On Sam Harris’ Project

Let me begin by expressing my admiration for Sam Harris. Not only do I admire and respect his intellectual bravery and iconoclasm, his unflappable rhetorical skills, and his eloquent and persuasive writing, but I also respect and encourage his project of solving moral questions with the tools of science. I have not read “The Moral Landscape” yet and plan to write another post as an addendum to this one after reading it. While I applaud Harris’ efforts and agree with his hypothesis that science can shed light on the conditions most likely to promote human flourishing, I believe that he and his critics have missed the mark in terms of what they take the “hard problem” of this project to be. They all seem to conclude or imply that the neuroscience, the interpretation of fMRI results, and so forth will be the most difficult part of the project to solve; finding some equation for representing the quantity of human flourishing in each individual. Difficult as this may be to accomplish, let alone to persuade lay skeptics and academic skeptics alike that x-amount of dopamine, serotonin, and nor-epinephrine equals x-units of happiness, the true difficulty comes in devising a system of justice to arbitrate disputes between conflicting claims to roughly equivalent units of happiness from different people.

In a recent Daily Show interview, Harris said that “the biggest challenge we are facing is finding some way of creating a global civilization based on shared values.” Though this is truly a pressing challenge, Harris seems to be missing the crucial point that most of us already share the same values, just not the same ranking of each value with respect to each other value. We don’t have a common hierarchy of values, even within a single culture.  In America, for example, we all “value” the environment, but only differ in how much we value it; that is, how much of the other values we are willing to give up for that value. If I (hypothetically) say that I don’t support the IPCC’s recommendations on Global Warming, I am not saying that I don’t value the environment, but rather that I don’t value protecting the environment at all costs! Some costs, the sacrifice of some other values, is too high. This is even more true of different cultures that often share the same basic values, but just not in the same proportions. After all, America has laws upholding a certain level of aesthetic decency in public just like Muslim countries, they just disagree on how much this form of “public decency” should be pursued and enforced. But this is precisely what Harris is trying to scientifically quantify for us; what amount of environmental protection or public nudity we ought to value in proportion to our other values. I truly hope he and his confederates succeed in creating a technology that can objectively tell us which values, in what order, will produce the most individual and collective flourishing when enacted. However, even his knock-down arguments, his “common sense” examples of obvious moral outrages, suffer not from a lack of data on individual human happiness, but from the lack of a system of justice to arbitrate disputes between incompatible claims to happiness from different people. His go-to examples are slavery, burqa-wearing, and female genital mutilation.

According to Harris, the Judeo-Christian tradition is obviously not the product of an omnipotent god, because “he got slavery wrong.” “Slavery is probably the easiest moral question we have ever had to face,” he continues, but is it? Roy Baumeister astutely pointed out in a recent Edge.org video that slavery was actually a moral improvement on that other Old Testament strategy of warfare: scorched earth. It is objectively better, even by Harris’ standards, to take prisoners in a war than to smite them all along with their cattle. It is better for the victorious warriors and their people, the losers and their people, the cattle, and pretty much everyone involved. In fact, it was probably objectively better than just letting all of the prisoners go, along with their wives and cattle, as this would no doubt simply lead to another open war later on. The “cultural technologies” hadn’t been created or refined enough to permit the “ethical improvement” of releasing captured warriors, which is another way of saying that such a move would actually have been an ethical step backwards! So perhaps the omnipotent god just knew that these primitive people could only handle small improvements to their ethics at any given time, just like a good therapist who knows that he shouldn’t hastily decimate a destructive neurosis unless he already knows how to solve the underlying anxiety that the neurosis was created to control. Though I don’t personally think that the Old Testament was the product of such a considerate and sensitive god, the point still stands that slavery is not the easiest moral question we have ever faced. Moreover, it was only “solvable” when civilization reached a certain level of development; when civilization could enjoy and survive such a “luxury.” Thus, there is a difference between the best ethical values in an ideal world, those in the historical past, those in our current world, and those in our future world. Regarding this complex moral landscape, Dan Dennett reminds us that “The landscape is rugged, and it may not be possible to get to the highest peaks from where we find ourselves today.” In fact, any attempt to scale impossible peaks on this landscape will end up producing more suffering than would result from staying put. While I do not suspect that Harris is falling prey to the pervasive inclination of many philosophers to first find the best ethical values in an ideal world and then work backwards to reality, I do think that he is seriously underestimating the difficulty of overcoming Nature’s plethora of Zero-Sum games with new, scientifically-informed cultural technologies.

In the interview with John Stewart, Harris asserts that “The only way to ask whether its good for women to be forced to wear burqas is to wonder whether its good for human flourishing on any level. Does it make more compassionate men or more confident women? Does it improve relations between men and women?” His language here betrays his unwillingness to look at Nature’s Zero-Sum games in the face: “does it make more compassionate men or more confident women?” We are all incensed to agree that of course burqa-wearing does not make men more compassionate or women more confident. However, it is not that simple. Perhaps these women know that their husbands are less likely to cheat on them because they aren’t being tempted by eye-candy all day long, rendering these burqa-clad women more confident. Perhaps western women, especially the least attractive ones, would find that they are dramatically more confident in a burqa-wearing society on account of their never being judged on purely aesthetic grounds anymore! It could be argued that this tradition itself is a compassionate move that aimed to reduce the amount of interpersonal strife in the community as well as make both men and women more confident in their marriages. Perhaps men only seem to us as being “less compassionate” because this tradition has rendered many compassionate acts unnecessary; there are simply fewer torrid affairs to compassionately forgive, etc. How else are they less compassionate than western men by enforcing this norm? This practice stops women from enjoying the pleasure and self-esteem boost that comes from being ogled by horny men, true, but then again, western women complain about this “pleasure” more than they complain that their husbands fail to parade them in front of drooling throngs of men enough each week. Perhaps Muslim men are being less compassionate because they are stopping women from enjoying the fresh air and the sunshine, but then again, they are predominantly in the Middle East, where the sunshine means heat exhaustion more than it does a nice tan. Hell, even the men wear long flowing robes as this is simply a good strategy for staying cool and alive! I don’t mean to seriously argue that the tradition of wearing Burqas makes men more compassionate or women more confident, but only want to point out first that this ethical problem is not such an open-and-shut case, and second, that Sam is avoiding the inherent Zero-Sum game, which can easily be seen if we switch the men for the women in Sam’s rhetorical question:  “does it make more compassionate women and more confident men?” Well, it probably makes for dramatically more confident men! So even if it does produce less confident women, which let’s say reduces their happiness by 5-Harris units of happiness, it also might make men more confident, leading to a 5 or 6-Harris unit increase for the men! What then? In this hypothetical we are assuming that Harris has solved the “hard problem” of creating his Harris Unit Scale of Happiness, but notice that he is no closer to answering the question of who deserves how much happiness. This is a question that only a theory of justice can solve, not a scientific theory that manages to quantify human well-being.

Harris’ last example is seemingly the most obvious, but nonetheless suffers from an inherent Zero-Sum game that his project cannot solve. Forced female genital mutilation is obviously a barbaric vestige of some philistine past, right? Of course. However, that does not mean that it produces only negative impacts on human well-being for all parties involved. Husbands who force their wives to undergo this barbaric procedure probably don’t have to worry about their wives cheating on them as much as American men have to. These wives probably don’t have to grapple with temptation as much as American women do. Though it is patently obvious that both genders are giving up a hell of a lot by hanging on to this tradition, and that this must affect their well-being adversely, we must still take into account that this practice “evolved” for a reason and that this reason promoted human flourishing to some degree. What would happen if we found out, via Sam’s project, that the women only lost 3 units of happiness by following this tradition whereas the men gained 4 units of happiness? Who deserves how many units, and for what reasons? This question demands a theory of justice. We can all agree that we all want as many units of happiness as we can get, but in a world of finite resources and Zero-Sum games, the question always comes back down to the basic question of politics: who gets what? If we developed our magical fMRI technology and so forth and measured two identical twin girls who lived nearly identical lives except that one had her clitoris removed, we would most likely find that the girl with the clitoris is happier. Case closed, Sam urges. But this isn’t the whole story. If we put each of these two girls’ husbands into our fMRI machine, we might be surprised to find the husband of the girl with no clitorus to be markedly happier–lower stress levels, no report of sexual jealousy or insecurity, etc, etc. The question that science can’t touch is one of justice: which is more valuable, X quantity of happiness for the wife, or X quantity of happiness for the husband? Who deserves what? Even if 40 years from now Sam is able to give us numbers to justify his claim, numbers that show that any “normal” human population will end up with more aggregate happiness if it institutes a policy of no genital mutilation, he will still face the problem of whether that happiness is apportioned fairly. It is quite likely in fact that a lower aggregate happiness with a more just distribution of this happiness is preferable to the highest aggregate happiness in a society, however distributed.  There are just too many zero-sum games endemic to human life. Take, for example, premarital sex. An increase in past (healthy) sexual relationships might add to a given woman’s personal happiness by giving her pleasurable experiences that enriched her personal narrative and the scope of her understanding, but it is inversely proportional to the psychological well-being of many of her potential male suitors. The more prior sex for her, the more insecurity and headaches for him. Zero-sum! Now, who deserves the well-being/lack of headaches more? That is what science isn’t going to be able to solve, regardless of advances in fMRI technology.

The above criticism is by far the most important, in my opinion, but by no means the only one that should be leveled at Harris. Most of the world’s pressing difficulties have less to do with a lack of consensus on what is valuable, and more to do with a lack of consensus on the “true hierarchy” of values, as well as on who deserves how much of each value. Harmful cultural practices will not dissappear the moment science “proves” that these practices cause harm, but only when somebody suggests an alternative that satisfies the positive ends that these practices currently service. Another problem with Harris’ project, a reason why his “hard problem” will turn out to be so darn hard, is that there is a spectrum of human beings with “normals” on one end, psychopaths and sociopaths on the other, and many shades of human character in between. Sam is predicating his arguments on science finding a way to objectively measure happiness or well-being (via fMRI or whatever works) but never addresses the problem of coming to discover that psychopaths are truly, objectively “happy” when killing people, sociopaths while lying to and manipulating people, and so forth. What I mean is that there might be as much moral pluralism in a given human population as there is in the worlds varied cultures. Perhaps we will find out that pedophiles enjoy the absolute peak of human happiness (as measured in brain chemicals and fMRI activity) when raping little kids. Though this is likely false and we know that being a psychopath or pedophile has enormous long-term detriments to well-being, Harris is not taking into account the fact that human beings are not so homogeneous in character as he would like to think. I am not sure if this is a crippling argument though. Sam is just trying to assert that various cultural practices are objectively better than others in terms of promoting well-being, and we can assume as he does that we are talking about well-being for “normals.”

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3 Responses to On Sam Harris’ Project

  1. Joe says:

    Hey Jeff. Love the blog. Some notes and questions:

    1. The burqa argument is interesting, but saying that it may protect women from sun-stroke is ridiculous, right? Most of the burqas I’ve seen are heat absorbing black, while most of the robes I’ve seen men wear are nice heat reflecting white. Is this false? I like the argument, but that doesn’t ring true with me.

    2. I don’t think there’s necessarily a 1:1 correlation between a woman’s number or premarital partners and a man’s anxiety. In fact, I’ve heard it argued by men who have had a number of partners before they are married that their wives have nothing to worry about, since they’ve basically tried everything and have no need to look around for new partners. This could be applicable to females as well.

    Which brings me to my next question: Do you think we should be looking for a different social set up that relaxes that anxiety a man or woman might feel, rather than just looking at units of happiness? Should we be finding a more polyamorous norm, or some norm that houses both the female’s larger life narrative and the male’s relaxation?

    3. Have you read The Denial of Death? I’m reading it now, pretty interesting read. Just wondering.

    Keep up the good writing, very accessible and fluent. Good job.

    • Hey Joe, thanks for the feedback! You bring up some very good points.

      1) Regarding point one, it is rediculous if we are talking about Indonesia and some other places, but long flowing robes are actually a very good way of dealing with the deserts of the Middle East. Though I have seen plenty of black burqas, I think those are actually called “abayas,” and from what I know (and I could be dead wrong here), the majority of burqas are light blue. THe only medical issues that I have heard concerning burqas are related to vitamin D deficiencies. However, if I am wrong, the issue is more a matter of aesthetic choices in burqa fabric rather than moral choices about our cultural traditions.
      2) I actually do think there is such a 1:1 correlation, but your point still stands that experience can also be an ally to a relationship. I consider sexual jealousy a matter of biological fact, though we have a wide range of possible ways to assimilate this fact or deal with it. No guy can remain unpurturbed by the thought of his girlfriend having sex with a previous partner, though I would agree that this can be dealt with so well in many cases that it becomes a virtual non-issue in the relationship. I certainly do think that searching for different social arrangements that might ralax anxieties as much as possible is the way to go, as opposed to calculating raw happiness numbers for each party involved. However, I do think that crunching those numbers is a very important part of designing the right social arrangements, ones that won’t breed resentment or pent-up hostility. For example, if we disregard our biology and just suppose that through the power of culture, memes, or free will we can actually exercise “strong altruism” and give gifts selflessly to our friends forever with no regard whatsoever for reciprocity we are kidding ourselves, or worse, taking credit for moral decisions we are incapable of actually accomplishing. Who wouldn’t feel hurt if their friends took advantage of their generosity for years with no reciprocity? Though we can “deal” with that hurt and perhaps keep on “selflessly” giving, that hurt is still real, and all too often comes out in passive aggressive tendencies or misdirected hostility without the hostile party even knowing the true source of their anger. Whether we like it or not, our brains are designed to make certain quid pro quo calculations and will publish the results in our bloodstream via emotions that we will have to deal with. Quantifying this all is quite important, but as I argued, far from the hardest problem in our attempts at social engineering. I find that too many people want to isolate the problems in our society by finding the cultural equivalent of cancer…something that is obviously evil, with no good qualities whatsoever. However, the evils that I see in the world exist for some positive ends as well, making the moral landscape look like a Jackson Pollack rendition of the Seattle skyline in February (lots of confusing greys) instead of the chessboard landscape that we all would like to find. Tragedy isn’t the result of a cosmic battle between good and evil. Here I agree with Hegel in thinking that tragedy is the battle between two forces, both of which are good, but a battle that only one can win.
      3. I have read The Denial of Death twice now and have moved on to reading Rollo May’s work, one of the primary sources of Becker’s book. Let me know what interested you the most in Becker and I’ll recommend something good from May…I have read 6 of his books so far and am clamoring for more…it is life-changing stuff!

      Thanks again Joe…looking forward to seeing you at the party on the 5th! Cheers man!


  2. Pingback: Sam Harris and the Narcoleptic Sailor « Think On These Things

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