Sam Harris and the middle class virtue

Sam Harris has been pushing human well-being as a universal goal of morality, without seeing the glaring weaknesses of that assumption. First, he’d have to bite the bullet that human ignorance and illusion might serve our happiness and well-being better than knowledge and understanding.

Does anyone really want to sacrifice awareness and knowledge? It’s a basic affront to human dignity. Even in the western religious tradition, knowledge is the ground zero of human nature — it’s the original sin; it’s who we are; it’s constitutive of human nature; it’s what distinguishes us as a species (or so we think). It’s the central myth: we pay for knowing, whether it be knowing good from evil, which is just knowing the link between our selfish motives and their consequences and shame of understanding that link, or knowing our naked selves literally or figuratively or knowing that life has an end (presumably the other animals don’t know that). Knowing is essentially what it is to be, in the deepest and most pervasive sense, human, no?

Happiness or well-being as the be-all and end-all is the morality of the drugged and drunk. Harris acts as if he has the moral depth of a dedicated, professional physician: do no harm — meaning strictly physical harm. Well, prescription weed would be nice for the profession, but hardly an answer to human aspirations.

If well-being is the goal of morality, kill me now.

A friend quoted to me Nietzsche’s familiar “There are things I don’t want to know. Wisdom sets a limit to knowledge.” There’s an important truth there, but it applies to internal motives, not to outward understanding. Patients who’ve lost their motivations, their personal drive or passion, find that they can’t reason well. Reason, after all, is a tool to navigate the world. If you’ve got no goal, all the minutiae of the world overwhelm your consciousness, all claiming equal attention. So if knowledge of your motives undermines your motives, you’re left in the Hamlet quandary: inaction.

But given your motives, the last thing you want to curtail is outward knowledge. To put it differently, if you have no goals, you don’t need knowledge (of any kind). You need knowledge only if you have goals.

No goals, no morality either. If there were no human interests, there’d be no reason to violate them, or mediate them, balance them with fairness, or prevent any mutual interference. There is a fallacy inherited from religion — one that Nietzsche complained of regularly — that morality is about mere altruism, the inclination towards saintliness and selflessness. It’s a commonality between Christian and Buddhist virtue. But those are mere sentiments of self-overcoming,  and can be equally accomplished in isolation. The moral quality, whether of Christianity or secular morality, is tinged with utilitarianism: selflessness in the pursuit of benefiting others. Even the Christian virtue of “love” implies a sympathy towards others interests. If the other has no interests, there’s no good you can offer. The entire edifice of morality rests on recognizing human interests, personal goals, selfish desires. If the world were populated with saints all trying to help each other, they’d have nothing more to do than help each other help each other help each other. That is, they’d do nothing.

So it’s not so easy to get away from well-being in the consideration of morality.

But well-being is not the only basis of human, personal interests. Of notions of universal morality, well-being is only one. Fairness, a far more abstract and mathematical notion, can encompass more than just well-being, and has much stronger rational claims.  I don’t see why morality shouldn’t be a constraint against our own preferences. I see morality as a balance between old Aristotle’s virtue and the constraints of conscience. If your goal here in this brief temporal gift of awareness is to learn all about this place — Aristotle’s highest virtue of contemplation — why can’t that be factored into the fairness of human interests?

If some people don’t feel the edge of conscience, the law is designed to to constraint them from social harm. I don’t see that social welfare — fairness in the promotion of human well-being — should be assumed into morality. Why conflate social planning with personal morality? Well-being ought to be the responsibility of the society as a whole,  allowing for the maximal expression of human inspiration within its limits to sustain it.


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