Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sam Harris and a World Without Freedom

Sam Harris likes analogies. He has tried to demonstrate that we create a science of value judgments by offer an analogy between well-being and health.

In one blog post, he compared taste with moral behavior:

If, for instance, a preference for chocolate ice cream allowed for the most rewarding experience a human being could have, while a preference for vanilla did not, we would deem it morally important to help people overcome any defect in their sense of taste that caused them to prefer vanilla—in the same way that we currently treat people for curable forms of blindness. It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative—the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule—is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.

Being a leading contemporary proponent of scientism— the belief that science can resolve all problems by reducing human being to a measurable mechanism—Harris reveals his wish, and not a scientific wish, to impose his taste and his values on other people.

Surely, no rational individual would accept that preferring vanilla to chocolate is a “defect” like blindness. Very few rational individuals would accept that sensory pleasure is “the most rewarding experience a human being could have.”

Why is Harris thinking about how he can arrogate to himself the power—and it will require power—to deprive people of the choice between vanilla and chocolate?

Do you really believe that we can establish scientifically what is and what is not “the most rewarding experience” that a generic human can have and that we should therefore grant someone—Sam Harris—the right to impose that taste on everyone.

Don’t different people have the right to determine what is most rewarding for them? Don’t they have the right to decide freely whether they wish to forgo the ultimate form of sensory enjoyment because they are seeking a different goal in life? Is eating chocolate ice cream or gazing on a petunia more satisfying than winning a golf tournament or seeing your team win the Super Bowl?

Keep in mind that when one person enjoys the thrill of victory in a competitive sport, someone else must suffer the agony of defeat.

As always, who is to decide? Who will remove all of the vanilla ice cream from the supermarket and deprive you of a free choice between vanilla and chocolate?

Fortunately for him, Harris does not believe in free will. He does believe in choice, but not in the freedom to choose between vanilla and chocolate, between a vacation in Tahiti and a vacation in Bermuda, between a job that pays more for more hours of work and a job that pays less but offers more time with the family.

There is no right and wrong in the world of taste. That’s why, as the old saying goes, “there’s no arguing with taste.”

Similarly, Harris presents utilitarian arguments for maximizing human well-being by analogizing well-being with health.

In his words:

Many critics claim that my reliance on the concept of “well-being” is arbitrary and philosophically indefensible. Who’s to say that well-being is important at all or that other things aren’t far more important? How, for instance, could you convince someone who does not value well-being that he should, in fact, value it? And even if one could justify well-being as the true foundation for morality, many have argued that one would need a “metric” by which it could be measured—else there could be no such thing as moral truth in the scientific sense.

Then he responds to his critics:

The simplest way to see this is by analogy to medicine and the mysterious quantity we call “health.” Let’s swap “morality” for “medicine” and “well-being” for “health” and see how things look:

1.      There is no scientific basis to say that we should value health, our own or anyone else’s. (The Value Problem)

2.    Hence, if someone does not care about health, or cares only about his own and not about the health of others, there is no way to argue that he is wrong from the point of view of science. (The Persuasion Problem)

3.    Even if we did agree to grant “health” primacy in any discussion of medicine, it is difficult or impossible to define it with rigor. It is, therefore, impossible to measure health scientifically. Thus, there can be no science of medicine. (The Measurement Problem)

There is no problem in presupposing that the worst possible misery for everyone is bad and worth avoiding and that normative morality consists, at an absolute minimum, in acting so as to avoid it. To say that the worst possible misery for everyone is “bad” is, on my account, like saying that an argument that contradicts itself is “illogical.”

But, his critics have pointed out, health is measurable and well-being is not. Your health involves you as a biological organism. But your well-being has a totally different basis.

Some people might believe that their well-being is enhanced by spending their time contemplating great art. Others may prefer to go to work manufacturing widgets. Is there a scientific basis for establishing which contributes more to your well-being? Is there a scientific experiment that can show which produces the ultimate form of satisfaction? What if your ultimate satisfaction lies in doing something good for someone else? If so, should we institute government policies that “nudge” people or force people toward the one or the other?

If one family possesses a larger house and lives in a better neighborhood, thus granting its children more well-being than the children than those less fortunate, should we abolish the economic system that allowed one family to out-compete the other and to enjoy enhanced well-being?

Imagine that one country prefers to spend its time contemplating art. Imagine that its neighboring country has chosen to spend its time building armaments. What will prevent the latter from invading and enslaving the former, the better to become more prosperous and at the same time have access to the great art, too? If free will does not exist, the nation that has lost its freedom has not lost anything of great value.

You might say that war is bad for everyone’s well-being, and you might say the same about economic competition, but people do fight wars and they engage in economic competition. It’s easy to imagine a society where freedom is not allowed, where there is only one kind of ice cream and where there is no economic competition. It’s been tried, and, by objective standards, it has failed.

You will note that I slipped the phrase “objective standards” into the last paragraph. Perhaps, that is where the confusion lies.

We can posit that human health and well-being have both been enhanced by free enterprise and the Industrial Revolution.

Public health has been measurably improved by industrial sanitation and biomedical science. Starving peoples have been fed by privatized agriculture.

When Mao Zedong was running China, the extreme poverty rate was over 80%-- that is, 80% of the people living on less than $1.25 a day. After Deng Xiaoping privatized agriculture and gave farmers the freedom to grow the crops they wanted and to enjoy the profits, the extreme poverty rate, dropped, in 30 years, to around 14%.

It happened because people were given the freedom to pursue what they believed was best for them and their families and their nation. You may or may not like free will, but people who enjoy freedom—many enjoy it even more than they enjoy chocolate ice cream—function more effectively and efficiently than people who lack freedom.

So far, clear enough.

Also, some people and some cultures do not want to do what they need to do to compete in the global economy, to say nothing of the battlefield. Some people believe that spiritual well-being trumps material well-being. They would rather work less and spend the rest of their time in prayer or even in more decadent pursuits. Not everyone wants the highest level of material well-being.

People should retain a freedom to choose the kind of world they want to live in and the kind of world they want to leave to their children.

But, that is not all. If people gain well-being by competing, in one or another of the markets that define our economy, they will not be able to compete at their best unless they have chosen their path freely.

People who believe that they are being pushed, forced or nudged in one direction or another will, in the interest of preserving their pride and good character, resist. They are right to do so. But they will be less efficient and less effective if they do so. Then they will be less successful in the world. Less success brings lesser well-being.

Doubtless Harris would say that the level of initiative and confidence that comes with the feeling that one has chosen one’s path freely is an illusion. But, if the objective facts show that people who feel that they have a free choice function more efficiently and effectively, who is Harris to say otherwise? After all, the inhabitants of the workers’ paradise had no choices. How well did they function?

You might work hard to support your family. You might work hard to better the lives of your fellows. You are not going to work hard in order to make things better for “everyone.” No one goes to the mat for an abstraction. No one fails to discern friend from foe. No one gains as much satisfaction working for the benefit of “everyone” as he does from enhancing the well-being and pride of those near and dear to him.

Russell Blackford has articulated these points well:

[W]e usually accept that people act in competition with each other, each seeking the outcome that most benefits them and their loved ones. We don’t demand that everyone agree to accept whatever course will maximize the well-being of conscious creatures overall. Nothing like that is part of our ordinary idea of what it is to behave morally.

Why, for example, should I not prefer my own well-being, or the well-being of the people I love, to overall, or global, well-being? If it comes to that, why should I not prefer some other value altogether, such as the emergence of the Ubermensch, to the maximization of global well-being?... Harris never provides a satisfactory response to this line of thought, and I doubt that one is possible. After all, as he acknowledges, the claim that “We should maximize the global well-being of conscious creatures” is not an empirical finding. So what is it? What in the world makes it true? How does it become binding on me if I don’t accept it?

Harris concedes the point when he offers his own utopian vision:

Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth. Needless to say, this wouldn’t be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness.

Every rational individual knows that these utopian fantasies, when put into practice, have produced anything but misery.


Kath said...

Loving everyone collectively and the same is impossible. A person learns to love individuals that are closest, such as family and friends.
Skip that step and a person can love no one.
Harris can think about controlling and making taste decisions for others because he does not like anybody.

Sam L. said...

Oh, but he's so much SMARTER than we, so he must be right.

JPL17 said...

Change the term "well-being" to "General Will", and -- voila! -- Harris is a modern day Jean-Jacques Rousseau. And we know how well his ideas played out!

So bring on zee guillotine (or whatever its 21st century equivalent would be -- compulsory diversity training, perhaps?)!