Is Human Flourishing Good Enough?

“Good and bad are determined by what adds or subtracts to human flourishing.” This is a common retort for those who want to hold that moral values and duties are more that subjective and yet remain natural. If this was the case then morality would be objective as a standard that transcends personal feelings and opinion is provided. The kernel of truth here is that much of morality is for the purpose of preserving the dignity, welfare and richness of human life. However, I submit this foundation is inadequate for the following four reasons.

First, moral truths carry normativeness, that is, they provide a standard that prescribes what “ought” and “ought not” to be. Human flourishing is merely descriptive of what “is” and “is not.” As something that only describes nature, there is no prescription of what ought or ought not to be that arises, and therefore whatever follows does not fit the description of what we know morality is like.

Second, the reduction of a moral property to a natural property is always ultimately unsuccessful. In this case, in order that we might weigh what was right and wrong we have to define how we measure human flourishing. Say for instance we concluded that human flourishing is measured by an increase in the population of the upper class. That would mean that taxing wealthy people at a higher percentage of their income, purely on the basis that they refuse to have large families was right and good. But that doesn’t fit, because that is discriminatory and immoral, but according to the reduction of the moral property to a natural property it was “good” because it would be promoting human flourishing. Further, on this same reduction, forcibly distributing the many children of a lower-class family into many different upper-class family homes to be raised as servants with free food, clothes, warm house, and education would be a so-called “good” because such action promoted human flourishing, but this is also immoral – it is splitting up families to enforce servitude. One can always find immoral and repugnant examples when moral properties are reduced to natural properties, such as human flourishing.

Third, if right and wrong are determined by human flourishing this succumbs to the temptation of speci-ism. Speci-ism is an unjustified bias for ones own species. But what is there to make the human species anything special? One has to justify that position with reasons, and naturalism is inept at doing so. It just asserts it. Why is Richard Dawkins is wrong when he says,

“There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference . . . We are machines for propagating DNA . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being”?

Tell us why the human animal is endowed with special privileges, inherent worth or dignity? Only then can one declare that human flourishing is the determinative factor for what is right and wrong. If naturalism is true then there is nothing really wrong with a man forcible copulating with a woman, for this occurs all the time in nature. Christianity however provides an excellent reason why rape is wrong. It is wrong because it is a violation of something sacred – but how can it be sacred if it is mere matter?[1]

Finally, who determines what human flourishing means? Is it the capitalist or the Marxist? Is it the victim of HIV, or the person who wants to dispose of all HIV sufferers? Certain socio-political movements that have equated good morals with that which promotes human flourishing include Communism, Eugenics, and even Nazi Germany. This is not to impugn the ethical theory with guilt by association. It is to point out that there are radically different ideas on what human flourishing entails. The Nazis, for instance, believed that the extermination and destruction of all Jews, homosexuals, people with black skin, intellectually handy-capped, the infirm, dissenting Christians, and all enemy troops was for the benefit of humanity as a whole. But what is there qualitatively that sets our idea – that this is not an acceptable moral belief – above the moral beliefs of the Nazi’s?

Our moral indignation towards different counter-perspectives provides a powerful reason to think that something else other than human flourishing – though a noble goal – is not the paradigm of goodness. If there is one thing we know when it comes to morality, it is that Hitler and his cronies were objectively wrong. Condemnation of his evil regime is right and good. But from their point of view they were only acting towards the goal of human flourishing, and the brief pain and suffering they wrought in the present was acceptable when compared to the utopia they were helping to ushering in. When we say they were wrong and believe we said something true then we make a value judgment that contradicts the Nazi value judgment, it strongly suggests that there is something else other than human flourishing that adjudicates that judgment. For you cannot found a foundational value judgment with another value judgment.

In summary, human flourishing is not an adequate ground for the objective moral values and duties we clearly perceive. First, moral truths are prescriptive norms and human flourishing does not prescribe what ought and ought not to be, it only describes what is and is not. Second, the reduction of the moral property to a natural property is unsuccessful. Third, it succumbs to the temptation of speci-ism – an unjustified bias for ones own species. Fourth, there is no qualitative way to distinguish different interpretations on what human flourishing entails, and our moral intuitions tell us there obviously is a qualitative difference suggesting that human flourishing is not foundational after all. Therefore, human flourishing is not an adequate foundation to build an ethical theory on.


[1] This reason for the wrongness of rape would be consistent with a divine command theory of ethics, as breaking God’s command would constitute a violation of something sacred.

7 replies
  1. Simon
    Simon says:

    I think eudaimonia seems simple, but is actually manifold and very complex. As complex as the word ‘good’ itself is, really – we could replace the term “human flourishing” with the term ‘good’ and still have exactly the same meaning. For just as you ask, Stuart “who decides what human flourishing means?”; indeed, who decides what ‘good’ is? And I agree with you. Who does decide what ‘good’ is? (I think we do collectively.)

    It occurs to me that the Nazis and other extremisms are a kind of species-ism in themselves. They are just a very narrow-sphere species-ism. It also occurs to me that whenever we, as normal people going about our daily lives, behold other people’s feelings as being less important than our own, that this is a kind of species-ism, too.

    – I think the claim that eudaimonia is merely descriptive is one-sided. For if we chased your beliefs all the way back, and queried where your beliefs in an “ought” and an “ought not” came from we would uncover……..yep, a descriptive description of the way the world is.

  2. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    What I found interesting here is that Stuart articulated how naturalists will equate the term ‘good’ to ‘human fluorishing’ and Simon came and stated that these two terms do have exactly the same meaning; a novel confirmation through example.

    Yet the point of Stuart’s blog was to demonstrate that these two things are not the same. The fourth reason Stuart provides is that human flourishing is whatever one decides it to be, which leaves a person in the untenable position of not being able to make a moral judgement on others actions. Simon says that we do decide what it is, and he does refrain from calling the actions of extremists (like the Nazis) as wrong. They are just a sort of sub-species [apparently doing what they decide is ‘good’ – inferred].

    All good and well for the identification of the grounds of agreement. On to the points of disagreement; Stuarts point was that equating ‘good’ to ‘human flourishing’ does not fit, and he gives four reasons to explain why this is so. Simon says it does fit, because … well, it is a descriptive description of the way the world is. [I couldn’t find any further justification or attempted refutation of Stuart’s four points]. What I would like to see, is for Simon to address the four reasons that Stuart has given. The descriptive description argument is simply equivalent to; naturalism is true so everything must be describable. I do not find it convincing.

    Now, I am not trying to pick on you Simon, and I am not trying to put you down at all. (So advance apologies if it appears that way) I am interested in how you would answer Stuarts four reasons and whether you do simply end up at descriptive facts about one purpose or another – which has lost all the moral character and thereby confirmed Stuarts blog.

  3. Simon
    Simon says:

    Lol. I’m glad you feel so self-justified, Jonathan!

    I think you must misunderstand my point here, for I think it answers your queries: I think the claim that eudaimonia is merely descriptive is one-sided. For if we chased your beliefs all the way back, and queried where your beliefs in an “ought” and an “ought not” came from we would uncover……..yep, a descriptive description of the way the world is.
    There is no more elegance in claiming that a super-duper being amonishes ought’s and ought not’s upon us, compared with merely believing in the existence of those ought’s and ought not’s on their own. Indeed, the super-duper being causes more problems. Cut out the middle man!

  4. Stuart
    Stuart says:

    Simon,

    Unless you want to construe “human flourishing” as what is eudaemonic, theories on eudaemonia are irrelevant to the post.

    Oughts and ought-nots are prescriptions. Positing a “super-duper being” that prescribes oughts and ought-nots grounds these in reality. With no transcendent ground there is no reason to think that the prescriptions we perceive are indeed prescriptions, rather they would be merely descriptions masquerading as prescriptions, thus the morals we perceive would be illusory. I hope you can see the benefits of God’s existence to an objectivist ethical theory.

  5. Simon
    Simon says:

    Eudaimonia is human flourishing.

    Positing a “super-duper being” that prescribes oughts and ought-nots grounds these in reality

    I find this statement delighful! Can I quote you elsewhere?

    I do agree, I suppose, that ought’s and ought not’s seem to flow more readily from a being. But grounded in reality? Hehe. Hardly – a supernatural being causes more problems than it solves.

  6. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    Well Simon, thanks for responding. I went and chased my beliefs back to the source and I found a self-existent, eternal, intelligent being. So according to your statement, this is actually a descriptive description of the way the world is. Neat-O! That would be nice if it was what you meant, but clearly it is not.

    I found it slightly puzzling that you were willing to admit the equivalence of “just claiming” morality exists independently and “just claiming” God exists independently. [3a] Then further admitting that morality flows more readily from a being. [5] And yet admonishing us to throw away the being and just believe in the morality. [3a] This last part does not appear to follow the other concepts. Surely we should be tossing all views that, as you say, are baseless because they exist outside of the perceived naturalistic reality – including a just-is universal morality. But this is derailing at the best. As far as I can tell, we are not really talking about your view now. It seems you just want us to drop the “intelligent” from what we hold to be eternal and self-existent.

    To get back to the topic, I take it from your comments that you do not hold this “just exists” universal moral standard. (If you do, I encourage you to seek the source for you will absolutely love it.) What you appear to be saying is that (a) human flourishing is equivalent to good and (b) we decide what good is. Now, as I see it, this is the breadth and width of what Stuart was covering in his blog. Stuart has kindly pointed out that as a base for what we know morality to be, (a) and (b) do not fit. His last paragraph of the blog summarises the four reasons that they do not fit. Is it at all possible that you can address these four reasons and tell us why they are wrong and in fact, why you think that morality does fit this base? At present, all I am getting is that you hold morality has no actual “ought” and “ought-not”. It just is a description of what our preference is. Is that it?

  7. Simon
    Simon says:

    So according to your statement, this is actually a descriptive description of the way the world is

    Yes, yes. This is what I meant! And the edicts…….edicted by your god would also merely descriptive claims, too. Everything is at bottom, no? But I do agree that oughts and ought nots do seem to be normally attributed to a consciousness. (But beware, for it is also true that we have tended to lay unexplained physical phenomena on a conscioussness, too – and discovered otherwise.)

    [3a] I didn’t quite say that. I said that at best (for you) they are equal (“no more elegance” but quite possibly more elegance for the non-god morals) I just think that, unless god just made up the rules at random they must be grounded external to him, no? Otherwise they’re just random and baseless. But if they are external to him then he can’t be the creator of everything………ultimately at bottom my argument here is that a self-extant being is meaningless.

    Surely we should be tossing all views that, as you say, are baseless because they exist outside of the perceived naturalistic reality – including a just-is universal morality. But this is derailing at the best. As far as I can tell, we are not really talking about your view now. It seems you just want us to drop the “intelligent” from what we hold to be eternal and self-existent.

    I honestly do not understand the above.

    Is it at all possible that you can address these four reasons and tell us why they are wrong and in fact, why you think that morality does fit this base? At present, all I am getting is that you hold morality has no actual “ought” and “ought-not”. It just is a description of what our preference is. Is that it?

    Hmmn. Good idea. I think we’re both confused.

    Stuart’s first point: To make things simple, let’s say that eudaimonia(human flourishing) is equivalent to happiness. Happiness is a descriptive quality (indeed, I can cite several neurotransmitters). If I want to increase happiness, there are certain things I can empirically determine that I ought to do, like not murdering people.

    Stuart’s second point: This is just the same as the first. the reduction of a moral property to a natural property is just the same as the reduction of a prescriptive to a descriptive(first point).

    Stuart’s third point:

    Why is Richard Dawkins is wrong when he says,

    “There is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference . . . We are machines for propagating DNA . . . It is every living object’s sole reason for being”?

    Because even Richard Dawkins’ actions defy this. As do mine, as do yours, as does almost everybody!

    Stuart’s fourth point:

    Finally, who determines what human flourishing means?

    We all do, communally. I regularly perceive a sense of mistrust and derision of People from the christian right; including here at thinkingmatters. You invite me to seek the source of moral standards, and ensure me that I will love it. I invite you to embrace People as the authors of those morals. “Relationship over religion” you have said. Live that. With relationship, religion is not even needed.
    Certainly humans have strayed from the ideal…communism, nazism etc….I’m sure you will claim it an irrelevant point but so has Judaism with the unnaceptable escapades of barbarism in the old testament. It is ironic that Stuart mentions homosexuality, when the OT has both Soddom and Gamorrah, and Leviticus 20:13 ! My point is not to jeer at the bible, but to point out that it illsustrates relational abberation just as recent history does. And I do think that these heineous mistakes of the past – and presumably the future too – are a result of broken commune; when empathy is withdrawn; and where empathy is withheld, relations are broken; and where relations are broken, flourishing is limited to a subsection of society; and where flourishing is limited it is not maximal.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *