Thursday, July 18, 2019

Objectivism vs. Sam Harris

To say that Sam Harris entertains a low opinion of Ayn Rand and her disciples would be something of an understatement. He once referred to Rand’s philosophy as “basically autism rebranded.” Nonetheless, there are very definite parallels between Harris’s views on religion and morality and Rand’s. Harris and Rand both take a dismissive view of Hume’s is-ought gap; they both believe that science and rationality can determine moral ends; they both are uncompromising critics of religion; they both tend to assume, somewhat naively, that if we could only (per impossible) persuade religious people to dispense with their “superstitious” beliefs and embrace “reason” and science, the world would be a better place; and they both take a dim view of much that passes for academic philosophy.

Despite these parallels in their viewpoints, Objectivists have found plenty in Sam Harris’ moral philosophy to quibble about. Ari Armstrong has been the chief critic of Harris over at The Objective Standard. He makes three main criticisms of Harris’ book The Moral Landscape:

  1. Harris’ concept of well-being lacks the clarity of meaning to sufficiently ground it in a bonafide theory of ethics. 
  2. Lacking a clear conception of well-being, Harris embraces hedonism as the standard of value. 
  3. Harris merges his vague conception of well-being with a form of utilitarianism, which constitutes “a collectivist form of hedonism holding that the good consists of self-sacrificially serving the greatest happiness for the greatest number."

Let’s examine each of these criticisms in turn to determine the extent to which Ari Armstrong has been fair and honest.

(1) Vagueness of "well-being." That Harris’ summum bonum of “well-being” suffers from vagueness constitutes one of the chief criticisms that has been leveled at The Moral Landscape, so Armstrong is hardly original in making this charge. Where he goes astray is when he suggests that Rand’s standard for morality is far more precise. Armstrong writes:

Whereas Harris leaves “well-being” nebulous and ill-defined, Rand clarifies that one’s well-being ultimately must be judged by the standard of life and death. The good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it, as a matter of objective fact. 

On first blush, making life and death the standard of morality might seem a more definite and “objective" way to theorize about ultimate values—which I suspect is the reason why Rand chose it. But Armstrong has set a verbal trip which can easily can be turned against him. He claims that “the good is what advances one’s life, the bad is what harms it.” What does this mean? How does one distinguish between what “advances” and what “harms” one’s life? Doesn’t harm ultimately have to do with the question of well-being? That, in any case, is a point Harris makes in The Moral Landscape. Thus, on this interpretation, advancing one’s life is merely increasing one’s well-being (what else could advancing one’s well-being possibly entail?). And harming one’s life is merely decreasing one’s well-being. Hence Rand’s standard of “life” ultimately reduces itself to Harris’ well-being.

The only conceivable way Armstrong can get out of this quandary is by equating the standard of life with mere survival—something I doubt he would be willing to do. The fact is, if you make survival the standard of good, then everyone who survives must be regarded as good, which is an impossible standard. Comrade Joseph Stalin lived nearly as long as Ayn Rand. Does that make Stalin as good as Ayn Rand?

(2) “Well-being” as hedonism. Armstrong is eager to label Harris’ moral theory as a form of “hedonism.” He argues as follows:

Lacking a clear conception of “well-being” as the standard of value, Harris embraces as the standard whatever happens to produce the greatest happiness or pleasure for people. The moral theory that holds “happiness” or “pleasure” as the standard of the good is hedonism (“hedone” is Latin for “pleasure”). Granted, Harris claims to reject “a strictly hedonic measure of the "good," and his notion of pleasure is more complex than simply pursuing sex, good food, and other sensual delights. He also distinguishes between “maximizing pleasure in any given instance” and a fuller, longer-range form of well-being, which includes such considerations as health and safety. Nevertheless, Harris does embrace pleasure (or happiness) as the standard of moral value, which renders his theory a form of hedonism. 

This is confused beyond all untangling. The very fact that Harris distinguishes between “maximizing pleasure in any given instance” and a fuller, longer-range form of well-being, which includes such considerations as health and safety, should be an indication that Harris leans toward the eudaimonia side of the well-being spectrum, rather than the hedonic side; and so why Armstrong would derive hedonism from so plain statement of eudaimonia is a mystery that would baffle even an omniscient intelligence. But this is not the worst of it. Armstrong compounds the error by suggesting that Harris regards pleasure as the standard of moral value. I can find no such endorsement anywhere in The Moral Landscape (when Harris write about “standards,” he usually refers to standards of rationality or science). But even more to the point, Armstrong’s allegation against of hedonism ignores Harris’ central metaphor of a moral landscape, with a variety of mountains and peaks representing various forms of well-being, some of which may include pleasure, others of which might include such states of consciousness as happiness, meaning, tranquility, and/or spiritual depth.

It’s not clear, in any case, that Harris would regard pleasure or even "well-being" as a “standard” of moral value. A more plausible interpretation is that Harris regards “well-being” as the value to be pursued. At one point, he states that well-being is “the only thing we can reasonably value.” That suggests Harris considers well-being as a moral end, not as a “standard of value.” This is not so very different from Rand’s own view. Objectivists can talk all they like about the “standard of value,” but Rand nevertheless regards “happiness … as the purpose of ethics.” What’s the difference between regarding well-being as the only reasonable value and happiness as the purpose of morality? In the end, not very much. Under either of these views, some positive state of living, whether called happiness or well-being, becomes the primary moral goal. Rand’s insistence that what she calls the standard of value cannot be based on happiness has only this to be said for it: happiness, in and of itself, does not constitute a sure guarantee of virtue. Happiness in a villain in no way provides moral sanctification for villainy; so the fact that a person is happy in no way proves that they are virtuous.

Rand’s attempt to circumvent this issue via her conception of the “standard of value” is confused and ultimately unsuccessful. The very notion of a “standard of value” seems to reverse cause and effect: for doesn’t every standard require a prerequisite value? Wouldn’t a “standard of value” constitute something by which values are rated and judged? In which case, the standard of value itself becomes a value. But then, what is the standard of value of the standard of value? An infinite regress beckons us into an abyss of absurdity.

(3) Harris as utilitarian. Armstrong demonstrates an over-eagerness to ascribe to Harris some of the worst aspects of utilitarianism:

…the hedonistic root of Harris’s ethics is not its only problem. Harris merges his fuzzy conception of well-being with a form of utilitarianism, a collectivist form of hedonism holding that the good consists of self-sacrificially serving the greatest happiness for the greatest number. . . . In practice, this means the individual must self-sacrificially serve the interests of society. Harris … follows his utilitarian theory to a number of absurd and atrocious conclusions. 

This is unfair and possible even malicious. Armstrong’s contention that Utilitarianism “in practice” means “the individual must self-sacrificially serve the interests of society” is a caricature. Armstrong can speculate all he likes about what Utilitarianism means “in practice,” but perhaps if he knew how to be honest, he would be examining the behavior of those who regard themselves as utilitarians and who would ipso facto serve as the best example of Utilitarianism “in practice.” Is Sam Harris, for instance, running around “self-sacrificially” serving the happiness of others? Is he intent on making himself and his friends and family miserable so that the greatest number of people can be happy? Of course he isn’t. To suggest, even if only by implication, such a thing constitutes a raving absurdity.

In the real world, there does not exist so wide a gap between what Armstrong regards as “self-interest” and Harris regards as “altruism.” Harris does not endorse sacrificing one’s own happiness for that of others. He merely suggests that we should not live exclusively for ourselves, without any concern whatsoever for other people:

We are not, by nature, impartial—and much of our moral reasoning must be applied to situations in which there is tension between our concern for ourselves, or for those closest to us, and our sense that it would be better to be more committed to helping others. 

Being “more committed to helping others” doesn’t mean selling everything you own and giving it to the poor. Concern for others does not entail having no concern for oneself. The sense I get from reading The Moral Landscape is that Harris assumes as a point of fact that most people are going to be chiefly concerning with the well-being of themselves and their loved one, and that concern for the well-being of strangers can only be, at best, a secondary interest. Armstrong’s unwillingness to appreciate this more subtle approach stems, I would conjecture, from Rand’s blank-slate view of human nature. In the Objectivist view, human beings are not born with a natural tendency toward selfishness. Hence, if they are convinced, that self-sacrifice for others represents some kind of moral ideal, there exists no natural counterbalance to prevent them from completely disregarding their own interests in the favor of the sinister interests of totalitarian elites.


Anonymous said...

Ari is no longer associated with The Objective Standard. He has new book out, What's Wrong With Ayn Rand's ethics, which I haven't read.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone has been following it, but Yaron Brook just issued a fatwa:


Those of you who are apologists for Donald Trump, please never use the word 'Objectivism' to associate it with yourself. Because you cannot be Objectivists. You are not Objectivists, if you apologize for this guy.

And you are not doing anyone a favor by selling-out, selling-out the fundamental ideas that we are for. For the sake of what? Popularity, defeating the left?

You're sell-outs, you're the fifth-column within Objectivism.


I wonder if Peikoff knows that Brook now claims the power to speak ex cathedra.


gregnyquist said...

I wonder if Peikoff knows that Brook now claims the power to speak ex cathedra.

As with Peikoff's fatwa against the Republicans fifteen years ago, one wonders if Ayn Rand would be entirely behind this. Obviously, she would not approve of many things about Trump. But she didn't approve of many things about Nixon, yet she still voted for him. If one of the hard lefties on the Democratic side gets the nomination, what does Brook want the Objectivist faithful to do?

Anonymous said...

What's most interesting is that the Brook's dislike of Trump concerns mainly the issue of immigration - subject that Rand didn't write anything about.

I don't know if Brook said how he voted (although not for Trump obviously) but there are Objectivists who say they will vote for whoever the Democrats nominate. It's hard to imagine that Rand would vote for someone who supports ending private health insurance, wants to bring back forced bussing, supports de facto open borders and wants reparations.