Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Counterfeiting Aspect of Morality

What is the counterfeiting aspect of morality? It pretends to know something, namely what “good and evil” is. That means wanting to know why mankind is here; its goal, its destiny. That means wanting to know that mankind has a goal, a destiny.

— Nietzsche

Sam Harris:

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 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.

So, I've finally gotten around to reading the book. It seems to this layman that the reviews can't be dismissed so breezily. As to whether or not they refute the book's central thesis, or whether it's possible to even do so, well, when there are this many qualifiers and hedged bets in the introduction alone —

I am not suggesting that we are guaranteed to resolve every moral controversy through science. Differences of opinion will remain — but opinions will be increasingly constrained by facts.

...I'm not suggesting that we will necessarily discover one right answer to every moral question or a single best way for human beings to live. Some questions may admit of many answers, each more or less equivalent. However, the existence of multiple peaks on the moral landscape does not make them any less real or worthy of discovery.

...While this leaves the question of what constitutes well-being genuinely open, there is every reason to think that this question has a finite range of answers. Given that change in the well-being of conscious creatures is bound to be a product of natural laws, we must expect that this space of possibilities — the moral landscape — will increasingly be illuminated by science.

— it's hard for me to determine just what it is we're arguing against or disproving. That all sounds definitively vague enough for my taste, carry on! Was anyone literally claiming an infinite range of answers to the question of well-being? The only strong impression I've gotten from the book is that he's really impressed by fMRI studies, and he really, really hates extreme relativists.