Moving Towards a Morality of Well Being

I am posting some extracts from an article by Sam Harris, which can be found here. Harris argues for a case that I, at the moment, believe in myself. All morality is about or should be about human well-being and flourishing (or as Harris says, of all conscious beings). All systems of morality that do not lead to human well-being are worth discarding. Anyone who says human well-being shouldn't be our goal is someone who ought to be ignored. Because what is purpose and point of asking "How would we ought to behave?" if the answer is not to maximize human well-being. Of course, there are serious and genuine issues of deciding of what 'well-being' is, and determining how it can be maximized, and whether there is only one way of achieving that or more than one. These are all genuine difficulties and must be addressed, but it also true that facts about what leads to human well-being are not a matter of clueless opinions, and moral systems which do not lead to human well-being can be identified and rejected. For instance, despite our difficulty in defining well-being, we can immediately see that a society that allows slavery and legalizes rape is not a society that promotes human well-being, and we can reject their morality without hesitation. These issues and related ones are discussed by Sam Harris. If you find the extracts interesting, please do read the whole article for more clarity and understanding.

P.S. I think Harris complicates matters unnecessarily by insisting it is an issue of 'science'. Even if it is not entirely in the domain of science, his ideas make sense philosophically.

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I was suggesting that science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want -- and, perforce, what other people should do and want in order to live the best lives possible. My claim is that 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 the mind....

Science simply represents our best effort to understand what is going on in this universe, and the boundary between it and the rest of rational thought cannot always be drawn. There are many tools one must get in hand to think scientifically -- ideas about cause and effect, respect for evidence and logical coherence, a dash of curiosity and intellectual honesty, the inclination to make falsifiable predictions, etc. -- and many come long before one starts worrying about mathematical models or specific data....

Many of my critics also fail to distinguish between there being no answers in practice and no answers in principle to certain questions about the nature of reality. Only the latter questions are "unscientific," and there are countless facts to be known in principle that we will never know in practice. Exactly how many birds are in flight over the surface of the earth at this instant? What is their combined weight in grams? We cannot possibly answer such questions, but they have simple, numerical answers. Does our inability to gather the relevant data oblige us to respect all opinions equally? For instance, how seriously should we take the claim that there are exactly 23,000 birds in flight at this moment, and, as they are all hummingbirds weighing exactly 2 grams, their total weight is 46,000 grams? It should be obvious that this is a ridiculous assertion. We can, therefore, decisively reject answers to questions that we cannot possibly answer in practice. This is a perfectly reasonable, scientific, and often necessary thing to do. And yet, many scientists will say that moral truths do not exist, simply because certain facts about human experience cannot be readily known, or may never be known....

When I speak of there being right and wrong answers to questions of morality, I am saying that there are facts about human and animal well-being that we can, in principle, know--simply because well-being (and states of consciousness altogether) must lawfully relate to states of the brain and to states of the world....

[My claim is that] well-being is what we can intelligibly value--and "morality" (whatever people's associations with this term happen to be) really relates to the intentions and behaviors that affect the well-being of conscious creatures.... all the people who claim to have alternative sources of morality (like the Word of God) are, in every case that I am aware of, only concerned about well-being anyway: They just happen to believe that the universe functions in such a way as to place the really important changes in conscious experience after death (i.e. in heaven or hell). And those philosophical efforts that seek to put morality in terms of duty, fairness, justice, or some other principle that is not explicitly tied to the well-being of conscious creatures--are, nevertheless, parasitic on some notion of well-being in the end (I argue this point at greater length in my book. And yes, I've read Rawls, Nozick, and Parfit)....

Those who assumed that any emphasis on human "well-being" would lead us to enslave half of humanity, or harvest the organs of the bottom ten percent, or nuke the developing world, or nurture our children a continuous drip of heroin are, it seems to me, not really thinking about these issues seriously. It seems rather obvious that fairness, justice, compassion, and a general awareness of terrestrial reality have rather a lot to do with our creating a thriving global civilization -- and, therefore, with the greater well-being of humanity. And, as I emphasized in my talk, there may be many different ways for individuals and communities to thrive -- many peaks on the moral landscape -- so if there is real diversity in how people can be deeply fulfilled in life, this diversity can be accounted for and honored in the context of science....

But the deeper objection raised by scientists like Carroll is that the link I have drawn between values and well-being seems arbitrary, or otherwise in need of justification. What if certain people insist that their "values" or "morality" have nothing to do with well-being? What if a man like Jefferey Dahmer says, "The only peaks on the moral landscape that interest me are ones where I get to murder young men and have sex with their corpses." This possibility -- the prospect of radically different moral preferences -- seems to be at the heart of many people's concerns....

... there are trained "scientists" who are Biblical Creationists, and their scientific thinking is purposed not toward a dispassionate study of the universe, but toward interpreting the data of science to fit the Biblical account of creation. Such people claim to be doing "science," of course -- but real scientists are free, and indeed obligated, to point out that they are misusing the term. Similarly, there are people who claim to be highly concerned about "morality" and "human values," but when we see that they are more concerned about condom use than they are about child rape (e.g. the Catholic Church), we should feel free to say that they are misusing the term "morality," or that their values are distorted....

Everyone has an intuitive "physics," but much of our intuitive physics is wrong (with respect to the goal of describing the behavior of matter), and only physicists have a deep understanding of the laws that govern the behavior of matter in our universe. Everyone also has an intuitive "morality," but much intuitive morality is wrong (with respect to the goal of maximizing personal and collective well-being) and only genuine moral experts would have a deep understanding of the causes and conditions of human and animal well-being....

So what about people who think that morality has nothing to do with anyone's well-being? I am saying that we need not worry about them -- just as we don't worry about the people who think that their "physics" is synonymous with astrology, or sympathetic magic, or Vedanta....

One of my critics put the concern this way: "Why should human well-being matter to us?" Well, why should logical coherence matter to us? Why should historical veracity matter to us? Why should experimental evidence matter to us? These are profound and profoundly stupid questions. No framework of knowledge can withstand such skepticism, for none is perfectly self-justifying. Without being able to stand entirely outside of a framework, one is always open to the charge that the framework rests on nothing, that its axioms are wrong, or that there are foundational questions it cannot answer. So what? Science and rationality generally are based on intuitions and concepts that cannot be reduced or justified. Just try defining "causation" in non-circular terms. If you manage it, I really want hear from you.... Seen in this light, moral relativism should be no more tempting than physical, biological, mathematical, or logical relativism. There are better and worse ways to define our terms; there are more and less coherent ways to think about reality; and there are--is there any doubt about this?--many ways to seek fulfillment in this life and not find it....

And while people like Bundy may want some very weird things out of life, no one wants utter, interminable misery. And if someone claims to want this, we are free to treat them like someone who claims to believe that 2 + 2 = 5 or that all events are self-caused. On the subject of morality, as on every other subject, some people are not worth listening to....

Carroll writes:
But what if I believe that the highest moral good is to be found in the autonomy of the individual, while you believe that the highest good is to maximize the utility of some societal group? What are the data we can point to in order to adjudicate this disagreement?... It's ultimately a personal choice, not an objective truth to be found simply by looking closely at the world. How are we to balance individual rights against the collective good? You can do all the experiments you like and never find an answer to that question....

Again, we see the confusion between no answers in practice and no answers in principle. The fact that it could be difficult or impossible to know exactly how to maximize human well-being does not mean that there are no right or wrong ways to do this--nor does it mean that we cannot exclude certain answers as obviously bad. The fact that it might be difficult to decide exactly how to balance individual rights against collective good, or that there might be a thousand equivalent ways of doing this, does not mean that we must hesitate to condemn the morality of the Taliban, or the Nazis, or the Ku Klux Klan -- not just personally, but from the point of view of science. As I said at TED, the moment we admit that there is anything to know about human well-being, we must admit that certain individuals or cultures might not know it.

It is also worth noticing that Carroll has set the epistemological bar higher for morality than he has for any other branch of science. He asks, "Who decides what is a successful life?" Well, who decides what is coherent argument? Who decides what constitutes empirical evidence? Who decides when our memories can be trusted? The answer is, "we do." And if you are not satisfied with this answer, you have just wiped out all of science, mathematics, history, journalism, and every other human effort to make sense of reality....

Fanciers of Hume's is/ought distinction never seem to realize what the stakes are, and they do not see what an abject failure of compassion their intellectual "tolerance" of moral difference amounts to. While much of this debate must be had in academic terms, this is not merely an academic debate. There are women and girls getting their faces burned off with acid at this moment for daring to learn to read, or for not consenting to marry men they have never met, or even for the crime of getting raped. Look into their eyes, and tell me that what has been done to them is the product of an alternative moral code every bit as authentic and philosophically justifiable as your own....

I once spoke at an academic conference on themes similar to those I discussed at TED -- my basic claim being that once we have a more complete understanding of human well-being, ranging from its underlying neurophysiology to the political systems and economic policies that best safeguard it, we will be able to make strong claims about which cultural practices are good for humanity and which aren't. I then made what I thought would be a quite incontestable assertion: we already have good reason to believe that certain cultures are less suited to maximizing well-being than others. I cited the ruthless misogyny and religious bamboozlement of the Taliban as an example of a worldview that seems less than perfectly conducive to human flourishing....

As it turns out, to denigrate the Taliban at a scientific meeting is to court controversy (after all, "Who decides what is a successful life?") At the conclusion of my talk, I fell into debate with another invited speaker... Here is a snippet of our conversation, more or less verbatim:

She: What makes you think that science will ever be able to say that forcing women to wear burqas is wrong?

Me: Because I think that right and wrong are a matter of increasing or decreasing well-being--and it is obvious that forcing half the population to live in cloth bags, and beating or killing them if they refuse, is not a good strategy for maximizing human well-being.

She: But that's only your opinion.

Me: Okay... Let's make it even simpler. What if we found a culture that ritually blinded every third child by literally plucking out his or her eyes at birth, would you then agree that we had found a culture that was needlessly diminishing human well-being?

She: It would depend on why they were doing it.

Me (slowly returning my eyebrows from the back of my head): Let's say they were doing it on the basis of religious superstition. In their scripture, God says, "Every third must walk in darkness."

She: Then you could never say that they were wrong.

... the most basic facts about human flourishing must transcend culture, just as most other facts do.

Comments

tehzib said…
There's nothing new in what he's saying. The utilitarians have tended to care about well-being, as have virtue ethicists, albeit differently.

Science (or any discipline concerned with learning the way things are) cannot entail an ethical position, except some sort of contractarianism, which is profoundly unsatisfactory (many counterexamples).

The only way to have objective morality is to have it matter to some sentient entity, itself of transcendental importance, what happens and what doesn't. If morality is just based on human opinion, you end up with either relativism or contractarianism, both of which are unsatisfactory.
tehzib said…
Actually virtue ethics might be an exception. Anyway, I'll think about this issue if I have to; for now I'm preparing Christmas stuff :P.
Awais Aftab said…
Yes, the idea isn't particularly new, but there is a freshness to this approach as well.

Science (or any discipline concerned with learning the way things are) cannot entail an ethical position.

Yes, science cannot itself do that. But once we decide that "well-being" is the goal, science and rationality can help us figure out and analyze what are best ways to achieve that. Psychologists have already been studying happiness and well-being. Science cannot tell us that morality should be about well-being, but it can tell us what are the ways to achieve that.

It is like Virtue Ethics in reverse. Virtue Ethics says that we should be virtuous because virtue leads to Eudaimonia.

Harris's approach is like:
* The goal of morality is Well-being
* Science (and rationality) can help us figure what leads to Well-being and what doesn't.
* What leads to well-being would be the moral thing to do.

It is mind-blowing simple and amazing! At least for me.

The idea that morality should be about Well-being is not merely an opinion. It is the only intelligible answer. What else would a secular morality be about if it is not about Well-being?
tehzib said…
Personal well-being, sure. But, as inclined as we may be to care for others' well-being, we cannot make a case for it from a secular perspective.

I'm surprised that you're coming across this idea now. I've been thinking about morality in terms of well-being since my teenage years.

Sam Harris seems to be a utilitarian. The goal of utilitarianism is also maximum happiness. Interpreted a bit more cleverly, and you end up with what Sam Harris states. To be honest I consider Harris to be a very poor philosopher, but that's another topic.
Awais Aftab said…
No, this isn't the first time i have come across the idea, but this is the first time I have come across the idea presented in this manner.

It sounds similar to utilitarianism, but it is not. There is something very narrow about utilitarianism, almost mathematical, about weighing happiness of some against some. This narrowness is lacking here, because Harris isn't giving a precise morality, he is indicating a general direction. Utilitarianism suggests a way to achieve Well-being by its principle of 'greatest happiness of the greatest number' but its not the perfect way or the only way. Kantian morality also leads to Well-being, even though that is not the direct intention. So do other moral systems. All moral theories are competing theories aiming at Well-being. We may never arrive at a single perfect theory, but we can nevertheless identify and condemn those moralities which decrease Well-being, such as intolerant religious morality of fundamentalists. Just as not having a Grand Unified Theory of Universe doesn't prevent us from rejecting Astrology.

There is no answer to moral skepticism. Not even God is a satisfactory answer. But just like epistemological skepticism doesn't prevent us from doing science, moral skepticism shouldn't prevent us being moral.

As to the question of why we should care for Well-being of others, there can be several answers:
* Most people are naturally inclined to care for others, in variable degrees, and for most people it is obvious that we should care for others. Call it morality for the sake of morality.
* Perhaps it can be shown that a genuine concern for Well-being of others in addition to our own contributes to our own Well-being. Virtue Ethics already says so, and there has been some work in the psychology of happiness that suggests similar things.
* A functional society is to the advantage of an Individual, and a functional society requires a functional social morality incorporating the idea of social Well-being.

Perhaps there can be more answers to this, but only these come to my mind at the moment.

Moral relativism is false. We don't need a God-based morality to show that. In fact, all God-based moralities are insufficient, because morality doesn't come from God*. Morality comes from human nature. Morality is a part of being human. The only 'objectivity' morality can hope for is the objectivity of being rooted in human nature, and that objectivity suffices for me.

* speaking in a non-panentheistic manner
tehzib said…
"There is no answer to moral skepticism. Not even God is a satisfactory answer."

Why not?

Epistemological skepticism ought to prevent people from doing science, or at least taking its results seriously. But there is an answer to epistemological skepticism, and also to moral skepticism. Sam Harris does not provide an answer to the latter, and he cannot until he introduces God into the equation.

* You'd be surprised at how immoral most people are, especially when they can get away with it. Morality is not merely about cultivating friendships. One has to be moral to animals and those outside of one's community. Many cultures are extremely barbaric to those outside their community, and sometimes even to those within. For example, there are tribes that practice cannibalism, as well as people who keep animals in factory farms. All societies are, and always have been, patriarchal.

* Only up to a point. But your average person can get away with being immoral in a number of ways, while still being 'happy' in the conventional sense.

You're right that virtue ethics (not exactly what Sam Harris presented, though similar in some respects) is a solution to the why-be-moral problem, but the only way to develop a conception of the good life that would lead to what is intuitively moral, is to include a relationship with God as part of that flourishing. Spirituality has to enter the equation at some point, otherwise it's difficult to see why a person's well-being depends on being kind to animals. The spiritual answer, and the truth, is that kindness opens a person at the heart chakra and often brings out their soul, which leads to an awareness of God's presence, and spiritual fulfillment... on the materialistic view the best anyone can say is some crap about endorphins or dopamine. So even though virtue ethics does have the right structure to answer the why-be-moral problem, the substance cannot be filled on any materialistic worldview. Remember that one of the oldest and most influential virtue ethicists is Plato, who was by no means a materialist.

* This doesn't work, for obvious reasons. Morality is not about getting along with others. You can have a functional society that is complete hell in a lot of respects. You know this as well as I, and I'm sure you can see why the contractarianism you imply is not satisfactory.

God is not only sufficient, but necessary for morality. There is no morality without God, and when there is God, there is morality.
Awais Aftab said…
In these comments, I am not exactly representing Sam Harris, but rather I'm taking his essential case, justifying it and building up on that.

Why God doesn't provide an answer to moral skepticism?
With regard to the traditional notion of God, as a being distinct from the universe, and present "outside", while commanding us to do this and that, Plato's Euthyphro argument is sufficient to show that such a God can only 'endorse' a morality, but cannot explain the basis of morality. [I suppose I don't need to explain Euthyphro argument? I can, if you want.] Furthermore, just because God says "You ought to do X" doesn't answer the question "Why be moral?", because a person can just as simply say "Why ought I obey God?"

Regarding the relationship with God as a part of flourishing, I will come to that.

* You'd be surprised at how immoral most people are, especially when they can get away with it.

Just as the rational capacities of people differ, similarly the moral capacities of people also differ. Some people will always be less moral than others. There is no avoiding that. People cannot be forced to be moral. But they can and ought to be stopped from harming the well-being of others, and a society that aims at maximizing Well-being will not just favor more individual liberty, but will also balance it with safe-guards to prevent people from harming each other.

Only up to a point. But your average person can get away with being immoral in a number of ways, while still being 'happy' in the conventional sense.

Yes, that is why conventional sense of 'happy' provides an inadequate conception of Well-being.

the only way to develop a conception of the good life that would lead to what is intuitively moral, is to include a relationship with God as part of that flourishing. Spirituality has to enter the equation at some point, otherwise it's difficult to see why a person's well-being depends on being kind to animals.

Yes, i agree that spirituality would have to enter the equation at some point, because any person who realizes the reality of spirituality would realize that spiritual well-being would need to be incorporated into the concept of Well-being.

However, to say that "You should care for other people and animals because without it you cannot have spiritual well-being" still does not provide an adequate answer to the moral skeptic, because he can just as easily say "Fine, I don't give a shit about spiritual well-being. I am just going to be cruel to other people and animals, and I can live without spiritual well-being." What possibly can you say to that? The question "why be moral?" remains unanswered. On the other hand, we see many Atheists being kind to animals and advocating animal rights, without the promise of either spiritual fulfillment or heaven. This shows to me that morality in its purest form doesn't need 'external' justification.


You can have a functional society that is complete hell in a lot of respects.

The issue is not of mere functionality. A society that is a hell wouldn't maximize Individual Well-being either. Maximizing individual well-being requires the existence of a society. Only a society that maximizes individual well-being would be capable of providing a rational incentive to a person who wishes to maximize his own well-being to contribute to making that society functional.
tehzib said…
1. Why should we talk only about the conventional monotheistic view? Your original assertion was that God cannot provide a basis for objective morality. This assertion is incorrect.

The Euthyphro dilemma is a false one (i.e. a false dilemma). As long as God is the basis for our moral judgments, it is impossible for such to conflict with God's will. This can happen if our moral judgments are based on natural law, or based on moral intuitions that originate from a Divine nature within us. The latter is what I believe, and in light of it the Euthyphro dilemma doesn't apply (i.e. it's a false dilemma).

2. How do you know who's judgment is more or less moral? Wouldn't you need an external measure, then, with which you judge people's moral judgments? If so, doesn't this lead to an infinite regress? The only way you can have this external measure is if you have an objective, human-independent source of morality.

3. A person who doesn't care about spiritual well-being will have to suffer bad karma (including hell-states). Such a person will be separated from God and will therefore be in torment. Your point actually helps my case, since with God you can answer the moral skeptic, but without God you can't.

The why-be-moral problem is indeed solved by bringing God into the equation. I have shown this above. As for atheists behaving morally: yes, they do, because they've thought about five minutes on this topic, and so don't realize the implications of their own atheism. The atheist still has a soul, he is still made in the image of God, and he is still being moved by the Divine nature within himself to behave in these good ways. He may also be being moved by God externally, for example through the Holy Spirit.

4. People do not need other people's maximum well-being for their own maximum well-being. They simply need not to displease people so much that they are ostracized, and maybe to maintain good friendships.
tehzib said…
Sorry for the bad spelling and grammar, I'm a bit ill.

I meant 'whose judgments', not 'who's judgments'.

Also, I meant to say: "Your point actually helps my case, since it shows that with God you can answer the moral skeptic, but without God you can't."
Awais Aftab said…
1. The Euthyphro dilemma is a false one (i.e. a false dilemma). As long as God is the basis for our moral judgments, it is impossible for such to conflict with God's.

The way our moral intuitions are (based on God's will), could they have been (hypothetically) different from what they are now? In fact, could they have been the very opposite? Could God have willed cruelty and rape to be moral and compassion to be immoral? If yes, then this would be a very odd horrible image of Deity, going against all known notions, and one hardly worthy of worship. And if no, then why not? If all morality depends on is God's will, then why can not God will cruelty and rape to be moral? And if God willed our current moral intuitions for so-and-so reason (most likely because they lead to our Well-being) then that so-and-so reason (Well-being) is the basis of morality.

2. How do you know who's judgment is more or less moral? Wouldn't you need an external measure, then, with which you judge people's moral judgments? If so, doesn't this lead to an infinite regress? The only way you can have this external measure is if you have an objective, human-independent source of morality.

How do you know who's judgment is more or less rational? Wouldn't you need an external measure, then, with which you judge people's rationality? If so, doesn't this lead to an infinite regress? The only way you can have this external measure is if you have an objective, human-independent source of rationality.

Now, you may say in response to this that 'Yes, God is the objective, human-independent source of rationality', but atheists don't, and yet they are quite fully capable of being rational. In a similar way, one may claim that God is the objective, human independent source of morality, and yet a disbelief in that wouldn't prevent anyone from being moral, just as having no 'objective' source of rationality prevents anyone from being rational.

3. A person who doesn't care about spiritual well-being will have to suffer bad karma (including hell-states). Such a person will be separated from God and will therefore be in torment. Your point actually helps my case, since with God you can answer the moral skeptic, but without God you can't.

This will only answer the question "Why should I care for Well-being of others?" provided one believes in the truth of this. [Majority don't and won't. At least for recent time to come. So I don't think this can provided an adequate basis for a universal morality. Furthermore, I don't think this sort of incentive based on punishment has much moral value: when people act morally because of fear of punishment, they are only liable to do superficially and hypocritically, which isn't very moral. Also, I don't think this fear of metaphysical punishment is that much of an incentive in practice, as most of the criminals are religious believers with a firm belief in Hell, and yet they commit crimes.]

But a moral skeptic can still ask: "Why should I care for my own Well-being?"
There is nothing strictly irrational about this question.
Awais Aftab said…
4. People do not need other people's maximum well-being for their own maximum well-being. They simply need not to displease people so much that they are ostracized, and maybe to maintain good friendships.

If everyone would work towards maximizing their own well-being without decreasing that of others, I would be very satisfied with that as a bare minimum. And add to this the other two points of helping others leading to our own well-being, and natural inclinations towards morality, the result won't be that bad at all. If secular morality can achieve even that much, that is a huge thing.

The atheist still has a soul, he is still made in the image of God, and he is still being moved by the Divine nature within himself to behave in these good ways.

True, but the Atheist does not see God, he only sees his human nature and the innate moral sense. Which shows that even this objectivity of morality being rooted in human nature is sufficient for a workable morality.

By all this, I do not intend to say that God-based spirituality is wrong. But God works through human nature, so a morality that bases itself on being rooted in human nature is also indirectly a morality rooted in God. The mechanism of secular and spiritual morality is the same... the underlying concept of Well-being. And this morality of well-being can provide a universal morality, a morality for all, whether theist or atheist.
Awais Aftab said…
The problem is that your conception of morality has nothing to offer to a person who doesn't agree with your mystic metaphysics. This reduces it is a solution that is workable only for you. This is something which I don't accept, because I believe that morality essentially transcends the theistic/atheistic divide.

My aim is to show that a secular morality is capable of functioning not only independently, but also within the framework of mystic metaphysics. A morality of Well-being can function even better in the context of spirituality, but that doesn't mean that it cannot function at all divorced from God. It can function and it is functioning. You may find that level of functioning to be inadequate, but others do not, and whatever that level of functioning is, it is definitely a thousand degree better than the alternative of moral relativism.
tehzib said…
Apparently there was something wrong with that comment. Let me try to paste it in bits.

1. The only way our (deepest, most genuine) moral intuitions could have been different is if God was different. God could not have been any different. Also, God has an orderly and intelligible nature, so he is not 'capable' of doing just anything.

2a. Easily. Pragmatic rationality is determined by the relationship of the means to the end. This can be determined by the usual methods we have for gaining knowledge. There is no circularity here.

You can't say the same thing about morality though. On the secular view you either have an inadequate virtue ethical philosophy, or contractarianism. Contractarianism is quite abhorrent, and leads to counterintuitive results.

2b. I've already addressed the point about atheists being moral and rational.

3a. Yes, of course not everyone agrees with me. It's not a refutation to someone's argument to say: not everyone agrees with you.

3b. If your point is that one requires belief in hell-states in order to be moral, that's a separate issue. You're now getting into the pragmatic issue of enforcement, whereas I'm talking about moral ontology. The fact that sin leads people to face separation from God is true independently of whether people believe it.

3c. The hell-states point is not about incentives based on punishment. If it is, then so is your point about well-being! A hell-state is one where there is very little well-being. The structure of my answer is essentially a virtue-ethical one, but I believe the only way you can have a satisfactory virtue ethical philosophy is if your concept of flourishing includes an idea of God in it. I have made a diagram to illustrate this point, but I don't know how to put it here.

3d. Yes, there is everything irrational about that. Having goals is tied up in existing (as an acting being). You cannot genuinely desire your own unhappiness, since your desires are by their very nature geared toward your happiness. If you did not value your own well-being, you could not value anything; and if you did not desire your own happiness, you could not desire anything. In other words, disregarding your own happiness or well-being is an ontological impossibility.
tehzib said…
4a. The results won't be that bad, because people's intuitions are strong, and there has been a lot of moral progress (by the Grace of God), especially over the last century. Secular people reap what they did not sow, but that is okay ("I sent you to reap that for which you have not labored; others have labored, and you have entered into their labors.” -- John 4:38). It is actually the Enlightened ones who are doing the heavy lifting, with no acknowledgement from anyone else, while people who have played basically no role in it congratulate themselves on how intuitively moral they are.

4b. A secular morality may be workable, but it will not be optimum, because a secular conception of well-being will always be weak and incomplete. Further, a secular ontology cannot account for why individual well-being is tied in such things as being compassionate to animals; so a theistic metaphysics is superior in its explanatory power, as well as in the morality that comes from it.

God does not merely work through human nature, btw. He does that, but He also works directly upon people who open up to Him.

4c. I'm not sure what you mean by this. Are you implying that I should only believe what everybody else believes? Morality does work across the atheist/theist divide, but if the atheist is simply wrong, then there's nothing I can do about it. This is a matter of objective truth, and if someone isn't on board with it, then they better get on board with it.
tehzib said…
I just realized something else. Since a secular morality is based on human nature, if human nature were different, the morality would have been different as well. Human nature is in fact different across cultures, in a number of respects. For example, some societies are more collectivistic and others more individualistic, and people's notions of well-being differ accordingly. Divine nature cannot be different than what it is, and is at least human-independent, so a theistic morality will transcend culture and species-specific characteristics. Hence, a secular morality of well-being would still not be objective, even if it transcended cultures (which it does not).
Awais Aftab said…
The discussion is branching out a lot. Let me try to condense it again, because I think we are at an agreement.

This is my current position, evolved as a result of this discussion:

* Morality works across the atheist/theist divide. One doesn't need to believe in God to act morally. One can simply follow one's moral intuitions and instincts. However, an Atheist wouldn't have any justification for those moral intuitions, while a Theist would.

* Every person ought to value his/her own well-being is a self-evident maxim. Therefore, as far as morality leads to individual well-being, there is no problem of justification for an Atheist.

When the question arises "Why should one care for well-being of others?", the Atheist can justify it using a combination of natural inclinations, virtue ethics and contractarianism. The over-all result would be workable, but it would not be optimum.

To make it optimum, we must include the concept of relationship with God as a part of Well-being, which would also reveal that caring for well-being of others leads to our own spiritual well-being, hence linking the Well-being of others with our own.

So, we can say that:
Morality, both theistic and atheistic, depends on the concept of aiming at Well-being.

However, the Theistic morality has the advantage that:
1. It provides a justification for natural human moral intuitions, and has a greater explanatory power of explaining why morality is linked to individual well-being.
2. It provides a solid link between individual well-being and well-being of others.
3. Theistic morality also recognizes spiritual well-being, while Atheistic morality can only recognize physical and psychological well-being.

Is there something above that you would disagree with?
tehzib said…
Ok, let me tell you where I stand on each one of those propositions.

* Yes, I agree. Moral behaviour does not require belief in God.

* Yes, that sounds about right.

Your summation is good. I can't think of anything I disagree with in it.

An example might help to illustrate the point. On my worldview (which is the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother), we have a 'psychic being' (soul). Realizing and being in tune with this leads to a very high level of well-being that cannot be experienced atheistically -- i.e. we experience it in relation to God, usually through a mystical experience, and once it awakens the knowledge of God is inherent in it. The psychic being by its nature is very compassionate, since it is the Divine nature, and God is compassionate. Thus, the more you are being moved by your psychic being, the more compassionately you will behave and feel.

It is not just that compassion contributes to one's own psychic emergence (the coming forth of our psychic being), but that a necessary condition for psychic emergence is a sufficient condition for compassion.
tehzib said…
Sorry I made an error in that last paragraph. I meant:

"It is not just that compassion contributes to one's own spiritual flourishing, but that a necessary condition for spiritual flourishing is psychic emergence, which is a sufficient condition for compassion."