Human Flourishing on Economics

This article argues that human flourishing is distinct from individual flourishing, individual utility optimization, and individual happiness optimization. Human flourishing is a long-run economic concern that will involve strong economic norms institutionalization.

As a result of this distinction, oft-used arguments to substantiate secular morality on the basis of human flourishing are identified as plain misapplications. Specifically, arguments that make an appeal from the intuition of microcosmic, individual-level, or short-run displeasure and inconvenience to general moral truths are often simple extrapolations or non-sequiturs.

The effect of this conclusion is to weaken the appeal of arguments from morality on the basis of human flourishing for two reasons: First, because the move from individual intuition to general moral truth is fallacious, the intuitive appeal of the argument is directly and substantially undercut. Second, because leading advocates of this ethical framework fall victim to such elementary mistakes, the collection of intellectual and social capital supporting this approach is devalued.

Dr. Sean McDowell and Dr. Neil Shenvi recently gave a discussion on a new variation of an integrated moral and transcendental argument for God. Basically, this argument works by claiming that the desire to seek truth is a moral duty and then appealing to the Christian God as the origin of such moral duty.

The argument itself is fairly interesting because it is resilient to multiple secular objections to the classical moral argument. Of interest, the classical moral argument makes an appeal from the existence of objective morality to the existence of a moral lawgiver, but the secularist can object by providing another grounding for objective moral truths. This is where the Harrisian moral landscape comes in, which is the same as the notion that human flourishing is a grounds for objective moral truth.

Dr. Shenvi goes on to show that his variation of the transcendental moral argument defeats the Harrisian moral landscape. In doing so, Dr. Shenvi points out that many secular thought leaders, such as biologist Dr. Jerry Coyne, acknowledge that behavior that optimizes for human flourishing does not optimize for truth-seeking.

Dr. Jerry Coyne apparently gives an example of an elderly woman on her death bed asking her grandson whether he believes in God. In truth, the grandson is an atheist, but, so the so-called logic goes, he should lie to his grandmother and claim that he does believe in God in order to maximize her flourishing.

There are almost as many logical errors as words in the anecdote allegedly originating with Dr. Coyne. I should hope that he publicly disclaims ever using such thinking. Such errors include:

  1. Happiness is not the same as flourishing.
  2. Lying should present disutility to the grandson so that total social utility is not maximized by the grandson lying to the grandmother.
    1. Indeed, the grandson has a lifetime of regret ahead of himself conditional on lying, so that optimally he would not lie unless we presuppose that the grandson has no substantial dynamic disutility from lying.
    2. In the logic of this appeal, microcosmic preferences represent microcosmic norms. A norm of people not having substantial dynamic disutility from lying is not commensurate with sustainable human flourishing.
  3. The stipulation that the grandmother desires her grandson to lie is highly problematic.
    1. In the logic of this appeal, microcosmic preferences represent microcosmic norms. A norm of wanting others to lie to you is not commensurate with sustainable human flourishing.
    2. An even greater good might come about if the grandson admits to his atheism and the grandmother has the pleasure of interacting with her grandson in such a way so as to genuinely convert him before her death.
  4. The derivation of a long-run social norm on the basis of a short-run, two-player utility game is simply invalid.
    1. Consider the entire field of market failure in economics, or the various examples within game theory including the Prisoner’s Dilemma in which we distinguish between long-run social norms optimization and short-run, small-party game optimization.
  5. The truth is that long-run social norms that institutionalize truth-seeking sustainably create optimal long-run socioeconomic conditions, and this is actually commensurate with human flourishing.

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