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Posted by on Oct 18, 2013 in Announcements, Debate, Personal, Philosophy | 2 comments

The Moral Landscape Challenge

For those who missed it, I have agreed to judge Sam Harris’s competition, The Moral Landscape Challenge, in which you get to compete for a prize of US$2,000 for the best 1000-word essay challenging the central argument of The Moral Landscape. Or, if you can actually persuade Harris to change his mind the prize jumps to US$20,000.

Just what that “central argument” might be is presumably debatable, though Harris offers his version of what he thinks it is in an FAQ, so it might be worth reposting this bit:

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 have plenty of ideas myself about problems with this “central argument”, and with other core elements of The Moral Landscape, but now I am a judge for this competition I don’t plan to say more about them in public or to enter into debate about it prior to the judging. I think I should be careful not to prejudice the outcome any further than I have already done in discussion of the book mainly prior to the announcement. Feel free to discuss in a civil way (worth mentioning the “civil” part) among yourselves, whether here or elsewhere, but do bear in mind that I’ll feel constrained from responding.

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  • iamcuriousblue

    $2,000 for the best 1000-word essay challenging the central argument of The
    Moral Landscape”

    Is this an inducement to what’s called “motivated skepticism”? 🙂

    As to Harris point above, I’d have to read his book to see if he presents a better argument, but that just strikes me as a non-sequitur. After all, anything the mind comes up with is the end product of natural forces, but that doesn’t make one moral opinion in some way more empirically right than any other. True and false ideas are all the products of the same physical brain.

    One can, of course, demonstrate using empirical evidence that some courses of action are more likely to achieve desired outcomes than others (in theory, anyway), but of course that depends on what your measure of desired outcome is, and that gets back to a certain degree of subjectivity.

    But zero-order moral beliefs? Can Harris come up with any kind of possible experiment that could possibly falsify one of these?

  • Richard_Wein

    What have you got yourself into, Russell? I imagine you being overwhelmed by an avalanche of submissions. Well, I’m afraid I’ll be adding one more to the avalanche. But I’m keeping my argument to myself until then. I don’t want anyone else stealing it and beating me to the prize. 😉

    Actually, there’s nothing particularly insightful about my argument. It’s basically one that you made in your own review of the book. And I’m pretty confident that will be the winning argument–as it gets to the heart of Sam’s error–although someone else may well make the argument better than I do.

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