1 for me, 1 for you, 1 for 6.7 billion people

I’m still faintly surprised by some of the reactions to Sam Harris’s book, and to the criticisms of it, so I re-read some this morning. I didn’t slap my brow and say “gosh it’s way better than I thought.” Nope.

Consider, for instance, p 199 n. 11.

…many people assume that an emphasis on human “well-being” would lead us to do terrible things like reinstate slavery…Such expectations are the result of not thinking about these issues seriously. There are rather clear reasons not to do these things – all of which relate to the immensity of suffering that such actions would cause and the possibilities of deeper happiness that they would foreclose.

That’s a terrible “argument” – it’s not an argument at all. It’s one of the many many places where he simply doesn’t make an argument, perhaps because he expects us to supply all the missing bits ourselves.

It is not self-evident that slavery would increase suffering overall – it is self-evident only that it would increase suffering for the slaves. Harris doesn’t even manage to say that much – and if he can’t manage that, what can he manage?

His defenders seem to think all that kind of thing is obvious. It isn’t.

Slavery doesn’t exist because people think “Aha, if some people were slaves, then everyone would be happier.” It exists because people think “If some people were slaves then we would be happier.” Harris’s note simply jumps right over that. He does that all the time, and that’s why the book is so irritating.

Take a look at pp 40-1, where he belatedly admits that “genuine ethical difficulties arise when we ask questions” about what’s good for other people as well as for me. He clears up that little difficulty as briskly as if it were a bit of lint on a sweater. Consider Adam and Eve. Surely they could have figured out how to maximize their well-being. There could be lots of ways to thrive, and ways not to, but they can do it

and the differences between luxuriating on a peak of well-being and languishing in a valley of internecine horror will translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. Why would the difference between right and wrong answers suddenly disappear once we add 6.7 billion people to this experiment?

Seriously. That’s what he said. I’m not making it up. Look for yourself.

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