Sam Harris and Altruism
by Tibor R. Machan
In his recent book, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, And the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004), Sam Harris advances some of his thoughtful reasons for doubting the merits of a religious outlook on the world, especially with regard to politics. Harris has spawned a bit of a revolution with this work, putting many who insist that religion is essential for a civilized and peaceful life on the defensive.
In a column he penned for The Boston Globe the other day, Harris goes further and argues, contrary to widespread opinion, that religion is not only not a necessary foundation for morality but actually incompatible with genuine morality. That widespread opinion is, of course, reinforced in such classic (but dubiously attributed) quotations from Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, as "If there is no God, that means everything is permitted/allowed/permissible." Harris argues, instead, that
"The truth is that the only rational basis for morality is a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings. This emphasis on the happiness and suffering of others explains why we don’t have moral obligations toward rocks. It also explains why (generally speaking) people deserve greater moral concern than animals, and why certain animals concern us more than others. If we show more sensitivity to the experience of chimpanzees than to the experience of crickets, we do so because there is a relationship between the size and complexity of a creature's brain and its experience of the world."
My concern here isn't with the battle Sam Harris is carrying on with religion but with whether or not he is right about morality. Is "a concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings" a rational basis for it? Arguably, Harris is wrong here.
Perhaps the most explicitly rational ethics comes to us from the work of Aristotle, in 350 BC, in his book The Nicomachean Ethics. In this work one of the greatest philosophers in human history argues that the only rational basis for morality is human nature. Our nature, which is that of a rational animal, supports the idea that our moral or ethical excellence amounts to living life by our reason. And the first purpose or goal of such a rationally lived life is not "concern for the happiness and suffering of other conscious beings" but our own human happiness.
All of the ethical or moral virtues Aristotle identifies have as their aim, when we practice them conscientiously, to achieve human happiness in the agent's life. It is true, of course, that this rational ethics or morality includes as a very important virtue being generous or liberal toward others. But it also includes being prudent, courageous, moderate, temperate, honest, and, in politics, just. The most important imperative in this most rational of ethics is to live by right reason or prudence.
If one thinks for a moment, it would turn out to be very odd indeed to urge human beings to concern themselves primarily with others -- why on earth would others be more deserving of concern than one's self? Not only does one know one's own situation better than the situation of others so that one can act most responsibly about one's self. Not only does a concern for others as a primary responsibility tend to encourage meddlesomeness and intrusiveness other than in emergencies. But most importantly, one is, after all, a human being whose life is every bit as worthwhile as the life of another. So why then focus mainly on the lives of others, unless one has made a promise to take up that task as parents do?
In the modern age many moral philosophers have promoted altruism but that is because they believed that caring for one's self came naturally, automatically. So it would be redundant to have a moral system that also directs us to do this. Once the instinct or drive for self-preservation was accepted as innate, then it made sense to focus ethics or morality on interpersonal matters. Such was the thinking since the time of Thomas Hobbes, for example in the ethics of Immanuel Kant, Auguste Comte and Karl Marx, among others.
If, however, we aren't hardwired to care for ourselves, if there is no selfish instinct in us -- and judging by the colossal mess throughout the world and history, it is a dubious idea that we all naturally take good care of ourselves -- then we must be prudent first, take good care of ourselves. Nor can we be any good to others if we do not do so.
Harris is mistaken to think that our first ethical responsibility is others -- and this quip from W. H. Auden makes pretty clear why the idea is not at all rational: "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."