An Unofficial Entry to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris is soliciting essays for what he calls the Moral Landscape Challenge.  In his words,

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 under 1,000 words. (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.

The “central argument of the book” is defined as follows:

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.

I doubt my power to compose an answer of sufficient caliber to blast right through Sam’s confirmation bias and convince him that his whole “scientific morality” project has been a waste of time, or even to get him to shake loose a paltry $2000 for the lesser prize, so I will limit myself to posting one here on my blog.  Here it is:

1.  Evolution by natural selection is the ultimate reason for the existence of morality.

2.  Morality evolved because it promoted the survival and procreation of the genetic material carried by individuals.

3.  Since evolution by natural selection is a natural process, as an evolved trait, morality cannot have a purpose or goal in general, nor the specific purpose or goal of promoting “human flourishing” in particular.

4.  Therefore, the notion that morality has some goal, and a goal (such as human flourishing) that has nothing to do with the reasons that resulted in the evolution of morality to begin with, is false.


It’s a testimony to the power of the illusion of the Good that Mother Nature planted in our brains that so many seemingly sane people who pass for scientists have bamboozled themselves into believing there can be such a thing as “scientific morality.”  The old lady didn’t mess around.  Assuming she ever experimented with moral relativism to begin with, no doubt she gave it up as a bad job when she noticed that her test subjects were dying like flies.  No, we perceive the Good as an object, a thing-in-itself, and there are few things harder than recognizing the illusion for what it is.

Normally, as is the case with Sam Harris, who is forever  chasing his moral butterflies, the rationalizations we come up with are remarkably flimsy.  Others can see the little man behind the curtain perpetrating the fraud immediately, assuming he’s not doing the special effects for their illusion as well.  As I’ve mentioned before, religious believers, who have their God to fall back on, may come up with some of the most whacked out versions of the divinity imaginable, but haven’t the least problem seeing through the secular versions of the charade.  For example, while I may have pronounced the Interdict on David Bentley Hart in my last post, I must admit that, in one of his rare lucid moments, he wrote,

If we examine the premises underlying our beliefs and reasoning honestly and indefatigably enough, we will find that our deepest principles often consist in nothing more – but nothing less – than a certain way of seeing things, an original inclination of the mind toward reality from a certain perspective.  And philosophy is of little use here in helping us to sort out the valid preconceptions from the invalid, as every form of philosophical thought is itself dependent upon a set of irreducible and unprovable assumptions.  This is a sobering and uncomfortable thought, but also a very useful reminder of the limits of argument, and of the degree to which our most cherished certitudes are inseparable from our own private experiences.

which can be rendered into the vernacular as, “Your personal opinions about what’s Good are not binding on me.”  And I must also admit that, if you accept Hart’s rarified, mystical version of God as an Ansatz, and aren’t too fussy about a little metaphysical fuzziness around the edges, his “proof” for the existence of the Good-in-itself makes a lot more sense than Harris’.

Alas, I personally deem the existence of Hart’s God no more likely than the possibility that Harris’ own version of the Good can somehow manage to come flying out of his skull, grab me by the scruff of the neck, and escort me kicking and screaming into his brave new world of “human flourishing.”

Does that mean I’ve relapsed into moral relativism under the stern scowl of Mother Nature?  Heavens no!  I’m just as prone as the next person to grab a rifle, sing the Marseillaise, and sally forth to battle for my own version of the Good (indeed, I have, minus the bit about the Marseillaise).  I just don’t flatter myself that there is some objective reason that my Good must necessarily be everyone else’s Good as well.  I don’t further flatter myself that the fits of self-righteousness I occasionally suffer with the rest of our species (especially when I’m driving), and which Jonathan Haidt described so well in The Righteous Mind, can have any objective justification whatsoever.  If everyone agreed with me on that point, I think it might actually promote “human flourishing.”  At the very least, it might restrain the pathologically pious among us from their most flamboyant and ostentatious displays of virtuous indignation.  I’ve always found that sort of thing very irritating (in others, of course), and think the world would be a better place without it.

3 thoughts on “An Unofficial Entry to Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape Challenge”

  1. Excellent.

    All I’d add, for clarity’s sake (and I doubt you’d disagree) is that while our capacity for morality is adaptive, the particular contents of our moral intuitions and vocabulary can, and do, vary enormously from population to population, and culture to culture, within broader, more universal limits. (Like the way we’re wired up for language.)

    So our having some moral system is, yes, tied to human flourishing, because we are social animals. But the details of those systems can vary a great deal — and the bottom line, as always in natural selection, is differential survival and reproduction. If there is group-level selection, then there can be a “speciation” of moral systems among different human populations, according to what social strategies, specifically, have helped each population to flourish. There’s no reason to imagine that such systems would be optimized to minimize global suffering, in the utilitarian way that Harris imagines. Indeed, they might well be — and obviously often have been, throughout history — quite ruthless and brutal toward out-groups, and, if they are effective enough at the group level, might impose a fair amount of “suffering” even upon individual members of the in-group.

  2. Well done, my man!

    I almost could not say this better myself. There is no universal morality; unlike race or sex, it is a social construct, as per your description.

    That said, that doesn’t mean that I’m a moral relativist either, I have my own personal standards of good conduct which I stick to.


  3. Don’t worry, Malcolm, I’m not a “genetic determinist,” and in fact I’ve never actually encountered such an animal, although there are certainly cultural determinists. I realize there’s a lot of variation among different moralities, but, as Voltaire and many other great writers have pointed out, there are some significant commonalities as well.

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