By: Dovid Schwartz | Features  | 

Sam Harris’ Tea II: This Time it’s Political

In my last article, I discussed Sam Harris’ position on morality. In his view, moral claims (“you ought not kill children,” for example) are not facts. Instead, they are statements about preferred experiences. On Harris’ view, the proposition “you ought not kill children” is understood as “in order to have the experiences we prefer, you shouldn’t kill children.” In this article, I want to illustrate some consequences of his view.

Before continuing, I want to highlight and reemphasize one aspect of Harris’ view. According to Harris, there are no such things as moral facts. Instead, there are facts concerning what we prefer and facts concerning how we achieve our preferences. To put this in philosophical terms (am I losing you yet?), Harris denies the existence of “normativity.” Normativity is the property which makes things morally obligatory. According to Harris, there are no right or wrong actions, only preferable or non-preferable ones.

What are the consequences of this view on politics? I believe that his moral views tend toward totalitarianism. To see why, we’ll begin at the level of the individual. I claim to know what I prefer. To take a trivial example, I claim that I prefer tea with lemon to tea with milk. But suppose someone else claims that I am mistaken about my preference. Suppose there is another person, call him O’Brian, who says that I would actually be happier if I had tea with milk. In fact, I would be happier even if O’Brian grabbed my tea with lemon and handed me tea with milk instead.

As Westerners, we tend to disagree with O’Brian’s claims. We value private property and individual choice. So, even if O’Brian is correct in assessing my preferences, that is, even if he is right that I will be happier if he replaced my tea with lemon for tea with milk, he still has no business interfering with my private choices. In saying that O’Brian has no business interfering, we are making a normative claim about what O’Brian can and cannot do. Under Harrisian ethics, however, normative claims have no weight. All that matters is preference. If what I prefer is the tea that I will most enjoy, and if O’Brian knows better which kind of tea I will indeed enjoy, his conduct is justified. Because for Harris, to be “justified” simply means “to bring about the state of preferred experiences.”

The case about tea was trivial, but it illustrates that under Harrisian ethics, authority is in the hands of the Empiricist, the person with the data, the person who knows which actions will and will not achieve wellbeing. Herein the danger lies. If an authority knows (or claims to know) what is best, under Harrisian ethics, the authority is morally justified in bringing about what they believe to be best. They have no constraints. As long as, in the final count, the authority brought about more preferred experiences than not, the authority is morally justified.

Consider rights. I take a right to refer to a set of actions which another ought not interfere with. The right to property, for example, refers to the fact that others ought not interfere with my usage of my property. Rights impose constraints on authorities. To return to our previous example, if O’Brian would take my tea with lemon and hand me tea with milk, he would have violated my right to property. That is to say, he acted in a way he ought not have. But according to Harris, there are no such things as rights. It may be the case that, in most instances, stealing from someone else will not be conducive to wellbeing. But that does not mean there exists a right to property. That does not mean it is immoral to steal.

These two features of Sam Harris’ theory — the centralization of authority and the lack of rights — tend towards totalitarianism. Now, of course, this does not make his theory false. Even if his theory entailed totalitarianism that wouldn’t make his theory false. But it does leave his theory in tension with the Western tradition. As more and more people began to adopt Harrisian ethics and views like it, we will begin to see a shift away from classical liberalism. In my next article, I hope to explain why this is a bad thing.


Photo Caption: Another cup of tea

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