By: Dovid Schwartz | Features  | 

Why Sam Harris Can Make Good Tea, but Only Tea

I enjoyed a very interesting summer. I would like to share with you my experiences. But first, a joke, or, at least, the very first part of a joke: What did the Buddhist ask for on his hotdog? Certain important questions don’t bother us enough. (This is not the punchline. That will come soon.) I spent my summer thinking about them at Claremont McKenna College where, along with some other students, I read an excellent and difficult book called “Natural Right and History” by Leo Strauss. Later on, in Washington D.C., I spent seven weeks studying other books — from Aristotle's “Ethics” to Machiavelli’s “The Prince” — on a program called Hertog.

I pose the following question: How do you make a good cup of tea? The answer depends upon an insignificant dilemma: What constitutes a good cup of tea? This is easily resolved. “Good” here means something that fulfills its function: a good cup of tea is a cup of tea that gets the job done. When I make tea, it is simple. I like it caffeinated because I am tired and I like it unsweetened because I hate myself: a simple tea for a simple function.

I pose, now, a different question which may be entirely the same: How do you make a good society? The answer depends upon a significant dilemma. What constitutes a good society? “Good” here may mean something that fulfills its function, but it may mean something else.

The Buddhist asks for everything on his hotdog. If you didn’t get this one, here’s another: The Buddhist hands the hotdog vender a fifty-dollar bill and waits for his change, but it never comes. The Buddhist says, “Hey! Where’s my change?” To which to the hotdog vender replies: “Ah, no, sir. Change comes only from within.” Do we see the question of the good tea and the good society as the same or are they entirely different? Are we using “good” in the same way? Or, like the hot dog vendor, have we conflated what ought to remain separate and equated that which ought to have been distinct?

These issues lie at the center of classical political philosophy. What is “good”? In posing this question, we are not looking for a list of good things or criteria by which things qualify to be on this list. We are looking for something more abstract. To illustrate what I mean, consider the distinction between fact and preference. When I say “Murder is bad” and then follow up and say, “Also, borscht is bad,” have I used the word bad here in two different ways or one?

As frum Jews, we sympathize with those who draw a distinction. “Murder is bad” is a fact of the Universe, much as the equation “1+1=2” is a fact of the universe. “Borscht is bad,” is not a fact of the universe. At best, we can say “I prefer not to eat borscht,” which is a fact of the universe but one of a different order. Facts of the universe such as “Murder is bad” (if indeed it is a fact) are true without being contingent upon my preference. Which is to say, whether I like murder or not, it is still bad. Facts of the universe, such as “borscht is bad,” are true if and only if I mean to express “I don’t like the taste of borscht,” and I do not in fact like it. Thus, it is contingent upon my preferences.

Is “the good” a preference or is “the good” a fact? This was one of the questions I spent my summer thinking about. Aristotle, in his book titled “Nicomachean Ethics,” believes that the good is a fact. Aristotle believes that there is a way that you should live, and he calls this way of living eudaimonia. This word has been conventionally translated as “happiness,” but I will translate it here as “well-being.” Every reasonable person believes in well-being, which is to say that certain ways of living are better than others. But not everyone agrees on what sort of word “better” is.

Sam Harris, a popular author, takes a reductive view of well-being. By this, I mean he understands well-being as a state-of-consciousness. To borrow one of his analogies, we consider health to be a state of the body. Likewise, in Harris’ view, well-being is a state-of-consciousness. This state will include experiences of happiness, awe, love, etc. It will not include things like misery, pain, depression, etc. However, left out on this model is any fact of the ought sort. It relies on preference. Which is to say, we should prefer certain states of consciousness (those we identify with “well-being”) to others (those we identify with “bad”). But why ought we prefer these things? Harris’ system cannot resolve this question.

Instead, all he can do is say we do in fact prefer these things. He spends time and energy trying to think about what sort of world would be most conducive to this well-being. In this regard, his view enjoys (suffers from?) concord with the views of John Mackie and Bertrand Russell, who believed we should express value judgments in the “optative mood.” By this, I mean it is not correct to say “I ought not murder.” Instead, it is correct to say “I ought not murder in order to have the state-of-consciousness I prefer.”

Sam Harris can make good tea because we take “good” here to mean the tea I prefer or the tea I require to achieve something I prefer. But Sam Harris cannot be good in the higher sense of the word, in the sense where good transcends preference and is a fact of the universe. He can act that way, but he acts that way for something else: his preferred state of consciousness. Remove that goal, and he no longer has a reason to act that way. On Harris’ view, what grounds moral claims is their consequence to our conscious. Morality, on this view, does not rise above the human theatre, but is instead shackled inside the fleshy matter in our skulls. Is this view correct?

This is what I spent my summer thinking about, and if you’ve made it to the end of this article, you may want to spend your next summer thinking about these things too.

Photo Caption: A cup of tea

Photo Credit: Google