Why is it that Sam Harris, a committed utilitarian, sometimes sounds a bit like an egoist?
In my recently published essay “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality,” I point out that Harris upholds as his standard of moral value the utilitarian precept of the greatest good (or happiness) for the greatest number.
Harris’s utilitarian ethics entails altruism, because in order to advance the greatest happiness for others, an individual must sacrifice his own values. (As I also point out, sometimes “Harris walks back from the logical implications of his theory, opting instead for a watered-down utilitarianism in which individuals succumb to their ‘selfish’ nature and act only to a limited extent for the happiness of all ‘conscious creatures.’”)
Harris’s theory becomes superficially more palatable insofar as it allows individuals to act in ways that benefit themselves so long as doing so also advances the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Utilitarians tolerate self-benefiting actions only in that context.
Egoists, on the other hand, recognize as moral all actions that objectively advance one’s life and happiness, whether or not those actions benefit others. (Rational egoism forbids the use of initiatory force against others, because it recognizes that respecting individual rights and interacting as traders in mutually beneficial relationships is a requirement of human life in a social context.)
Because Harris tolerates some self-benefiting actions, some of the discussion in his book The Moral Landscape could be pulled out of that work’s utilitarian framework and applied to a theory of egoism. Although I did not have room in my original essay for that interesting aside, I’d like to touch on the matter here. . . .