AS43: The Moral Landscape, with Ryan Born

This week we have the winner of Sam Harris’s essay contest, Ryan Born! We have a very enlightening discussion of philosophy, specifically moral philosophy. Is Sam Harris right when he says that science can determine moral values? Is wellbeing really the bottom line objective in terms of morality? These are some of the many questions we discuss!

Ryan’s blog is

The Moral Landscape Challenge is here: and you can find several more posts about it on Sam Harris’s blog.


4 thoughts on “AS43: The Moral Landscape, with Ryan Born”

  1. Thomas,

    Thank you for another great episode and an interesting discussion!

    Let me offer a somewhat different perspective on the subject of morality and The Moral Landscape.

    I think that inaction is real problem of morality.

    Here are some excerpts from my entry into The Moral Landscape Challenge… :

    “There is a tremendous amount of preventable suffering in the world. The World Food Programme reports that 842 million people in the world do not have enough to eat and that 3.1 million children die of poor nutrition every year, constituting nearly half of all deaths in children under five. Global Immunization Data provided by the World Health Organization says that 1.5 million children died from diseases that are preventable by vaccines. The 2014 Annual Letter by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation states that $30 can protect 120 children from measles.

    Science of psychology explains numerous mechanisms behind the mismatch between our values and our actions. For example, it can be demonstrated that people tend to respond better when they are shown pictures instead of numbers, or when those pictures display one child instead of several children. Progress in applying our values and overcoming our natural limitations can be rather slow. The words “all men are created equal” were written in 1776, the Emancipation Proclamation passed in 1863, and the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Sometimes the process of aligning actions with values may take centuries.

    Are we lacking a proper philosophical foundation for moving forward? Our problems are too obvious, our knowledge is too great.

    We do not need to wait for “answers in principle” to build a coalition for fighting poverty. Decisive action is the only morally defensible alternative at this point in history.

    Instead of calling for action, Sam Harris offers a way to rationalize procrastination. He invites readers to view the magnificent peaks of well-being and valleys of suffering that constitute ‘The Moral Landscape.’ Unfortunately readers may not realize that they are idly viewing it from above.”

  2. My name is Joshua Scott Hotchkin and I maintain a blog about Scientism.

    I have linked to your website because you have been a resource for articles pertaining directly or peripherally to the problem of scientism. If for any reason you would like to be removed from my link listing please reply to me at this email and I will do so immediately. Thank you for your contributions through wonderful links and/or original content. If you wish to add us in your own links I would appreciate it greatly. Or if you ever wish to suggest an article or submit original work, we would love to hear from you. Stay strange!

  3. I’m looking forward to the rest of the interview. So far though it seems strange to me that Sam Harris is talking about actually reducing suffering and increasing real human flourishing while the objections to his assumptions of consequentialism are all thought experiments and imaginary organ harvesting trolley rides. They all seem to do their best to isolate variables in a way that is completely divorced from reality and then pretend they are zeroing in on them in a meaningful way.

    Surely there’s something better in the case against consequentialism than taking the aforementioned organ harvesting trolley rides into la-la land?

  4. This response comes in a bit late, but after hearing the interview I couldn’t help but weigh in on the consequentalism debate. To understand the problem with Ryan’s objections we must think back to what the point of morality is. When a Christian says “if you’re an atheist why don’t you just rape me right now”, why is it that you find a need to refute that? Why not instead just partake in some good old non-consenting coitus? The mere fact that you feel compelled to object shows that morality has a secular purpose, but what is it. Well I would say that the point of morality is to make a better society. And I think a large amount of people would agree with me there. I know I’m about to make an unfounded assumption but for the sake of simplicity and because both you and I would agree on this, lets say that the best society is the one with the most well-being. That leaves a person asking “Why would I want a better society?”, to which the response would be “Because you live in society and therefore benefit from it”. But then we hit the big question. Wouldn’t it be easier to only do a favor for a favor instead of being kind to random people who we know might not return it? Well that’s also not the case. The way the brilliance of morality works is that we all mutually prosper from doing favors for random people because we all have desires that can be fulfilled with minimal effort from someone else. For example if I’m on the couch and the remote is across from me the amount of happiness I would gain from someone who is walking by passing me the remote, outweighs the amount the person passing it to me would lose. This may seem like a very small example but imagine that net gain of well-being being tallied up from every moral action ever committed. The fluidity of such interactions allows them to be numerous, and makes moral actions more effective than business transactions. If you had to arrange a contract with someone to pay him back a favor for passing the remote to you, such interactions obviously wouldn’t occur nearly as much. If your following along, and hopefully I’m not rambling too much, I have presented why morality is useful to a society but not why any human being would be inclined to follow it. Their is a point to morality, but at the same time it would be fairly easy to just ride off the morality of everyone else without actually contributing anything to society. Well for that we have societal pressures and things of that nature but those are sometimes lacking. The strongest weapon against douche bags is probably mother nature, and our evolutionary predisposition to being moral. The vast majority of humans get a certain level of pleasure from doing the right thing and we can thank biology for that. So to sums things up, we have morality because it is an efficient way of bettering society and we are moral because social and genetic pressures make it comfortable for us to be.

    Okay so now that all that garbage is established onto Ryan’s criticisms. I will tackle the one about the judge and the angry mob since that has the least amount of cheap technicalities to wiggle out of. My answer to Ryan would be yes. Sentencing that innocent man to jail would be the good thing to do. In fact my desire to answer no to that question doesn’t make consequentialism less legitimate, it makes it more. If the hand of natural selection gave us a perfect and completely logical sense of morality, I would be a bit suspicious of evolution. Just pull down your pants and take one good look at your testicles and how utterly ridiculous they are. And you want me to believe that the same thing that made those also gave us a perfect sense of right and wrong? Of course not. Your conscience tells us what a monkey would do, but it’s logic and reasoning that will tell you what is actually right or wrong. If the point of morality is to make society a better place then why do we need the middle man of rules or virtues. If we want society to be better than the only thing that should be good is what makes society better regardless of what your “heart” tells you is wrong. That being said however I definitely would not sentence the innocent man myself because I’m not an amazingly moral person. And we as humans have a right to be. If I would be bothered by doing a moral action to a degree that I’m not willing to sacrifice then oh well. But I still recognize that, as a logical being, I am doing the immoral thing.

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