This is the sixth in a new series of weekend posts taken from the presentations at the Salk Institute’s “Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0.”. I have placed an index of essays in this series in an introductory post, Enlightenment 2.0: Introduction.
The second discussion in the Enlightenment 2.0 series elicited a number of opinions on the importance of happiness to a secular ethics.
In the discussion that followed Dan Rutherford’s talk, we had a couple of people in the audience speak in favor of happiness (and the absence of suffering) being core moral values.
Sam Harris, the author of “The End of Faith” and “Letter to a Christian Nation”, said
The only thing you need to be a moral realist without having to appeal to transcendental values and other postulates is to: (1) believe that morality is about questions of suffering and happiness and the difference there in conscious systems not just humans, and (2) to believe that there are right and wrong answers to those questions.
Greg Epstein, from Harvard University, agrees.
I would not have predicted that Sam would take the words right out of my mouth but I think that the question of suffering and happiness is really important because I think that it’s the sort of simple beginning that we humanists, non-theists, whatever you want to call us, that we are coming from, this question that our ethics start with a real simple proposition, that we are against human suffering and we are for human happiness.
Unfortunately, Harris’ item (1) is false. Since (1) is false, then the fact that there are right and wrong answers to questions of how to maximize human happiness is irrelevant to questions of morality, since morality is not founded on human happiness (and suffering).
There is solid evidence against this proposal. Give a person an option of living inside of an experience machine which will feed her false information about her life. In the machine, she will be made to believe that she is loved by everybody, accomplishes great things in science or art or whatever field interests her, has a perfect spouse and perfect children with a perfect house. She is, in short, as happy as a clam.
However, her happiness is all fake.
Give a person a choice between this happiness and absence of suffering, and a less pleasant life having real-world experiences (even though some of them cause suffering and unhappiness), and a great many people will gladly trade happiness for truth. Truth matters.
In other words, Greg is simply mistaken. We may, in a sense, be against suffering and in favor of happiness when all else is equal, but we will seek suffering and sacrifice happiness if, in doing so, we can buy a little bit of truth.
How is it the case that truth matters?
Desire fulfillment theory answers this question. A desire is a propositional attitude that can be expressed in the form “desires that P”, and agents act so as to realize states of affairs in which P is true.
The problem with the experience machine – the reason why people do not value its illusions, is that it does not realize a state of affairs in which P is true. It realizes a state of affairs in which the agent believes that P is true (which generates happiness), but not one in which P is true in fact.
Now, there are people who do, in fact, value happiness and the absence of suffering above all other things. Somebody like this can value life inside of the experience machine. However, he has a desire that P, where P = “That I am happy,” and P is, in fact, true in a state of affairs where the agent is inside of an experience machine.
However, for people such as myself who have different desires, the experience machine is not even a temptation. Give me a choice between an experience machine with its perfect happiness and freedom from suffering and death, and I would choose death. It is better to not live at all than to live a lie.
Desire utilitarianism allows us to salvage much of what Harris says. The relationships between states of affairs and desires are real-world relationships that we can investigate scientifically. Whether an agent has a desire that P, and whether P is true in state of affairs S, are factual statements subject to empirical investigation. So, we still have moral realism. However, moral realism is grounded on relationships between states of affairs and desires (and between desires and other desires), not happiness and suffering.
One critic at the conference, Deirdre McCloskey, recognized that there was something wrong with the happiness and suffering thesis.
We are meaning-seeking animals. I don’t think that we can get away from that. We’re not cats. Cats avoid pain and sit on the sill in the sunlight and enjoy themselves. As a famous theologian said, man does seek a triple perfection, and its that third thing that science can’t provide us.
There are things that we value other than an absence of pain and the presence of happiness – that these are not enough.
However, McCloskey was wrong (or, at least, her statement is without foundation) to say that this is not something that science can talk about. Far too many people make an unwarranted leap of faith from the fact that some thesis of human value is incomplete to the conclusion that the rest will not be found inside the realms of science. This is, in fact, a “god of the gaps” argument where what we do not know is not “that which science has not yet revealed” but “that which science cannot reveal.”
A different (unidentified) commenter said,
I would like to suggest that the jury is still out there, or maybe we have indications that we don’t need these metaphysical entities, that they will get pushed back also with increasing understanding.
Where I would like to further add that this improved account that drives back the need to postulate these strange entities describes value, not in terms of happiness and absence of suffering, but in terms of relationships between states of affairs and desires.
And that if this proves also be lacking, before we start postulating strange metaphysical entities that we make up to justify doing harm to people, that perhaps a few more refinements will get us closer without those entities.
Let us not be so quick to summon the secular version of the value ‘god of the gaps’ type entities to explain that which we do not yet know how to explain.