The Moral Landscape Challenge

The Winning Essay
May 31, 2014

The Moral Landscape Challenge: The Winning Essay

Last August, I issued the following challenge:

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.

Several hundred of you entered this contest—which was an extremely gratifying turnout. The philosopher Russell Blackford judged the essays and picked a winner. Here begins my exchange with its author, Ryan Born.—SH

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Russell Blackford is a conjoint lecturer in the School of Humanities and Social Science at the University of Newcastle, Australia. He is a philosopher, a literary critic, and a commentator on a range of topics including legal and political philosophy, philosophy of religion, meta-ethics, and philosophical bioethics. His works include Freedom of Religion and the Secular State, 50 Great Myths About Atheism (co-authored with Udo Schuklenk), and Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies. Dr. Blackford is the editor in chief of The Journal of Evolution and Technology.

Ryan Born  holds a BA in cognitive science from the University of Georgia and an MA in philosophy from Georgia State University. He blogs at

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Judge’s Report

The Moral Landscape Challenge attracted well over 400 essays, and the standard was high. Almost all entries were thoughtful; almost none took an abusive tone; and many were sophisticated and impressive. A notably large proportion—perhaps even the majority—found merit in the ideas advocated in The Moral Landscape while also perceiving limitations or weaknesses. Alas, there was no agreement on just what those might be!

A considerable number of the authors offered their personal thanks or good wishes to Sam Harris and his family, sometimes commenting about the value they’d found in Sam’s writings over the past decade, even if they perceived problems with certain of The Moral Landscape’s central claims and arguments. In all, much goodwill was shown, which helped make the contest far more enjoyable to judge than it might have been. My thanks to the many entrants who took part in such a pleasing spirit.

We could have only one winner. All the same, there’s much worth discussing in the 400-plus other entries, so I encourage the authors to present their ideas in whatever forums are available to them. In many cases, this will mean publication on personal blogs; I should note that some entries have already been published online. The issues raised by The Moral Landscape and the Moral Landscape Challenge are of great interest and importance, and I hope the debate continues. If that is one outcome of the competition, it will have achieved something worthwhile. Which prompts me to add my own thanks to Sam, both for conducting such a productive competition in the first place and for inviting me to judge it.

The criticisms put forward in the essays varied considerably, although there were some popular themes. Some entrants attacked the validity of The Moral Landscape’s central argument as Sam represented and summarized it on his website in announcing the challenge. For me, this raises an interesting question as to whether the book’s actual argument may be more complex and subtle than the website suggests. Even if the argument as presented there is invalid, that is not necessarily fatal to the book or its overall thesis.

Other essays questioned whether well-being is a concept that can be used to measure or rank moral systems, customary practices, etc., objectively. Although the authors pursued this question in a variety of ways, most did not deny that whatever might be encompassed by the concept of well-being is of some relevance when we try to evaluate or influence moral systems. They did, however, see various limits to how far we can employ the concept. Unfortunately, this brief report is not the place for me to try to settle the issues.

Others challenged the “worst possible misery for everyone” argument in Chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape. This argument relies on a claim that we must all accept that a situation of universal, unremitting, and extreme agony is bad. But if we do so, does that mean we’re committed to maximizing the aggregate (or perhaps average) well-being of all conscious creatures? What if that conflicts with other values that some of us hold dear? Even if all people who are likely to read such a book evaluated the worst possible misery for everyone as very bad indeed, could we really, even in principle, produce an objective, uncontroversial rank order of all the other possible situations that might have diverse redeeming features?

To be fair, The Moral Landscape addresses some of the problems that arise here, though of course many entrants to the competition argued that it does so inadequately. Again, complex issues surfaced in the essays, as they do in the book itself, and they will need to be explored on another occasion.

A variety of other objections were made, but one of the most common was that the moral theory developed in The Moral Landscape is not really one in which science determines human values. Rather, the primary value, that of “the well-being of conscious creatures,” is not a scientific finding. Nor is it a value that science inevitably presupposes (as it arguably must presuppose certain standards of evidence and logic). Instead, this value must come from elsewhere and can be defended only through conceptual analysis, other forms of philosophical reasoning, or appeals to our intuitions.

Such was the point pursued by the winner of the competition, Ryan Born, who presented it the most persuasively, in my view (although he had some close rivals among the other entrants). Others might have been worthy winners, but I was especially impressed by the penetration and clarity of Ryan’s essay.

Ryan is from Atlanta, where he has taught philosophy at Georgia State University. Without more fuss, I’ll let him commence what should be an interesting exchange.

—Russell Blackford, May 2014

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Ryan Born: In issuing the Moral Landscape Challenge, you suggested some ways to refute your claim that questions of morality and value have scientific answers. One was to show that “other branches of science are self-justifying in a way that a science of morality could never be.” Here you seem to invite the “Value Problem” objection to your thesis, which you attempted to meet in your book’s afterword. I’ll be renewing that objection. Despite your efforts to invalidate it, the Value Problem remains a serious challenge to your thesis.

The “Value Problem” is your term for a common criticism of your proposed science of morality—namely, that it presupposes answers to fundamental questions of morality and value. You claim that what is good (the basic value question) is that which supports the well-being of conscious creatures, and that what one ought to do (the basic moral question) is maximize the well-being of conscious creatures. But science cannot empirically support either claim. Even granting that both claims are objectively true, science can do little more than fill in the descriptive empirical particulars. Such particulars may help illuminate specific moral values and principles, but only in light of the general ones you presuppose. Thus, your proposed science of morality cannot offer scientific answers to questions of morality and value, because it cannot derive moral judgments solely from scientific descriptions of the world.

You respond to the Value Problem in the following way: Every science must presuppose evaluative judgments. Science requires epistemic values—e.g., truth, logical consistency, empirical evidence. Science cannot defend these values, at least not without presupposing them in that very defense. After all, a compelling empirical case for the three values just named must show that they are truly values by using a logically consistent argument that employs empirical evidence. So when you speak of science as “self-justifying,” you appear to refer to the reflexive justification of certain epistemic values that all sciences share. But then you also note that the science of medicine requires a non-epistemic value—health. Science cannot show empirically that health is good. But nor, I would add, can science appeal to health to defend health’s value, as it would appeal to logic to defend logic’s value. Still, by definition, the science of medicine seeks to promote health (or else combat disease, which in turn promotes health). Insofar as you take the science of medicine to be “self-justifying,” you appear to hold that the very meaning of the science of medicine entails its non-epistemic evaluative foundation. From these two analogies (one to epistemic values, the other to medicine), you conclude that your proposed science of morality, in pulling itself up by the evaluative bootstraps, does no different from the science of medicine or science as a whole. In your view, to make any scientific claim, we must presuppose certain evaluative axioms.

Neither of your analogies invalidates the Value Problem. First, your analogy between epistemic axioms and moral axioms fails. The former merely motivate scientific inquiry and frame its development, whereas the latter predetermine your science of morality’s most basic findings. Epistemic axioms direct science to favor theories that are logically consistent, empirically supported, and so on, but they do not dictate which theories those will be. Meanwhile, your two moral axioms have already declared that (i) the only thing of intrinsic value is well-being, and (ii) the correct moral theory is consequentialist and, seemingly, some version of utilitarianism—rather than, say, virtue ethics, a non-consequentialist candidate for a naturalized moral framework. Further, both (i) and (ii) resist the sort of self-justification attributed above to science’s epistemic axioms; that is, neither is any more self-affirming than the value of health and the goal of promoting it. You might reply that the non-epistemic axioms of the science of medicine enjoy the sort of self-justification you have in mind for the moral (and likewise non-epistemic) axioms of your science of morality. But then your second analogy, between the science of medicine and your science of morality, fails. The former must presuppose that health is good and ought to be promoted; otherwise, the science of medicine would seem to defy conception. In contrast, a science of morality, insofar as it admits of conception, does not have to presuppose that well-being is the highest good and ought to be maximized. Serious competing theories of value and morality exist. If a science of morality elucidates moral reality, as you suggest, then presumably it must work out, not simply presuppose, the correct theory of moral reality, just as the science of physics must work out the correct theory of physical reality.

Nevertheless, you seem to believe you have worked out, scientifically, that your form of consequentialism, grounded in the supreme intrinsic value of well-being, is correct. Your defense of this moral theory is conceptual, not empirical, and requires engagement with work in moral philosophy, the intellectual home of consequentialism (in its myriad guises) and its competitors. Yet you identify science, not philosophy, as the arbiter of moral reality. In your view, no significant boundary exists between science and philosophy. In your book, you say that “science is often a matter of philosophy in practice,” subsequently reminding readers that the natural sciences were once known as natural philosophy. Bear in mind, however, the reason natural philosophy became the natural sciences: The problems it addressed became ever more empirically tractable. Indeed, some contemporary analytic philosophers hold that metaphysics will eventually yield (more or less) to the natural sciences. But even if that most rarefied of philosophical disciplines does fall to earth, metaphysics is a descriptive enterprise, just as science is conventionally taken to be. Ethics, i.e. moral philosophy, is a prescriptive enterprise, and thus will not yield so easily.

For now, I say you have not brought questions of ethics into science’s domain. No empirical inquiry into such questions can determine anything of clear moral significance without having normative conceptual answers already in place. And finding and justifying those answers requires a distinctly philosophical, not scientific, approach.


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I’d like to congratulate Ryan for writing such an excellent essay and winning our contest. I would also like to thank Russell for doing the heroic work of judging the entries. I will respond in my next blog post.—SH