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Sam Harris at Beyond Belief Last Year
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Hopefully they'll post the videos for the sessions of Beyond Belief II soon, but I was watching some of the stuff from last year, and this session with Sam Harris caught my attention.

He makes two contradictory propositions, that I've touched on before, but which are highlighted nicely in this particular talk.

On the one hand, Harris argues that even if the tangible net benefits of belief are useful, that doesn't necessarily make them true. He's talking about the placebo effect. The example he gives is of saying how it might really boost his ego and make him happy to talk about how he is an Olympic medalist, but we can all see that this is not a good reason to believe that it is true. It is willful self-deception.

Then he goes on to talk about how morality might be shaped in the absence of religion, and his basis for a secular morality is suffering/happiness. He talks about the gradation of value we place on animal life, from chimpanzees to dogs to insects to worms, and how it has to do with their capacity for suffering.

But these two points are at odds with each other. If alleviating suffering and increasing happiness are the highest values, the very basis of morality, then willful self-deception (if it increases happiness and reduces suffering) is not only moral, it is highly desirable.

The problem here is that Harris has taken the valuation of truth out of the equation. The primary reason to find self-delusion undesirable, even if it alleviates your suffering, is if you value truth above happiness. Would you rather know the way things actually are, regardless of how it might make you feel, or believe things for which you have no good justification, as long as your beliefs made you generally happier?

The answer to that question determines whether you value truth or happiness more. And if Harris is arguing for happiness as the fundamental basis for morality, then he has no right to criticize people who hold poorly-justified beliefs if it makes them happier.

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