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Happiness and Suffering as the Basis of Morality
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I'm listening to Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris on audiobook now. It's supposedly a reply to the many thousands of letters that Harris received after publishing The End of Faith. Actually, it seems more like a rehash of many of the same ideas as the first book, just written in a more personal style, as a direct address to an average American Christian.

I'm at the point in the book when he's chiding Christians for relying on the Bible for morality. He correctly points out that nearly any suite of behaviors can be justified by the Bible, including slavery, child abuse, persecution of homosexuals, and on and on.

But then he picks up a thread he started in The End of Faith, where he plainly states, as if it is an obvious fact, that morality is simply a matter of maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering. He talks about stem cells research, and how a days-old blastocyte is made up of less than a few hundred cells, while an adult house fly has a working nervous system and is made up of thousands of cells. He argues that because the blastocyte hasn't yet developed a nervous system, and that it is incapable of feeling pain, it is morally justified to destroy it in order to develop treatments to relieve the suffering of humans (e.g. a girl with 3rd degree burns over most of her body or a boy with a spinal cord injury). Harris simply tosses out the argument from potential.

I've discussed the problem with using happiness/suffering as the ultimate yardstick for morality. Happiness and suffering are feedback signals evolved to reinforce the type of behavior that leads to the propagation of genes into future generations. Things that produce a nice rush of neurotransmitters to the brain include earthly pleasures such as eating foods high in sugar and fat, and of course, sexual arousal. Pain is a punishment signal meant to direct an organism away from behaviors that have an adverse affect on genetic propagation, bodily injury being the most obvious. The release of the chemicals that give rise to the subjective experiences of happiness and suffering are old subcortical regions whose purpose is to crudely guide our behavior through reinforcement. Should we really be using them as the ultimate guide to what is good and what is bad?

The problem with Harris' simplistic reliance on happiness/suffering as the basis of morality is that it doesn't pass even casual scrutiny. One can immediately come up with examples where using happiness/suffering as the primary criteria for moral judgments leads to ridiculous outcomes.

If the goal is to maximize happiness and minimize suffering, then why aren't we all on mood-altering drugs all the time? Boosting happiness and dulling pain should be the most moral thing we can do, right?

If it is justified to destroy a blastocyte on the grounds that it will not feel pain, then where is the moral injunction against mixing sedatives into an orphan's food, and then dismembering him in his sleep so that his organs and body parts may be used to improve the lives of others? He doesn't have a family, so no one will miss him. Or rather, he may have developed some emotional ties in the orphanage, but not nearly as many or as strong as those of the people whose lives he would be improving.

And ironically, if holding unjustified beliefs increases your happiness and decreases your suffering, then holding those beliefs should be moral, according to Harris. If believing that you are the emperor of the universe or Elvis Presley or a giant pink bunny actually increases your net happiness and doesn't necessarily decrease that of those around you, then it is morally justified.


It might just be that happiness and suffering should not be the ultimate arbiters of what is good and what is bad. It could just be that truth is more important than happiness and suffering, that having a better approximation of what the world is really like is more important than feeling a little bit better about yourself by actively embracing unsupported delusions. It just might be that an individual should have the right to determine their own fate, even if that fate leads to a decrease in their own happiness and an increase in their own suffering.

By boiling morality down to the crude reinforcement mechanisms of ancient brain systems, Harris has not offered a viable alternative path for those who decide to reject religion on the basis of rationality. He writes as if his notion of morality is common sense...but it's not. It's horribly flawed. He would have done better by just leaving the issue open-ended.

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