The Moral Landscape Challenge

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It has been nearly three years since The Moral Landscape was first published in English, and in that time it has been attacked by readers and nonreaders alike. Many seem to have judged from the resulting cacophony that the book’s central thesis was easily refuted. However, I have yet to encounter a substantial criticism that I feel was not adequately answered in the book itself (and in subsequent talks). 


So I would like to issue a public challenge. Anyone who believes that my case for a scientific understanding of morality is mistaken is invited to prove it in 1,000 words or less. (You must address the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $2,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $20,000,* and I will publicly recant my view.

Submissions will be accepted here the week of February 2-9, 2014.

*Note 9/1/13: The original prize was $1,000 for the winning essay and $10,000 for changing my view, but a generous reader has made a matching pledge.


 

FAQ

1. You have said that these essays must attack the “central argument” of your book. What do you consider that to be?

Here it is: Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena, fully constrained by the laws of the universe (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science (in principle, if not in practice). Consequently, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.

Written By: Sam Harris
continue to source article at samharris.org

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  1. My difficulty is that, at first sight, I agree that morality, in principle, is supposed to deliver happiness. Just as physical wellbeing can be defined, grosso modo, by objective measurement, so too can happiness which, although there are variations, it should be possible to quantify. The sciences of sociology, psychology, medicine and economics can define the conditions for happiness and measure whether the moral rules compatible with its achievement actually deliver the desired result.

    Religion has promoted the idea that conforming to moral rules makes people unhappy and frustrated but moralists are rewarded with sanctimonious self-satisfaction. Once you get clear that morality has a practical use in benefitting us, it is easy to see that scientific knowledge can support the development of moral rules that are fit for purpose.

    • In reply to #3 by aldous:

      Religion has promoted the idea that conforming to moral rules makes people unhappy and frustrated but moralists are rewarded with sanctimonious self-satisfaction.

      I would say that that is a common interpretation of religion, but I don’t think that any faith has sanctimonious self-satisfaction as the desired end result of faith. It just happens to be a common end result of faith. But this is much like saying the desired end result of democracy is a return to feudal plutocracy.

      I would submit (and in doing so, I first disclaim I’m not an expert of any given religion) that the desired end result of any religious faith is a spirituality-grounded personal happiness and contentment with one’s lot. The Abrahamic faiths focus on surrender of one’s destiny to a higher good. Buddhism focuses on disinvestment in the identity-of-self (that thing that is actually me). Note that the promise of heaven or enlightenment (or any other nirvana-like state) is incidental. It’s a state of grace as perceived by those seeing it from the outside, hence it may even be fictitious, in that what one imagines Nirvana to be seeing it externally is not what it is internally.

      Note also that this end result is not what best serves institutionalized religion. Those who achieve enlightenment have little need for institutions of faith and they distract those who aren’t there yet from the tithing plate, especially if they, like Jesus, actively turn people away from the churches and tell them to pray on the hill, and rather than toiling for the king to go walk the earth seeking salvation on their own and teaching others. So this shows something of an internal conflict within religion, between its true intent and the intent of the institutions that support it, all of which are susceptible to the iron law of bureaucracy.

      Anyway, morality that is hard to achieve is ripe to keep people miserable and requiring religion (ergo chastity / celibacy / sex-is-sinful). I think scientific morality is that which yields beneficial consequences, aimed for the longest term we can consider in the moment (hence, hunting or stealing to evade starving, agriculture and economics for sustained survival, scientific development to prolong sustainability, space travel and terraforming to establish planetary independence…and so on.

  2. This book really opened my eyes, and I have yet to see any serious critique of it that makes any sense. Most people either did not read Sam’s book or simply failed to understand what he is talking about.

  3. I’m a fan of Harris, but I’m cynical about his motives. One of the FAQs is “Why won’t you accept any submissions before February 2, 2014?”

    The obvious answer, which Sam fails to provide is, “Because I want to give plenty of people plenty of time to buy my book and swell my coffers.”

    • In reply to #7 by wanstronian:

      The obvious answer, which Sam fails to provide is, “Because I want to give plenty of people plenty of time to buy my book and swell my coffers.”

      Or, he might just be inundated with email.

  4. I’m a big fan of Sam Harris, I liked his book, but he just doesn’t want to understand that people have different moral intuitions. They are more concerned with some things and less with others. About that, I am more with Jonathan Haidt, even though I disagree with some of the other stuff he says. I liked Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” a lot. In it, he discusses in depth the different moral intuitions of Democrats, Republicans, and Libertarians, amongst other things. His 6 “moral foundations” according to Wikipedia:

    1-Care/harm for others, protecting them from harm.

    2-Fairness/cheating, Justice, treating others in proportion to their actions.

    3-Liberty/oppression, characterizes judgments in terms of whether subjects are tyrannized.

    4-Loyalty/betrayal to your group, family, nation.

    5-Authority/subversion for tradition and legitimate authority.

    6-Sanctity/degradation, avoiding disgusting things, foods, actions.

    How much do you care about each? It depends who you are!

    • In reply to #9 by Fouad Boussetta:

      How much do you care about each? It depends who you are!

      True, which I believe is why Harris claimed there could be many peaks on his moral landscape – i.e. many ways of achieving wellbeing/happiness.

    • In reply to #9 by Fouad Boussetta:

      I’m a big fan of Sam Harris, I liked his book, but he just doesn’t want to understand that people have different moral intuitions. They are more concerned with some things and less with others. About that, I am more with Jonathan Haidt, even though I disagree with some of the other stuff he says. I…

      Just because people have an intuitive morality doesn’t mean those intuitions are right. What we usually mean by morality and what Harris is talking about is a morality refined by knowledge, reason, and empathy. A good example of that is gay rights. Homosexuality has been considered immoral for most of human history, and in some places that is still the case. Most likely this has to do with people’s intuitive value of purity (or “Sanctity”, as Haidt calls it); many regard anything they find to be a disgusting perversion of the norm as wrong. However, looking at homosexuality more rationally, we understand that it harms no one, while the promotion of anti-gay views and policies does hurt the wellbeing of gay people.

      • In reply to #13 by secularjew:

        Just because people have an intuitive morality doesn’t mean those intuitions are right.

        I agree with you. But some cases are more tricky. Like is Edward Snowden a hero to the cause of liberty or rather a traitor to his motherland? Or is PRISM bad because of its violation of privacy or good because of its enhancement of our security? Do we need more government or less? I talk to lots of smart people about but they greatly differ in their views. What do you think?

        • In reply to #14 by Fouad Boussetta:

          In reply to #13 by secularjew:

          I agree with you. But some cases are more tricky. Like is Edward Snowden a hero to the cause of liberty or rather a traitor to his motherland? Or is PRISM bad because of its viola…

          I think that however we look at difficult questions, we should judge the morality of actions (or systems) based on how they effect the wellbeing of conscious creatures, and this means understanding that these states are not a mere matter of opinion. Harris understands that there are questions to which we may never get an answer (what he calls distinguishing between “answers in practice” and “answers in principle”), but that is different than saying that an answer doesn’t exist or that no criteria exists by which to judge. His analogy of the landscape allows for multiple peaks where seemingly conflicting factors can be calibrated differently. We should then in theory be able to see which balance is better struck. There may be peaks which are more or less equivalent (see Harris’s blog post, “On Matters Zero-Sum”), but given the possibilities, there are often ways to achieve greater peaks, and science can tell us, at least in theory, what those are.

    • In reply to #9 by Fouad Boussetta:

      I’m a big fan of Sam Harris, I liked his book, but he just doesn’t want to understand that people have different moral intuitions. They are more concerned with some things and less with others. About that, I am more with Jonathan Haidt, even though I disagree with some of the other stuff he says. I…

      Moral intuitions don’t make Sam wrong. Sam is saying you need to examine your intuitions and see if they make sense in light of the core goals of morality. If your core goal is “do what the bible says” your morality may be unenlightened. On the other hand if your core goal is “the well being of humans” you may find you have to give up or modify some of your intuitions.

  5. Hm. I trust that Sam is smart enough to do this sincerely. But at the same time a challenge like this feels similar to the ones that religious people sometimes announce. They too ask people to challenge them, just so that they can dismiss all criticism right away and take pride in the fact that no one can question their faith.

    Many intelligent people have already eloquently challenged Sam’s views. What are the odds that someone will now manage to change Sam’s mind? This does feel a little bit like an attempt for Sam to gather a bunch of replies that he can wave around in the future saying: “See, I got one thousand responses, and none of them was good enough. Ergo, my conclusions stand on firm ground.” However, I hope of course that this will be constructive for Sam.

    • In reply to #15 by Aztek:

      Hm. I trust that Sam is smart enough to do this sincerely. But at the same time a challenge like this feels similar to the ones that religious people sometimes announce. They too ask people to challenge them, just so that they can dismiss all criticism right away and take pride in the fact that that no one can question their faith….Many intelligent people have already eloquently challenged Sam’s views.

      Other than complaining that Sam only goes for the low hanging fruit of applying his views to straightforward ethical dilemmas (which he admits to) because the more debatable ones are just that- more debatable, I have not been impressed with any of his challengers’ whingeing.

    • In reply to #15 by Aztek:

      Hm. I trust that Sam is smart enough to do this sincerely. But at the same time a challenge like this feels similar to the ones that religious people sometimes announce. They too ask people to challenge them, just so that they can dismiss all criticism right away and take pride in the fact that no one can question their faith..

      Did you read the full list of rules and requirements for the contest? I’ve never seen a religious challenged framed using the same vigorous rules.

  6. I mostly agree with everything Harris says in The Moral Landscape but I can’t pass up a challenge so here is an example that I think shows that “maximize well being” by itself is not always consistent with our common sense notion of morality. Normally I would say that appeals to common sense don’t count but since IMO that is what Harris is doing with well being — he is saying “come on its just obvious and only sociopaths and terrorists think otherwise” so since he is basing his argument on an appeal to common sense a counter appeal to common sense is valid.

    To make things concrete imagine a population of 100 people (the argument works just as well for billions) and a WellBeing metric for each person that goes from -100 (complete misery) to 100 (perfect happiness). Now imagine our population of 100 people has to make a moral decision that will result in two possible different outcomes:

    Moral Choice 1: 95 have well-being of -1; 5 have well-being of 100; Mean well-being = 4.05

    Moral Choice 2: 100 have well-being of 4; Mean well-being = 4

    With moral choice 2 everyone is equally (mildly) happy. With moral choice 1 most people are mildly unhappy but a few people are perfectly happy. The average well being is higher for moral choice 1 but IMO most people’s intuitive answer would be to say that choice 2 is the better moral decision.

    • In reply to #22 by RogerM:

      Sam Harris and James Randi’s prize money will stay safely in their pockets.

      I don’t know about Sam Harris but Randi’s prize money is not his, not in his pocket but in an escrow account. So, you are completely wrong in implying that he benefits financially if the $1 million prize isn’t won.

  7. Morality is based on letting people have their preferences. There are two things that make this intractable to science.

    1. different people will adjudicate difference situations differently. There are a few general rules. People don’t like being killed or tortured. Consider how differently different people adjudicate living in a house with 10 children.

    2. What morality is really about is how you trade off the interests of different people. Should everyone be equal? Should the wise and elderly have more weight? Should those with more money have more weight? Should royalty have more weight. Should elected representatives have more weight? Should the learned have more weight? Should criminals get less weight? Should those who contribute most to society have more weight? and how much more weight? These are just opinions.

    • In reply to #25 by Roedy:

      Morality is based on letting people have their preferences. There are two things that make this intractable to science.

      different people will adjudicate difference situations differently. There are a few general rules. People don’t like being killed or tortured. Consider how differently different…

      Morality has nothing to do with “preferences” in my opinion. I’m not sure maximizing global human well being is the best foundation for morality, but it is certainly better than personal preference.

    • In reply to #25 by Roedy:

      Morality is based on letting people have their preferences. There are two things that make this intractable to science.

      different people will adjudicate difference situations differently. There are a few general rules. People don’t like being killed or tortured. Consider how differently different…

      Morality is not about “letting people have their preferences”. An action can affect the conscious states of others positively, negatively, or not at all. Understanding those effects and behaving appropriately is what morality is about.

      And to say that it’s intractable to science because people have different opinions is like saying that health can’t be studied scientifically because people may have different ideas about health. Or like saying that physics is not science because people may have conflicting theories. a) some people are just wrong. & b) we may not always get the answers, but that doesn’t mean that the answers are not out there.

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