How Does Christian Metaphysics Ground the Good? Part 3

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

In parts 1 and 2, we spelled out how classical Christian metaphysics is able to identify the good for human beings, and thus provide a sturdy foundation for Christian moral realism. Moral values and duties really exist and they transcend time and place.

In a previous series of blog posts, we looked at why Sam Harris’s metaphysical naturalism utterly fails to identify the good with anything transcendent. It will be instructive to compare Harris’s identification of the good with the Christian identification of the good.

Recall the difficulties with Harris’ identification of the good.  First, he falls prey to the naturalistic fallacy.  Harris identifies the brain states that constitute human well-being with the good, but G. E. Moore has persuasively argued that natural facts about the world (e.g., brain states) cannot deliver values, on metaphysical naturalism.

For a Christian theist in the Aristotelian–Thomistic tradition , the naturalistic fallacy is simply not a problem.  On his metaphysics, values are built into the world, and the good is located in formal and final causes.  Edward Feser elaborates in his book Aquinas:

A gap between ‘fact’ and ‘value’ could exist only given a mechanistic-cum-nominalistic understanding of nature of the sort commonly taken for granted by modern philosophers, on which the world is devoid of any objective essences or natural ends.  No such gap, and thus no ‘fallacy’ of inferring normative conclusions from ‘purely factual’ premises, can exist given an Aristotelian–Thomistic essentialist and teleological conception of the world.

Harris’ next difficulty is his assertion that moral values can conceivably reverse in the future.  Cruelty and cheating could possibly become good if neuroscience can deliver feelings of well-being to individuals who are cruel and who cheat. Even worse, Harris concedes that rapists, liars, and thieves could occupy peaks on the moral landscape that are equivalent to peaks occupied by saints.

Although he believes that these scenarios are highly unlikely, his metaphysics allows for the possibility.  For Aquinas, no such scenarios are possible because the good is located proximately in a fixed human nature and, ultimately, in the unchanging nature of God.  Moral values, therefore, can never be reversed in the future, and the goodness of rapists, liars, and thieves can never be equivalent to the goodness of a saint.

Harris’ final difficulty is his belief that it would be morally good for human beings to be sacrificed for the well-being of a vastly superior alien race.  Here again, Aquinas would disagree.  The good of human beings is located in the human nature given us by God, and there is nothing in human nature that would lead us to believe we are designed as sacrifices for an alien race.

Instead, we are designed by God, in his image, as living, free creatures with intellect, will, and passions.  To be used as sacrifices for super-aliens runs counter to the purposes for which God created us, and is, therefore, clearly not good.  Natural law theory affirms our deepest moral intuition, that to be abused by superior conscious beings would be morally wrong, contrary to Harris’ bizarre reasoning.

So what can we conclude from this analysis? It should be abundantly clear that Harris’ naturalistic metaphysics leads him to a completely inadequate account of the source of moral values.  The well-being of conscious creatures fails to provide an unchanging, transcendent ground for the good.  The good is apt to be different for each person, depending on what gives him feelings of well-being.  Although Harris emphasizes that human evolution and the common laws of nature should produce moral values that are more or less constant, the fact of the matter is that nothing in Harris’ metaphysics guarantees what seems completely obvious to all of us: moral values are transcendent.

Christian metaphysics, as expounded by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, does provide a grounding for moral values that supports our most deeply held moral convictions.  Moral values are based upon human nature and the ends toward which it points.  The finite goods of human beings – health, virtue, pleasure – are the same for Sam Harris and Thomas Aquinas.  However, Aquinas can affirm these as eternally fixed by God, whereas Harris can only affirm them as transient byproducts of purposeless physical processes.  The gaping metaphysical hole in Harris’s moral landscape, then, is the Being of pure actuality from which every good thing comes.  Without God, man is truly a conscious creature of no consequence.  To quote Aquinas, “God alone constitutes man’s happiness.”

  • sean

    You claim that Harris cannot base his claims on anything transcendent or objective. This is wrong. If I say 5-ness is good and moral, this is demonstrably a transcendent and objective standard. The more 5 things are the more good and moral they are. The problem you are really identifying is why he thinks that this objective standard is the objective standard to base morality on. Sam is basing morality on the self-evident idea of the pursuit of mental well-being. Under different circumstances identical actions can indeed lead to different states of mental well being. This is why the idea for what actions are moral could change in the future. However his objective standard will not ever change. In the same vein, your objective standard of God’s decrees won’t change, but as what God decrees moral changes so too do your beliefs on specific actions. The idea of pursuing mental well being is self-evident I think. People will strive to do what they want to do, if they did otherwise, than whatever they were doing would now be what they wanted. however, your morality is at the mercy of what God wants, and not what you want. Your morality is more arbitrarily based than Sam’s.

  • Interesting.

    Nowadays many People ground morality in one way or the other on our shared evolved nature.

    It can be retorted that morality is then ultimately arbitrary because Evolution can create creatures completely different from us with respect to morality.

    It seems the Atheist is facing the same challenge as the Theist as for justifiying an objective morality.

    Lovely greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • I’m afraid you’re not understanding Harris’s metaphysical view. For him, there is NOTHING that is not constantly changing and in flux. Everything is changing.

    That means that there is no standard to which Harris can appeal that is changeless. That means that there is no such thing as transcendence under his metaphysical views.

    For Harris, moral values and duties are always subject to change in the future, because what gives an individual subjective well-being can change in the future. Morality, then, is ever-shifting, ever-changing.

  • sean

    I think I understand his view quite well, morality is about well being. I personally think that this view is a silly one to argue. I see it as true, but I don’t think his point is relevant. What is relevant is what we can deduce about certain actions based on this absolute premise. That matters. And because it’s more important, I think Sam chooses to focus on explaining it more, since that’s what has consequences.

    I disagree that he thinks everything is in flux. I feel certain that if you asked if 2+2=4 will change he’d say no. Those sorts of things are fixed. He thinks that defining morality based on well being is fixed too. He’s only saying that what constitutes well-being is in flux.

    I’ll end with this, I do happen to agree that what Sam says is rather silly and in general his arguments are not the most powerful way of explaining ideas. If I even meet him, you’d better believe I’ll argue with him on some of his ideas just as you do. But, I don’t think that the particular criticism you lodge of subjectivity is relevant. You’ve both set up a definition of morality. Yours is subjectively based on an objective standard. So is his. The difference is that what we can deduce about well being in Sam’s world is constantly subjected to scrutiny, and can adapt as new information comes along. Your morality is static, since you believe God’s ideas for what constitutes well being cannot be changed.

    However, I’ll say this; while God’s morality is static, what we perceive to be his morality is not. At one point in time, people perceived that your god was okay with the oppression of women and slavery. You don’t perceive that. However, since both you and your earlier religious counterparts claim the same source and method of obtaining information yet come to two completely different conclusions, how can I as an outsider determine whether you are right about God or whether your counterpart of the past is right.

  • Perceptions of morality have changed, but here’s the thing: for moral relativists, oppression of women and slavery can’t be wrong! Nothing is wrong because morality is relative to each individual, to each time period, to each place, to each culture.

    For you to say that oppression of women and slavery were wrong some time in the past, for some distant culture, is completely irrational and contradictory to your moral theory. Wouldn’t you agree?

  • sean

    I think that depending on the circumstances yes, it could be wrong for me to assert that. What Sam says doesn’t quite agree with my views, and what you’ve said here doesn’t either. But I am willing to concede your point because I don’t think it matters. I don’t know why the ability, or lack thereof, to judge what happened some time in the past is particularly relevant because it already happened and there’s no changing it.

    Now because I the outsider have conceded that I can’t say which one of you is right, I’d like to know why it is that you say you’re right over the woman oppressors and slave drivers who also use the Bible as their source. What compelling argument do you have over them? I understand that your methods are different from mine, but I don’t see how they differ from those who have used the Bible to show that the oppression of women and slavery is morally okay.

  • Andrew Ryan

    “for moral relativists, oppression of women and slavery can’t be wrong! ”

    I’m not a defender of Sam Harris, but is moral relativism really what he argues for (in fact, is anyone)? If he’s placing ‘well-being’ at the centre of his moral system, then can’t he argue that oppression and slavery are always detrimental to well-being? And that if you’re conjecturing a future where we’ve changed so much as a species that they are no longer detrimental, then we’re probably not talking about the same thing any more anyway.

    I’m pretty sure I’ve heard apologists using similar utilitarian arguments to justify how their ‘God is the good’ – if God is omnipotent then he knows what’s in our best interests, so following his rules is the best way to promote human well-being.

    The Atheist Experience host, and previous head of the Atheist Community of Austin, Matt Dillahunty has been delivering a lecture for some years now, “The superiority of secular morality”. When atheists make such arguments, I’m always on the lookout for the ‘is/ought’ part – the key section of the argument where they attempt to bridge that gap. I believe Ophelia Benson says that Sam Harris fails to make this connection in his argument.

    Anyway, Dillanhunty says near the beginning of the lecture that morality is about human well-being. He adds that if you’re NOT relating ethical behaviour with human well-being, then you’re not talking about the same thing as him when you use the term ‘morality’.

    I’m not sure I’m convinced by this either! But I’ve already explained why Divine Command Theory doesn’t work as an alternative.

  • My comment about moral relativism was directed toward Sean, because he has claimed to be a moral relativist in previous comments. Sam Harris despises moral relativism and writes extensively against it in his book The Moral Landscape.

  • Andrew Ryan

    OK. I thought we were discussing Sam’s argument though, rather than Sean’s.

  • sean

    My feelings are that people who strongly assert to reject the idea of absolute or relativism are ignoring the fact that all morality is being judged against some objective thing. Some people though base morality on things they think could change (mental well-being) and some base it on things they think are static (God). But these are objective standards. So though I refer to myself as a relativist, I don’t think my morality is objective. I just think the objective standard could produce different outcomes given different situations. For example, you’d say murder is wrong, but I would say that if mental well being is not going to recover, doctor assisted suicide should be an option.

  • Andrew Ryan

    ‘Murder’ pretty much just means ‘unjustified killing’, so really you’re just arguing over what constitutes ‘justification’, which is why you can be anti-murder but pro-death penalty or indeed pro-choice. So you might not class doctor-assisted suicide as murder (though Bill might).

  • sean

    That’s my point exactly. My views on morality are relative in the sense that they change depending on the situation. I do see your point about using murder as an example though. (I think my point as a whole is still fine though, since Bill holds with the pro-life side of that debate.) I really think the whole debate on objective vs. subjective is wrong. We all have an objective standard that can change given certain parameters. But it’s still objective. The only subjective part comes in what specifically you chose to view as moral. Valuing well being over God’s will or God’s will over well being is a subjective choice we all make. (well, we could chose something different, but you get my point)
    That’s it. We objectively deem moral and immoral based on objective standards that we chose subjectively. The only reason some standards mater more is that some are held by more people, thus the mass acceptance gives these views more power.