The Bad Life, the Good Life, and Moral Realism

When I was in high school, my grandparents took me on a trip to the American Southwest to attend a Quaker retreat. (These were the same long-suffering grandparents who took me to the eclipse that I missed while standing right under it.) I remember them asking what I thought of medical missionaries like Albert Schweitzer, who devoted his life to relieving the suffering of the poor.  A particularly obnoxious evangelical at the time, I answered that any missionary who merely did “good works” but did not concern himself with the saving of souls was wasting his time.

To me, good works did not even count unless performed in the context of glorifying God or leading people to him.

And then there’s the matter of motive. I recall learning at the summer camp where I became a Christian that even our good works are actually selfish, for our motive is to make ourselves feel good.

As the Bible says, “Our righteousness is as filthy rags.”

My earlier views embarrass me now, but at least I got one thing right: moral truths really do exist. I remain convinced of this even though I have cut the line to the Christian faith that was once my anchor. Why do I still believe in right and wrong? If morality is not grounded in glorifying God, how can it objectively exist?

In The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris invites us to imagine two lives: a Bad one endured by a refugee of guerrilla war in Africa whose husband and children have been hacked to death by machetes; and a Good one enjoyed in the midst of loving family, rewarding work, and excellent health.

Surely, he argues, someone who seeks to move as many people as possible from the Bad Life to the Good is on a better moral track than someone who seeks to immiserate all and sundry. And since what makes a life Good or Bad is nothing more nor less than the brain state of the person living it, and brain state is a physical fact about the world, we can see that morality is ultimately anchored in hard facts. Moral facts are exactly as real as facts about our blood pressure or oxytocin levels.

There are many possible objections to this argument, and I’ll consider some in upcoming posts. For now, I’ll illustrate with what Dr. Harris would say to a hard-core evangelical like my former self.

A theist, he says, merely expands the notion of brain-state to include God’s brain. Thus, moral realism continues to be grounded on the brain-states of conscious beings.

One can do similar jiu jitsu to accommodate an afterlife: simply expand the time-span for measuring brain state.

Having subscribed to both secular and religious morality at different times in my life, I confess that I find Dr. Harris’s attempts to reconcile them to be slightly artificial. Although including God’s brain-state and an eternal time-frame in one’s considerations may reconcile the approaches in theory, the theist’s tools for learning about the unseen are so different from the ways we learn about each other here on Earth, that they feel like completely different systems in practice.

Maybe that will be a good place to begin the next post: contrasting faith-based morality with morality based on elevating the well-being of conscious, mortal creatures.

In the meantime, how about you? Do you believe that moral facts are just as real as physical ones? Do you buy Sam Harris’s argument that they are related?

6 responses to “The Bad Life, the Good Life, and Moral Realism

  1. So, this is eliminativism but for an underlying assumption of type physicalism, with its associated problems. No moral facts. Relational properties, sure, but not moral data.

    • Having looked up “eliminativism” 🙂 I’m quite sure that it does not describe my position, nor Sam Harris’s. Would you be kind enough to explain in more detail?

      As for there being “moral facts,” I did say in my post that moral facts are “exactly as real as facts about our blood pressure or oxytocin levels.” Maybe you would explain how I came across as saying that there are “No moral facts. Relational properties, sure, but not moral data.”

      Thank you for your comment; I hope you’ll take the time to elaborate.

      • Sorry, I didn’t mean to accuse you of eliminativism. I think Harris is toying with it though. If moral facts are facts about brain states, why can’t we finally just drop the moral language used to describe them and talk in neuropsych. terms? Unless there is some stereotypical coincidence that makes the moral language indispensable, it seems we could do away with it. He is a utilitarian, so I think he is making some such claim: that there is a quantifiable Good Brain State.
        As for the second part, I’m speaking for myself. I don’t think that there is moral data; only relational properties exist. (You asked…) 🙂

  2. Pingback: Faith-Based Morality | Path of the Beagle

  3. Hey, great posts!

    I just wanted to chime in on the problems of a “theistic utilitarianism” (for lack of a better term). If you attempt to include god(s) in the list of brain-states worth considering, or if you extend the time line to include all eternities and afterlives, it becomes impossible to calculate positive and negative actions. If you can say that some action can bring infinite happiness to an infinitely conscious god(s) for an infinite period of time, then such action would be morally obligitory regardless of how much harm it causes to us finite people on earth. The same applies in reverse- if an act is objectionable to god(s), then no amount of human happiness can make it worth it. I think this is one of the main flaws in Harris’ reckoning- he underestimates how large a god looms in a believers moral landscape.

    • >> I think this is one of the main flaws in Harris’ reckoning- he underestimates how large a god looms in a believers moral landscape.

      Very well-put!

      Thanks for your comments and encouragement.

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