The problem with reducing harm and increasing well being as a basis for morality

by Matt Slick

On 3/31/2019 I had an interesting discussion with some atheists and a deist on a social media outlet ( on how to justify whether or not an action is morally right or wrong from their atheist perspective. I was given the following statement by the deist (Chris L.): "What is morally good is what reduces harm and increases well-being." I told him that this was circular reasoning because it states that what is good is what reduces overall harm and increases overall well-being and that whatever reduces overall harm and increases overall well-being is good. I pointed out this circular reasoning problem for them. They responded by saying that society develops a consensus on what is morally right and wrong by seeing what reduces overall harm and increases overall well-being within that society. Again, another circular argument - which I also pointed out. Then, believe it or not, he offered further justification for his moral standard by saying that our existence is the result of self-replicating molecules that "desire" to survive and so, this is the basis for morality - the increase of survivability.

Self-replicating molecules? Wow.... just wow... I jumped on that one like a monkey on a cupcake and ripped it apart. I merely worked with what he said. I asked him that since these molecules operate under the laws of physics, does it also mean that our physical brains operate under the laws of physics as well? He said yes. I then asked how does one chemical state that leads to another chemical state in the brain produce proper logical inference? Of course, he did not have an answer for that. Instead, he said that we observe things around us and because it works, that's how we know that we can have moral truth.

Face palm

Anyway, once back on tract, I wanted to test their statement that "What is morally good is what reduces harm and increases well-being," I proposed the two following scenarios.

  1. A crime syndicate is ruining a city with its oppressive and illegal activity.  It is causing an increase in suffering among the population as well as a reduction of well being. A vigilante starts killing the bad guys. The bad guys are intimidated and stop doing bad things. The peoples' overall harm is reduced and their well being is increased.  But, the police catch the vigilante.  They do not prosecute him since to do so would result in the crime syndicate to resume its oppressive behavior. So, the cops tell the vigilante leave the city. The result is that the overall crime rate stays reduced and the increased well-being of the society is maintained, even increased as the reduction in crime is maintained. Was the vigilante morally right in what he did?  Are the cops morally wrong for not prosecuting the vigilante and just letting him go?
  2. A woman is in a coma. A man rapes her and is never caught. She is unharmed. But, in the process of the rape his interactions with her body breaks loose an inoperable blood clot in her brain that was keeping her in a coma. As a result, she wakes up a week later and recovers. The rapist was not harmed because he was not caught. His pleasure was increased. She was not injured.  Her harm was decreased by waking up from the coma because of that rape and her well being was increased by her being freed from the coma. Was the act of rape then morally good?

I produced both of these scenarios at different times in our conversation. Of course, the deist (and atheists) tried to explain why my scenarios were faulty. He focused on the second one more than the first and said that the woman would not want to be raped. But, of course, in saying this they had to ignore their own moral criteria about the reduction of harm and increase of well being. It was not about an individual's references. When I presented the two scenarios that exposed the problems in his standard, he then had to backtrack. Anyway, whether or not the bad guys were to be killed and the woman wanted to be raped is irrelevant to the criteria that the deist and atheists themselves presented. Here it is again.

"What is morally good is what reduces harm and increases well-being."

In both the scenarios I provided, the reduction of harm and the increase of well-being was the result of different actions: murder and rape. By definition, according to their criteria, killing the bad guys and raping the woman would have been morally good. I again pointed this out to them that I was using their criteria.

They responded that we must look at the overall consequences to see if they are good or bad. But of course, I asked them how would they know which consequences were good or bad? And, here we go again, they said that it was based on whether or not the consequences reduced harm and increased well-being. Did you get that?

  1. What is good is what reduces overall harm and increases well-being.
  2. Whatever reduces overall harm and increases well-being is good.

So, all they've done is defined good in a certain way and then said that's what's good.


Yet again this moral worldview falls short in accounting for any objective moral standard of truth. As the above shows, they are intellectually hamstrung when they restrict universal moral standards to their atheistic worldview. All they have is a subjective experience, perceived practicality, and the idea that what is morally good is what reduces harm and increases well-being, because, as they routinely say, that's what people want. Unfortunately, what people want doesn't make something good or bad. But that is another discussion.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not state that what is good is a reflection of the character of God. but of course, some atheists would ask how would we know whether the or not God was good. For that, please see the article How do we know that God is good?





About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.