Can evolution, empathy and well-being account for the existence of moral facts?

J. Warner Wallace: God's Crime Scene
J. Warner Wallace: God’s Crime Scene

J. Warner Wallace is publishing blog posts related to the material covered in his newest book. This latest post is related to that big discussion we had last week about whether atheists can ground objective moral values and objective moral duties.

He writes:

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…

Here’s one of the 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.

The minute you are talking about well-being, you have smuggled in a concept of what counts as good, and what counts as evil.

And here’s another reason:

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 themselvesthan 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.

In fact, the “well-being” view pushed by Sam Harris and others is really just utilitarianism, and I posted something about the many problems with that view previously.

Why does objective morality matter? Well consider a previous post where I looked at a debate between Matt Dillahunty and David Robertson. Robertson asked Dillahunty whether it was an objective fact that Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp, was morally evil. Dillahunty’s reply? “I don’t know”. And that is consistent with his atheistic view. The answer to EVERY question about moral facts for an atheist is “I don’t know”. They have to not know. If they did know, then God would have to exist to ground that moral fact, because it would exist independent of personal preferences and cultural customs.They have to say I don’t know, or give up their atheism. And that’s why moral facts are nowhere grounded in an atheistic worldview. They use the words, but the words refer to nothing that exists independent of personal preferences and cultural conventions – which vary over time and place.  If you agree with Dillahunty’s ignorance about whether concentration camps are moral evils as a matter of fact, then you can be an atheist.

God’s Crime Scene

Some really good blog posts are coming out on Cold Case Christianity blog related to this new book. Just judging from the table of contents and the podcast he did on it, it looks like it covers 8 of the good, substantial arguments for God’s existence. I always like the science arguments more than the history arguments, and history arguments more than the philosophical arguments, because I’m an engineer. Really looking forward to a quiet weekend with this new book. I got the audio edition in addition to the book itself.

One thought on “Can evolution, empathy and well-being account for the existence of moral facts?”

  1. I’ve been looking for somebody to help me reflect upon this.

    1.) if objective morality comes from nature and is grounded in human flourishing how is it true that “a human unjustly taking another humans life” is immoral if billions of years ago there were no humans?
    • Like logic being immaterial (I. E. “There are no humans” being true before humans existed) How is “Human flourishing” the absolute or objective imperative before there were humans?
    – point is, that if that were true regardless of humans existing or believing it, nature would have accommodated us with dignity and worth even before we were capable of doing wrong, and it seems atheists are granting nature a lot more causal intelligence than “time plus matter plus chance” offers
    2.) if objective morality is rooted in nature and nature is finite, then morality is finite and how or when will we know if morality ends?
    • it seems to me that if natural law exists it exists only as long as nature is there. (I.E. Three outs per inning would come ontologically post baseballs invention and not be necessary after the game ended)
    • making morality as contingent as nature itself is.
    3.) Doing wrong might end in social exile or ostracizing is no longer a threat with upwards of seven billion people on the planet.
    • thus making morality more subjective than objective due to social settings and time periods.
    – something that might have been shameful one hundred years ago isn’t taboo anymore because of lax social restraints, re-definitions of norms, and a desensitization of acts of shame, and an over justification of what used to make us feel guilty.
    —in essence of the last point, wrong doing has become not granting innocence, apathy, or applause to the culprit who counters with reasons why they are indeed the victim and why the indicter is guilty of wrong.
    3.) Doing good because it feels good is a horrible conclusion. (I forget the date or title of it but there was a study about how people actually enjoy inflicting pain more than withholding it)
    4.) I know it doesn’t need to be said but if nature simply gives off the “illusion” of fine tuning, couldn’t it also give off the “illusion” of morality? Let alone human flourishing being a good thing.
    5.) How does nature denote worth, dignity, or value? Why does an non-interactive nature care? How does a random process over time emphasize oughtness as constant
    6.) If objective morality is rooted in nature then where does evil and suffering come from?
    • if there’s nothing supernatural and the only thing that could be corrupted would also be nature or violation of natures purpose, what’s to say human flourishing isn’t a negative thing on the earth or universe?
    7.) Why do you prefer civilization to savagery?
    • if we are just molecules, animals, DNA, without meaning, direction, or purpose, why not pursue strength of mind and body, skill, advantage? You’d be generating and propagating better gene properties for future humanity to survive because our comfort has done more to make us fat, lazy, ignorant, and perverted.


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