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What is the problem of good?

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In October 2010, atheist Sam Harris’s book The Moral Landscape was released. In his book, Harris argues against grounding morality in God and says that science is the only vehicle that humanity can use in determining the concepts of good and evil. Unlike other naturalistic philosophers and atheists (e.g., Nietzsche, Sartre, and Russell), who have denied the reality of objective moral values, Harris instead argues against moral relativism and subjectivism. Harris believes that a valid alternative to moral nihilism exists, and that science provides the answers that human beings desire where issues of morality are concerned.

To set the stage, Harris defines the playing field (his “moral landscape”) in this manner: “The moral landscape is a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible suffering.” The concept of “well-being” is key to understanding Harris’s definition of good and evil. Harris says, “Questions about values are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures.” So, for Harris, the concepts of good and morality are all about the highs and lows of conscious creatures (animals are undoubtedly included along with humans because, after all, to an atheist, humans are nothing more than more highly evolved animals) and their well-being. Harris says a goal for science is to determine and prescribe ways for human beings to “flourish” and through human flourishing, the good life will be realized.

But is the “good” that Harris talks about moral good? That is the primary question for Harris and the arguments he makes in his book. And this is the question and issue that has plagued atheists and materialists who do not try to blend their atheistic position with borrowed Christian teachings. The majority view in the intellectually honest atheist camp is that science and naturalism cannot make moral judgments or statements of “oughtness” where ethics are concerned.

Can science tell the world what contributes to the “flourishing” of human beings? It most certainly can, in the same way that it can tell the world what contributes to the flourishing of an oak tree. But that doesn’t equate to a moral conclusion at all. This is why, years ago, atheist Richard Dawkins looked at the natural world and commented on the reality of good and evil, concluding that life has “no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference” (River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, BasicBooks, 1995, p. 133).

How does a person ultimately resolve what is good or bad, what is moral or immoral? Some, like Dawkins, believe there is no true concept of good and bad. Oscar Wilde, a talented artist who died at the age of 46 from a lifestyle that eventually caught up with him, once remarked, “Nothing succeeds like excess. . . . Nothing is good or bad, only charming or dull.” Others who follow the teaching and philosophy of evolution to its logical conclusion, like biologist William Provine, echo Dawkins when they say, “When Darwin deduced the theory of natural selection to explain the adaptations in which he had previously seen the handiwork of God, he knew that he was committing cultural murder. He understood immediately that if natural selection explained adaptations, and evolution by descent were true, then the argument from design was dead and all that went with it, namely the existence of a personal god, free will, life after death, immutable moral laws, and ultimate meaning in life” (emphasis added).

Yet most human beings do not live this way. And to his credit, Sam Harris acknowledges this in his book and states that there are indeed objective moral laws. At issue are what defines “moral” or “good,” where these good moral laws come from, how they are recognized, and how they are put into practice by humanity.

The Problem of Good — Defining Good
What is “good”? In this book, Harris does his best to communicate that “good” is ultimately the well-being of conscious creatures. In fact, he consistently argues that “good” is that which causes conscious creatures to flourish. Harris literally wills into existence his definition of good and ends up arguing that no one can ask the question of why conscious creatures flourishing equates to “good” because that is what he says “good” truly means.

To provide his readers with more insight into why he believes atheists can hold to objective moral laws, Harris provides a few analogies. He says that, for example, in chess there are objectively good and bad moves that a player can make, and the same is true in life. Harris also argues that the supposed fact/value divide between science and morality can be easily bridged because (1) objective knowledge implies values; for example, being logical in one’s thinking is good; and (2) beliefs about facts and values arise from similar processes in the brain.

Is Harris right? First, Harris cannot simply define reality and his concept of good and then expect everyone to follow suit. Second, no one argues that there are good and bad moves in chess, or that the use of logical thought and reason is good to employ. However, Harris equivocates the term good where morality is involved. Is the bad move a person makes in chess, “evil”? Is the person not using logical thought acting in an evil capacity?

Last, just because people use their brains for both fact and value operations, such a process cannot be traced back to buttress Harris’s definition of good, especially where morality is concerned.

The Problem of Good — The Options for a Moral Source
If a person omits a transcendent source of objective moral values, then there are three options left for a starting place of the objective moral law:

1. The natural universe
2. Culture or society
3. The individual person

Can the natural universe serve as the source for objective moral values? Since science admits that an effect must match its cause in essence (i.e., a cause cannot give what it does not have), it seems impossible that amoral matter could create beings obsessed with moral behavior. Novelist and poet Stephen Crane put it like this:

“A man said to the Universe,
Sir, I exist!
Nevertheless, replied the Universe,
That fact has not created in me
The slightest feeling of obligation.”

What about culture or society—can it serve as the source for objective moral values? This hardly seems like a plausible possibility given the fact that many cultures and societies exist, and they can differ quite a lot where their moral framework is concerned. Which one is the right choice? For example, in some cultures they love their neighbors, and in others they eat them.

If a singular culture cannot be chosen as the standard, then another possibility is just to let each culture decide on morality, yet this becomes untenable unless human beings around the world want to turn a blind eye to customs such as widow burning (a practice where a living wife is burned alive with her deceased husband) or systems such as Nazism. The problem of even deciding what is moral within a culture becomes problematic as well. If the majority rules that rape is “good,” does that make it morally good?

The last choice for a source of objective moral values is the individual person, and it is typically represented in philosophies such as postmodernism or in religions like Wicca whose motto is, “If it harms none, do as you will.” Yet such grounding can be nothing more than emotive in nature; nothing can be labeled as truly wrong. Instead, perceived immoral actions are reduced to statements such as “I don’t like rape” or “For me, rape is wrong.”

In his debate with the atheist Bertrand Russell, the Jesuit and philosopher Frederick Copleston looked at Russell and asked, “Lord Russell, do you believe in good and bad?” Russell replied, “Yes.” Copleston continued, “How do you differentiate between good and bad?” Russell replied, “The same way I differentiate between blue and green or yellow and green.” Copleston then said, “Wait a minute, you differentiate between yellow and green by seeing, don’t you?” Russell said, “Yes.” So Copleston challenged him by asking, “How do you differentiate between good and bad?” Russell replied, “I differentiate on those matters on the basis of my feelings, what else?”

The fact is it becomes impossible for the individual to be the source of objective moral laws. If two people disagree on what “good” is, how is the dispute settled?

The Problem of Good — Recognizing and Implementing the Moral Law
Without a transcendent source for the moral law, there are four possible ways to recognize and agree on what “good” is. They include frameworks that are
1. Utilitarian – whatever produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people
2. Pragmatic – whatever appears to “work” where happiness (positive) or consequences (negative) is concerned
3. Subjective – whatever is right for the particular person in the particular situation
4. Emotive – whatever “feels” right
As has been exhaustively argued for centuries, none of these is a good option on its own. Harris denies options 3 and 4 as he believes in objective moral values. He is right on that front. Moreover, this is something some intellectually honest atheists other than Harris will acknowledge. For example, in her debate with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig on whether objective moral values exist, atheist philosopher Louise Antony admitted, “Any argument against the objective reality of moral values will be based on premises that are less obvious than the existence of objective moral values themselves.” In other words, it’s tough to argue against the reality that love is better than hate or desire in a world where murder is a virtue and gratitude a vice.

A combination of options 1 and 2 may describe Harris’ way of recognizing good and bad, but if it does, then problems arise. It’s not a stretch to say that such a position could lead to eugenics and the infanticide of babies who are not deemed able to flourish. Euthanasia could also be declared good if it means that the quality of life is raised for the majority by eliminating a minority who are the source of extravagant expense and effort. Left to the sterile choice of science, many human atrocities are possible if carried out in the spirit of improving the flourishing of humanity as a whole. The elimination of undesirables has already been attempted more than once in the past by various regimes. Psychiatrist Victor Frankl—himself a prisoner in death camps twice in his life—once declared, “I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers of Auschwitz were ultimately prepared not in some ministry of defense in Berlin, but rather at the desks and lecture halls of Nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”

A more recent example of such a proposal being put forward for the supposed betterment of the world by a naturalistic scientist came at the 109th meeting of the Texas Academy of Science that took place at Lamar University in March 2006. At the meeting, evolutionist Dr. Eric Pianka presented a lecture about how human overpopulation is ruining the earth. Professor Pianka said the earth as we know it will not survive without drastic measures. Then, and without presenting any data to justify his conclusion, he asserted that the only feasible solution for saving the earth is to reduce the population to 10 percent of the present number.

And how would Pianka go about reducing the population of the earth? AIDS is not an efficient killer, he explained, because it is too slow. His favorite candidate for eliminating 90 percent of the world’s population is the airborne Ebola virus because it is both highly lethal, and it kills in days, instead of years. However, Professor Pianka omitted the fact that Ebola victims die a slow and torturous death as the virus initiates a cascade of biological calamities inside the victim that eventually liquefy the internal organs. After praising the Ebola virus for its efficiency at killing, Pianka paused, leaned over the lectern, looked at the audience and carefully said, “We’ve got airborne 90 percent mortality in humans. Killing humans. Think about that.” And what was the audience response at the end? The attending scientists gave him a standing ovation.

Forrest Mims, one of the scientists in attendance, summed up the response this way: “I still can’t get out of my mind the pleasant spring day in Texas when a few hundred scientists of the Texas Academy of Science gave a standing ovation for a speaker who they heard advocate the slow and torturous death of over five billion human beings.” Evidently, the other attending scientists must have believed they would not be included in the 90 percent of humanity Dr. Pianka advocated being eliminated.

The Problem of Good — Another Obvious Alternative
Harris’s attempt at defining, sourcing, recognizing, and implementing a moral law within the natural universe is somewhat original for an atheist; he must be granted that. However, his attempt at redefining good, his equivocation of the term good, and the inescapable conclusions of where his philosophy leads all point to his position being untenable.

What happens when the other obvious alternative for objective moral values is considered: a transcendent source of an objective moral law that defines what good truly is and implements a way for good to be ultimately implemented? What about God?

Make no mistake, Harris is right when he says that people don’t need to believe in God to discern moral duties or understand that objective moral values exist. That has never been the argument of the Christian theologian. The Christian argument is that, in order to ground an objective moral law, you need to have a transcendent source of those values.

This is something those who founded the United States clearly understood and why they grounded the rights of American citizens in the way they did: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Nothing similar can be found in a statement made by any other nation: moral well-being hinged on a creative act. Life . . . Liberty . . . Happiness. It sounds very much like conscious human beings flourishing and experiencing well-being. Moreover, the term self-evident communicates the concept of the moral law being undeniable, or objective (so does “truths” instead of “opinions”). Sam Harris would, or should, be proud.

But, due to his naturalistic presuppositions, Harris won’t consider God as being a possible source of the moral law, and this, in the end, becomes his undoing. Harris does not understand an important truth: good cannot be defined without purpose, and purpose cannot be defined without cause. Atheists believe the universe (their only reference point for eternality) is purposeless and without meaning. Yet Harris wants morality, which cannot be had without purpose and meaning. Harris’s cause has no way of producing either the purpose or meaning he desires, and because a cause cannot produce an effect that has something it does not possess, he is left twisting in the wind for an explanation of how the morality he desires can possibly come about. The atheist’s formula of Impersonal Matter + Time + Chance fails to produce the effect he desires. In fact, it seems to have produced the opposite. This is something well stated in the end of Steve Turner’s poem “Creed”:

“If chance be the Father of all flesh,
Disaster is his rainbow in the sky,
And when you hear
State of Emergency!
Sniper Kills Ten!
Troops on Rampage!
Whites go Looting!
Bomb Blasts School!
It is but the sound of man worshiping his maker.”

Without a cause possessing meaning and purpose, there can be no morality in effect. This leads right back to honest atheists like Nietzsche who admitted that, without God, there can be nothing called “good,” nor can there be anything called “evil.” The logic works this way: if there’s such a thing as evil, you must assume there’s such a thing as good. If you assume there’s such a thing as good, you assume there’s such a thing as an absolute and unchanging moral law on the basis of which to differentiate between good and evil. If you assume there’s such a thing as an absolute moral law, you must posit an absolute moral law giver, but that would be God—the one whom the atheist is trying to disprove. So now rewind: if there’s not a moral law giver, there’s no moral law. If there’s no moral law, there’s no good. If there’s no good, there’s no evil.

The simple fact is moral laws imply a moral law giver (a “giver” that possesses meaning, morality, and purpose itself). Even Harris admits there is an objective moral law, so the obvious conclusion should be there is a moral Law Giver.

The Problem of Good — The Conclusion
Atheist philosopher J. L. Mackie has stated, “We might well argue that objective intrinsically prescriptive features supervenient upon natural ones constitute so odd a cluster of qualities and relations that they are unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events without an all-powerful God to create them.” Honest thinkers will reach this conclusion at some point if they follow the logical order of where the arguments lead, but what they do once they reach that point is hard to say. C. S. Lewis eventually made it to that place and describes it this way: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line.”

Atheists like Harris have no objective straight line to grab hold of. Few materialists have the courage of Nietzsche to understand and then embrace the real consequences of what the death of God means. Instead, most are like Harris who blink when they stare into the face of atheism and end up with ill-conceived ideas of morality that have no able cause to produce the effect they know is present and real.

The Bible declares, “No one is good but God alone” (Luke 18:19). Good is grounded in the very nature of God and what He wills is good because He is good. Just as many things can have “being” (or life), but there can only be one thing that actually is Being (or life), the concept of good works the same way. Many things may have some good in them, but there can only be one thing that is good. And this good God invites everyone to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).

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This page last updated: April 26, 2021