Excavation 2: Sam Harris’ moral landscape challenge

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ll occasionally be posting old things I’ve found in the dark corners of my hard drives. Here is another thing I excavated.

About two years ago, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris announced an essay contest based on his book The Moral Landscape, in which he argues that science can answer moral questions. I think it’s fair to say that the main argument of the book can be boiled down to two fundamental tenets: 1) any moral system that is not in some form or other about the well-being of conscious organisms makes no sense, and 2) that the study of well-being is at least in principle a scientific enterprise. The contest entailed simply that he challenged anyone who could disprove any of his central claims to summarize this proof in an essay of 1000 words or less, and he would award a substantial amount of money if any contestant could change his mind.

Since I’d read the book and found it interesting, but disagreed with some of his core arguments, I thought it’d be fun to see whether I could string together a coherent counter-argument in that amount of space. Naturally, I had no illusion that I had a chance of winning the contest, but I figured it would be a bit of fun, and some good practice.

Here is the essay I submitted. I explore one possible argument which is loosely based on a common refutation of hedonistic utilitarianism from Robert Nozick, known as the Pleasure Machine argument. I argue, using an immanent critique of sorts, that Harris himself often says things that violate his own consequentialist axioms, and that we should (and Harris explicitly also thinks we should) value truth, apart from well-being. If truth has any inherent value whatsoever, striking the correct balance between well-being and verisimilitude is a question out of the empirical reach of science, and thus his thesis fails. Without further ado, here is what I wrote.


One of the fundamental arguments in The Moral Landscape rests on the scenario of “the worst possible misery for everyone”. In this brief essay I will further the thesis that while the argument is effective in demonstrating the obvious value of wellbeing, it is also trivial because it doesn’t prove its moral completeness. Harris briefly dismisses the possibility of other sources of value and states that if you were to put them in a box, they would be by definition the least interesting things in the universe. It is hard to resist the intuitive appeal of this argument. As we shall see, I do not think it is that simple. In fact, it may very well lead to conclusions that not only to many rational and right-minded people would be absurd, but also are inconsistent with other parts of Harris’s own scholarship. Consider the following thought experiment:

Suppose that in overlooking Harris’s moral landscape, we find a possible state of the world that is, in terms of aggregate wellbeing, the best of all possible worlds: not a single molecule of serotonin or spark of an eye less. In this state of the world, however, the general population has a completely erroneous picture of their place in the universe. It is universally understood by the inhabitants of this world – save a select circle of philosopher kings who conspire to keep the masses blissfully ignorant – that the earth is at the center of all existence, that it was created for their sole enjoyment a mere few thousand years ago by a benevolent supernatural being, which all humans will be reunited and spend all eternity in ecstatic happiness with upon their departure from earthly affairs. These prospects for eternal life and sense of divine primacy make the inhabitants in this state of the world completely content and satisfied.

How this state of the world came about is of secondary importance, but suppose that it happened as the sciences of human health, happiness and flourishing had reached their absolute apex, all of the possible medical technologies had been developed and life extended and improved to its highest possible peak, and that it was then realized that the only way to go further, however minutely, in the quest for human wellbeing was to now restore from its former days of glory the, albeit completely false, selfcentered sense of existential importance. While in terms of wellbeing, things couldn’t possibly be better, on the scale of existential truth this state of the world comes close to zero.

Now, assume that somewhere else along the moral lanscape we find another mountain. In this state of the world, we find but an infinitisemal, immeasurably minute, subtraction – corresponding perhaps to the firing of a single pleasure neuron in the complete history of the human race – from the amount of aggregate wellbeing in the former state. However, on this peak over possible states of the world, every human has a perfect understanding of the laws and origin of the cosmos, his or her utter insignificance in relation to the grander scale as well as the wonder of the shared ancestry of all living things. People are universally aware that their existence is very likely to be over once they close their eyes for the last time and that there will be no divine being welcoming them on the other side. It is, for all we can tell, the absolute triumph of science and reason – both in terms of their potential to improve aggregate wellbeing, and to give conscious beings an accurate understanding of the workings of the universe and their place in it. For all possible states of the world, this one is not only for all practical purposes as good as it gets with regards to aggregate wellbeing, it is also at 100% of true human understanding.

Now, if truth does not in itself have any moral value apart from how it can further the wellbeing of sentient beings, the first mentioned peak on the moral landscape is clearly superior, though just by a tiny bit, to the second one. We ought, if we are to abide by Harris’s moral system, to discard the second peak. In fact, any person who claims the opposite is immoral!

If on the other hand we decide that perhaps the second scenario, despite the absolutely minute detraction from potential wellbeing that it displays, is preferable, then we also have to admit that there are moral dimensions other than wellbeing that has to be taken into account. How much weight do we put on verisimilitude versus wellbeing? This balance is a question out of empirical reach, thus thrusting us back into the very kind of moral questions that Harris claims to have superseded.

To be certain, I don’t suggest that this is by any means a clear-cut case: many intelligent and honest people will not hesitate a second to say that the former scenario is preferable. It is my firm belief, however, that most reasonable people will find the choice of an infinitisemal amount of wellbeing over an incomparably large amount of existential truth morally problematic.

“You shouldn’t be able to believe something merely based on its utility. Beliefs aren’t like clothing, you can’t adopt them on the basis of comfort or utility.” These words perfectly illustrate my point, but ironically are Harris’s own, and I would argue express a recurring theme in his scholarship. In this quote, he gets as close as one arguably can to explicitly stating the very opposite of the strictly consequentialist premise of his moral system: one ought not to believe a false proposition, regardless of the practical consequences. Before we can accept his argument in full, he needs to resolve this apparent inconsistency.

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