If I was a praying man, I’d be interceding with the gods on behalf of Russell Blackford, wishing him boundless reserves of energy and patience beyond the usual lot of mortal men. As you may recall, he has agreed to serve as judge in Sam Harris’s essay contest dubbed The Moral Landscape Challenge, and the completed essays should be rolling in around now. The goal was to come up with an essay which would persuade Harris to change his mind on the core thesis of his book:
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.
While I’m greatly looking forward to reading the winning essay, it feels to me like the dice are fairly heavily loaded from the get-go. Assuming that no single essay could persuade someone like Harris (or Blackford, or me!) to turn to a supernatural view of the universe, and assuming that everything in a natural universe falls within the purview of science (at least in principle) I’m not seeing a load of wiggle room here. Possibly, one could try to show that there can be no generally right and wrong answers on certain moral questions, perhaps because the idea of personal well-being and the radius of moral concern will vary with the perspective and values of each culture or individual moral agent.
Now that we find ourselves in the temporal gap between the submission deadline and the publication of the winning essay, I’d be quite interested in hearing how you guys would have a go at Harris’s concept of naturalized ethics. For a start, what sort of (naturalistic) propositions would need to be true in order to make Harris’s central thesis false?