I previously wrote about Dan Fincke’s talk at the Pittsburgh Atheist and Humanist meetings, in which he claimed that there is indeed an objective morality: one based on “human flourishing.” It was only a 20-minute talk, as were all of them, so he couldn’t lay out his thesis in detail, and I had to respond here based on what I heard, and our dinnertime chat afterwards. You can read my response at the link above, but it was basically that, at bottom, “human flourishing” was still a preference, not some objective criterion for what is moral or immoral.
I think that people feel that there is an objective morality because we mostly share a sense of what is a good or bad thing to do, and that may have been partly instilled in our brains by evolution. But of course that sense isn’t universal: worldwide, people differ on things like capital punishment, abortion, the treatment of women, and so on; and I don’t see how those differences can be resolved “objectively.” Further, I’m not sure why we need to decree that morality is objective, or go through all kinds of tortuous philosophical lucubrations to show it (none of which I’ve found very convincing).
We all agree on two things: 1. Even if there is an objective morality, we won’t be able to use it to answer many of our hard questions (is a third-trimester abortion immoral?), for usually such moralities involve criteria that are difficult or impossible to measure. Seond, morality of any sort, even if not “objective,” can almost always be informed by empirical findings, and that might settle some of our differences. So, for example, if you feel that capital punishment is not immoral because it’s a deterrent and good for society in that way, and then you later find out that it’s not a deterrent, well, then, you’ve used objective facts to change your mind. But that doesn’t mean that your view that what is moral is what’s “good for society” is objectively right.
At any rate, Dan has written a long piece on his website Camels with Hammers at the Patheos network, defending his view of what he calls “Empowerment ethics,” a supposedly objective brand of morality. His post is called “Objective human flourishing: a first response to Jerry Coyne about ethics.” Clearly Dan, whom I like and respect, is a First Responder, but I’m not sure I have the time or energy to respond to any posts after the first one!
I will try to respond briefly here, as the Albatross is squawking at me and, truth be told, I’m not sure I understand everything that Dan has said. If I mischaracterize him, my apologies; and I urge readers to read his entire piece. I am perfectly aware that I’m a tyro and not a professional philosopher.
Dan’s thesis, I think, can be summed up in these paragraphs:
As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).
The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is. The power of mathematical reasoning functions better when it can do certain kinds of operations and others worse. Powers of creation are measurable by their skills with the kinds of tasks that usually produce effective technologies or art that does what it is intended to do, etc.
The powers that are constitutive of our being are roughly knowable. It’s not entirely arbitrary, even if there are rough estimates involved, in assessing relative abilities.
Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.
. . . So, I think that an enlightened self-interest should lead anyone to realize that their own maximal empowerment according to their constitutive powers is ideal for them as the beings they are and that the more they empower others beyond them, the more their own powers actually grow.
. . . So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.
That is, each of us has powers and abilities, and it is objectively good for us to not only maximize those “excellent powers”, which enable us to flourish, but also to use them as best we can to help others flourish. This, Dan says, is objective, because we not only know our powers, but we have some ability to measure “human flourishing.” (This, I think, is equivalent to the objective standard of “well-being” adumbrated by Sam Harris, another believer in objective ethics.)
The problems with this seem insuperable to me. First, “flourishing” is not defined, and I don’t think it can be, at least in an objective way. What constitutes “flourishing” for one person may constitute “not flourishing” for another. Take a third-trimester abortion. One could argue that society and the pregnant woman “flourishes” when women are allowed to make their own choices about abortion, no matter when it is. On the other hand, some could say that those are viable fetuses, and their entire flourishing lives are extirpated in such an abortion: they could be removed by Caesarian (as was the fetus in Ireland). Further, what do you say to the religious people who claim that all fetuses have souls and human flourishing is better when we act according to God’s will, which is to preserve those fetuses? I myself hold the free-abortion option, but how could I possibly convince a religious person that a better society will ensue if everyone adopts my view? How could I possibly convince them that there is no soul and no God? Would Dan say that that is “irrational,” and therefore off the table? If so, then it’s true for most people on this planet, and those people don’t see themselves as irrational.
And how do you weigh the different forms of flourishing? What about animals, for instance? Is it moral to do painful and lethal experiments on a thousand chimpanzees to save ten human lives? Is it moral to kill sentient mammals to slake our hunger for meat? How can we possibly resolve those questions through the “flourishing” criterion? How can we know what animal flourishing even means, since we can’t know their minds?
Are most of us immoral because overall “flourishing” would increase if each of us gave about 50% of our incomes to starving children and adults in the Third World? Surely that would reduce our own flourishing a bit (face it, most of the readers here, including me, earn far more than they need to survive), but the increase in flourishing among those whose lives are saved would be immeasurably higher than our the minor degradation of our quality of life. Some (I think Sam might have said this) could argue that, in contrast, a society in which we can’t keep our wealth and give it to our own kids is not a flourishing society. That is a measurement problem, but one that Dan’s metric can’t solve. It will be adjudicated the way we always do: subjectively, but adducing evidence to support our preferences.
And what about those of us who simply don’t want to use our “excellent powers” to help society, because we’re lazy or are hedonists? What if I don’t want to do science, or write, but prefer to eat and travel? I would flourish more, but others would flourish less (assuming that I do some good!). Is that immoral? One could say that a society in which you’re forced to use your powers and help others is coercive, and people will flourish less in such a society. What if I want to do what I like, like photography, rather than what I’m really good at, say teaching (this is a hypothetical!). Is it immoral for me to give up teaching for photography?
Dan adds this rider to his system:
We have general standards—the rock bottom one I think should be maximum empowerment of the maximum number of people possible while making provisions that the minimum anyone lives under is not insufficient for minimum well being.
But that last caveat undermines his system, for it is possible for overall flourishing to be better if one person has their well being reduced below the minimum. That, for instance, is the question of whether it’s okay to torture someone, even to death, if there is a high probability that by so doing you could save thousands of others. How do you adjuducate that? How do you measure an individual’s well being versus society’s well being? You can do it by counting lives, of course, in which case the answer is fairly clear, but some say that torture leads to the brutalization of society. How do you weigh “brutalization” versus life? There is no metric for that, because there’s no agreed-on metric for “flourishing.”
Here is why Dan thinks his system is objective:
Objectivity is in the reasoning process’s objective standards, comparable to how it is in science. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be hard cases where you need to make rough assessments reasonable people can disagree about in lieu of complete information. That happens in science too. Is medicine not a science because doctors sometimes disagree about hard cases with inconclusive data about what the best treatment is? Are physics or biology not sciences because there are always anomalies and areas for further research and areas where scientific competence is required to assess the virtues of one account over another?
No, objectivity doesn’t mean simple settled answers all the time. It means that the process of reasoning has well established goals and standards that can force people to conclusions they don’t like. Morality is not invalidated if people don’t like its results (in fact it’s vindicated if sometimes people are forced to admit that they really are being immoral or participating in an immoral system whether they like that or not).
Well, that sounds reasonable, except at bottom there is a big difference between morality and science: there are criteria for morality that are not universally agreed on, even by philosophers. In contrast, all reasonable physicists would agree that, say, we don’t know whether string theory is correct or not.
To my mind, “flourishing” is what Dan prefers as a criterion for morality. Most of the time that criterion will indeed give us moral guidance that corresponds to our reason and intuition. But it won’t always do so, and reasonable people, even philosophers, will disagree about whether “maximal flourishing” is the best criterion for morality. How can you settle who’s right? In science, we can appeal to empirical observation as the sole criterion for truth: either the rocks tell us that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, or they tell us something very different. There is no preference involved there. Yes, we may not have all the data in hand to settle scientific questions, but even if we had all the data in hand about some moral questions, that wouldn’t resolve them (think about abortion); for in the end different people weigh the data in different ways—according to their preferences.
In the end, I don’t think Dan has proposed a system that is objective. He simply asserts that “maximal flourishing without taking anyone below minimal flourishing” is an objective criterion for what’s moral. I would say that that is his preference—one that, granted, will usually coincide with other people’s preferences as well. But it is not objective, at least in terms of morality. We can imagine situations in which, for some rational people, things that leads to maximal flourishing don’t necessarily correspond to what’s seems right. Maybe Dan would say that in such cases we need to reassess our criteria for what “seems right,” but I would counter that who is he to tell us what the objective criteria really are? Will other ethical philosophers bow down before him and admit that he’s shown that morality is objective? I wouldn’t hold my breath.