Objective Human Flourishing: A First Response To Jerry Coyne About Ethics

Daniel Fincke Empowerment Ethics Camels With Hammers

I had an amazing time last weekend at the Pennsylvania State Atheists Humanists Conference (affectionately known as PASTAH Con). I spent wonderful time with some old friends I rarely see in person and met some new people I completely loved. And I was blown away by the response to my talk. The enthusiasm and seriousness people had about moral philosophy was extraordinarily encouraging. I go into these things feeling like the underdog everyone’s going to disagree with when I talk about objective morality, but people were really so incredibly engaged that I wound up spending a whole day in fantastic conversations with so many smart and thoughtful people after the talk.

Among my interlocutors was Jerry Coyne, whose superb talk on the problem with accommodationism immediately preceded mine. Now, he raised several ethical dilemmas and some general challenges (mostly boiling down to what we might call “the problem of moral disagreement” and the problem of “hard cases”). He reiterated and fleshed out these objections on his blog. I’ll write a post about those issues later today or tomorrow. In the meantime, it’s crucial I clarify the basics of my view of flourishing since I didn’t have time enough to make that clear enough and he raises it in his blog post responding to me. So, in order to do that, I’m reposting a comment I left at his blog summarizing what I take objective flourishing to consist in. More detail on this can be found for the serious challenger (or those persuaded) by reading the links on more specific issues found at my Empowerment Ethics permanent tab or my Morality’s Validity permanent tab.

As to the nature of human flourishing, my basic view can be briefly boiled down to this. What we are as individuals is defined by the functional powers that constitute our being. In other words, we do not just “have” the powers of reasoning, emotional life, technological/artistic capacities, sociability, sexuality, our various bodily capabilities, etc., but we exist through such powers. We cannot exist without them. They constitute us ourselves. When they suffer, we suffer. Some humans might be drastically deficient in any number of them and there’s nothing they can do about that but make the best of it. But in general our inherent good is the objectively determinable good functioning of these basic powers (and all the subset powers that compose them and all the combined powers that integrate powers from across these roughly distinguishable kinds).

The good of our powers thriving is inherently good for us because we are our powers. And the inherent good of a power thriving is objectively determinable in the sense that it has a characteristic function that makes it the power that it is. The power of mathematical reasoning functions better when it can do certain kinds of operations and others worse. Powers of creation are measurable by their skills with the kinds of tasks that usually produce effective technologies or art that does what it is intended to do, etc.

The powers that are constitutive of our being are roughly knowable. It’s not entirely arbitrary, even if there are rough estimates involved, in assessing relative abilities.

Morality comes in at the stage of where any people who live lives impacting each other develop implicit or explicit rules and practices and judgments, etc. geared at cooperative living. Each of us has an interest in morality because we are social beings in vital ways.

First, we socially depend for our basic flourishing on a society that is minimally orderly, where people are trustworthy, where we’re not swamped with chaotic violence, etc.

Second, the more others around us are empowered to develop their functioning in their excellent powers is the more that they provide the means of us doing the same. So a society with greater functioning, powerful people is a society where we’ll be enriched by the things they create—be they technological or social—that help us thrive in our abilities.

Third, each of us has an intrinsic interest in developing our powers in the ways that empower others because our powers do not just thrive in their own right (technical excellence by the standards of a particular ability’s characteristic functional nature) but in their abilities to function beyond ourselves. So, for example, as a writer my excellence is not just in successfully articulating an idea in its own right but in its ability to function beyond my activity in itself to ways that please and empower others beyond me. That’s why, rightly, people are not satisfied with just being excellent but want to be influential. They grasp that impacting others in a constructive way beyond themselves is to fulfill their powers in the most maximal way.

The best inventors are the ones whose inventions then power the endeavors of others so the inventors can be powerful through all those others’ endeavors which they aid. The construction worker is powerful through building things people can use. The doctor is powerful through healing people so that they function well. My dad was a firefighter and then a physician assistant. One day I pointed out to him that all the people living because of his efforts. It wasn’t something he dwelled on. But all the excellent functioning they do is to some significant extent possible because of his excellent functioning. That’s his thriving, flourishing power beyond his body and beyond his awareness.

So, I think that an enlightened self-interest should lead anyone to realize that their own maximal empowerment according to their constitutive powers is ideal for them as the beings they are and that the more they empower others beyond them, the more their own powers actually grow.

People seem to recognize this readily with respect to every art–that doing it in the way that evinces excellent ability and has the result effect of empowering others is obviously desirable over the way that doesn’t–except when it comes to something like ruling or acquiring wealth. In those cases, people start talking like they think mere domination and accumulation is sufficiently desirable. But there’s no reason to think that’s correct. The ruler is a failure if they cannot create a powerful citizenry. What is the intrinsic goodness of merely getting your way compared to the actual creative power, the actual excellent ability, to create greater flourishing through your efforts. The great ruler, by the ruler’s own internal standards of success, should obviously be to rule for generations even beyond death. To do that means to be so shrewd in one’s decisions that what one builds outlives you and thrives beyond your mortal coil. It means to be a contributor to the thriving of your citizens while you’re alive so you can take credit for your role in their thriving (and for as many subsequent generations as possible).

Just because some tyrants realize that’s impossible because they’re incompetent to create that and keep power and so instead choose to rule a graveyard through terror doesn’t mean those tyrants are being rational. They’re functioning badly. They’re epically failing to do the actually powerful task of ruling.

So, we set up moral systems to regulate and make it so people are able to resist the temptation to think in short term, microlevel, temporarily selfish ways about what is good for them. The goal is that people think in the more expansive way about their power being in spreading power to others, rather than to take short term advantages that weaken the social system of trust, or exploit it in a way that if everyone did the same the whole thing couldn’t exist. While we might get away with a localized selfish act, it’s formally inconsistent to do the kind of thing that in principle undermines the flourishing of the system that we ultimately depend on. It’s irrational to try to scheme and undermine a system that you yourself need. It’s irrational in the sense of an inconsistency, comparable to any other rational inconsistency.

So, moral rules and practices and behaviors are a practical project. What objectively constitutes good instances of these are what lead to our objective good of maximally empowered functioning according to the abilities we have and what leads us to coordinate best with others for mutual empowerment on the long term.

Within this framework we can reason rationally. Does it mean we will always come to conclusive answers? No, of course not. Reasoning involves dealing with the real world and it’s empirical variables. Science can only go so far too, because we’re stuck with contingencies. You need information, sometimes impossible to precisely ascertain information about the future or the expected consequences of one path or another. That doesn’t make the estimates or the arguments that lead to them subjective. We have general standards—the rock bottom one I think should be maximum empowerment of the maximum number of people possible while making provisions that the minimum anyone lives under is not insufficient for minimum well being. Then pleasure is important. If there can be more rather than less, that’s at least desirable and usually conducive with the greater empowerment anyway. Then we need to look to maintain formally consistent and stable systems of morality and law systems which conduce to the ultimate good of maximum empowerment, etc.

When we have these basic goods in mind, ones objectively determinable given our natures as humans and ones intersubjectively agreed upon (since even if you don’t think they can be agreed on on natural terms, psychologically all humans do desire a large set of goods over evils), we can then have arguments that are not merely arbitrary. They’re tethered to demands that we be formally consistent (treat relevantly like cases alike, just as we would in any other area of abstract reasoning), not make exceptions for ourselves just because we’re ourselves, that our actions objectively are consistent with the values we hold (sometimes we can be objectively corrected about the best way to attain our own desires or values), etc., etc.

Objectivity is in the reasoning process’s objective standards, comparable to how it is in science. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be hard cases where you need to make rough assessments reasonable people can disagree about in lieu of complete information. That happens in science too. Is medicine not a science because doctors sometimes disagree about hard cases with inconclusive data about what the best treatment is? Are physics or biology not sciences because there are always anomalies and areas for further research and areas where scientific competence is required to assess the virtues of one account over another?

No, objectivity doesn’t mean simple settled answers all the time. It means that the process of reasoning has well established goals and standards that can force people to conclusions they don’t like. Morality is not invalidated if people don’t like its results (in fact it’s vindicated if sometimes people are forced to admit that they really are being immoral or participating in an immoral system whether they like that or not).

I can go on and on, but I’ll cut this short here. A companion part 2 of my response to Coyne is in another post I also wrote today and posted, called “Can There Be Objective Morality When So Many People Disagree About Morality?”  For more detail, again I recommend people to my Empowerment Ethics page or my Morality’s Validity page, both of which feature more systematic treatments of more particular issues.


Ethics is my academic specialization. I wrote my doctoral dissertation on Nietzsche’s moral philosophy. And I offer in depth, face to face, interactive classes for interested students online. They only take a once weekly commitment (no homework or other time investment necessary). Learn more about this class or others I teach by clicking on the class banner.



Patheos Atheist LogoLike Camels With Hammers and Patheos Atheist on Facebook!

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.