Today we talk all the time about values. We usually take ourselves to have a pretty good grasp on our values and hold ourselves, somehow humbly, to be worthy exemplars of them (though we are very or even too willing to forgive ourselves if we fall short of them). In our hearts or bones, we think, “By GOD, I know that SOMETHING is unjust!!” Nonetheless, we feel a great deal of uneasiness when it comes time to give an account of them. As Chantal Delsol notes, today, we try to find some way to show how whatever we hold to be unjust is somehow or in some way relevantly similar to whatever Hitler was doing in the Holocaust (always forgetting or never even wondering whatever it was that Stalin was doing in the USSR). However, some want to go beyond Holocaust analogies; they want to finally settle the great moral questions. In the West, at least, some of these turn to what is quickly becoming one of the last credible social authorities: modern natural science. They think to themselves, “well shit, there is penicillin, maybe scientists can also tell us how to live?”
In particular, many young people, and not only young people, turn to Sam Harris. Many of these youths grew up in vaguely religious households without reading a page of the Bible and they think that some man in the sky shouldn’t be able to tell them what to do (some of the less talented youths turn to Ricky Gervais for guidance—see the pathetic movie The Invention of Lying). They eagerly lap up Sam’s apparently cold, sober, and objective rationality. He always looks so controlled; his hair is short but never military short so that if he wasn’t careful his hair could move, his clothes aren’t flowy, he speaks slowly, and his voice rarely quivers with passion. After one no longer feels any exhilaration at watching Sam kill God for the 10,000th time on Youtube, neither sparing the strong nor the weak, one suddenly wonders: but wait, can I still be a good person? And, thanks to be God, Sam answers our deep felt need. He takes these former Christians by the hands, and whispers into their ears: “Yes my dear son, worry not. We can know with certainty what is right and wrong.”
I won’t tell you how to live. But I do want to show you some things that Sam can’t see. Let’s just look briefly at his core statements in his Moral Landscape concerning what an objectively good life and objectively bad life looks like. He insists on two things: 1) that if we scan the brains of the people in the good life and the bad life, we would find empirical evidence that the people experiencing the bad life are suffering and that the people experiencing the good life are enjoying it. And 2) that we have a moral obligation to make the good life as presented below available to as many people as possible and that we are similarly obligated to help bring as many people as possible out of the bad life.
Sam’s words are italicized. I offer a non-exhaustive list of observations below both of his lives.
The Bad Life
“You are a young widow who has lived her entire life in the midst of civil war. Today, your seven-year-old daughter was raped and dismembered before your eyes. Worse still, the perpetrator was your fourteen-year-old son, who was goaded to this evil at the point of a machete by a press gang of drug addled soldiers. You are now running barefoot through the jungle with killers in pursuit. While this is the worst day of your life, it is not entirely out of character with the other days of your life: since the moment you were born, your world has been a theater of cruelty and violence. You have never learned to read, taken a hot shower, or traveled beyond the green hell of the jungle. Even the luckiest people you have known have experienced little more than an occasional respite from chronic hunger, fear, apathy, and confusion. Unfortunately, you’ve been very unlucky, even by these bleak standards. Your life has been one long emergency, and now it is nearly over.”
- The first thing Sam tells us about the bad life is that we are a woman without a man.
- Notice that Sam only tells the story from the perspective of the woman suffering. (as an aside, it is interesting to note that in Locke’s Second Treatise, when he gives us the famous account of the state of nature, he tells us about the psychology of the person who is attacked and brought into the state of war, but he omits a description of the psychology of the person who steals or attacks).
- He doesn’t tell us anything about why the gang does what it does. He tells us that the gang is drug addled. This is presumably because Sam thinks that no one would be needlessly cruel unless they had lost their mind. This is not true.
- Civil wars always cause suffering; but, they are always exciting for those involved—especially for those who wish to bring a new order into being. Picture young men chatting quietly in dark places for weeks as they imagine the adventure to come. For some of them, the civil war is likely to be the most enthralling thing they have ever embarked upon. They will learn what kind of men they really are. Wars make possible some of highest highs of experience for human beings as well as the lowest lows. In Sam world, there will be no wars.
- Sam probably wants us to think the gang is immoral. They are, but not just because they make the “brain state” of the woman worse. They are pathetic. Rather than embarking on adventure, trying to win glory, they lay low, torturing the weak. Making children a play thing like this is pusillanimous and ugly; much better to turn powerful men into playthings.
- The rhetoric in the middle is designed to make you—the well educated bourgeois reader—imagine losing your favorite things, your ability to read (which you don’t use as much as you want other people to think you do), your hot shower, and your travels. Many powerful and beautiful specimens have to come to be without reading. Cold showers invigorate and excite our blood and strengthen our essence. Socrates, while a great decadent and destroyer of powerful instincts, lived a better life than almost any of us can hope to live without traveling (except of course, when he admirably performed his military duties).
- Sam is trying to purify life to make a point; but no life is like this. Did this woman really have no joy at all in her life? Don’t humans, possessed of at least a minimal level of strength, accommodate themselves to their circumstances?
The Good Life
“You are married to the most loving, intelligent, and charismatic person you have ever met. Both of you have careers that are intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding. For decades, your wealth and social connections have allowed you to devote yourself to activities that bring you immense personal satisfaction. One of your greatest sources of happiness has been to find creative ways to help people who have not had your good fortune in life. In fact, you have just won a billion dollar grant to benefit children in the developing world. If asked, you would say that you could not imagine how your time on earth could be better spent. Due to a combination of good genes and optimal circumstances, you and your closest friends and family will live very long, healthy lives, untouched by crime, sudden bereavements, and other misfortunes.”
- Notice that Sam does not say, even in a purified good life, that you will marry the most beautiful person you have ever met. Sam might be wrongly suggesting that beauty doesn’t matter, which is a lie. (Other than a few exceptions, don’t we usually wind up with someone who is roughly our equivalent in beauty? Doesn’t this mean something important?)
- Charisma is much rarer than Sam thinks. It is also more powerful than he thinks.
- Garbage collecting is going to have to get a lot more intellectually stimulating and financially rewarding if we are obligated to make the good life possible for everyone.
- For Sam, the most important dimension of morality is lifting people up into the good life. If everyone gets into the good life, then, the world will become boring. That is, the person in Sam’s good life derives their satisfaction from making monthly payments to the third world; once this exciting task is completed, what will there be to do? Sam probably thinks we all be scientists and discover the wonders of nature together.
- Sam said we need good genes for this thing to work out. Uh-oh.
- Notice how oddly specific the bad life is. We get many details from the bad day down to the woman not wearing shoes. The good life is much more amorphous and vague.
- Maybe the biggest or most important thing that Sam can’t see: human beings are not just their intellects. This cannot be stressed enough. For all of his bluster about materialism and the non-existence of free will, Sam can’t see that physical exertion, physical power, and free movement through unowned or contested space is important for the strongest and most beautiful among us for the development of inborn capacities. At bottom, Sam IS a Christian.