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.