Tom Gilson

Real vs. Counterfeit Compassion (Part 2)

Sam Harris thinks we’ll see how rational it is to be compassionate toward evildoers if we recognize that no one has free will. If criminals are not really to blame for their wrong, it makes no sense to hate them for it. But as I wrote in Part 1, this “compassion” comes at the price of denying all humanness; and with that eliminated, just what is it we’re being compassionate toward?

Harris’s no-free-will dystopia is disturbing in other ways besides. C.S. Lewis anticipated this decades ago in his essay on “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.” He did not envision the anti-free-will form of the argument, but the linked article is nonetheless prescient.

Harris proposes that we discard all notion of men or women deserving punishment, since nothing anyone does is their fault. I urge you to get that clear in your mind: according to Harris, no punishment is ever deserved. And yet (from the linked article),

We can acknowledge the difference between voluntary and involuntary action, the responsibilities of an adult and those of a child, sanity and insanity, a troubled conscience and a clear one, without indulging the illusion of free will. We can also admit that in certain contexts, punishment might be the best way to motivate people to behave themselves. The utility of punishment is an empirical question that is well worth answering—and nothing in my account of free will requires that I deny this.

Harris has no problem with undeserved punishment, if it has “utility.” Utility is a term ethicists use to denote something like the greater good or greater happiness of all mankind. Harris would undoubtedly think of it in terms of maximum human well-being; that’s the hinge on which his ethical theory swings.

The question of punishment, then, is not whether it is just but whether it is useful. There is no justice in Harris’s system. There’s no injustice, either. The category is meaningless. Justice has to do with what is deserved, whereas if Harris is right, the idea of deserving is meaningless. C.S. Lewis said,

Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a “case.”

Does any of this chill you? It should. For if justice is eliminated, all Harris has left to replace it is technology “to motivate people to behave themselves.” He is very clear on this, here and in books like The Moral Landscape and Free Will: he would replace justice with scientifically validated human tinkering. Is your behavior a little off? No prison for you, sir! Not unless that’s the most effective way to straighten you out. Drugs might work better to control your behavior, or a bit of psychosurgery. Twentieth-century Soviet gulags developed the beginnings of a research base on these kinds of things, if we can just get our hands on it.

Or maybe we’ll be able someday to mind-reading devices to keep you and me from lying. Harris proposes that quite seriously in The Moral Landscape as a way to keep corporate board rooms honest. All this is justified by the maximization human well-being, even though for Harris “human” means something quite un-human, and he never quite gets around to explaining how many humans will have to be behaviorally minimized in service of their maximizing.

I am quite sure that religion would be one of the aberrations Harris would propose to cure, and probably also political dissent; for he is convenced there is one best set of policies—thoroughly liberal, of course—for human (whatever that means) well-being. I suppose he would admit that empirical research might disprove him on that, but he offers no advice on how to run the experiments. (I have wondered about that previously.)

The Bible, by contrast, takes humans as humans, justice as justice, correction as correction, right as right, and wrong as wrong; and that’s good. I’ll explain why in my next and final post in this series.

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3 thoughts on “Real vs. Counterfeit Compassion (Part 2)

  1. Does any of this chill you?

    It does. It is simply breathtaking the anti-realistic mental gymnastics that it takes to get you to where Harris is. You attempt to convince everyone that your anti-realistic view (you don’t deserve this, but I’m going to do it anyway) is for their own good (the good of all of humanity) when it’s really for your own utility. It’s a testimony that fallen man has been blinded by sin and only seeks after himself.

  2. From the C.S. Lewis link:

    The only two questions we may now ask about a punishment are whether it deters and whether it cures. But these are not questions on which anyone is entitled to have an opinion simply because he is a man. He is not entitled to an opinion even if, in addition to being a man, he should happen also to be a jurist, a Christian, and a moral theologian. For they are not question about principle but about matter of fact; and for such cuiquam in sua arte credendum. Only the expert ‘penologist’ (let barbarous things have barbarous names), in the light of previous experiment, can tell us what is likely to deter: only the psychotherapist can tell us what is likely to cure. It will be in vain for the rest of us, speaking simply as men, to say, ‘but this punishment is hideously unjust, hideously disproportionate to the criminal’s deserts’. The experts with perfect logic will reply, ‘but nobody was talking about deserts. No one was talking about punishment in your archaic vindictive sense of the word. Here are the statistics proving that this treatment deters. Here are the statistics proving that this other treatment cures. What is your trouble?

    You can see this happening over the years. More and more, only experts are allowed to weigh in, and only statistical and “hard” facts are real evidence. Morality and justice are not being discussed because that’s stupid religious nonsense.

    If a treatment can change a person or a group, and if those in power want that change, then the only question left to ask is, “hey, what is your trouble?”

  3. “Feeling compassion for him would be rational, however—or so I have argued.”

    But if there are no true choices or free will then “feeling compassion” isn’t rational or irrational or really anything at all. It’s just another preconditioned response. And if, in fact, there are no true choices or free will then rationality itself isn’t rational or irrational or really anything at all. It’s just another preconditioned response. Et (as they say) Cetera.

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