Good and Evil vs Well-Being

In his book, The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris asks a provocative question:

What would our world be like if we ceased to worry about “right” and “wrong” or “good” and “evil” and simply acted so as to maximize well-being, our own that that of others? Would we lose anything important?

Surly the strongest objection to Harris’s proposal would come from the religious. Based on my own experience in the evangelical church, I know they would protest that a focus on well-being alone would cause us to miss a relationship with God, which is based on faith, and we would be deaf to those moral truths which are spiritually discerned.

I have already written a post on why I am profoundly skeptical of “spiritual discernment” as a means of discovering truth. I would add to it this thought: if we humans are equipped with an antenna that receives spiritual insights from a supernatural being, it has proven — proven — to be so unreliable as to be useless.

Aside from the fact that the world’s “great faiths” are mutually exclusive, I consider the spiritually discerned “truths” that have been promulgated in my own, evangelical tradition. These would include everything from statements that the Earth was created in 4004 BC to firm announcements that it would end in 2011 AD (as well as by any number of other dates that have passed unremarkably into history). Between those dates, spiritual discernment in its strongest form, direct revelation, has led us to commit genocide and rape, endorse slavery, and even discriminate against the handicapped.

Can we be honest and admit that spiritual discernment does not work?

If you wish to attract people to faith, consider Pope Francis. Although a man of faith, his main focus is on the temporal well-being of the poor and marginalized. Paradoxically, he has done more to attract people to the Catholic faith than his predecessor, who was more focused on what was unique about the faith itself (i.e., its dogmas).

My answer to Sam Harris’s question is that the interests of both the secular and religious would be better-served if we were to focus on universally recognized measures of well-being rather than our own ideas of right and wrong. What do you think?

2 responses to “Good and Evil vs Well-Being

  1. Yes, I agree that human well-being is a more productive and relevant moral measure than an unsubtle split of transcendent good/evil.

    But this better basis is yet another start rather than an end to perpetual moral debates. I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how it responds. To what degree is well-being differentiated from subjective pleasure? To what degree is individual autonomy part of well-being, and how is it weighed in comparison to the collective well-being of the groups the individual is in? To what degree is it sensible to risk decreased short-term well-being in order to possibly achieve proportionally greater well-being in a more distant future? To what degree are various commitments to be prioritized, because resources are finite?

    Although some of the criteria of well-being are inarguable, I think other bits are interesting because those bits aren’t universal. Even my own current concept of well-being is not identical to my concept a decade ago.

    • Thanks for your comment, Gideon.

      Sam Harris acknowledges the legitimacy of all your questions. He admits that the science of morality is in its infancy and does not have all the answers. Some questions, like how to prioritize resources, may be answerable at least in principle even if we don’t have the answers yet. Others, like how to balance individual and collective well-being, may not, but well-being may still be the best way to think about the problem.

      I’ll try to give fuller answers to the questions you raised in upcoming posts.

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