I’ve just been listening to Sam Harris interview Paul Bloom, both of whom I like, though a little less each year. They were talking about the way the human instinct to favour people close to them clashes with their desire to be even-handed in their dealings with other people. Though both men agreed it is natural and right to want to rescue your own child from a burning building before you rescue others, other kinds of favouritism, while understandable, are rather shameful. Sam and Paul’s conclusion was that though we humans are stuck with our innate preferences and prejudices in our everyday dealings with people, we shouldn’t want these to be mirrored at the level of national policy.
This all sounded perfectly fine to me though a bit obvious. After all, though I might run straight past a stranger to rescue my own child, I don’t necessarily want a fireman to do the same, and my guess is that most people feel the same. Do two moral philosophers really need to talk for half an hour before agreeing on this? Probably not, so maybe they were saying something more and I think what they were saying was this: a government should force its people to go against their selfish nature. Obama described this as ‘helping people to do the right thing’ when he was peddling his wealth distribution programs. The problem is that what ‘the right thing’ is for the Obama administration probably isn’t the right thing for Donald Trump’s. Do Sam and Paul want Trump to force them to do what is right in his eyes? Should they be forced to help build a wall along the Rio Grande?
People like Sam and Paul always talk as though we are all our brother’s keepers and our government can help us to help others but that isn’t how I or many others feel. I want my government to raise an army, build roads and do one or two more things that a private company can’t do so well. What I don’t want my government to do is, say, take my money and spend it on certain privileged groups in the name of Affirmative Action. Nor do I want the government giving hard-working people’s money to others who don’t work. Thanks all the same but if I do want to help a group of people I’ll do it through a charity of my choice.
I suppose it’s fine to want to be as good a person as possible and some people think this requires a bloodless even-handedness to anyone and everyone. So even when your country and culture are being decimated by hordes of illegal invaders you should reach out to them, simply because they are poorer than you. According to Sam, Paul and Obama, the fact that you don’t know these people and possibly even disapprove of their way of life shouldn’t come into it. This, apparently, is ‘doing the right thing’. Yet how far do you want to go with this? Are you prepared to suppress all your natural instincts whenever they clash with your socially engineered beliefs? I don’t know about other people but my beliefs tend to change quite regularly and I have come to think that any honest person, whose mind hasn’t yet been concreted over by habit, pride and dogma should be constantly reassessing his beliefs as he lives and learns.
This being the case, why should my changeable beliefs, which I have acquired more or less randomly, pull rank over my natural inclinations? Yes, my inclinations might be selfish but then again my beliefs might be mistaken and I might hold them simply because of where I happen to be standing in history.
Like most people, learning that the sun goes round the earth and how counter-intuitive quantum mechanics are have taught me to be wary of putting the whole of my trust in my intuitions. On the other hand, putting all your trust into your beliefs, as the good Germans of Nazi Germany did, strikes me as being equally dangerous. After all, it is quite easy for smooth talkers like Obama to persuade people to go against their best interests. So personally I would prefer not to completely suppress the voice of my possibly selfish nature. It might just be trying to tell me something useful.