Harris’s Inhuman Utopia

Harris’s Inhuman Utopia

Sam Harris struggles manfully to defend his Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values by way of an online response to objections that have been voiced against it. There are several interesting things to discuss in there, of which I will address just one for now: his proposition, mentioned in this morning’s post, that we might someday deliver new “firmware” to persons to upgrade their ethics.

He presented this approvingly as part of a thought experiment. The only fair way to treat it is to take it as a unified whole. Viewed in that light, some might wonder what could be wrong with it:

Consider how we would view a situation in which all of us miraculously began to behave so as to maximize our collective well-being. Imagine that on the basis of remarkable breakthroughs in technology, economics, and politic skill, we create a genuine utopia on earth.

Needless to say, this wouldn’t be boring, because we will have wisely avoided all the boring utopias. Rather, we will have created a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness….

Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.

Nothing wrong with that, is there? I left out the objectionable part:

However, some people were not ready for this earthly paradise once it arrived. Some were psychopaths who, despite enjoying the general change in quality of life, were nevertheless eager to break into their neighbours’ homes and torture them from time to time. A few had preferences that were incompatible with the flourishing of whole societies: Try as he might, Kim Jong Il just couldn’t shake the feeling that his cognac didn’t taste as sweet without millions of people starving beyond his palace gates.

Given our advances in science, however, we were able to alter preferences of this kind. In fact, we painlessly delivered a firmware update to everyone. Now the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.

Regardless of the means, it looks like it could be a desirable end; and if Kim Jong Il were to get an ethical upgrade, who could complain about that?

Writers have been offering utopian ideas since at least Thomas More, if not Plato (Utopia and The Republic). The idea of heaven on earth shares a strong resemblance to Christianity’s view of heaven in heaven.* I haven’t read More’s Utopia since high school and I don’t remember much of it; but the variations on this theme that I have read and can recall (Plato, Orwell, and Huxley) are all significantly flawed, especially by their coercive means of establishing their ends.

Harris’s “firmware” upgrade must inevitably take the same route. What do we do with Kim Jong Il if he doesn’t want to change? We “upgrade” him anyway, whether he likes it or not, for the good of the world. What about you and me? Harris never said the procedure would be reserved for Communist despots. Presumably every deviancy would qualify us for the procedure. Deviancy from what? Someone has to decide.

Harris says science has the answer. He’s wrong; more on that next time. For the sake of argument, though, let’s suppose that scientists someday discovered a way to modify us humans to create “a global civilization of astonishing creativity, security, and happiness… that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.” Why not?

I can answer that on two levels. First, Harris’s view seems logically impossible. What could it mean for a world to be “as filled with love as it can be,” if by means of technology we had all been involuntarily stripped of the capacity to choose otherwise? What would self-sacrifice mean under those conditions? What kind of love is it that only does the right thing, just because that’s its only option?

More fundamentally, Harris has a truncated view of what it means to be human. By eliminating our potential to do bad (were it possible to do so, I’m still in the “for sake of argument” mode), Harris would also eliminate any meaningful ability to choose the good. Harris envisions a world of maximal well-being for conscious organisms, but it’s a world that reduces us all to amoral partakers in desirable experiences. Harris’s “moral landscape” in the end would have no meaningful morality in it. This is not what it means to be human.

Judaism and Christianity understand that we were created in God’s image, which includes being morally responsible agents. Experience shows that all our technologies (including socio/political) to engineer human perfection always go sour. It’s something only God can do, and he does it relationally, personally, without coercion. By his grace he offers a good future for those who choose it and who live out that choice in morally meaningful ways. There is the possibility of choosing otherwise, and that too has a morally meaningful effect.

Harris’s utopian vision is self-contradictory, incoherent, hollow, and coercively dehumanizing—all in the name of morality. No, thanks.

*Christianity actually teaches that the final perfect state is on a renewed earth, but to belabor that point would not help our discussion here.

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5 thoughts on “Harris’s Inhuman Utopia

  1. We’re just getting closer to what Lewis predicted in… The Abolition of Man.

    This paragraph was written nearly 7 decades ago:

    At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely `natural’—to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammelled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on. What looked to us like hands held up in surrender was really the opening of arms to enfold us for ever. If the fully planned and conditioned world (with its Tao a mere product of the planning) comes into existence, Nature will be troubled no more by the restive species that rose in revolt against her so many millions of years ago, will be vexed no longer by its chatter of truth and mercy and beauty and happiness. Ferum victorem cepit: and if the eugenics are efficient enough there will be no second revolt, but all snug beneath the Conditioners, and the Conditioners beneath her, till the moon falls or the sun grows cold.

    Fascinating no?

  2. For the longest time, I couldn’t understand why atheists had such optimistic vision about the direction in which humanity is headed, what they describe as “progress” (nevermind the fact that the yardstick they use to measure this “progress” goes unnamed), but I finally figured that, well, they don’t believe in a life-to-come in which things will be made right. So they have to enthusiastically hold on to the thought of they closest thing to heaven they seek: a man designed utopia. Have they conceived of a back-up-plan for what humans are to do if this “utopia” deteriorates into a dystopia? Or do they just play on the assumption that our science is too good, our technology is too good, and our people will be too good, that that just won’t happen…

  3. Sam Harris is the proverbial child playing in a mudpuddle when right over the hill is the entire ocean. When“…the entirety of the species is fit to live in a global civilization that is as safe, and as fun, and as interesting, and as filled with love as it can be.” it will have achieved barely an iota of what God has planned for us. It isn’t that his vision is evil or dangerous. Its that his vision is small and sad. His safe, fun, interesting and loving place is the faintest shadow of the glories that await us in an eternity with God. But even we who know this to be true can barely look up from our mudpuddles, it would be unfair to ask Sam Harris to.

  4. Evil is often this way: small, sad; not so much at first an attack on humans, but a dismal shrinking of humanness that ends up leading to attacks. Abortion comes to mind as a prime example, but you’re right in identifying Harris’s vision as another.

  5. Harris’ idea is too modernistic for a postmodernist culture to come close to accepting. He would have to get the media and Hollywood on board before the people as a whole might entertain the idea. The last movie that I saw that gave a nice critique of humanity trying to force control of morality was Serenity.

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