The Moral Landscape Challenge

Sam Harris has issued a “public challenge” to those who think his book is silly.

To wit: “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 refute the central argument of the book—not peripheral issues.) The best response will be published on this website, and its author will receive $1,000. If any essay actually persuades me, however, its author will receive $10,000, and I will publicly recant my view.


Now of course there will be a million credible (and in my opinion totally justified) claimants, so getting the prize will indeed be like winning the lottery – except that of course in this case there will be an interested party with his fingers on the ball release mechanism, so as Ophelia Benson notes this is probably even more of a “losing lottery ticket” than most.

It is also much more expensive than most lottery tickets if one actually has to buy and read the book, but if I’ve already got something that essentially meets the criteria without ever having  read the book then I might as well send it in.

I just have to get it into the 1000 word frame and find out somehow what might be in the book or his  subsequent talks which alters the “central argument” from what he lays out in the “challenge” posting. Of course, Sam’s earlier “response to critics” was the basis for my own dismissal of his thesis, so if that is an accurate description of his position I should need to go no further.

So let’s check out the criteria in more detail:

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 Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, 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.

It should be clarified at this point that I have no issue with the first two sentences, so I will not be disputing his premises and the key indefensible word in his “argument” is  (as always) the “Therefore”.

This does not mean that there is no grain of truth in his conclusion, but it is not established beyond doubt and in particular is not supported by his argument.

In fact I do strongly suspect that there are some questions of morality and values for which scientific knowledge may help the participants to achieve more morally satisfying outcomes. There may even be some relatively trivial moral questions which do have objectively “right” and “wrong” answers – at least according to any plausible human sense of morality, but for most interesting moral questions (ie the ones where everyone doesn’t already agree on the answer) there may be no incontrovertibly right and wrong answers.

2. Can you give some guidance as to what you would consider a proper demolition of your thesis?

If you show that my “worst possible misery for everyone” argument fails, or that other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be, or that my analogy to a landscape of multiple peaks and valleys is fundamentally flawed, or that the fact/value distinction holds in a way that I haven’t yet understood—you stand a very good chance of torpedoing my argument and changing my mind.

A state of “worst possible misery” (whatever silly thing that might mean) is plausibly better in some consistent moral view than one of unconscious happiness in which the individual’s dignity was lost.

A science of morality can be a perfectly valid branch of psychology in which the objective is to predict what humans in any particular context will judge to be morally correct, but it will not itself determine that moral correctness and will probably lead to the prediction that people in different circumstances will come to different conclusions as to the rightness or wrongness of the same particular act.

And the “landscape” model is wrong both because it implies the existence of a single real valued objective function and because even if there was one there is no way to exclude equal maxima of whatever it is at widely different states or to evaluate the relative merit of approaching a nearby local maximum as opposed to going down to great depths on the way to a slightly higher one.

3. What sort of criticism is likely to be ineffective?

You will definitely not win this prize if argue against views I don’t actually hold—which you might well do if you fail to notice the distinction I make between finding answers in practice and there being answers in principle, if you narrowly define science to mean doing the former while wearing a white lab coat, if you imagine that my thesis entails that scientists are more moral than farmers and bricklayers, or if, like the philosopher Patricia Churchland, you do all of those things with an air of scornful pomposity appropriate to a Monty Python routine.

Well if he dismisses as “scornful pomposity” any argument pointing out the fact that his idea of “well being” probably does not correspond to any one parameter in the state description of a single human brain (let alone the issue of how to weight the relative importances of different people and potential people over  space and time), then I guess he really does intend to “fix” the game.

4. How can a person be expected to refute a book in a 1,000 words or less?

If my core claims are as mistaken as many people think they are, it should be easy.

Yes, it should.

5. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, but I don’t think anyone will win any money here.

Well, assuming that I receive a single publishable essay, someone is bound to win $2,000. So, yes, you are being too cynical.

Yes I’m sure he will pick one to print – but I also suspect that he will make sure that it’s one that is relatively easy to counter with his own reply.

6. What do you hope to be the result of this challenge?

I hope that I receive at least one essay that presents a very serious challenge to my view. And then I hope to answer that challenge successfully, in a responding essay, or in a written exchange with the author. The second best case (from my point of view) would be to be presented with a criticism that I can’t answer, but which I recognize to be fatal to my thesis. I will then concede defeat and pay the author the tenfold prize.

I’m still cynical. But I guess we’ll see how sincere he is next June.

7. Shouldn’t you provide “official rules” for this contest so that some lunatic who writes an essay channeling Aleister Crowley can’t sue you for not recognizing his brilliance?

Good point. Here arethe official rules.

Well, aside from the usual cereal box contest legalities the only real content there is

Beginning on or about February 10, 2014, all eligible Entries received by Sponsor during the Contest Period will be judged to select one (1) winner (“Winner”) by a panel of qualified judges (Sponsor’s trustees, advisors, and their colleagues) based on the following criteria (weighed equally): (i) the degree to which it challenges the central argument advanced in The Moral Landscape; (ii) philosophical interest, (iii) the quality of the prose (the “Judging Criteria”).

although some might be suspicious of this

Prior to being posted online, the Sponsor reserves the right, in its sole discretion, to edit or modify any Entry, or to request an entrant to modify or edit his or her Entry, in order, to ensure that the Entry complies with these Official Rules, or for any other reason.

and there is no promise of correct attribution in this

Entrants will retain ownership of their Entries.  However, by entering this Contest, entrants grant Sponsor and all other Released Parties a royalty-free license to edit, modify, cut, rearrange, add to, delete from, copy, reproduce, translate, adapt, publish, distribute, exploit, and use Entries and the content of and elements embodied in the Entries, including, without limitation, the names and likenesses of any persons or locations embodied therein, in any and all media now known or hereafter devised, worldwide, in perpetuity without compensation, permission or notification to entrant or any third party.

In any case, my effort (based on some of what I’ve said above along with earlier posts) will be growing at this page

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