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.

Hitler and the Atheistic detractor of Hell


How unfortunate that such nonsense has already made its way as far as New Zealand. America is losing its edge in Christian zealotry.


Attack the man; ignore the issue. Great debating tactic!

BarryLeder (3 months ago) Show Hide

Rob, I was not debating. By your own admission, there would be nothing restraining you from taking my life were I to succeed in convincing you that the Christian ‘worldview’ is an epic failure on the logic and morality front. My post was merely an observation.


Your “observation” however is loaded with morality. “Unfortunate” according to whom? “Nonsense” according to whose viewpoint? “Zealotry”? I think you are confusing me with Richard Dawkins and his mates. 

I am just stating what seems to me to be obvious: “In a world without God, all things are permissible”. If this is not true, then show me why it isn’t.


It was ABSOLUTELY loaded with morality. But lets not start with the assumption that God as a given is moral. While I don’t believe there is sin, transgression against God; I do believe there are moral wrongs.

Those moral wrongs arise out of the nature of our existence where life is fragile and resources are scarce. While there may not be a supreme emforcer, that lack of an enforcer is not what establishes or prevents a moral right or wrong.

Now my question back to you is why is your concept of God more moral than Hitler? Unless you are Jehovah Witness or Mormon, your conceptual God probably would send Anne Frank to hell for eternity. Hitler only did it once. Seems the Christian worldview is in a very weak position to criticize the actions of Hitler.



These are really good questions BarryLeder. Also really emotionally charged ones. Because I think good questions deserve good answers, let us deal with your question with clear logic.  

If I were to argue minimally for theism (not the internal consistency of the Christian world-view, not the Biblical doctrine of inerrancy, not the doctrine of hell) then you would still have the problem of dealing with apologeticsNZ’s original question. How do you get morality on atheism? 

So based on the premises that – (1) if God does not exist, then objective moral values do not exist, and (2) objective morals do exist, the logically inescapable and necessary conclusion is that God exists. 

Since you take pains to ABSOLUTELY agree that moral values do exist, then it must be the first premise you disagree with. But you have given no reason why you think that objective moral values can exist apart from God. If your reason is they arise from the nature of existence then your ethics must be rather flowery. What is it about the nature of our existence that makes things right or wrong? I can’t think of any moral value fertiliser can teach me? Without a transcendent ground to pin your assertions of the existence of right and wrong, you end up with moral values being amoral. Ethics is reduced to subjectivism, which is unliveable.

Now if I were to argue for more than just theism, then your question comes into play. That makes it clear that your really not arguing against the existence of God, and not even the morality of God (since if the above moral argument is successful then it gives us good grounds to believe in a personal and morally perfect being), but only the doctrine of hell. 

In effect your argument is that God’s omni-benevolence and all-compassionate love is incompatible with his sending people to hell. As I said before, this is an emotionally charged question, and I think not so very difficult an intellectual objection to dismiss. This is evident when you consider that as a purely intellectual problem it is just as problematic that a just and holy God can send people to heaven, but who rejects Christ for that difficulty?

You rightly discern that one could adopt the doctrine of annihilationism as a strategy. I could also adopt the idea that hell is not eternal but a type of temporary pergatory. This would take all the power out of your objection to your belief in a moral God. But in fact I do not accept the particular doctrines, and consider the Bible to be faithfully reporting the truth when it says there is a literal hell. I also think that most descriptions given are figuratively describing a place of eternal conscious torment from being separated from God. What a horrible belief! How is one to make sense of these two seemingly contradictory tenets of Christian belief, namely God’s love and that he sends people to hell? 

Well look closely at the objection. These aren’t explicitly contradictory. Therefore there must be some implicit assumptions smuggled in to make it contradictory. What are these assumptions? I’ll be generous and supply what I think they are. (A) That God is able to create a world in which all people will be freely saved. (B) That God is willing that all people be freely saved. 

But because you want to say that it is impossible that a loving God can send people to hell, you must prove assumptions (A) and (B) necessarily. I’m really glad I don’t have to bare that burden of proof!

As for (A) It is at least possible that a world in which all people are freely saved is unfeasible for God. As for (B) It is impossible for God to make people freely choose him. Just because God is omnipotent doesn’t mean he can do the logically impossible. Also it is possible that the only possible world in which all people are freely saved, is a world in which only one person exists, and I don’t see why those who reject God’s salvation should have a sort of veto power over God and his plan to create a world in which, on balance, more people are saved than lost. What if one man’s atheism was the cause of one man’s salvation? That world would be balanced. So its clear that it is far beyond the detractor of hell’s scope of knowledge to declare with any certainty that there exists a contradiction between God’s love and his sending people to hell. 

But does God send people to hell? A better understanding of what the Bible teaches is that God does not send people to hell, but it is we who send ourselves to hell for not accepting the provision made for us through Jesus Christ. God’s mercy and justice are reconciled at the cross. There we see how Christ’s blood was poured out for us as an atoning sacrifice, allowing sinful man to have relationship with a holy and just God. There we see the wrath of God for our sin, poured out on Jesus, who willing gave his life showing his love, and the extreme lengths he will go to rescue you. 

In a very real sense, God is not to blame for the free actions of those who choose not accept his Son. He had made every effort to show himself to man, and it is now up to man to see how he will respond. 

Given the universality of sin, and the uniquness of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, it stands to reason that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ. It is this exclusivity that is so repugnant to our modern sensibilities. Nevertheless, it is the clear testimony of scripture. 

The first thing to remember that this view was just as controversial in first century polytheistic Rome, if not more so, than it is today. The second thing is we must distinguish between truth and taste. What is repugnant to our ears is not a measure to test what is true. The third thing to remember is that it is not only Christianity that makes exclusive claims, but every religion, from Muslim to Hindu to Taoist to Mormon – everyone – even the inclusivist excludes the exclusivist. Truth presupposes exclusivity.

This exclusive claim of the Christian uncovers another problem. For if Christ’s death is the only way for salvation of everyone who believes, then the multitudes that have not heard the gospel are not even given the opportunity to respond. They cannot believe in faith and be saved for no one told them they must. The inhabitants of heaven are people who were saved as a result of historical and geographical accident of birth. How can we make sense of this? 

There are two solutions that spring to mind. 

The first is that God has a way of spreading the gospel and the good news of his Son that is not dependant on people. This idea, in fact carries scriptural data to back it up. 

According to Romans 2 people who never hear the gospel are not judged according to the same standard as those who did hear the gospel. Rather they are judged on the basis of their response to the revelation they are given, in nature and in conscience. It is clear that Job and Methuselah were saved even though they were without the gospel, were not a part of Israel and were without the law. 

There are also plentiful stories, particularly coming from Islamic nations, of people seeing dreams and visions of Jesus preaching to them the Christian gospel though they have never heard had any contact with it before. Sometimes whole villages have the same dream simultaneously and as a community convert before any missionary arrives.

Paul, while on his way to persecute and kill more Christians, became a convert of Jesus himself. One doesn’t need a missionary to receive the gospel, but God is powerful enough to send a missionary to you if he knows you will respond to the message. If there are no missionaries that will go, he is capable of stepping off the throne himself as he did with Paul.

The second solution is that God knew before the foundation of the world, who would accept and would reject him and his marvellous message. Thus he providentially arranged the world so that the gospel would reach all who would freely accept it, if it was heard, and place those who in every possible set of circumstances would reject his salvation in a time and place where hey would not hear the gospel. If God has middle-knowledge this a very plausible explanation, especially given Paul’s message to the people of Athens in the Areopagus (see Acts 17:26). But this solution doesn’t have to be true or even probable – it just needs to be possible and it breaks the force of the objection completely.

Response to the SaviorOfLogic

SaviorOfLogic has replied to a comment on YouTube video Atheists should not criticize Hitler:

If whatever God commanded be good, then murder (assuming an Abrahamic belief system) is always evil, and should be punishde by death, but what if I went back in time and killed Hitler, is that good or evil? What if God forbid’s murder, but then commands you to kill (such as in the promised land), is killing or not killing them the moral action?

My reasoning is that almost every single action can be both good and evil, depending on the circumstances, and we don’t need a deity to tell us that.

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) says

Hello, SaviorOfLogic. You have some good questions here which I am interested in answering them. But the format here on YouTube is not so good for questions such as these, and I do not think I can do them justice in the short time I have available now. Please check where I’ll blog on this topic, hopefully in the next week.


My promised response follows…

I think you might want to be talking about the Mosaic Law (not the “Abrahamic belief system”), which states “Thou shalt not murder.” 

You start with the word “If,” and as I already mentioned in my response UppruniTegundanna (though you may have missed it due the lengthy comment section), that the “if…” is something I am not willing to grant. 

Here is what I had to say concerning the Euthyphro Dilemma. 

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ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) says

The ethics developed on the theism finds a transcendent ground in God. The Euthyphro Dilemma is a false dilemma, that is to say those are not the only options. The third option that splits the arguments horns is that God is the standard. Rather than the good being good because God said so – thus arbitrary, or the good being above God – thus God is not the ultimate, the good flows from his nature – the good is good because God is good.

UppruniTegundanna responds

If I accept the third option, can I say that it is in fact a false trilemma, and that there is an additional option that we are being deceived into our beliefs about what is good or not by an evil force? 

ThinkingMatters  (that’s me) responds

As for the third option – you could say that it is a false trilemma because there are more than three options – but all I need to do is split the horns of the dilemma. I don’t even need to argue that the third option is true, it just needs to be an option. But I do think that the third option is plausibly true – we have for instance biblical grounds for declaring it true, and we have good philosophical grounds as well, as God is defined as the ultimate being and morality is a perfection.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —- — — — — — — — — — — —

What if God forbid’s murder, but then commands you to kill…

I don’t equate murder with killing. Killing is any action performed that results in the loss of a life. Murder is killing with that added moral component that makes the action wrong.

The distinction between the two is very interesting I think, but for now let us not get distracted by it.

is killing or not killing them the moral action?

Because I think that our moral duties come from God’s commands and flow directly from his nature, not killing them would be immoral. Whereas killing them in the absence of God’s command would be immoral. I know at this point my answer seems incredible to you, so before I go on, its worth pointing out that the consistent atheist has to adopt a far more radical position. 

He or she must deny there is such as thing as evil, good, and objective right and wrong. Should and shouldn’t should be wiped from their dictionary. Morals become the equivalent of personal preference akin to which way I choose to part my hair in the morning – totally subjective and amoral. On atheism ethics is as philosopher Dr. Michael Ruse says is “illusory.”

In the absence of a deity, in order to discourse with meaning on ethics, you need to give a basis for how we determine what is right and wrong, good and evil. 

I hold to Divine Command Theory. This is the theory that says our moral duties are given by the decrees of God.

(such as in the promised land)

The questions I think you are really asking are; (1) How can you consider the conquest of Caanan moral? (2) Is the God who commanded them to kill Himself moral?

C.S.Lewis said when critiquing a worldview you have to do your best to step inside that worldview and assess it from the inside, or run the risk of arguing against a straw man. So step inside…

First observation is that both these questions assume the Bible is factually accurate. So its not really a critique from the outside, but an internal matter of consistency. Therefore, at most what is at stake is the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy – not the existence of God, and not even the moral perfection of God.

As I’ve distinguished between the act of murder and killing, mush of the force of (2) is already gone. Question (1) remains.

The conquest of Caanan comes set against the backdrop of Sodom and Gomorra. Abraham has a discussion where God tells him that he is going to destroy these two cities. Like a middle-eastern bargain hunter, Abraham says “will you still destroy the city if a hundred righteous people live there?” God says “No, I will not.” Abraham comes back again and again, getting lower and lower, and always receives the same answer – “No, I will not.” Eventually Abraham dare not go any lower. 

The LORD does indeed rescue Lot, Abraham’s nephew, from Sodom before it is destroyed. The implication is that God would not judge a whole city if there was one righteous person who lived there. So we see the great holiness of God, the great length he will go to deliver those who seek to obey him, and judgement of a wicked and perverse people. 

The fire and brimstone that reigned down on those two cities represented God’s judgement on them. As the supreme, infinitely holy being who first gave them life, God has every right to take their lives, and is under no obligation to prolong their life. Also as an omniscient being he is also capable of knowing the amount of evil that would have resulted had he not judged them in this way. It is also possible that God could have known there were no circumstances in which they would have repented if given the opportunity. 

It is around this time that Abraham receives a promise that the land will be his inheritance for descendants. But does God send them in immediately. The answer is no. He stalls over four hundred years to wait for “their iniquity is not yet full.”

Fast forward to Israel exiting Egypt and the desert wandering: promised the land but unable to take possession of it, waiting for God’s command to come. When it does the command says kill every person you find there. You and I in modern times thinks that’s pretty harsh, but remember we are talking about God giving the command. Our moral duties come from his command and perfectly reflect his nature, which is pure and holy, perfect in morals and in judgement. So the command represents God’s judgement upon that nation, and this time instead of fire and brimstone, the instruments of His judgement are the Israelites. 

Because God is not accountable to anyone or any over arching principle called “good” he literally cannot sin, as his own commands that flow from his perfect nature are not binding on him. We however, as his creations, are recipients of those commands and we are to be held responsible for breaking them and, if he wishes it, rewarded for obeying them. 

It must be remembered that the Canaanites were not innocent victims. With the background context of Sodom and Gomorra fresh in our mind, there was probably not one righteous person among them, accept Rahab and her family who were rescued much like Lot. The people who lived in Caanan were reprobates and full of all types of wickedness and debauchery. Temple prostitution was one of things that were common practice, as well as child sacrifice. 

One reason God may have given this command was He knew that if these tribes and nations had been allowed to continue to live there would have greater evil as a result. An omniscient being is in the perfect position to decide that the lives of a few thousand now is better than the lives of untold millions later. 

Also, on the Christian view, the children who were killed in the conquest of Canaan would go to heaven, whereas had they been allowed to live and grow up they might have been placed in circumstances where he knew they would have rejected him. So actually when God decreed that even the children should be killed, He was doing them a favour. And when it comes to the salvation of the adults, it is at least possible that God knew that there was not any possible set of circumstances that would elicit from those people true repentance and salvation. 

One reason the Bible gives for God giving this command is so the Israelites would understand the importance of being set apart from the nations that surrounded them. God knew that if these people were not exterminated then Israel would latter fall into apostasy. And if you follow through in the history of Israel, that is exactly what did happen. The very people that Israel spared were the people that latter led them into idolatry and sin. Later God used those same people to discipline Israel in turn to keep them a separate and holy nation. 

The conquest of Caanan helped to shape Israel’s national identity. It is entirely plausible that God understood that an immeasurable good would result from their separated and unique identity. And in the gospels we see that God was right, for from Israel there came a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who built a bridge between sinful man and a holy God, that the whole world can be reconciled Him. A good that would not have been possible had Israel been just another heathen culture. 

So we have see that given God’s moral greatness and superlative attributes that Christian monotheism is internally consistent and logically on sound ground. Whereas atheism is not logically sound if one wishes to discourse on ethics with real meaning, and is internally inconsistent as it is completely unliveable. Based on all the above, God is not only in the very centre of how we determine what is moral, but He gives us the only logical ground to affirm that both good and evil exist. 

I put it to you, who is the more reasonable? The one who sees the atrocities of Hitler’s Nazi regime and says “I don’t like it, but I can’t say it’s wrong because my atheism won’t allow me to,” or the one who says “This was really evil.” 

Thank God that He is the true “Saviour of logic.” :-)