Sam Harris and the Fundamental Things: Do They Apply?

Well, not exactly. Sam Harris, the affable atheist who claims that a system of morality can be established by scientific thinking, leaves a hole in his system big enough to drive a juggernaut through. He starts with the age-old utilitarian presumption that pain is bad and pleasure is good, and the even more preposterous presumption that everybody agrees on those two truisms.

Let’s look at the purely material facts. It took medical science, in the guise of the National Institutes of Health, until the late 1960s to discover that physical pain is bad for you. Duuuh. Until then, it was regarded as, at best, merely a symptom, an indicator of some other problem. It was useful, and interesting, only to the extent that it was a valid and scalable indicator (that is, that severe pain indicated a serious problem, while minor pain correlated with a minor problem. Which in fact ain’t necessarily so.) The use of anesthesia for surgery goes back to the ancient Greeks and their contemporaries in India and China. But it was used, not because it made the patient feel better, but because it’s easier to operate on a patient who can’t fight back. Medical science (such as it was) was perfectly fine with pain in situations that did not inconvenience the physician or, more especially, the surgeon. (Docs here, please feel free to argue this point.) Which is why anesthesia for childbirth was not widely used until the late 19th century, and faced strong opposition from both the medical profession and religious authorities then.

Religious authorities. Ah yes, there’s the rub. There’s where Sam Harris meets his unacknowledged opposition. Genesis 3:16 portrays the Holy One telling Eve, “I will sharpen the pain of your pregnancy, and in pain you will give birth.” So the Victorian divines told their medical opposite numbers, who are you to mess with the divine plan? Women are supposed to have pain in childbirth. It took Queen Victoria herself to overwhelm these pronouncements by having her 7th, 8th, and 9th children delivered with the assistance of chloroform. (Her Majesty was in many ways not all that Victorian. She was also one of the first people in England to have a telephone in her home.)

Well, okay, Jeremy Bentham had propounded, long before Victoria made pain relief in childbirth socially acceptable, the philosophy of utilitarianism, the goal of which was the greatest good (which he pretty much equated with pleasure, or at any rate the absence of pain) of the greatest number. But the church authorities didn’t like him much better than they liked anesthesia. From their point of view, Bentham was barking up the wrong tree. Material well-being was irrelevant to them. And that point of view did not die out with the Victorians. It is still with us today. Innumerable religious thinkers even today tell us that suffering is not merely inevitable but, in many instances, good for us.

The most intelligent and graceful defense of this position is probably that of C. S. Lewis, in his two masterful books (separated by 20 years and the death of his beloved wife), The Problem of Pain, and A Grief Observed. Suffering, he tells us, is the Holy One’s tool for helping us become better and ultimately perfected.

The Roman Catholic view of suffering was that the sufferer could “offer up” her suffering as a form of prayer, or more accurately a form of sacrifice, to help redeem the world. Dunno whether this is still current. There is something to be said for this approach to unavoidable pain—it gives it meaning, and may thereby make it more endurable. But, at least in the Middle Ages, and even today in some monastic and ascetic communities (such as, famously, Opus Dei), people have been encouraged to deliberately seek out pain, and even inflict it on themselves, in order to be able to use it, either for one’s own spiritual improvement or for the redemption of the world, or both. Orthodox Muslims seem to follow these same paths, up to and including self-inflicted suffering.

The Jewish tradition, while it does not encourage voluntary suffering, is realistic about the prevalence of unavoidable pain (as one would expect from its history.) We believe in relieving pain and suffering to the extent possible given the science and technology of the day, but we also try to confer meaning on unavoidable pain. That’s the whole point of the Book of Job.

The Buddha teaches that suffering is intrinsic to normal human existence (that’s the First Noble Truth), and that most of the ways we use to avoid or lessen it don’t work (that’s the Second one), but that enlightenment as to the true nature of human existence can enable us to transcend it (that’s #3.)

The Stoics did a lot of thinking about suffering too. They were, so far as I can tell, the first to stand the inevitable why me? on its head and ask why not me? Who am I to be exempt from the normal costs of human existence? Why should I find my own suffering any more problematic than the much greater suffering of enormous numbers of other beings, past, present,and future? They did expect this contemplation to make suffering more endurable, which is a little hard for us moderns to accept, but it’s still an approach worth taking.

Sam Harris is, of course, a neo-utilitarian who doesn’t even give credit where credit is due (thereby, according to the Talmud, postponing the redemption of the world. But I digress.) For his fellow neo-utilitarians, his argument is perfectly sound. But he’s ignoring a large proportion of the human race, which is downright dangerous, and for sure isn’t good science, since it skews the rest of his sample. Sure, it is possible to establish a utilitarian morality which is scientifically valid, if you start with utilitarian premises and are addressing only other people who accept those premises. That’s not science, that’s just technology.

Jane Grey


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