I thought you might be interested in these quotes concerning morality:
The first principle of morality is that “one ought always to choose … in a way that is compatible with a will towards integral human fulfillment…. Our integral good includes not only our bodily well-being but also our intellectual, moral, and spiritual well-being …. Principles of practical reason direct us to act or abstain from acting in certain ways out of respect for the well-being and legitimate interests of persons whose legitimate interests may be affected by what we do.
Sound familiar? It might have that ring if you’ve read Samuel Harris’s The Moral Landscape. It might also sound familiar if you’ve been reading comments here on this blog lately.
Sam Harris identifies human morality with acts, intentions, etc. that maximize human well-being. More locally, commenter David_P has staked his moral claim on meeting human needs, as we understand them through the practice of empathy with others and even with ourselves. For example he writes (speaking specifically of gay “marriage,” but with an obvious broader application),
The [ethical] model is in terms of these types of fundamental human needs we all share. The aim is to achieve them for everyone, based on the realization that helping others helps us because we are all connected. If part of society feels their needs are not being met, this will sooner or later have negative consequences for the rest of society.
David_P is (as far as I can determine) an atheist. Sam Harris is emphatically an unbeliever. So it may come as some surprise that the opening quotes come from Robert George, in his new book Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism. Dr. George is a Roman Catholic thinker. He was the co-author with Chuck Colson and Timothy George (no relation to Robert) of the controversial Manhattan Declaration, and he also co-wrote the strongest book-length defense of man-woman marriage to date, What Is Marriage?
What business does Robert George have agreeing with Sam Harris or David_P? What business do I have, for that matter, in agreeing with them? For I have critiqued Harris strongly, and I cannot claim much common ground with David_P.
Morality and Human Nature
Sam Harris, David_P, Robert George, Robert George, and I all agree that humans have needs, and that (with careful thought and proper qualifications) the demands and obligations of interpersonal ethics can be summed up in the idea of doing what we can to maximize everyone’s well-being.
What Robert George knows, however, and Sam Harris and David_P do not, is that we have these human needs by virtue of the nature of being human. It is of the essence of humanness that we need to love and to be loved. It is of the essence of humanness that it is good for us to be rational creatures, to be creative, to live in safe and mutually caring communities, to manage and enjoy the benefits of our property, to share with others from that property. This is all part of what it means to be human. It is our nature.
Explaining Human Nature
When George says that, he does so out of a well-established intellectual tradition going back to Aristotle and Aquinas, and (crucially) closely connected to the Bible. The philosophers discovered and discussed the idea of a nature in the sense of a fundamental essence, the what-ness of what it means to be something — humans in this case. They showed how we could learn what human nature is, and that it is distinctly human.
The Bible brings in the essential additional information that human nature comes by way of our being created in God’s image, unlike all the rest of God’s creation. We’re different from the animals, for reasons that can be known and explained. Being made in God’s image means that we share (imperfectly, incompletely, and probably analogically, though that’s a technical discussion) God’s relational, loving, rational, acting, creating, and moral nature.
So when we ask, what is it to be morally good on the person-to-person level, one way to state it goes like this: we ought to live to maximize in others, as in ourselves, the fulfillment of what it means to be human, because God created us for that. It’s not far off from the Golden Rule, is it?
(Note that I am only speaking of the person-to-person level: I do not want to miss the crucial fact that he created us preeminently for relationship with him; but this post is about how we are to act in relation to each other. Think of this as being about the latter six or seven of the Ten Commandments rather than the first three or four.)
Human Nature and Naturalistic Evolution
Now I admit I am not up to speed on contemporary metaphysics, in that I don’t know who has identified what concerning the reality of human nature, or even whether anyone is talking about such a thing today, apart from Aristotelians and/or theists. I do know, however, that for writers like Sam Harris, and possibly also David_P, who consider humans to be the product of unguided, naturalistic evolutionary processes, the idea of human nature cannot be justified. Human nature (in the relevant sense here) could not exist. It’s impossible.
Nevertheless if Robert George is right and human nature is real, then Sam Harris and David_P partake in human nature whether they can explain its existence or not. They know — by direct experience — what’s true about humans. They know that part of what it means to be human is to live ethically with one another, and that this means something like maximizing human well-being. And so based on their direct experience of life they arrive at the right answer, or at least part of it.
But this answer for them is as solid as stepping out of a hot-air balloon onto a cloud, because they cannot justify or explain the distinctiveness of human nature: why our humanness as such explains morality. On their theory there cannot be any such thing as humanness as such. There cannot be a distinct human nature. Therefore even though everyone knows these moral facts are true, from within their framework they couldn’t be true. They make no rational sense.
Tomorrow I will explain why I say so. Update: find it here.