Podcast: Moral Philosophy & The Moral Landscape

Atheistically Speaking with Thomas Smith

ON AIR with Atheistically SpeakingThomas Smith, host of the podcast Atheistically Speaking, had me on to talk about moral philosophy and Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape. Previous guests of the program include philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, a critic of Harris.

Thomas is a supporter of Harris’s scientific theory of morality. He and I had a friendly and fruitful discussion that spanned two, one-hour episodes. Both are available for free download. Read on for an outline of each episode, plus some related links.


Part 1 – AS43 The Moral Landscape, with Ryan Born


1st half-hour

  • Sam Harris’s main argument & my winning essay’s critique
  • Competing ethical theories: consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics
  • My response to this quote from The Moral Landscape about moral philosophy:

    Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy…I am convinced that every appearance of terms like “metaethics,” “deontology,” “noncognitivism,” “antirealism,” “emotivism,” etc., directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe. My goal…in writing this book is to start a conversation that a wider audience can engage with and find helpful. Few things would make this goal harder to achieve than for me to speak and write like an academic philosopher. Of course, some discussion of philosophy will be unavoidable, but my approach is to generally make an end run around many of the views and conceptual distinctions that make academic discussions of human values so inaccessible. While this is guaranteed to annoy a few people, the professional philosophers I’ve consulted seem to understand and support what I am doing.

  • Criticisms of consequentialism
    • Classic Thought Experiments
      • The Trolley Problem (Saving people by running over the innocent) …

2nd half-hour

      • … more on The Trolley Problem
      • The Inhospitable Hospital (Saving people with stolen organs)
      • The Mob and the Innocent Man (Protecting the public by executing the innocent)
    • Parfit’s Paradox (“The Repugnant Conclusion”)
    • More Thought Experiments
      • Intercept the Asteroid or Asia Gets It (I made this one up.)
      • Boil the Baby or Millions Die (Supplement: Philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe and the Bombings of Hiroshima & Nagasaki)

Part 2 – AS44 The Moral Landscape, with Ryan Born


1st half-hour

  • Justifying non-consequentialist moral principles
    • The Repugnant Conclusion
    • Philosopher John Rawls on justice as fairness (Supplement:  introductory notes on Rawls’s Difference Principle of distributive justice)
  • Fallibility of moral intuitions & Skepticism about thought experiments
  • Empirically testing moral theories using psychology and neuroscience

2nd half-hour

    • … more on Consequentialism and moral neuropsychology (Supplement: William Saletan of Slate on Brain Damage, Evolution, and The Future of Morality)
      • Philosopher/Neuroscientist Joshua Greene’s research on moral cognition
      • Emotional disorders and utilitarian decision making
      • Genetic and neurological engineering
  • My response to this quote from Sam Harris:

    The whole point of The Moral Landscape was to argue for the existence of moral truths—and to insist that they are every bit as real as the truths of physics. If readers want to concede that point without calling the acquisition of such truths a “science,” that’s a semantic choice that has no bearing on my argument.


I’d like to thank Thomas for having me on his show. I hope to join him again soon to talk more about philosophy.