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Sam Harris Can Sound Like an Egoist; Too Bad He Isn’t One

Why is it that Sam Harris, a committed utilitarian, sometimes sounds a bit like an egoist?

In my recently published essay “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality,” I point out that Harris upholds as his standard of moral value the utilitarian precept of the greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number.

Harris’s utilitarian ethics entails altruism, because in order to advance the greatest happiness for others, an individual must sacrifice his own values. (As I also point out, sometimes “Harris walks back from the logical implications of his theory, opting instead for a watered-down utilitarianism in which individuals succumb to their ‘selfish’ nature and act only to a limited extent for the happiness of all ‘conscious creatures.’”)

Harris’s theory becomes superficially more palatable insofar as it allows individuals to act in ways that benefit themselves so long as doing so also advances the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarians tolerate self-benefiting actions only in that context.

Egoists, on the other hand, recognize as moral all actions that objectively advance one’s life and happiness, whether or not those actions benefit others. (Rational egoism forbids the use of initiatory force against others, because it recognizes that respecting individual rights and interacting as traders in mutually beneficial relationships is a requirement of human life in a social context.)

Because Harris tolerates some self-benefiting actions, some of the discussion in his book The Moral Landscape could be pulled out of that work’s utilitarian framework and applied to a theory of egoism. Although I did not have room in my original essay for that interesting aside, I’d like to touch on the matter here.

At one point, when Harris considers a simple scenario of a world with only two people, he writes, “while there are ways for their personal interests to be in conflict, most solutions to the problem of how two people can thrive on earth will not be zero-sum. Surely the best solutions will not be zero-sum” (page 40).

As a rational egoist would put it, human beings live by reason and therefore have the ability to live together as traders, each benefiting by working and collaborating with others. We are not stuck in “zero-sum” relationships in which one person gains only by another’s loss.

Later, Harris writes, “the well-being of others, especially those closest to us, is one of our primary (and, indeed, most selfish) interests” (page 56). Although Ayn Rand certainly would not have expressed the point that way, it is true, and in accordance with rational egoism, that the well-being of our loved ones is extremely important to our selfish interests.

Taken out of the context of Harris’s overarching argument and the essence of his view, those passages can seem quite promising. But, in context, the passages make his view all the more disappointing.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

Posted in: Ayn Rand and Objectivism, Ethics

Comments are welcome so long as they are civil.
  • Friend of John Galt

    I read Harris’ The End of Faith (2004) when it first came out. It gave an excellent argument for reason instead of religion. But the incompleteness of his philosophy became sadly apparent in the final chapter when he made suggestions about what to use as a “replacement” for faith. The whole book collapsed in a blather of meditation and feel good altruism. I haven’t read any of his works since then and doubt that he really has anything much to offer.

    He writes persuasively and clearly — and it’s too bad that he doesn’t have a complete philosophy and/or hasn’t embraced Objectivism.

  • Barry Linetsky

    Sam Harris came on the scene with some excellent polemics against religious faith, and stood on the side of science and reason against mysticism. At least on the surface.

    But with The Moral Landscape and his essay Free Will, he has aggressively argued that there exists scientific proof that man does not possess free will, and that all thinking (and by implication, human consciousness) is an illusion.

    Yet he still wants to engage in arguments that require as fundamental underlying truths the acknowledgement that we can have knowledge of reality, apply reason to reach valid conclusions, and punish wrong-doing for the good of society.

    Until he repudiates his commitment to deterministic materialism that is incompatible with free will and the conscious pursuit of chosen ends, it is impossible to take anything he utters seriously, by his own underlying premises that whatever thinking he appears to have done is the result of a phenomenological biological illusion.

  • Anonymous

    The whole of New Atheism can’t define and defend a rational ethics and they can’t define and defend reason either. As a result, they don’t have a metaethics and are not good at rejecting religion. Part of the power of Christianity is that they actually have a metaethics and are, at least implicitly, aware of it. They don’t think a secular ethics is possible, and, until Harris, the New Atheists fully agreed. I’ve seen a Dawkins pre-Harris video where he relegates reason to a minor peripheral role in ethics. He even leaves out his silly moral zeitgeist fig leaf. Luckily, the pious missed seeing the video.

    As for attacking religion, things are not much better. To undercut Dawkins, all a pious interviewer has to do is ask him how he can be so sure there is no god. He will come back with what he thinks is the epistemologically correct answer: “but I’m not sure.” Want to see a New Atheist take on the mental prison of what’s called “presuppositional apologetics” — forget it.

    Despite the failings of the New Atheism, I give them credit for doing two very important things: they bring lots of lawsuits to save the separation of church and state, and they’ve made religion controversial. Objectivism has, so far, done neither of these.

    I’m surprised, however, at how far New Atheism has gotten. As of 2011, there is now an organization dedicated to helping preachers who no longer believe in God to transition to secular life. Things are tough for guys with a family and no education or job skills other than pious prattle. The group now has about 400 carefully screened members; the pious are not allowed in.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know of any of the New Atheists who accepts free will.

    Harris, however, made some New Atheist followers face the fact that there is a problem with claiming that there is no ethics and, at the same time, damning the pious — particularly the Islamic nut cases — for the outrageous things they do.

    The New Atheists also don’t support strong multiculturalism and post-modernism. And, they do not support allying themselves with islam to destroy capitalism.

    Anyway, i see New Atheism as philosophically bankrupt; nevertheless I think they are of value because they fight for the separation of church and state and because they fight for evolution in the face of the barking mad religious right.

  • Barry Linetsky

    Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens & Dennett have certainly done an excellent job in raising the awareness of the shortcomings of religious doctrine as an explanation for anything. At least for Dawkins and Harris, their philosophic shortcomings fatally undercut their ability to make the positive case for the efficacy of reason and an objective foundation for ethics. I haven’t read enough Hitchens and Dennett to comment there.

    Harris’s lecture on the possibility of a scientific basis for ethics was very provocative for an audience of scientists and the general population, but he drove that road to a dead end when he self-refutingly claimed knowledge that free will is impossible, and thus any notion of its veracity is therefore a causally generated illusion.