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Believers Think We Need Religion to Behave Like Good, Moral People -- Here's Why They're Wrong

Morality is real, objective, and perfectly compatible with a worldview that includes nothing spooky, mystical or supernatural.

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My definition of happiness isn't just physical well-being or pleasure of the senses. Nor is it limited to economic stability, or meaningful human relationships, or productive achievement. Rather, it's a balanced approach that includes all of these and more besides. Some might charge that this is too vague, but I'd answer that any moral theory which reflects the almost limitless variety of human experience is bound to be multivariate, sprawling and diverse, and not reducible to a single number on a measuring stick. As the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris notes, "health" is a similarly broad concept -- the inability to leap three feet straight up could be perfectly normal for me, while for an NBA player, it could be a sign of crippling injury -- but no one would argue that therefore the concept of health is too poorly defined to base the entire field of medicine on.

The next question is I should care about other people's happiness, rather than just my own. In theory, you could use happiness as the basis of morality and construct an Ayn Rand-type moral system where everyone is perfectly selfish and cares only about themselves. But the problem with this is that human beings are intrinsically social creatures, designed by evolution to live in groups, which is why people who are deprived of contact with others, like prisoners in solitary confinement, tend to go insane in short order. Our social nature gives rise to the phenomenon of emotional contagion: for better or for worse, we're affected by the moods of those around us.

This means that, if you value your own happiness, it's not in your interest to live in a society where it can only be achieved by the downfall of others. Friendly competition has its place, but there's greater potential for happiness in a society structured to encourage cooperation and reciprocal altruism, one where we can achieve more by working together rather than fighting against each other. If your success is others' success as well, they'll have every reason to work with you and assist you, rather than opposing you and impeding you from achieving your goals. Regardless of what you personally desire, the best thing for you is to live in a society that values honesty, generosity, fairness and the like. A rational being will always come to this conclusion, regardless of their own desires.

One more key piece of this moral synthesis is that we should choose our actions so as to create not just the least actual suffering and the most actual happiness for those immediately involved, but the least potential suffering and greatest potential happiness. In short, this moral system asks us to care not just about the immediate impact of our actions, but the precedent they set down the line, which establishes a basis for principles like human rights. Even if you can come up with contrived and unlikely scenarios where a temporary gain in happiness could be realized by violating a fundamental right like free speech, in the long run, it's far better for all of us to live in a society that respects those principles.

Now, I acknowledge that this argument won't win everyone over. If there's someone who believes that happiness can't be proven to be the highest good, there's little I can say to them. But then again, no rational system can derive its starting principles out of thin air. Every field of human inquiry, from science to history to mathematics, is based on assumptions that a stubborn person could reject. Just as a morality denier could say, "Why should I care about happiness?", a science denier could say, "Why should I care about the scientific method?" The only answer you could give that person is that science works -- it discovers truths about the world, and thereby makes it possible for us to achieve our desires.

 
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