I’m currently working on an overall critique of Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values for The Leather Library (UPDATE: no longer exists), but I just wanted to post some thoughts on a particular chapter here.
For Harris, the goal of a science of ethics is achieving well-being (he’s generally utilitarian=the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people). He believes that neuroscience can map out our brains and tell us how to be happy in a precise way that we can’t do for ourselves. For instance—this is his example—people think that having children will make them happy, but studies have shown that most people’s level of happiness decreases once the child his born and doesn’t return to its previous level until after the child goes off to college. Harris brings up interesting questions about self-knowledge that I believe threaten to undermine his thesis. I’m not sure he recognized the seriousness of the problem.
In the chapter titled The Future of Happiness Harris describes the difficulty of well-being self assessment. Sometimes when we think about our lives, we tell others that we’re happy when, in fact, most of the time we’re not. Conversely, we might say we’re unhappy because perhaps we haven’t met specific goals—fame, wealth, health, sleeping with X number of people before X birthday, oh wait—but on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute scale, we’re by and large pretty content.
Suppose someone asks you about your recent trip to Rome. You reply, “It was good. Yes. Good times.” But was it? Harris invokes the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s distinction between “the experiencing self” and “the remembering self”:
“…if your “remembering self” claims to have had a wonderful time in Rome, while your “experiencing self” felt only boredom, fatigue, and despair, then your “remembering self” (i.e., your recollection of the trip) is simply wrong about what it was like to be you in Rome.” (pg. 186)
Harris seems to think that the minute-by-minute “experiencing” trumps the overarching, “remembering” assessment. But does it? Why? Is self-assessment really so off the mark?
In this particular example, I find it hard to believe that I could truly forget my experiencing self so completely. While I say “I had a great time in Rome” I might then remember the “boredom, fatigue, and despair” and simply choose to keep these things to myself for fear of boring others, or for other reasons. Better yet, what if in saying I had a great time, I’m considering all the things that really made the “boredom and fatigue” worthwhile? What if parents believe that perpetuating their seed makes the pain of childbirth, the diapers, the crying, the tantrums and the awfulness of middle school-teenage years worthwhile? (As many surely do.)
I went to Greece recently and if you were to ask me how my trip was, I’d say it was incredible and worth way more to me than any material thing I could have bought with that money. I’ll forever treasure the Parthenon, the beautiful red poppies and aromatic camomile growing wild throughout the Pnyx, the jaw-dropping ruins, the history, the delicious seafood and the blue blue blue water of the Mediterranean. But then I also remember the harrowing experience of driving our rental car through Athens, schlepping things everywhere, being sleepy and jet-lagged (and I turn into a real crank when I don’t get my eight hours), the time my husband broke his scooter’s rearview and seat and the anxiety of what to do about it when we returned them, and being chased down alleys in Mykonos by a tenacious Greek waiter who wanted me to “meet him behind the church.” I’ll also remember the economic depression: the homeless people, the sewage odors, the trash bins overflowing, the sad state of what used to be Plato’s Academy, and graffiti everywhere.
Overall, I’d say it was a GREAT trip. Even the motor scooter part, which was a bad experience at the time, but now it’s a funny story to tell friends.
However, while I think self-assessment is possible, we can also get it wrong. The “remembering self” can also be called the “projecting self”. What happens when we don’t meet our long-term goals? I must publish a book to be happy, I must get rich, I must lose 10 pounds, I must find love, etc. Are we really so unhappy with ourselves? Well I think it depends on the individual. I know some very driven people who put a lot of ego in what they do, and overvalue what people think of them. Failure to achieve fame or wealth would make them very unhappy, and they tend to exhibit neurotic behavior in their day to day lives.
So a Hap-O-Meter would have to take into account all of these things: The overarching self-assessment, the day-to-day experiences, and the weight the individual places on these. I don’t think we should assume that immediate experience trumps all else. Even if people are wrong in thinking that wealth and fame will make them happy, there is still the fact that they believe these things will make them happy, and their beliefs, however faulty, affects their experiencing selves.
Harris presents the problem of self-assessment as a justification for the need for science to map out our brains, but he does not explain how neuroscientists would actually achieve such an evaluation. If you ignore what people claim to feel, to what does their brain activity correlate? Don’t we have to know what happiness is first in order to see where in the brain happiness resides? How can neuroscientists map out the parts of the brain that deal with happiness when happiness is so elusive, even to the subject? (And perhaps even to the neuroscientist whose task it is to map out happiness?)
Am I missing something? I’m sure you scientists out there will set me straight.