The Concerns of Morality: Well-Being and Flourishing

May 25, 2010

Sam Harris' new book isn't out until October, but his new arguments have already hit the public -- as outlined in his TED talk and ensuing articles ( 1 and 2 ) -- and are creating quite a stir. From the likes of our very own Massimo Pigliucci to physicist Sean Carroll ( 1 and 2 ), Harris has received two main criticisms: first, that he has not overcome Hume’s "is-ought" obstacle, and second, that the terms he employs to define his morality, "well-being" and "flourishing," are too vague to form the basis of any universal or objective morality.

This essay will not address the supposed "is-ought" problem. It will also not build universal definitions of "well-being" and "flourishing," or an objective secular morality (note: this is not an argument for moral relativism). Rather, this essay will discuss the universal understanding of morality. People might not agree on the meaning of terms like "well-being" and "flourishing," but perhaps they can agree that these concepts, however they are used, are the very concern of morality itself in its broadest sense.

The argument is that morality, and moral contemplation, is the domain of concerns for the well-being (generally, happiness and/or health) and flourishing (generally, the amount to which one is thriving, prospering, succeeding) of sentient and conscious beings. Morality is an expression of the desire for happiness and a good life. People promote their moral views because they want to live in what they think is a fair and civil society, for the benefit of themselves and others.

This is not meant as an exhaustive sampling, but consider some of the various moral systems. Many believe morality concerns doing what God commands people to do. Consequentialists or utilitarians, believe morality should be a function of weighing the outcome of a belief, decision, or action, for the greatest good. Virtue ethicists, put central focus on the moral character of a person, while promoting certain values. Still others, deontologists, follow a moral system that sets certain principles and guidelines to follow (1). More generally, ask the man or woman on the street, and many will say that morality is about goodness for one's self and for others.

Now consider that even religious believers think humans should follow God commandments because they think it is best for humanity. Consequentialists aim to ensure the happiness and well-being for the most beings that can experience such. Virtue ethicists focus on moral character, and certain values, because they think this is the best way to foster a reasonable, just, and civil society, which they believe produces well-being for all. Deontologists argue that guidelines are necessary for a morally good society. Even someone like Kant, with his categorical imperative, had to believe his moral ideas were in the service of a more moral world. In sum, all moral systems, beliefs, and values -- religious or secular -- are generally about how to best treat other beings and how to form a better society.

This argument may not be convincing to you. As it is, there are three quality objections lurking around the corner that must be reconciled before this writer himself can be convinced.

The first objection is that morality is about truth. People don’t necessarily want well-being, but they think they are right, and will follow their beliefs regardless of the outcome. For instance, secular philosophers would not posit that society should embrace belief in God even if it was proven that it made society collectively happier or more civil (it doesn’t). Others might argue that religious believers are carrying out God’s will because they actually believe God wants them to do it, not because they think it is best for humanity.

But doesn't everyone think truth is the best path to take? Both groups in the above examples would be acting in such a way because of their belief that society is always better off for picking truth over superstition. We all believe we are right to believe what we believe. This is just how belief works. Nobody knowingly deceives himself or herself about their beliefs or asks others to do the same for the mere pleasure of the experience. Indeed, almost all people promote that the best way to believe is to base beliefs on evidence and reason. If faith were truly faith, theology would not exist. Indeed, even supporters of fideism employ reason to support faith.

The second objection is that morality is about power and control. This camp argues that many, or even most systems of morality have been created, sustained, and/or hijacked and used in the interest of maintaining power and influence over others. Creators of these moralities haven’t had in mind well-being or flourishing for anyone but themselves. Morality, thus, is a tool used by the powerful to control others.

There is no doubt this observation is true. But that does not mean morality cannot be accepted and used differently by the majority of those who adopt it. Far fewer people make, create or hijack moral systems than follow moral systems. Even if a handful of people can use morality to their own ends, why do the masses accept such morality? Because they believe it enhances their own well-being.

The third objection is that morality is more about sustaining community and identity. Morality, in this view, has been used to keep people of certain tribes together by way of common rituals and customs. Morality surely includes such things. But preservation of one's community and identity is in the very service of promoting well-being and flourishing for one's society and one's self. Identities are arrived at via a determination of the beliefs and values involved. By choosing certain ideas and traditions, one thinks he or she is doing better for themselves and their community.

Exceptions for these objections would do no harm to the thesis. Remember that the argument is about morality in its most universal sense. That people hold their moral views because they think they are correct in doing so in no way undermines this thesis, because being correct is at the core of well-being and flourishing for all sane people. That some people have created or hijacked morality for their narrow benefit does not suggest that the majority of people do not follow or use morality for different purposes, such as living a good life and helping others do the same. Morality might even be about well-being at a number of different levels for different people, from one person, to local tribes, and the global community. But this does not mean that in some sense people are not concerned with the well-being of a certain society and its members.

One more lingering objection helps bring this essay to a close. Some argue that moral contemplation, or what we call ethics, is more extensive than stated. This position argues that moral contemplation asks "what ought we do?" Well-being and flourishing, then, become axioms which one might want to define and work toward. Others might choose different axioms.

Yet moral contemplation does not usually weigh such questions as: "what ought we do about lunch, turkey or ham?" or "what ought we do tonight?" or "what ought we do about the car, which needs fixing?" Even if such questions were posed in the moral sense, they would involve the potential happiness and suffering of beings who are involved in those questions. The focus and concerns of moral conversation entail "what ought we do in regard to the well-being and flourishing of creatures that might experience pain and happiness?" All the different axioms one can select are in the service of working toward greater well-being and flourishing, however one defines those terms.

An over-abundance of subjectivity might bother some, but it needn't worry us here. Well-being and flourishing are surely defined differently by different people, and many systems of morality seem misguided and horrid to us. Yet, even though people have different conceptions of how to achieve well-being and flourishing, achieving these things is their moral goal. Further, just as the idea of secular moral philosophy does not fall because there are various conceptions of the best secular moral system, morality itself does not fall because people come to the table with different ideas and definitions about what a good moral system looks like. Remember, this is not a conversation about objective standards for moral beliefs and values, but instead, for a somewhat objective view of morality's broadest concerns and purpose.

Morality and moral debate must have parameters. A frame for our moral conversations will make clear what participants' moral beliefs and values, and reasons and justifications for such, should concern. Accepting that morality and moral contemplation centrally focus on the well-being and flourishing of (at least potentially) sentient and conscious creatures would at least get public discussion about morality between all the groups in our pluralistic society on some firmer, shared ground. From there, one could apply his or her objective standards. But without first setting a frame, people cannot engage in the defined, quality public dialogue that might lead to more objective moral truths.


(1). One need not pick from only these moral philosophies; one can consider them collectively. But many people find themselves more in one camp than another.

Note: This essay was originally published on the blog Rationally Speaking