Sam Harris Is Apparently Talking Some Sense
As we learned during Wilson’s book review of A Generous Orthodoxy, most of Wilson’s followers will not read the books he spends much effort critiquing; this is so even when there is an insubordinate shouting things like: “Wilson is lying; he is continuously misquoting the book. This is not what the author is saying. Read the book.” So Wilson knows what he can get away with while blogging book reviews. In this regard, I have had little motivation to track his recent book review on Sam Harris’ work. However, in skimming the last two posts from Wilson, I have noticed a problematic theme continue that I have already addressed. I want to briefly take deeper note of this theme:
In his thus far second to last post on Harris’ book, Wilson compares ‘unprotected’ and immodest daughters of our modern times with ancient women sex slaves, and he equated the prison system with the institution of slavery—thereby disqualifying him to participate in this moral discussion. Yet, Wilson goes on to offer what he thinks is a devastating critique of Harris’ position. With respect to slavery:
There is nothing wrong with it on your principles, where the universe is just time and chance acting on matter. Why does it matter if the master matter acts on the slave matter? Who cares?… On your principles, why is slavery wrong? You make a superficial attempt to answer the question, but it answers nothing, and addresses nothing. “The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment” (pp. 18-19). This appears to be an argument that nerve endings disqualify one from being a slave or being treated like farm equipment. But what about farm animals? They have nerve endings, and they certainly have a capacity for suffering. …
…This brings us back to your basis for morality, which was basically pleasure and pain. “Questions of morality are questions about happiness and suffering. This is why you and I do not have moral obligations toward rocks” (p. 8 ). Okay. Whose happiness and suffering? Why ought one individual, with one set of nerve endings, be concerned about another set of nerve endings entirely? They are not connected, except through cultural teaching. That teaching, in our case, is grounded in the will of God. In your case, it is grounded in bare assertion. What you need to do is sketch for us the bridge between one set of nerve endings and another, and show us why that bridge of yours creates an obligation that two sets of nerve endings must share.
Did you get all that? I thought Harris’ suggestion for a nice starting moral premise regarding slavery to be right on the money; again:
“The moment a person recognizes that slaves are human beings like himself, enjoying the same capacity for suffering and happiness, he will understand that it is patently evil to own them and treat them like farm equipment” (pp. 18-19).
This certainly seems right to me. But given Wilson’s emotional void when it comes to such matters, we should expect him to baulk. And he does. I do not want to be too hard on Wilson on the argumentative level since I really do not think he has the capacity to understand just what Harris’ point is in the first place. It would not surprise us to find Wilson intentionally creating a straw man argument, but I’m not sure that is what we have here. Wilson thinks this statement from Harris “addresses nothing,” and he reduces Harris’ argument to raw feels of pain and pleasure, those sensuous qualities he boils down to the mere physical working of “nerve endings.” Thus, for Wilson, recognizing via intuitive empathy that a slave is a person just like you, with the same kind of capacities for suffering and happiness, is no different than trying to figure out the moral significance of the slave’s physical nerve endings. The only way for Wilson to try to distinguish the slave from a piece of farm equipment—outside religious, authoritative maxim—is to look at the fact that the slave has nerve endings.
But of course, nerve endings are not pain and pleasure; further, raw feels of pain and pleasure are not what we typically consider basic human suffering or human pleasures. Further still, higher level human pleasure does not amount to anything like “happiness,” and basic human suffering does not amount to our full capacities for “suffering.” Suffering and happiness, of the kind Harris refers to, clearly point to our distinctively human experiential knowledge. As J.L. Mackie pointed out (Mind 1955), mere suffering is only a first order evil; but we have a second order kind of evil in the world, the kind we often associate with forms of slavery: “malevolence, cruelty, callousness, cowardice….” I see no reason to suppose Harris is leaving out this second order shape of human suffering, which is on a entirely different moral plain than the mere feeling of pain, the mere result of having “nerve endings.” And following Aristotle, we usually use “happiness” to refer to the highest level of human capacity; happiness cannot be reduced to mere pleasure. Even that utilitarian John Stuart Mill was sure to point out that he would rather be a human dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. For Aristotle, in fact, the total “happiness” of a man’s life cannot be fully assessed until that man’s life is over and seen in its full unity. Patrick Hogan grounds emotion and narrative universals in prototypical forms of “happiness,” whether in heroic dominance, romance, satisfaction of hunger, or redemption. Thomas Aquinas saw human “happiness” to be the primary purpose of human law. Conservative Christian moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, following Aristotle, believes that the goodness or rightness of a given action is grounded in what is the true happiness of man, his natural flourishing, his nature: “is” does produce “ought.”
But Wilson fails to understand all of this. I’m not so interested in pointing out Wilson’s fallacious straw man argument as I am in pointing out how sad it is that Wilson apparently lacks some of the most important and basic human capacities for grasping the true nature of human empathy, happiness, love, and evil.
I have detailed Wilson’s alternative pattern elsewhere, which is apparently his only form of recourse; in a previous post, I noted:
What people “want” reduces to “morality,” morality reduces to “right and wrong,” and right and wrong reduce to axiomatic authority and power. This just is one face of the theonomists timeless approach to “law.”
Wilson continues this pattern here. Two people with a “set of nerve endings,” in a common social context, “are not connected, except through cultural teaching. That teaching, in our case, is grounded in the will of God. In your case, it is grounded in bare assertion.” This statement is remarkable. For me it is a bit horrifying and in fact puts some chills up and down my “nerve endings.” People cannot be “connected” but through “cultural teaching.” In Wilson’s case, this teaching is grounded in the “will of God.” Wilson therefore makes his lack of human empathy clear. Wilson sees nothing in Harris’ point but for “nerve endings,” and can imagine no way he could morally distinguish a slave from a piece of farm machinery but through cultural “teaching,” grounded in the “will of God.” Wilson would perhaps like to be King of a vast world of ants, as long as the ants had special revelation about the will of the anti-hill’s god—all nicely morally “connected” they would be.
Wilson reveals this same lack of moral feeling and insight in the next post on Harris; I’ll leave you with what comes close to Wilson’s conclusion to that post:
This is how you [speaking to Harris] describe it. “Everything about human experience suggests that love is more conducive to happiness than hate is. This is an objective claim about the human mind, about the dynamics of social relations, and about the moral order of our world” (p. 24).
But three questions come to mind. First, why is this not a question of preferences, instead of morality? What’s the difference between individual preferences and moral choices? Second, if “everything about human experience” shows that love is better than hate, why is there so much hate? And third, why do you appeal to the broad range of human experience when it comes to love and hate, and feel free to reject the broad range of human experience in its denial of atheism?
Such a simple point; yet so many questions.
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