When it appeared some years ago, I enjoyed Sam Harris’ book, The End of Faith. Yet I was troubled by something in it that I’ve found in the writings of many humanists or skeptics: his moral arguments are based on flimsy arguments, even emotionalistic appeals, and on assumptions that aren’t subjected to the same skepticism that he so expertly applies to other questions. (The same is true of Dawkins, Philip Kitcher, and many others.) It’s very frustrating; like finding someone who’s rigorously logical in everything in life suddenly saying that he refuses to walk under ladders because, why, everyone knows how terribly unlucky that is!
Consider Harris' recent blog post, “How Rich Is Too Rich?” At the end, Harris basically says he is willing only to hear from economists, so, not being an economist, merely an atheist and skeptic, I guess I’ll have to air my moral and economic disagreements with him here.
Harris loads his question, of course, with an unjustified assumption: “too much” wealth? Too much to whom? For what? Is there such a thing, and if so, why? There are some goods of which there can be “too much,” because they contain or inflict certain hidden costs which at some point outweigh the benefits; that is, their marginal utility becomes overbalanced by their marginal costs. For other goods, which either have no downside, or which are defined in such a way that their costs can’t function in a similar calculus, this is not the case. Thus one cannot be “too” healthy, or “too” happy. For Harris to answer the question, “how much wealth is too much,” he must first establish that wealth is in the first category—and to do that, he would first have to define wealth, and then answer what sorts of harms it inflicts, and on whom. One can argue that it’s possible for a person to be too wealthy for his own good, for example, perhaps because he lacks the moral fiber to act prudently with his money. Or one could try to argue that wealth is bad for society because wealth is a zero-sum game—which would be false, at least in a free economy, but at least an argument. Harris does neither. He simply assumes this premise and moves on.
He then moves into a straw man, ridiculing “...the quasi-religious abhorrence of ‘wealth redistribution’ that causes many Americans to oppose tax increases, even on the ultra rich...” But what, exactly is “quasi-religious” about opposing to tax increases or coercive wealth redistribution? Does Harris mean that opposition to coercive redistribution of wealth is a religious view? In fact, religion usually—and Christianity in particular—preaches hostility to material wealth and passivity toward government exactions, so that one tends to find Christians in the pro-redistribution camp. The longest-standing advocate of compelled wealth redistribution in western history is, of course, the Christian religion...with the possible exception of the Jewish religion. Does Harris mean that his opponents make assertions based on unquestioned assumptions? Yet Harris does the same thing, never engaging fairly with the serious arguments against wealth redistribution on either the ethical or economic level; rather, his article betrays a quasi-religious abhorrence, one might say a Puritanical shock, at what he considers to be “excessive” wealth, without ever explaining why wealth is something one can have too much of. Or does Harris just means his opponents are dumb because they disagree with him?
Harris also never explains how we are to identify the “ultra-rich”? Is such status to be measured in terms of income only? Net? Gross? One’s annual personal budget? Some purportedly objective standard of need? No answers—these are all just assumed without explanation.... Like a catechism.
Happily, not all billionaires are content to hoard their money in silence. Earlier this week, Warren Buffett published an op-ed...
Of course, as any economist knows—or anyone who’s ever seen It’s A Wonderful Life—Warren Buffett does not now, and never has, “hoarded” his wealth. Had he done so, he would never have become wealthy. Wealth is created by wise investment, and investment is the very opposite of hoarding. It’s a form of cooperative sharing which benefits both lender and borrower. To use the word “hoard” here is not merely to indicate the most profound form of economic ignorance a human being is capable of—not understanding the phenomenon of investment—but is, again, to load one's language with unstated, undefended, normative assumptions that appear based on an emotionalistic intuition. Not something one expects from a defender of reason.
Conservatives view taxation as a species of theft—and to raise taxes, on anyone for any reason, is simply to steal more. Conservatives also believe that people become rich by creating value for others. Once rich, they cannot help but create more value by investing their wealth and spawning new jobs in the process. We should not punish our best and brightest for their success, and stealing their money is a form of punishment. Of course, this is just an economic cartoon.
No, it’s a caricature, a caricature of his opponent’s position—indeed, of basic economics—which smuggles in Harris’ unstated normative assumptions. What is theft? It is the coercive taking of something without consent with the intent to permanently deprive. One can make arguments that taxation is not really theft—perhaps because the taxpayer enjoys an “average reciprocity of advantage,” or because it’s consensual in some sense, or because the taxpayer tacitly consents, or whatever—but surely the onus of proof is on Harris to prove that what is prima facie an unconsensual permanent seizure of property is not what it appears to be. Harris makes no such argument.
He also caricatures the standard economic model (accepted, we note, both by free market economists and socialist economists and by everyone in between) that wealth is created by investment in productive enterprise. Nobody believes that a rich person “cannot help but create more value by investing their wealth”—certainly a rich person can help creating value; he can waste value by investing in unproductive or unpopular or foolhardy enterprises, or by hiring people to dig holes and fill them back up again.
But here we notice that Harris also doesn’t seem to know what wealth is. He seems to think wealth consists of job creation (e.g., “...and spawning new jobs in the process.”) Jobs are not wealth; wealth is value. Later, he writes that “the richest possible person must still spend money on something, thereby spreading wealth to others.” Of course, this is also not wealth-creation, and no competent economist would confuse it with such. A rich person may spread money to others, but wealth creation is not identical with spending. Ironically, Harris indicates here that he’s in the grip of old-fashioned “trickle-down” economics! One of the central discoveries of Adam Smith (an economist, and also an moral intuitionist, by the way) was that we don't work just to have jobs; we work to get stuff, and if we could get the stuff without the work we would, and that would be a good thing.
What relevance is this, though, to Harris’ question about too much wealth? Certainly investment is one thing I can do with my wealth, but another is consumption, which destroys wealth. If I spend my $100 on a dinner party, that’s $100 I don’t have anymore. Does that mean that I shouldn’t have had that $100 in the first place? that it was “too much” for me? Or if I invest and make $100 in created wealth, is that “too much”? Here’s Harris’ answer:
We don’t have perfectly efficient markets, and many wealthy people don’t create much in the way of value for others.
Here we see that, never having made the argument or even saying it outright, Harris assumes that wealth is normatively proper only if it “creates much in the way of value for others.” Surely this is a point he must prove. If I eat chocolate ice cream, or write a diary, or ponder the beauty of an Arizona sunset, or ride a roller coaster, or read The End of Faith, or marry the girl of my dreams, I’m not creating much in the way of value for others. Are these worthless pursuits? Socially harmful pursuits? Pursuits in which Harris has the right to interfere? Surely I have a right to pursue happiness, no? I would certainly not deny that it is wrong to inflict harm, but these things do not inflict harm, and if I simply act in a way that doesn’t create maximum value for others but inflicts no harm, why and how does that figure into the normative evaluation of my character?
Again, this is not an economic question, and Harris makes clear he’s not interested in anything else, but surely it’s fair to ask why my life is to be evaluated by reference to the value I create for others. I know that this is commonplace in religious ethics; Galatians, of course, tells us, “ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” That’s because God commands it. But putting aside mysticism, why do I have no moral value in myself? More on this later.
Harris' belief that wealth must create value for others in order to be just is buried particularly in that little word “efficient.” What exactly does Harris mean when he says we don’t live in “perfectly efficient” markets? As I’ve written elsewhere, “efficient” is usually a word that masks normative assumptions (often as not from the speaker himself) because one can only determine efficiency if one has an end in view. What is Harris’ end, from which he can evaluate efficiency and distinguish it from waste? He does not say, and using the word “efficiency” enables him to bury his premise in seemingly neutral econo-speak.
Harris acknowledges, of course, that investment does sometimes create value that improves the overall standard of living, “[b]ut even in the ideal case, where obvious value has been created, how much wealth can one person be allowed to keep?”
Now, wait a second—allowed? Allowed by whom? Harris has skipped, without defending even the assumption that value for others is the justification of wealth, to the proposition that people are only “allowed” by others to keep wealth that Harris (rightly) admits is theirs. This is, I repeat, analogous to asking “how much health should a person be allowed to keep?” or “how much beauty should a person be allowed to keep?” or “how much eloquence should a person be allowed to keep?”—or, if it is not analogous, Harris has not indicated why not.
Is a person’s beauty morally unjustified because she didn’t earn it? Is it just only insofar as men get to lust after her? Or have intercourse with her? Certainly they would gain value from this. What right does she have to hoard her body to herself? If the answer to this is that she owns her body and that principles of dignity entitle her to herself and guarantee a presumption of liberty around her—in other words, that she has a moral right to herself which nobody may infringe so long as she respects the same right in others—then why is wealth not analogous to this? The mere fact that I would enjoy consuming a value belonging to you is not sufficient to justify taking that value from you. In short, a person is “allowed” whatever belongs to him or her so long as he or she has harmed no person with it or to acquire it.
To put it another way, Jefferson defended religious liberty by saying that it does me no injury for someone to believe in one god or twenty gods or no god at all; it neither picks my pocket not breaks my leg. It’s therefore not my business or the government’s. The same is true of Warren Buffett having billions. He can do what he likes, including giving it to unworthy causes—so long as he doesn’t actually coerce me and steal from me.
If, as Harris assumes, we have rights only insofar as we create value for others—and should not be “allowed” to keep what fails (by some unknown calculus) to create such value—why does the same principle not apply with regard to religion? Shouldn’t we be allowed only so much religious freedom as creates maximum value for others—and no more? Surely many people do nothing with their religious freedom, being simply too lazy even to think about religious freedom. Why not take it from them to create social value—by, say, forcing them to become nuns and run orphanages or hospitals? Again, if the answer is, because they have the right to do with their religious freedom what they will, so long as they harm nobody else, then the same rule should apply to property rights. James Madison was much more eloquent than I on this point:
[Property] means “that dominion which one man claims and exercises over the external things of the world, in exclusion of every other individual.” In its larger and juster meaning, it embraces every thing to which a man may attach a value and have a right; and which leaves to every one else the like advantage.
In the former sense, a man’s land, or merchandize, or money is called his property. In the latter sense, a man has a property in his opinions and the free communication of them. He has a property of peculiar value in his religious opinions, and in the profession and practice dictated by them.... Government is instituted to protect property of every sort; as well that which lies in the various rights of individuals, as that which the term particularly expresses. This being the end of government, that alone is a just government, which impartially secures to every man, whatever is his own.
Harris’ normative assumption that wealth is justified only by creating value for others is not only unstated and undefended, it’s also unanalyzed and self-contradictory. He complains that while it’s true that the wealthy can invest in productive enterprises, “there is nothing to prevent the ultra rich from cooking all their meals at home, using vegetables grown in their own gardens, and investing the majority of their assets in China.”
Even on Harris’ unspoken assumptions, it’s hard to see his point here: what’s wrong with investing in China? Doesn’t that “create jobs” there? Isn’t that “spreading the wealth” to people who really need it? It seems that Harris’ assumptions about the justification of wealth aren’t just collectivist, but nationalist as well: the wealth should create value for others—but not for Chinese others! And if creating wealth in China is no good, what about creating wealth in Indiana or Nevada? Or San Bernardino County instead of Orange County? Or Philadelphia instead of Pittsburgh?
Of course, Harris’ statement here is profoundly ignorant in economic terms, since the investment in China means (almost certainly) hiring Chinese people to produce something invented in the U.S., for users all over the globe—all in a process that creates wealth and improves the standard of living globally. But I’m still stuck on the ethical question: why is wealth only a good if it creates value for others (except the Chinese)?
This is even more amazing when one reads Harris’ indignant comments about “the astonishing gaps in wealth that have opened between the poor and the rich, and between the rich and the ultra rich” (or his statement elsewhere that “[i]t may be that a clear view of the matter...would oblige us to work tirelessly to alleviate the hunger of every last stranger as though it were our own.”). Surely when a billionaire hires someone in China who would otherwise have plowed a rice field all her life to work instead in a (really unpleasant, but better-than-a-rice-field) factory, that person is spreading—or, if you like, redistributing—wealth to help improve the lives of the impoverished. It’s still pretty nasty living by our standards, but worlds ahead of what they’d have without that opportunity, and as C.P. Snow (a socialist, scientist, hardly a capitalist reactionary) was fond of saying, the people, when given the choice have fled from the fields into the factories as fast as the factories will take them.
This is an important secondary point—secondary, that is, to the deeper, unanswered question of why Harris thinks economic wealth is justified only by creating value for others. The secondary question is, how is value for others best created?
Is it best created by forcibly seizing a person’s property and having a government agency choose how to create value for others?—whether by simply writing checks to others, or running a government program that benefits them in some way? Here we run into public choice problems and problems of knowledge, and although these are economic problems, I want again to emphasize the light they shine on the moral issues involved. The argument for individual liberty has virtually never rested on any assumption that the wealthy are virtuous or good people; on the contrary, the question has always been, who is the least untrustworthy? What is the least bad method of operating a society? While there may be evil, or greedy, or ignorant wealthy people, what reason do we have to believe that a government program, empowered to use coercion to seize and rearrange assets, which is immune from lawsuit, which has no incentive to generate economic gains because it’s paid whether or not it does a good job, which people cannot fire, and alternatives to which are not available—why should we believe that it will do a better job? As Jefferson said, “Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him?” Harris does not articulate or defend his premise that somehow we can find people who are more wise and virtuous than these nasty rich people who will spend this money wisely to generate value for others.
This assumption comes most clearly to the surface when Harris says that the argument that wealthy people create wealth through investment isn’t necessarily true because “as our recent financial crisis has shown, it is possible for a few people to become extraordinarily rich by wrecking the global economy.” Of course, the responsibility for the recent economic problems cannot fairly be laid on “a few people becoming extraordinarily rich.” The recent economic troubles are almost entirely the fault of government agencies purporting to serve the goal of creating value for others. Government agencies put severe pressure on lending institutions to get people into homes that they actually could not afford. Government agencies then backed up these institutions with guarantees—that is, gave them money that was coercively taken from others. This “bailout,” and the later bailout of General Motors, was done to “create jobs”—because these businesses were supposedly “too big to fail”—meaning, that if they paid the price of their bad decisions, it would destroy value. In this sense it is, of course, true that a few fantastically wealthy people did become fantastically wealthy through the breakdown of the economy; they did so because government coercively took money from others to pay these people—i.e., to reward them—after their bad decisions brought them to a crisis. Needless to say, this would not happen in an economy free of coercive wealth-redistribution. The bailout, TARP, and so forth, were hardly the work of a single, greedy mastermind. They were the product of “social justice” claims being enforced by government. In all of these cases, the government responded, not to economic signals, but to political pressures to provide more services, get them homes, and so forth—all with money coercively taken or borrowed or merely conjured up by fiat. Compared to the record of even the filthiest-rich, least compassionate individual, government’s record is far bleaker.
More: the long delay in economic recovery is due to two phenomena—fears of pending inflation (caused by government spending and promises of more spending) and fears of pending taxation (caused by government programs that promise still more spending). These have caused investors to wisely hold on to their money, or cut back operations to prepare for more coercive seizures of wealth. Government established the premises of the economic collapse, presided over it by rewarding the most egregiously bad actors, and is now delaying recovery by serving political, rather than economic, goals. What reason do we have to trust government more than we would a wealthy individual? Wealthy individuals are greedy, corrupt, or stupid a lot of the time—but in a free economy, the harms they inflict are minimized, and policed by law; whereas government stupidity, corruption, and greed, is immunized from the discipline of the market, from realistic oversight by the people (since most decisions are made by unelected administrative officials), and is subject to political incentives rather than economic ones. Government virtually never has to pay for its mistakes. Enron went out of business. The VA didn’t.
To repeat, this is not a question of mere “government ineptitude,” but of incentives, knowledge, and public choice effects—effects familiar to basic-level economics. And because these are inescapable features of nature, they must factor into our moral evaluation as well. Bad as private actors may be, is it more just to use coercion to take their property to be administered through political institutions that have these inescapable shortcomings? Once again, Harris has no answer.
Now, above, I asked why Harris believes that my life is to be evaluated by reference to the value I create for others. He does discuss this in his book The Moral Landscape. There, Harris seeks to articulate an objective morality by reference to what he calls “social morals” and “moral intuitions,” which become the basis of “cultural norms, laws, and social institutions whose purpose has been to render this growing system of cooperation durable in the face of countervailing forces.” No doubt this is a real phenomenon. But it would be only the hastiest and sloppiest person who would conclude from this that these intuitions (pre-rational, gut-feelings) are right in some sense, or that they should guide our behavior, without being evaluated in other terms. Most specifically, his approach takes for granted that morality is a social or collective phenomenon, rather than one arising from within the individual’s life and in relation to the individual’s needs. This is confusing, because Harris purports to ground his ethics in a basically individualistic concern: that is, in the minimizing of suffering. Yet in the most remarkable paragraph in his book, Harris makes clear that he is quite willing to inflict suffering on innocent individuals in order to maximize what he believes to be a greater good:
To the degree that treating people as ends in themselves is a good way to safeguard human well-being, it is precisely what we should do. Fairness is not merely an abstract principle—it is a felt experience. We all know this from the inside, of course [because it is associated with] negative emotion. Taking others’ interests into account, making impartial decisions (and knowing that others will make them), rendering help to the needy—these are experiences that contribute to our psychological and social well-being. It seems perfectly reasonable, within a consequentialist framework, for each of us to submit to a system of justice in which our immediate, selfish interests will often be superseded by considerations of fairness. It is only reasonable, however, on the assumption that everyone will tend to be better off under such a system. As, it seems, they will.
There is a lot here. First, Harris clearly sees individuals not as ends in themselves, but as means to what he calls “human well-being.” He is willing temporarily to treat them as ends, but only to accomplish a social purpose; so, they’re actually a means, not an end in themselves at all. And they are means to the accomplishment of what Harris calls “fairness,” a word he never defines in the book, and which therefore remains, his protest to the contrary notwithstanding, a pure abstraction. An abstraction, moreover, that is not based on a reasoned analysis of human nature or well-being, but on negative emotions. Because people feel bad, we are obligated to do something so that they won’t feel bad—without, apparently, analyzing whether their bad feelings are justified in any way. The fact that a poor, lazy man is jealous of a wealthy, hardworking man, is sufficient grounds for the state to treat the wealthy, hardworking man as a means to make the poor, lazy man happy, by redistributing his wealth. This Harris calls a “system of justice.” And more—it is actually good for the man whose property is to be taken from him; since caring for the needy is an experience that contributes to his psychological well-being, it is reasonable to “supersede” his self-interest. Or, to put away the euphemism, it is reasonable to use coercion to seize his wealth and give it to someone who has a negative emotion about it. That makes the victim a better person. (Builds character, you know.)
Amazingly Harris follows up this paragraph of emotion-based collectivism with these sentences:
While an individual’s search for happiness may not be compatible in every instance with our efforts to build a just society, we should not lose sight of the fact that societies do not suffer; people do. The only thing wrong with injustice is that it is, on some level, actually or potentially bad for people. Injustice makes its victims demonstrably less happy, and it could be easily argued that it tends to make its perpetrators less happy.... Injustice also destroys trust.
Now, if societies do not suffer, only individuals, what are we to make of Harris’ reference to the “experiences contributing to social well-being” in the previous paragraph? He has just argued that individuals must be treated as means, not as ends, when necessary to appease the negative emotions of others (what he appears to mean by “fairness”), in order to achieve a “just society.” Now he argues that only individuals suffer and that they particularly suffer from injustice. Surely being compelled to give up one’s earnings to support another person who has bad emotions about the unfairness of my success gap is an injustice against me, as I have not committed an injustice by merely having earned wealth. I am having an injustice inflicted upon me; I am made less happy; I might even argue that I am suffering from unfairness; it makes me feel bad. How are we to adjudicate these competing negative emotions? It would be hard enough to do so if they were crisply defined logical propositions, but when they are fuzzy emotional gut-feelings of having suffered some inarticulable wrong (or an “unfairness” that is never defined), one would certainly hope for some guidance.
...Yet it is here, perhaps sensing that he has no answer, that Harris ends his discussion: “there may be some surprises for us down this path,” he writes, and rides off into the sunset as critical questions about the compossibility of rights-claims in his ethics rain down around him.
True, Harris alludes to the evolutionary pressures that probably caused us to be “social selves,” and to be concerned with others. But in fact, evolutionary biology much more strongly supports an individualistic perspective where our concern with others is deeply rooted in self-preservation and our own flourishing. We have certainly not evolved to be disposed toward genuine self-sacrifice; that’s why religious institutions have spent so much time beating it into us and murdering non-conformists. Yes, we have a “capacity for cooperation,” but it is a capacity for mutual exchange to mutual benefit, not the Galatians-style selflessness Harris advocates. It is true that people often “want others to have their hopes realized” and so forth, but we do so only within a framework (evolved, if you like) which supports individual flourishing and success. That is because—to paraphrase Harris—only individuals flourish and experience happiness.
I started this by referring to the superstition that people shouldn’t walk under ladders. Such superstitions are also emotional intuitions that have been bred into us through a long process of biological and cultural evolution. Such superstitions are long-standing, have fascinating biological and historical explanations, and there are people who are so terrified of seeing superstitious taboos broken that it causes them “negative emotions.” Does this “harm” mean that people should be forced not to walk under ladders? Such a law would create value for the people who fear seeing others walk under ladders…. If the answer is no—if the answer is that their intuitions ought to be subjected to rational analysis and discarded as emotionalistic tripe, then why is the same not true of the long-standing ethics of self-sacrifice? Harris never explains why we are to accept some intuitions and emotions, and not others.
In fact, Harris’ purported objective ethics is almost entirely illusory, and you can see that illusion at work in places like this: Harris argues (in End of Faith) that the “social feeling of love” is a source of happiness, and that “the fact that we want the people we love to be happy, and [that we] are made happy by love in turn, is an empirical observation.” The “empirical observation” gives this argument a patina of rational objectivity, but it isn’t that at all—it’s just a (true) statement that there are people who feel this way. It does nothing to assess their feelings, or justify or defend them. If this counts as rational objectivity, one could with equal justification say that walking under ladders really is unlucky because there are people who feel it is, and the fact that they feel this is an empirical observation!
The many imprecisions, undefined terms, self-contradictory assertions, undefended, unarticulated assumptions, and other failings in Harris’ work all have their root, I believe, in his reliance on undefined, indeed, admittedly undefinable “intuitions” and “emotions” as the root of ethics (a common enough failing, I admit). Harris purports to offer an objective account of ethics, but instead offers us mere assertions that it is right for us to submit, or to force us to submit, to the demands of “the social feeling of love” to serve others’ interests to accomplish the “higher good.” What, exactly, is the difference between this and the religious ethics of Galatians? As Alan Germani writes, “The New Atheists may have omitted God from their ethics, but their ethics remains essentially the same as that of the religions they condemn: a mystical call to self-sacrifice.” Or, to paraphrase page 63 of The Moral Landscape,
Because so many view morality as service to others instead of a reasoned account of individual flourishing, and root their precepts in the inexplicable demands of emotion or indefensible intuition, their presciptions often have nothing to do with maximizing individual well-being in this world. They can, therefore, assert the immorality of contraception, homosexuality, or possessing large amounts of wealth, without ever feeling obliged to argue that these practices actually cause suffering. They can also pursue aims that are flagrantly immoral, in that they needlessly perpetuate human misery, while believing that these actions are morally obligatory. This pious uncoupling of moral concern from the reality of individual suffering and flourishing has caused tremendous harm.