The Moral Landscape – Part 1: Good Life vs. Bad Life

the-moral-landscapeAs a concluding summation, Harris asserted an (1) objective morality, which was (2) determined by science because (3) values are a type of fact, and are thus measurable and informative for the concern of the maximal well-being of conscious creatures. The first premise is uncontested by Christian theism and adamantly affirmed; but the second premise is the source of disagreement, and as the third premise is utilized to prove the second premise, the third premise must be the focus of analysis.

The Good Life vs. The Bad Life

The route to viewing the relationship between facts and values must be prefaced by one of Harris’ introductory claims:

For my argument about the moral landscape to hold, I think one need only grant two points: (1) some people have better lives than others, and (2) these differences relate, in some lawful and not entirely arbitrary way, to states of the human brain and to states of the world.[1]

The first point is the assumption of an objective well-being, which Harris equates to an objective morality. Objectivity gives the possibility of such measurements of ‘better’ and ‘worse.’ The second point is the assumption that the objective can then be measured by science, because well-being is related to states of the human brain and its environment. Where is the contention? Truly, it is not with either of these premises, because the Christian theist does not deny that there are ‘better’ and ‘worse’ conditions of human well-being, or that science can measure and inform how human beings can better flourish. In the examples of the ‘bad life’ and the ‘good life,’ there is hardly anyone who deny that the ‘good life’ is better than the ‘bad life.’ [2]

The problem is, however, that the examples paint the picture of circumstances of human flourishing, and the talk of the main character’s morality, especially in regards to his or her moral agency, is wholly absent. The question remains how human well-being (flourishing) concerns morality; and the simple equivocation of the two by Harris does not solve the reconciliation. Of course, mostly all conscious creatures strive for the Good Life as opposed to the Bad Life, but how does the pursuit of morality relate to the pursuit of well-being? The Christian theist asserts that the pursuit of the non-moral ‘good’ – i.e. a thing’s fitness to achieve the end for which it was designed – is within and subsumed by the pursuit of the moral good. In other words, the pursuit of human flourishing is a component of the pursuit of human morality. Thus, there is a relationship between the two, but there is also an apparent distinction. Harris, however, building off the recognized relationship between human flourishing and human morality, simply nullifies the distinction and equivocates the pursuits – i.e. the pursuit of human flourishing is the pursuit of human morality. In a profound sense, this maneuver by Harris allowed him to note the obvious – the relation between human flourishing and human morality – and appeal to the common agreement, but moreover (rather sneakily) expel any distinction between the two. Austerely, he allowed the agreed upon relation to abolish the distinction. Harris continually utilized such a tactic throughout his book, and it provided some significant confusion. His blurred line between moral ‘good’ and non-moral ‘good’ (human flourishing) allowed him to speak of the latter under the guise of the former, which supplied the ability to speak of science as determining the moral ‘good’ when it truly is restricted to determining non-moral ‘good.’

[1] Ibid., 15.

[2] Even in the religious concern for the afterlife, there is a pursuit of the good life over the bad life. Harris, however, rather than leave religion be, claimed that such an extension renders a pursuit of the ‘bad life’ on earth. Harris provided the possible exception that people in the Bad Life would achieve some greater happiness in an afterlife; but rightfully noted, this extension does not challenge his “basic claim around the connection between facts and values” (Ibid., 18). Therefore, in such a scenario, Harris’ essential claim would remain true, but it would be radically altered given the universality of things – i.e. the particular assessment of human well-being would become subordinate to the universal assessment of well-being. However, if the particular Bad Life could lead to an ultimate Good Life, what would this do to the designation of the Bad Life? Harris recognized, as a kind of misnomer, “then the Bad Life would surely be better than the Good Life” (Ibid., 18). As it logically follows, if this were the case, “we would be morally obliged to engineer an appropriately pious Bad Life for as many people as possible” (Ibid., 18.) However, why does the idea of an afterlife render the Good Life as the Bad Life? Harris marked the Bad Life as the Good Life in regards to the ultimate life – afterlife added to earthly life – but continued to mark the absurdity of the Bad Life as the Good Life in regards to particular life (earthly life). Yet the Bad Life as the Good Life is not absurd given the universality of life considered. He extends the possible limitations of life, which thus extends the determined valuation of life, and then retracts the limitations and renders the life with extended limitations as absurd. His resulting obligation of engineering maximal Bad Life is not a necessary obligation given the extended limitations of life into the idea of an afterlife. Simply because it is possible for the earthly Bad Life to be considered the Good Life when considered ultimately, such a possibility does not, therefore, necessitate that the earthly Bad Life is the Good Life when considered ultimately. Surely, it is just as possible for the earthly Good Life to be within the ultimate Good Life. The essential difference is that the idea of the afterlife extends one’s valuation of life as good or bad beyond temporal and earthly circumstances, and that such earthly and temporal circumstances do not determine one’s value of life. Therefore, just as the earthly Good Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life, the earthly Bad Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life. The proposition can be expressed as such: (A) The idea of the afterlife extends one’s valuation of life as good or bad beyond temporal and earthly circumstances. (B) Therefore, the earthly Good Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life. (C) Therefore, the earthly Bad Life does not determine the ultimate Good Life. Harris failed to recognize that the idea of the afterlife (A) equally supports both B and C, whereby pursuing an earthly Bad Life is as inconsequential in determining the ultimate Good Life as pursuing an earthly Good Life. Therefore, Harris’ claim that the idea of an afterlife morally obligates mankind “to engineer an appropriately pious Bad Life for as many people as possible” is misleading and utterly incorrect.

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