In essence, Sam Harris says the worst possible misery for everyone is bad – actually the worst. He also says suffering involves brain states and we can study brain states and learn how to avoid this. And he seems to think this is really all we need to know and we can then scientifically establish the most moral world. This may seem straight forward and fits well with his view of morality. But here I would like to show how his view is drastically different than our traditional view of morality good and evil/ right and wrong.
Here is a link where he states part of the above:
(Start about 2:15)
First note that although the WPME is ”bad” it is not necessarily immoral. That is it is not necessarily morally bad. Natural disasters can cause horrendous suffering but we don’t normally say hurricanes are immoral. It is only when a human makes a deliberate action that we normally say something is immoral. Sam Harris seems to make no distinction. This may not be an oversight bur rather due to his atypical view on free will and determinism. To the extent an entity has no choice in what happens we typically do not assign blame. An event from my childhood sort of stuck with me and illustrates this point.
When I was a kid I would play sports with lots of different kids in my neighborhood. I remember I was playing basketball with a sheltered neighbor who clearly didn’t understand the double dribble rule. He would dribble grab the ball with both hands and then dribble the other way. But that is not the most memorable part of that game. At one point he shot and the ball, it bounced off the bottom of the rim, and immediately hit him in the face. The boy was upset and he ran after the basketball and yelled “bad basketball!” and smacked the ball with his hand. At that point even as a child I knew his ignorance was more profound than those concerning the rules of basketball.
Why is blaming the basketball odd? One big reason is that the ball has no will and so it did not willingly hit the boy in the face. It wasn’t morally bad even though it may have caused the boy some pain/misery. Determinists may have some problems explaining how people are not just like that basketball with no will being jostled around by outside forces.
Obviously, this is a big difference in how many Christians view morality as opposed to atheists like Harris. (although certainly some Christian thinkers have famously rejected free will as well – eg. Martin Luther). Now atheists either agree with Harris on determinism or they do not. I’m not going to try to address all the problems determinism causes for morality here and so I focus on the latter group.
If they don’t agree then they almost certainly would agree that horrible suffering can happen even though nothing morally bad happened at all. So although they would agree that the worst suffering for everyone is bad it would not be at all clear that it is morally bad. To establish immorality we would want to see some sort of intentionality – or mens rea as I discussed in my last blog. Those who reject determinism are typically not going to be inclined to say suffering caused by inanimate entities involves immorality. So that is one problem but it leads to another related problem for Harris. We usually think that getting enjoyment from other peoples suffering is itself morally bad. But this seems to directly contradict his most fundamental statement.
Consider, the possibility that everyone but one sadistic dishonest person is in this worst misery. Pick your Nazi to be this person (Ill choose Himmler) and imagine this person is really quite happy because by his deception he caused everyone to be in this most horrendous misery possible. He could have very easily made it so we could all be happy including himself but he made certain deliberate choices to put the rest of us all in misery. But he does get sadistic pleasure from knowing his own deception lead to all of our misery and his brain scan would prove this pleasure. Are we really making moral progress? It seems Harris is committed to the view that the holocaust wasn’t so bad since Himmler liked it. I think adding Himmler and his pleasure at how his deception made us miserable makes it morally worse. Harris might say “I don’t know what I am talking about.” But that is hardly convincing to someone who thinks this through. I gave another problem for people with this utilitarian view of morality based on misery versus pleasure here:
What do I think Harris is missing? I think he is failing to understand that reason things are morally bad is due to our decisions. Lots of people might die in a hurricane and that is bad. But it is not morally bad that they die. Things get morally bad when we willfully take actions that are evil. It is certainly distressing and sad to see hundreds of corpses old and young alike after a natural disaster but there is no moral outrage and revulsion that we have when we see what happened in the holocaust. We don’t yell at the hurricane “how could you?” But we do yell that at the Nazis.
What is this all about? It is based on the idea that we as humans have a right and wrong way to act. That is we have purposes in our life and the holocaust was against that purpose and violated our nature. That nature is best understood by understanding that God gave us life and God made us in his image and so we have no right to take that life.
But before we leave this topic I will at least touch on yet another problem with his reasoning.
He says the only assumption we need to make is that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad. Is that the only assumption we need to make? Can we actually move on from there to anything worthwhile? It is sort of like saying the worst imaginable soccer team is so bad that every single time the ball is touched by either team it results in a goal against us. So as a coach that is the only assumption we need to make and then we can move on from there. I’m not sure how that really gets us anywhere on how to play soccer. Avoiding that situation at all costs might mean we don’t actually win we just keep everyone on defense. If there is no afterlife killing every conscious being would seem the surest way to avoid his bad situation where everyone is in the worse misery imaginable. But does saying it is bad to for everyone to be in the worst misery imaginable really tell us much of anything useful at all about morality? It seems precious little. Many more assumptions are needed.
I mean most people understand that to love someone is to make yourself vulnerable to pain. To develop a trusting relationship means you are making yourself open to the pain of betrayal. So do we avoid this worst situation by being as unfeeling as possible? Being unfeeling will certainly help us avoid the worst imaginable misery right? But does morality call us to do more? Of course it does.
So I think his worst possible misery scenario is both incorrect and unhelpful.