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People like Sam Harris are saying that the supreme value that all moral systems should use as an objective yardstick or benchmark is "human flourishing" ; moral values should help increase human well-being.
At first glance, this seems reasonable, even self-evident.

But I wonder whether there is some circular reasoning hidden in it.
Don't we need some core values to determine what counts as well-being or flourishing in the first place? Is it the well-being of the individual that is most important? Or is it the flourishing of the family or the community?
Does "flourishing" only concern aspects like wealth or health - or spiritual aspects too?

It does not help to say: people should be happy, because what people define as "happiness" varies not only from individual to individual, but also from one historical epoch to another, from one culture to another.

Matias 8 Aug 7

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It’s an interesting question but it leaves entirely out of the picture our responsibility to the animal world. I think a lot of people these days would say that mankind as smart and capable and having access to many resources has to accept a certain burden to manage the rest of the planet well, at the very least.

I think that perhaps in a few more decades people will realise that the gardeners, the forest wardens, the ecologists, the park planners, all are a lot more worthy and important jobs than we realised because these people facilitate how we live next to the animal world.


I like Sam Harris's comparison of "human flourishing" to the concept of "health", particularly as used in medicine. He acknowledges that it is hard to define and a moving target, sometimes highly customized to the individual. And yet, we strive for it with all vigor. It seems that doing the same towards "human flourishing" makes the same kind of sense as striving towards "health".

Everybody knows what "health" is. It is part of objective reality, we can even determine if an animal is healthy or suffering from a decease. But "human flourishing" cannot be objectively determined, it depends on core values unique to different cultures. Like "happiness" it depends on which standards are applied. Therefore the comparison does not hold water in my opinion.



Positive outlook
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Martin Seligman 5 pilars.

cava Level 7 Aug 7, 2018

You had me at "human flourishing"!


Sam would seem to be in agreement with Maslow's heirarchy of needs with regard to flourishing, if he is thinking on the individual level. But the simple utterance of the word "morality" in the midst of a discussion of the concept of happiness is enough to raise plenty of hackles. The word is too pregnant with meaning. The concept may not be wrong though. If we remove the baggage, living "morally," however you choose to define it, would decrease your uncertainty, leading to increased well-being. (Please don't think I'm attempting to in any way define "morality" though!)

We must not forget that Maslow wrote for a Western audience. His pyramid with self-actualization on top would be deemed absurd in Japan or China.
In his Book "Moral Landscape" Harris tried to close that gap by claiming that "human flourishing" deep down meant the same to an American and to the Japanese. I do not think that Harris succeeded. All attempts so far to dispense with the notion of "morality" have failed. Every functioning society or community needs a set of core values to bind people together


Describe something considered moral/immoral in terms other than how it does/has affected human wellbeing.

Sam is right about this.


As someone who is supposedly concerned about human flourishing, Harris should critique Western imperialism…


Good analysis. Depends of course on how you define human flourishing!


The disheartening aspect of popular presenters, regardless of their philosophy, is that many don't consider the outcomes of their words. Many people hang on religiously to every uttered phrase and sentence, their authority being their celebrity. Sometimes their words are incongruous and meaningless, but moulded into a context for their followers to 'believe'


I guess this is where we get into the Epicurean v Utilitarian debate. As you say 'human flourishing' is all very well, but sounds like a rhetorical term rather than any helpful position to give counsel from. What if one mans flourishing is another;s demise as in colonial incursion. Its unusual for the conquered to flourish, i.e. the indiginous cultures of the Americas and Australia. White Man's Paradise, non-white man's struggle.

Great analysis and example!

@Krish55 Thanks. I try to spout some viewpoint from time to time!


Sam Harris, and others like him, are entitled to their opinions.
That's really all philosophy is. Someone's opinion about how we SHOULD
be, and how we SHOULD act.
The rest of us have the option of agreeing with them, in whole or in part, or not.

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