Objective Good and Human Flourishing

I listen to several different Christian apologetics podcasts on a regular basis.  Some of my favorites are those that feature (or discuss) debates between Christian theist and atheists.  I think these types of interactions are usually very interesting, informative, and really make one think.  Recently, I have started hearing a new theme with respect to the debate on the Moral Argument.  The atheist will posit that what is “good” is that which contributes to human flourishing.  “Evil”, they argue, is what detracts from human flourishing.  They says that evolution has hard-wired us for survival, thus those things that contribute to human flourishing are those things we believe are “good.”  Conversely, those things that detract from human flourishing are considered “evil.”  Thus, the argument goes, no “god” is required for our sense of moral right and wrong.  Evolution has wired us this way.

Most recently, I was listening to a debate on the Unbelievable podcast between Frank Turek and Alex O’Connor, “Does evil prove God exists?”  In this conversation, Alex O’Connor (the atheist) essentially made the “good is whatever contributes to human flourishing” argument.  In the discussion, Mr. O’Connor and Dr. Turek were discussing several examples of obviously evil acts, such as rape, murder, child sexual abuse, etc.  This got me thinking about a potential tactic to counter the atheist point about human flourishing being the standard of moral right and wrong: tell a lie!

Lying for no good reason is considered a moral failing in the theistic, Christian world-view.  I suspect that the average atheist would also consider lying for no good reason to be wrong.  But here’s the problem:  Making a maliciously false statement, in some circumstances, does no real harm to the person and does not detract from their ability to “flourish.”

Here’s a hypothetical example:  I privately tell my friend Bob that one of his co-workers, Steve, has cheated on his wife.  But this is a lie.  I completely made this up because I just don’t like Steve.  I want to make him look bad to Bob.  Or maybe I’m just a compulsive liar.  (Which raises another question:  If I’m hard-wired by my evolution to compulsively lie all the time, is it objectively wrong?  But I digress).

Most people would consider it to be morally wrong for me to make up stories about Steve cheating on his wife.  But Bob never says anything to Steve.  He doesn’t let it affect his working relationship with Steve.  He just keeps it to himself.  He may look unfavorably on Steve, but nothing more comes of it.  According to the “evil equals anything that hurts human flourishing” rule I haven’t done anything wrong.  Steve didn’t get fired.  Bob never told Steve’s boss he heard Steve cheated on his wife.  My lie didn’t cause Steve to miss out on a promotion.  Bob and Steve don’t have any real friendship that was affected.  How have I hurt Steve?  I haven’t!  Therefore, in this context, me telling a lie that Steve cheated on his wife really isn’t morally wrong according to the atheist who subscribes to the “human flourishing” standard of morality.

In fact, I can think of several more examples of morally wrong actions that fail to meet the “human flourishing” standard of morality.  Borrowing something without permission, failure pay back a small sum of money, gossip, name calling, or rude behavior are all things that most people would consider “wrong” but for which there is no impact to an individual’s overall flourishing.  Cutting someone off in traffic may lead to road rage, but by the “human flourishing” standard, I haven’t done anything wrong.  Who knows, maybe by cutting you off I actually saved you from a deadly traffic accident by making you 4.5 seconds later than you would have otherwise been.

So, the next time you hear someone say that our moral senses are evolved or that evil acts are only those things that hinder human flourishing, thump them on the ear.  If they complain, ask them what you’ve done anything to hurt their flourishing.