(Article changed on January 16, 2014 at 00:05)
(Article changed on January 15, 2014 at 15:45)
For the week of February 2-9, Sam Harris will be accepting entries to what he has called The Moral Landscape Challenge. The challenge is to write, in under 1,000 words, the most convincing refutation of the central thesis of that book--that science can tell us what is morally right and wrong, and that cultures can be morally ranked accordingly. The winner of that challenge will receive $2,000. And if the winner convinces Harris to change his mind, the prize will be $20,000 instead.
Sam Harris is a fascinating figure, not so much because he exists and says the things he says, but because so many powerful and accomplished figures in academia and intellectual circles admire him and want him to be a regularly-present voice in discussions on philosophy, psychology and policy. To argue with Sam Harris, then, is to argue with a worldview that runs deep in 21st century American intellectual culture.
Many would say it is futile to argue with anyone who gives off strong evidence of being fully under the influence of self-justificatory processes--even to the point of narcissistic aggression. And there is some reason to suspect that Sam Harris is deeply disinclined to admit error or retract ill-considered statements. This is an uncharitable filter for understanding another human being, however. Everyone justifies themselves, and yet all are capable of moving beyond self-justification and discerning the grains of truth in the sometimes hysterical attacks of their critics.
It is also possible that Harris has never in fact said anything that is wrong enough to warrant retraction. Indeed, the question of how to determine whether any action or statement is morally right or wrong is at the heart of the Moral Landscape Challenge.
And besides, even if cognitive dissonance has led Harris to invest irreversibly in his most ill-considered statements because they have been so public and consequential, others who are in the orbit of contemporary American intellectual culture may not be so invested. It is that culture I hope to speak to with my essay, which I intend to enter into Harris's competition on February 2. Unlike almost everything else I write, I've managed to keep it under 1,000 words. Here it is:
Harris's central thesis is (1) "questions of morality and values must have right and wrong answers that fall within the purview of science" and (2) "some people and cultures will be right... and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life." Violating the rules of the competition, and thus forgoing the $2,000 challenge, I will begin by assuming these claims are correct. I will focus instead on the easier $20,000 challenge: to persuade Harris to recant this thesis.