Answering Sam Harris’s “Moral Landscape Challenge”

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of The Moral Landscape, has issued a challenge:

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 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.

Helpfully, Harris describes his “central argument” in a single paragraph, and we can shorten it without loss of meaning to a single sentence: “Morality and values depend . . . on the fact that [conscious] minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering. . . .”

I have already explained the major errors of Harris’s theory of morality in my essay, “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality.” So far as I can tell, he has ignored that essay—and I suspect he will ignore this one as well, for it too cites the works of Ayn Rand.

Previously, Harris smeared Ayn Rand and completely misrepresented her positions—all while bragging that he has never read her work. But I am not writing this essay to change Harris’s mind—which appears by his own admission to be closed to the only ideas that could correct his errors: those of Ayn Rand. Rather, I’m writing it in hopes of reaching and changing the minds of others familiar with Harris’s work.

By carefully considering the relevant issues, we can attain something far more valuable than a $2,000 check: We can grasp and live by an objectively true moral theory that is part and parcel of what Rand called “a philosophy for living on earth.”

The following is my reply, in a thousand words:

Harris’s central argument regarding his purportedly “scientific understanding of morality” is wrong on four counts:

1. Values do not depend on the existence of conscious minds as such; rather, they depend on the existence of living things, only some of which are conscious. A value, as Ayn Rand identified, is “that which one acts to gain and/or keep.” Conscious beings, including men, mice, elephants, and whales pursue values such as food, shelter, a suitable climate, companionship. Unconscious living beings, including trees, worms, and bacteria, act (unconsciously) to gain and keep values such as sustenance, protection from damaging things, a life-sustaining temperature. Harris is wrong, then, in claiming that values depend on the existence of conscious beings alone; values pertain to all living things.

2. Nor do moral values in particular depend on the existence of conscious beings per se; rather, moral values depend on the existence of a particular kind of conscious being, a rational being, a being that survives by means of reason: man. Morality is a code of values to guide man’s actions. Only rational beings are capable of contemplating morality, forming a moral code, living according to such a code, or rejecting such a code.

Lions, dolphins, and all conscious species other than man are incapable of formulating a moral code or living by one. If man had never evolved, there would be no such thing as morality, nor would there be any creature capable of contemplating it. (Although various scientists ascribe to other species “moral” behavior such as reciprocal giving, such behavior is strictly speaking not moral behavior; it does not involve volition or a conceptual grasp of principles.) Harris is wrong, then, in claiming that morality depends on the existence of conscious beings per se. Whereas values pertain to all living things, moral values pertain only to man, the rational, volitional animal.

3. Morality does not depend fundamentally on the experience of pleasure and suffering; it depends on recognition of the requirements of man’s life. Otherwise, a drug-induced euphoria would be as good a state as one could hope for.

As we can see in lower species, the pleasure-pain mechanism evolved to help guide animals toward the attainment of values that further their life. If lions found the experience of chewing off their limbs to be pleasurable or the sensation of eating prey to be painful, they wouldn’t live long. Lions eat because it is pleasurable, and by doing so they sustain their lives, which is (unbeknownst to them) their ultimate goal.

For human beings, our experiences of pleasure and suffering depend largely on our emotions, which—as Rand observed—depend in turn on our evaluations of facts. For example, my emotions about the election of a new president depend on my evaluations of that president. By what standard do we properly evaluate the facts around us? To say, “by the standard of what we find pleasurable,” as Harris does, is to argue in a circle, for what we find pleasurable depends in large part on how we evaluate facts. As I argue in “Sam Harris’s Failure to Formulate a Scientific Morality,” “Aside from purely physical sensations, pleasure and happiness are, as Ayn Rand points out, emotional states, which are consequences of our values, not justifications for them.”

What is the proper moral standard? As Ayn Rand identified, it is only a person’s own life that, ultimately, can serve as his highest value, which all other values properly support. Life, Rand pointed out, makes values possible and necessary. The only reason we can pursue values is because we’re alive, and the only reason we need to pursue them is to remain alive. If we attain the values on which our lives depend, we can live; if we don’t, we can’t. Or, as Ayn Rand put it, the fundamental alternative that gives rise to the need for values, including moral values, is: existence or nonexistence.

At a practical level, it is not possible to integrate all of one’s values according to what one finds pleasurable—because, again, what one finds pleasurable depends largely on how one evaluates various facts. (Consider one’s pleasurable or displeasurable reaction to the construction of a nuclear reactor.) It is possible to integrate all of one’s values according to the standard of one’s life. Ultimately, life is the only standard that makes possible the full and consistent integration of one’s values.

For a full defense of this life-based morality, see the works of Ayn Rand.

4. The principles of morality do not arise from the need to maximize the well-being and minimize the suffering of all conscious beings; the principles of morality arise from the need to further one’s own life, as the kind of being one is: a human being. As I explain in my earlier essay, Harris’s moral theory is a type of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism holds that one should act to achieve the most pleasure for all people; Harris’s version holds that one should act to achieve the most pleasure for all conscious beings.

The basic problem with all variants of utilitarianism, including Harris’s, is that there is no reason to act for the well-being of other conscious creatures, apart from how doing so redounds on one’s own well-being. Harris presumes otherwise without offering any argument for his position. And, by including all conscious creatures rather than just people, Harris’s theory raises even more problems than traditional utilitarianism does. For example, how are we to weigh the relative pleasure and suffering of mice running through our living rooms? Harris’s theory runs into innumerable problems of this order.

Such are the four major errors in Harris’s “central argument” for a scientific morality. As wrong as he is on these issues, however, Harris is right that morality has something to do with well-being and that morality is based on facts and is properly a science.

Now, if he would only consider Ayn Rand’s ideas, he would see that his few truths are already part and parcel of her robust, fully fleshed out, genuinely scientific morality.

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