5. Utilitarianism is ultimately too dis-functionally solipsistic and egotistical.

The crux of the biscuit: the core reason Sam Harris’s utilitarianism, or any utilitarianism, isn’t up to snuff as a meta-ethos, is that it is ultimately dis-functionally solipsistic, egotistical, and self-interest based.

Beyond the moral criticism most of us direct against selfishness, on a practical or pragmatic level selfishness just doesn’t work. Beyond a certain point, selfish people generally don’t thrive. Once again, when we interact with one another in human society, we do it ultimately mostly due to the nature of the synergistic, positive sum game, benefits of collective behavior. This motive for behaving collectively, and thus valuing the collective, is what is actually at the root of the utilitarian ethos, but the problem is that the utilitarian perspective it still too limited.

So, rather than stopping at valuing the well-being of one’s self, one’s family, one’s tribe, humanity one’s species), or even Harris’s conscious creatures, the pantheist pragmatically takes this process to its logical conclusion: the scientific pantheist values the well-being of the entire universe.  The pantheist understands Einstein’s extension of compassion, beyond conscious creatures to the entire universe (as quoted above). And it’s very instructive that, regarding Einstein, this led to an important, if pleasantly ironic, consequence: it was precisely by valuing the material universe (beyond and regardless of the well-being of conscious beings) that Einstein loved and cared about it enough that he was able to understand it enough that he could make his greatest contributions to the well-being of humanity.

The utilitarian may object, saying that one cannot play a positive sum game with non sentient objects and phenomena, that non sentient objects or phenomena, by definition, don’t care or benefit from our “compassion”. Perhaps. But, the ego at the heart of our sentience is rather ephemeral and insubstantial in the grand scheme of things as well. And the consciousness, as anyone who has successfully meditated might tell you, is most at peace when the ego is dissolved in the oneness of reality.
Perhaps the point here would be a little less esoteric if we bring it down to personal relationships. For example, we are supposed to love our spouses, friends, and family, and (even though there is always a selfish reason for loving one’s spouse) loving one’s spouse doesn’t really work if one is focusing on what one is getting out of it (more than one is focused on loving one’s spouse).  That’s the crux of the biscuit: it’s that lack of self (conscious being) referential focus; that is the difference between scientific pantheism and utilitarianism. And by the way, it is also the difference between truly (benevolent) religious behavior and false religious behavior. . .

A quartz crystal. The elegantly beautiful universal relationships that special and general relativity describe. The ethereal, lifeless, vast, cold, storm and ring clad, beauty of the planet Saturn, etc., To perhaps most of us these have value, in and of themselves. We feel that it would be a good thing that these phenomena exist, even if we don’t. Even if no conscious being exists. Is this such a bizarre idea? Virtually all of us can imagine caring about the continued existence of our children after we die. And many of us like the idea of a tree growing and fed by our decaying bodies when we die (even if that tree isn’t sentient enough to consciously care about well-being). And there are certainly non living waterfalls I have known that I would like to think could exist here and on other planets throughout the universe, even if life itself didn’t exist. Why must everything refer back to the importance of consciousness, which only knows itself to be conscious via the ego? This self referential need is the heart of Einstein’s frustrating “optical delusion”.

And yet,

Harris and the utilitarian’s aren’t altogether wrong. They are close to correct. Their earnest concern for our civilization, and their stated commitment to science and reason, are why they are kindred “spirits” to pantheists. But, again, this quote from Harris shows he sees the logical root of value differently than Einstein:

“I think we can know, through reason alone, that consciousness is the only intelligible domain of value. What is the alternative? I invite you to try to think of a source of value that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings. Take a moment to think about what this would entail: whatever this alternative is, it cannot affect the experience of any living creature (in this life or any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is-it would seem, by definition-the least interesting thing in the universe.

So how much time should we spend worrying about such a transcendent source of value? I think the time I spent typing this sentence is already too much. All other notions of value will bear some relationship to the actual or potential experience of conscious beings. So my claim that consciousnesses is the basis of human values and morality in not an arbitrary staring point.”*

The key logical objection to this argument can be centered around the word “absolutely” in Harris’s third sentence. Everything in this universe is connected to everything else via space and time. So of course, since consciousness is required to value, in some sense everything is of value to conscious creatures. But that is an argument for pantheism more than utilitarianism; if one can value everything, then why is it, again, that we should value the well-being of conscious creatures in particular, such that it is the foundational value?
Harris then follows his comment above with the statement that “the concept of well-being captures all that we can intelligibly value.”** Followed by the argument that concern for the well-being of conscious creatures is inescapable, and as proof he lists examples of the self-interested nature of religious moral systems:
“The inescapable fact is that religious people are as eager to find happiness and avoid misery as anyone else: many of them just happen to believe that the most important changes in conscious experience happen after death (i.e. in heaven or in hell).”***


“The Hebrew Bible makes it absolutely clear that Jews should follow Yahweh’s law out of concern for the negative consequences of not following it.”****


Yes, perhaps the hallmark of conscious creatures is our egos, and to remain conscious in this existence, at some point value structures return to our-selves. But religion, true religion (of which scientific pantheism is one), is about recognizing that at some point in the valuing one must (as Einstein said) extend the circle of compassion out beyond oneself, beyond all selves, to the transcendent God/universe. Ironically, Harris has acknowledged this via his “spiritual” discoveries of the release one (ha!) feels when, in meditation, the sense of self disappears. The biblical Jesus said, “There is really only one commandment: Love God with all your heart mind, and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” Loving your neighbor as yourself may be utilitarian, but loving God with all your heart, mind, and soul isn’t. It is close to pure selflessness, like Harris’s spiritual experiences, like Einstein’s prescription. It’s true there is a sort of Zen paradox here, that: due, specifically, to the myriad, non-linear synergetic benefits of acting in accord with, not just the well-being of conscious creatures, but with this physical reality as a whole, the well being of conscious creature is actually more likely, if, ultimately one isn’t concerned about the well-being of conscious creatures, but with reality as a whole. It comes back to that old “optical delusion of the consciousness” thing that Einstein spoke of. And, it is also why there is a huge blind spot, in most secular utilitarians, that prevents them from understanding a certain pragmatic value to the core religious mandate: Jesus was right about the one commandment. And indeed, both the atheistic secular utilitarians, and the anthropocentric god defining, ego driven salvation wishing, theists, have generally missed the point of Jesus’s one commandment, Einstein’s quote, and the typical zen koan: we benefit most when in our hearts we really aren’t ultimately focused on our own benefits.

And one last point: Ayn Rand was perhaps contemporary humanity’s most ardent exponent for an ethos based on pure self interest. And yet even she was sane enough that when she really had to articulate “man’s noblest activity“, she said it was “productive achievement”. Why? What is productive achievement? Isn’t productive achievement creative production, where the productive achiever interacts, usefully, with the objective reality that is external to the self? And isn’t creative production the opposite of destructive consumption? And isn’t creative production thus a giving of the self to the larger/external reality, and destructive consuming a taking for the self? In Rand’s fiction she had her heroes claim what they were doing was for self interest, but the only reason her followers (to the degree that they were/are sane) were able to legitimately buy her definition of selfishness was that her heroes were “Fountainheads” who ironically thus gave so much.

*Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape T (New York: Free Press, 2010), 32

**Ibid., 32

***Ibid., 33

****Ibid., 33


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