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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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