Author, neuroscientist, and 'New Atheist' Sam Harris recently issued "The Moral Landscape Challenge" in which he offered $20,000 to anybody who could convince him, in a 1,000-word essay, to change his views about how morality can be based on scientific reasoning. The last day to submit an entry was yesterday, 09 February 2014. I'm sceptical about how open Harris really is to ideas that challenge his point of view, but I nevertheless did submit an essay. My entry is actually a revised and condensed version of a post I wrote for this blog back in July 2011, ‘How Science Can Help Us Be More Rational About Morality”.

I present the new and improved submitted version below. Think it’ll change his mind? 


How Science Can Help Us Be More Reasonable About Morality

Sam Harris [1] argues that the goal of a reason-based moral system should be to promote the general well-being of conscious creatures. The key problem with this idea is that it overlooks the principal way in which people were designed, by evolution, to use morality.

Humans are adapted to strive for goals that would have promoted their individual fitness (genetic survival and reproduction) in the evolutionary past. An important way in which they do so is by cooperating in groups of people with whom they share common interests. By cooperating in groups, individuals can achieve their goals better than they could by acting alone, so it's in the individual's interest to cooperate. (Cooperation also presents individuals with dilemmas like the "free rider problem", but we can leave these aside for now). Group members use moral rules to influence co-members’ behavior so as to promote group success. This is a primary evolved function of moral rule-making: it enables individuals to more effectively pursue the interests they share with other group members [2]. For example, if people are cooperatively building a dam to protect their village from a flood, they might devise rules like "all adult villagers must contribute to dam-building for X hours per day", "contributors should be respected", and "non-contributors should be shunned".

If people use moral rules to better pursue their shared interests, then it starts to become clear why Harris' proposal—that reason-based morality ought to promote the well-being of conscious creatures—will not generally apply. People judge the reasonableness of a moral rule not by how much it benefits conscious beings in general, or even other people in general, but primarily by how much they perceive the rule to promote the interests they share with their group. Now sometimes, these shared interests may happen to overlap with those of conscious creatures in general. For example, building the above dam would benefit all villagers, and so assuming that it would not harm any other conscious creatures, it would seem consistent with Harris’ welfare-of-conscious-beings rule. However, this is true only because the dam scenario involves no conflicts of interest between competing groups.

In situations that do involve intergroup conflict, members of the groups involved will not be motivated to solve moral dilemmas via the welfare-of-conscious-beings rule. A primary reason why people cooperate in groups is so that they can compete more effectively against other groups, and moral disputes tend to arise out of these coalitional conflicts [2]. In these contexts, you can't resolve moral debates by identifying the solution that would benefit all conscious beings, because that won’t be the goal for which either side in the conflict will be fighting. Consider, for instance, a conflict between loggers and hikers about whether the loggers should be allowed to cut down trees in a particular forest. The hikers might argue that this deforestation is morally wrong because it would deprive families of opportunities to enjoy nature, whereas the loggers might argue that it is morally good because it would create jobs for the support of families. Even if identifying the solution most beneficial to conscious beings were possible in this situation, it wouldn't be the goal that either coalition would be seeking. The loggers would be seeking the solution that most benefited loggers, and the hikers would be seeking the solution that most benefited hikers. (There would also be formidable problems associated with how to weigh the interests of any non-human conscious stakeholders—such as wildlife displaced by deforestation—versus the interests of the humans. But for simplicity’s sake let’s keep the focus on humans).

Although it may seem cynical to see morality as a strategy that individuals use to pursue their coalitional interests, this perspective actually points to the most effective way to overcome coalitional moral conflicts: by appealing to the interests of a larger group to which competing coalitions belong. Wilkinson and Pickett [3] adopt this strategy in their analysis of the effects of economic inequality. Inequality creates coalitional conflict within nations by pitting haves against have-nots. The wealthier classes tend to argue that inequality is morally justified (e.g., "it’s the result of rewarding people who work harder than others"), whereas the more deprived classes tend to say it’s immoral (e.g., "it results from unequal opportunities"). Wilkinson and Pickett attempt to transcend this conflict by focusing on inequality's impact on the larger group to which both coalitions belong: they present evidence that countries with higher inequality score worse on many different indicators of national performance. Their analysis has not been without its critics, but regardless, they have the right idea about how to be reasonable about morality: they attempt to assess the moral value of a group’s practice by investigating how successfully that practice has been in promoting those group members’ shared interests. Their analysis indicates how an appeal to a higher-level coalitional interest (the national interest) could help transcend lower-level coalitional conflicts between socioeconomic classes.

Of course, by focusing on inequality's effects on whole countries, as opposed to just classes within countries, Wilkinson and Pickett don't overcome the coalitional logic of moral reason; they simply raise it to a higher coalitional level. We won’t be able to eliminate people’s tendency to base their moral judgments on their own coalitional interests, unless we figure out how to re-engineer the human genome towards this end. What we can do, however, to resolve conflicts between competing moral coalitions, is to look for higher-level interests that these coalitions share, and that could potentially give them reasons to cooperate.


1. Harris, S. (2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Simon and Schuster.

2. Alexander, R. (1987). The Biology of Moral Systems. Aldine De Gruyter.

3. Wilkinson, R., & Pickett, K. (2010). The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin UK.

Copyright Michael E. Price 2014. All rights reserved.

You are reading

From Darwin to Eternity

To Understand Everything, Understand Evolution

The incredible power of the evolutionary framework.

Why Progressive Humanist Values Will Ultimately Prevail

Cultural evolution is on Humanism's side.

Did Religion Evolve to Benefit the Weak or the Powerful?

The paradox of who benefits most from religion