, thereby ironically mocking the vast majority of the most moral people who ever lived.  I also wonder how he thinks mocking people who have found a pathway to morality through God is beneficial to those people’s well-being.)  I agree with him that not all forms of morality are equal and that we should question one’s moral postulate.  But as he tries to place his findings into an atheistic or naturalistic perspective, I find his conclusions to be wanting.

So.  Using no spiritual argumentation at all, how could you convince me that I should value the well-being of others?  And just as importantly, what would you do to me if I decided not to agree with your reasoning and live however I wanted?

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